Public Transportation - Paris and Suburbs
Paris consistently rates among the top 10 best public transportation systems in the world. It consists of the bus, the underground Metro, the RER train, and a few smaller systems run by the RATP (the city's transportation system.) This is then supplemented by the suburban trains run by the nationalized train system, SNCF, from the train stations.
Paris is considered the most dense system in the world - meaning the most number of stops and amazingly close together. I have read that you are no further than 500 meters from a stop at any given time.
And if you're going somewhere further than the outlying sights, the SNCF trains, including the TGV (super fast trains) can take you anywhere in France or beyond! Once you've ridden the rails with your backpack and a Rick Steves guide book, you're never really the same!
Paris Transportation - Zones
The three systems run by the RATP travel in zones. Zones 1-3 encompass most of the attractions in Paris. But if you want to see, say Versailles or La Defense, they are in the 4th and 5th zone. There are even more zones for the people who commute into Paris from the burbs.
This is important to understand. If you want to travel to La Defense to shop, be sure you have a ticket or pass that includes that zone. If you don't, as I have learned the hard way, you can not get through the turn-styles to get out of the station! If that happens, you'll need to buy a new ticket, which will only be useful for getting out. It's also a small stress that you can do without, but one that's easy to remedy if you understand what you've done.
If you buy an RATP pass, you'll want to decide how many zones to include.
The Paris Metro
The Metro is easy to maneuver. When I was there with my 11 year old daughter in 2007, she became comfortable with it within a day or two. My first pair of clients did too.
The only thing that can be tricky is exiting out of a stations to the location you want, especially from the really large hub stations. Most are many blocks long and if you use the wrong exit, you can be blocks away from where you thought you'd be.
However, a good map and careful reading of the subway signs will prevent much of that. I admit, though, that even with knowing the city well, I still exit the metro sometimes and wonder, "Huh?" I also admit to taking the right metro line, but in the wrong direction. It's all part of the adventure of traveling.
Paris has the second busiest system in the world and a network including stops that are very close to one another. Because of this, you can never really get lost in Paris. Walk in any direction and you will quickly come to a metro stop where you can find your way back home. This makes wandering at whim really fun.
IMPORTANT: keep your metro ticket until you make it out of the station at the end of the ride as you have to put your ticket through the scanner at both ends. If you don't have it, you will not be able to get out.
Getting Around Paris With Buses
Buses are also plentiful. You'll find bus stops everywhere that include maps of where the line goes. The bus can seem somewhat more confusing to use. However, if you use the RATP map with both metro, RER, and bus lines, you can venture above ground.
The buses are a super budget way of getting a tour of Paris, only without the narrative. I highly recommend taking them from time to time. They are relaxing and you really see Paris.
RER Within Paris
The RER is a super fast way to get from point A to point B. These trains don't travel everywhere, but they do go to the major areas of the city as well as the airport and Versailles. During the day, during non-commuter hours, the trains are not crowded. It's also a very quick ride from the Latin Quarter to the Eiffel Tower, for instance.
However, if you are traveling more than a couple of stops within the central part of Paris, you need to pay attention to times, branches and train names. I have made some spectacular mistakes.
The trains lines labeled A-E. When you've gotten to the correct station and arrived on the platform for the correct direction, look up at the electronic schedule. You'll see trains that are named NIKI, NORA, SARA, VICK etc. They are all going in the same direction but some may be an express and skip your stop or go down one of the many branches. The electronic schedule will show which stops are serviced by the next train. A guide on the wall, should tell you which train you'll need.
Safety On Public Transportation In Paris
It is very safe to ride the metro. However, using good judgement is always essential when traveling. Riding late at night is not a great idea. You should always protect your valuables, keeping them close to your person as the cars can get very crowded. Remember, millions of people ride every day with no problems.
You are likely to be entertained by musicians or other "performers" hoping to make some money. There are homeless and unemployed people who also hope to tug at your heart strings passing the hat after giving you a little speech. Once in a while there are drunks. This is to be expected on any public transportation system in the world. My advice is that if you ever feel uncomfortable, get off at the next stop and wait for the next train. In all the years I've traveled the Metro, I've only done that once. It is just part of living with over two million other people.
Metro line 1, which cuts through the heart of the biggest tourist sites (la Bastille, Le Louvre, Place de Concord, Champs Elysees, l'Arc de Triomphe, La Defense) has been singled out for lots of pick-pockets. Truthfully, I never knew this until doing research for this site. I've ridden it 100's of times and have never had an issue.
As I mentioned in my Style Tip, looking like a tourist just makes you more vulnerable. Remember, speaking English is common as there are 1000's of Americans who live in Paris. But dressing like one and forgetting your basic security will. Look around and adopt the Paris casual attitude and you'll be just fine.
Manners On The Paris Metro
Lots of people traveling from the United States are used to driving everywhere and may never have taken the bus to work. Here are a few things to keep in mind: