The metro subway system offers efficient and affordable public transportation to get around Europe. If you are new to the metro system, this ultimate guide for how to use the metro in Europe will help give you the confidence you need.
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Transportation Options in Europe
There are so many different options for public transit in Europe. Maybe you’re not sure which one is best for you.
High-speed Trains: It’s common to jump around between various European countries with a quick train ride. Get tickets for the rapid transit system to travel long distances in a short amount of time.
Buses/Trams: If you’re traveling a medium or a short distance, then the bus or city tram might be a good option. For example, we took the bus when we went on our day trip to Disneyland Paris.
Cars (Taxi/Uber): Most cities will have some sort of taxi service available. Do your research before you go so you have the proper app downloaded on your phone. In Spain, they use an app called Cabify. You can even get a little scooter for transportation!
Kiwitaxi has private transfer services all over Europe. It’s a great way to get you and your luggage from the airport to your hotel. They also have private tour options for seeing popular tourist attractions.
Metro Systems: For me, the metro network is the best option when I travel around major European cities.
If you do a little research before you travel to familiarize yourself with helpful apps and locations of the tourist attractions you plan on visiting, then you will find that the metro is an economical and efficient option.
PRO TIP: The metro can have lots of stairs so if you have luggage, bulky strollers, or mobility issues then it's probably not the best option for you.
What is the metro?
In Europe, the underground train network is called the metro. This same type of underground system in the United States is called the subway.
It can get a little confusing but just know that people might use the terms “metro”, “subway”, and “train” interchangeably.
The smallest metro system in Europe is in Rome. If it’s your first time visiting Rome then don’t be afraid to give it a try because there are only THREE metro lines! Typically the metros in Europe have several transportation lines.
How far does the Metro Go?
Most metro tram services will take you around the major city as well as some surrounding suburbs. Check the European Metro Map to see where they are in the city you are visiting.
For example, the Paris metro system has 16 Paris Metro Lines. If you are traveling outside of those areas then you will want to look into taking the bus, a local train, or regional trains.
It is important to note that the metro isn’t ALWAYS available even in popular cities. For example, there is no metro in City Centre in Rome.
Where Can I Buy Metro Tickets?
Metro tickets are sold at ticket machines inside metro stations. They also have a ticket booth, but you can’t guarantee that they will be open and/or have an attendant that speaks your language.
You can still buy paper tickets but that will eventually be phased out with a contactless rechargeable travel card in major European Cities. (It’s basically a metro credit card.)
In Rome, you can buy 24, 48, or 72-hour tickets, or you can get a weekly pass. The Rome transportation tickets are interchangeable for use on the metro, buses, trams, and trains.
Typically, you can buy a single ticket or a 10-pack of metro tickets.
Ticket prices will be better in bulk so check out Google maps ahead of time to figure out where you are going so you know what the best way is to purchase your tickets. It can be a good deal just to buy the bigger package upfront.
How do I find a metro station?
Start by using Google maps to see where metro stations are located. They are identified by the letter “M” with a circle.
In Europe the entrance to the stations is clearly marked and often with a red METRO sign. You will see the stairs with some sort of wall around three sides for safety reasons.
How to Use the Metro in Europe
Get Familiar With the Metro Map
Every metro station will have a map inside for your ease of reference, and some will have free maps for you to take, but don’t wait until you get there to figure out where you need to go.
Before you leave home you should look up the metro line system, download a local app, take a screenshot of the metro line system (just in case your internet isn’t working properly), and print out a copy of the metro map (just in case your phone dies or gets lost).
PRO TIP: You will be taking a lot of pictures and videos all day. Bring a charging bank so your phone doesn't die on you!
Figuring Out Which Metro(s) You Need to Take
Typically, European cities will have an app that will calculate the metro(s) you need to take when you enter in your desired destination. Don’t get me wrong, these apps are VERY helpful and I like to have one on my phone in case I need to use it.
BUT… it is BEST if you know how to figure it out on your own too.
Here is a step-by-step Example:
Since Paris has a large number of subway lines I will use it for our example. Let’s say you want to visit the amazing Eiffel Tower (makes sense so far). You took my recommendation, and you are staying at the beautiful Hotel du Jeu de Paume in the 4th arrondissement… because you know there are so many awesome restaurants in that beautiful area.
Take a deep breath. The good news is I’m going to give you ALL the details with this specific example. You’ll be an expert in no time!
Step 1: Where are you now and where are you going?
There are lots of great apps out there that will do the work for you, but I can’t tell you how many times there wasn’t good cell service when I traveled. JUST in case you don’t have service, or your phone gets lost, I suggest you learn how to navigate on your own.
For our example, Google maps show the Hotel du Jeu de Paume has the closest metro station as Pont Marie, which is about 1,000 feet away. (This is a 10-minute walk.)
*Notice how there are about 9 metro stations just in this small Paris metro map around the ile Saint-Louis?
You can also see that the metro station with the shortest walk to the Eiffel Tower is Bir-Hakeim.
Each metro line has its own line number and color. If you click on a metro station on Google maps, it will tell you each of the colors and line numbers.
For Pont Marie, it is the pink metro line 7. For Bir-Hakeim it is green metro line 6.
So now you know that you are starting at Pont Marie, pink line 7, and ending at Bir-Hakeim, green line 6.
