Transport is an important aspect to consider when planning a trip to a new city. Sure, you’ve probably worked out how you’re going to get there, but you also need to consider how to get around once you’re there. Walking is a great option if you’re going to be based in the centre near all the attractions, but chances are that you’ll need to go further afield at some point. You could take a taxi, or hop on a tour, but often the best way to get around is to copy the locals and take public transport.
Public transport varies from place to place, but could include buses, trains, trams, monorail, or colectivos (cars that run set routes like buses), among others. Some places don’t have any public transport to speak of, and sometimes taxis and tuktuks are so cheap that they act as a defacto public transport system. And part of the fun of using the system is working out what the system is.
1. It’s cheaper
Most of the time, travelling by public transport is cheaper than going by taxi or organised tour; usually considerably cheaper. You’ll need to find out how to pay for the bus or train before you set out: do you pay the driver or buy a ticket beforehand? Is it cheaper to buy a multi-ride pass? This information should be available online, or ask your hotel concierge or local host.
2. You see more
Bus routes are not always the most direct way of getting from one place to another; this means that you’ll see parts of the city that you might not have gone to had you been travelling by taxi. Plus, you’ll be paying more attention to your surroundings since you need to work out where to get off (I often have a map open on my lap so I know exactly where I am), so you’ll see more of where you are and learn more about how the city is laid out.
Of course, if the city has an underground metro system, you won’t see much during the journey — dark tunnels are pretty much the same anywhere. However, you’ll have to find your way to and away from the stations, which means once again you’ll be paying attention to your surroundings.
Plus, many cities decorate the metro stations in interesting ways, and some have art displays or museums inside the stations — which you’d never know about if you weren’t travelling by metro.
3. You’re more in touch with locals
Travelling like a local is a great way to get an idea of how locals live. We arrived in Sao Paulo at rush hour and had to navigate the metro to get to our couchsurfing hosts’ house: an hour of crush. It was uncomfortable but eye-opening: tens of thousands of Sao Paulians go through this exact experience every day.
You might find yourself in conversation with the person next to you, as I did in Encarnación, Paraguay, or be surprised by the silence of the journey. You may be entertained by buskers or offered food, drink, or one of a variety of products: I saw a man buy a mirror on the subte in Buenos Aires, then bought myself a pack of tissues a couple of days later.
Sure, there may be some criminals around who are out to rip you off — keep a close eye on your belongings and pay attention to anything out of the ordinary that’s going on — but most of the people travelling by public transport are just going about their daily lives, travelling to and from work, going to visit friends or heading out for a meal.
Travelling by public transport is an experience in itself. Don’t miss out on it by always choosing the more sterile option.
What has been your most interesting experience when travelling by public transport?
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Note: this article was originally published in 2011, and was recorded as a podcast in 2017.