As friends are arranging trips to Paris, I thought it might be helpful to write about navigating the Metro system. Of course, as I write this the city is in the middle of a transportation strike! Ooh la la.
I find getting around the city very easy, but it’s helpful to have a bit of an adventurous spirit. I recommend an attitude of, “I am going to make mistakes” (i.e. taking the wrong direction on the metro or walking blocks past your intended street). Very often the best discoveries are made when you get lost in Paris…
Paris’ subway system runs from 5:30am to 12:30am and about 2am on the weekend. Trains arrive every few minutes and the stations are clean, well lit and well labeled/marked with destinations on the line. I can say the same for the actual trains/cars. Take note, there are many stairs and long corridors in the Metro stations. There are very few escalators. It can be arduous to get from point A to point B if you have luggage, a baby stroller or mobility issues.
The metro lines are numbered 1 through 14. Line 1 is the oldest (first rail built) and, interestingly, it is one of two driverless lines in the city. It is fully automated, including the screens that indicate the stops and how much time to get to the next stop.
When navigating to your destination, select the direction you plan to head. The Metro will always list the very end of the lines as destinations. This does not mean there is an express to the final station, it simply indicates the direction the train is headed. Each train makes all the stops on the line.
A ticket for the Metro costs €1.90 roughly $2.34. Most of greater Paris is in zone 1. There are additional zones for travel outside the city. A single ticket lasts for 90 minutes of travel within the Metro system. You can change lines and direction as many times as needed in the 90 minute window. If you exit a station and come up to street level, a new ticket will be required if you plan to use the system again.
Tickets are purchased at each Metro station. The ticket machine/dispenser language defaults to French, but can easily be changed to English on the first screen. You can to buy as many tickets as you would like including books of 10 or 20. A one day pass is also possible, it is a ticket called a Mobilis and allows you to access zones 1-3 for €10. Cash, bank cards and credit cards all all accepted. I recommend buying a bunch of tickets and keeping them in a safe spot for “unused” tickets. The used tickets look remarkably similar and it can be frustrating to remember which ticket has been used and which one will get you another ride.
Most stations will have a window with an attendant to assist with questions. These attendants can give you a paper Metro map (carte du metro) which is very helpful when getting started. Note, the attendants do not always speak English so it’s best not to depend on them for precise directions.
A word to the wise while riding the Metro, keep your ticket handy. There are very often “audits” at the stations to ensure you have not taken a free ride. You will be fined if you can not produce your ticket. You can throw out the used ticket once you leave the station, but while using the Metro system keep it in your pocket.
The RER lines
The regional rail lines (generally surface lines) also go through Paris. The lines are labeled as A, B, C, D, E. They have far fewer stops in the city, but are tremendously helpful in traveling to/from the airports. RER B will get you to Charles DeGaulle airport or the opposite end of the line, Orly airport for €10.00. This is a bargain, but be prepared to do some heavy lifting with your suitcase etc. once you connect with the Metro lines. RER C takes you to Château de Versailles. The RER lines are more expensive than the Metro lines because they take you further outside the city.
It is very helpful to have a navigation app on your phone. Most will help you find an efficient way to get to your destination if you want to walk, Metro, Bus, Uber, bike, etc. I recently started using CityMapper, it’s been great. It has worked well in Paris and London.
A quick note, I do not have wireless access* on my phone when I am out and about in the city. If I am using CityMapper, I determine my route while I am at home or connected to a wireless internet network. Sometimes I will take a few screen shots on my phone to look at the directions, route or street names when I am disconnected. When I am out in the city, CityMapper (or Google Maps) will display my location and where I am headed when walking without a wireless connection. This navigation is very helpful when emerging from a Metro station and trying to get oriented.
I would be remiss if I did not mention safety in the Metro stations and on the trains. Be smart and stay aware of the people around you.
Backpacks and purses should be zipped and worn on your frontside. Smart phones are a lucrative target right now. Bold thieves will snatch them right out of your hands as you are checking your email/texts.
Be aware, the current scam involves a child getting on the Metro and standing near the doors while the train is loading. Just as the train doors are closing, the young pickpocket grabs the smartphone from your hands and slips through the doors back to the platform. The train pulls away. You are now without a phone.
There are plenty of singers in the Metro stations and they will also board the trains to perform. In general, these “artists” are harmless. They do ask for a donation for their musical performance, but simply say no or give a few centimes and they will move on.
The Metro stations also have some homeless as well. I have never seen any issue with these individuals causing disruptions or felt like my safety was threatened. However, some of the homeless are drunk which adds a layer of complexity.
A final word…
The Metro is a terrific way to get around the city. Stations are convenient and easy to use. The busiest times will be just like the US, during the morning and evening rush hours. I wouldn’t say avoid the Metro at these times, but just be aware that you will likely not get a seat and the trains will be crowded.
*After exhausting a lot of options for phone/data/wireless mobile service, I bought a mobile hotspot from Orange (major telecom carrier in France). The device will work all through Europe. It was $75/€60 for the device and a month of 5G connectivity. I load it online or at stores as I need it after the first month. It looks like continued 5G service will be €40/month. Slower service (ie 3G etc.) is cheaper. It has 10-12 hours of battery life and can connect up to 10 mobile devices. No phone plan or contract needed. It’s been terrific.