Next, you will look at the Paris metro map and find those metro locations.
Above is Pont Marie in pink, and below is Bir-Hakeim in green.
Here’s where it gets a tiny bit complicated. Pont Marie does not go directly to Bir-Hakeim. If it did then the metro line and color would be the same at both locations. That means you will need to look at the map and see where they intersect so you can add a transfer to your route.
For this example, they intersect on the purple metro line 8 so we have to add those transfers to our trip. We will make the first transfer at the Opera metro stop.
See how it connects the pink route with the purple route using a white oval? That means there is a transfer option.
We will make our second transfer at the La Motte Picquet Grenelle metro stop.
See how it connects the purple route with the green route using a white oval? That means there is a transfer option.
Here is our route from the hotel (by Notre Dame Cathedral) to the Eiffel Tower.
Pont Marie (pink, 7) -to- Opera (purple, 8) -to- La Motte Picquet Grenelle (green, 6) -to- Bir-Hakeim
PRO TIP: The good news is that you have unlimited travel to transfer between metros on one single ticket. Once you exit the metro station you will need a new ticket for re-entry.
Step 2: Entering the Metro Station
Now that you found the metro station, you have your ticket, and you are familiar with the map of where you are trying to go… it’s time for the hands-on part of learning how to use the metro in Europe.
This part is pretty easy. If you have a metro pass, all you have to do is scan your card and walk through. (Much like when you are boarding an airplane with a boarding pass.)
If you are using a paper ticket then you feed it into the machine with the strip facing down. It will suck your ticket in and then spit it back out. Take your ticket and walk through.
In Paris you walk through a turnstile and in Spain there are small doors that open. No matter where you are, please keep in mind that only ONE person is to pass through per ticket.
PRO TIP: Make sure you keep your metro ticket just in case they conduct a ticket check.
Step 3: Understanding which Direction you Need to Go
Yay, you successfully made it inside the metro station!
Even if you used an app to tell you which metro line to use, this is probably one of the MOST IMPORTANT things in learning how to use the metro in Europe. You need to figure out which metro to get on.
As I mentioned before, each metro line has its own color and number. For this example, we are going to use the metro map in Barcelona, Spain (below).
I know it might look a little overwhelming at first.
Try looking at it in the format below. This is how you will see the lines in the station and when you are riding on the metro.
To figure out which direction the metro train is traveling you need to look at where it will END with its final stop. Once you know the final destination of that line, then you know which sign to follow to find your metro tram.
Step 4: Understanding Signs in the Metro Station
While you are waiting for the metro to arrive double check your current stop and which direction you are heading.
Notice where the green metro line is white? That means those stops have already passed. In this example, you can see that you are moving from left to right on green line L3.
When you are inside the metro train you will see the same metro map line usually located above the door. Typically, it lights up to tell you which stop you are on and which ones are coming up next.
Step 5: Exiting the Metro Station
You might have to be assertive when it comes to making an exit. You only have a few moments to get off at your stop and others will be getting on at the same time.
When you get off the metro you will see green exit signs that tell you which direction you need to leave the station. People will be moving briskly to exit the station.
If you are making a transfer to another metro, don’t exit the station. Just follow the metro signs for the next line, just like you did in the beginning.
PRO TIP: As a rule of thumb when using escalators, standing is on the right side and walking is on the left side.
Metro Mistakes to Avoid
I know you have so much more confidence after reading this step-by-step guide. I have faith in you, travel buddy! Just to make sure you are completely prepared, here are a few metro mistakes for you to avoid. I know these things because I learned the hard way. You don’t have to!
WARNING: Don't make these metro mistakes!
Staying on After You've Missed Your Stop
The first time I ever tried underground travel was when I used the Paris metro. I didn’t research like you are right now. I just “figured it out in real time”. 10/10 do NOT recommend that!
I could see that the metro line had a starting and ending point but I wasn’t sure what happened when you got to the end of the line.
Does the metro start back at the beginning? Does it travel in reverse? My plan was just to stay on since I missed my stop.
A nice Parisian told me that is NOT an option. You HAVE to get off at the end of the line. It’s the final stop.
PRO TIP: When you realize you missed your stop or you're headed in the wrong direction, get off ASAP.
Not Checking the Times
Make sure you check the times for the last evening metro and adjusted times for public holidays so you don’t get stuck. Don’t expect them to be running 24/7.
When I was in Spain on Christmas day I found out that they had the metro system running but with a limited number of trains. That meant you could be waiting up to 20 minutes for the next train to arrive at the metro station.
PRO TIP: Always check the metro times before you travel. There might be a schedule change or holiday that you aren't aware of.
Not Accounting for Rush Hour
It might seem obvious, but not everyone is on vacation when you are. You need to take into account that the metro system will be VERY crowded during rush hour because locals use them as commuter trains for work.
PRO TIP: If possible, adjust your travel plans to avoid the metro during rush hour if you have luggage, bulky strollers, or if you simply hate crowded spaces.
Not Accounting for Line Changes
I always recommend taking unique guided tours when you travel, so when I was in Europe I had a few tours scheduled. It can be stressful to get to your destination on time when you have a scheduled time.
With the steps above you know how to locate the metro station, buy your ticket, and find the lines you need to travel to get to your destination BUT when you are taking multiple lines you won’t know how far the walk is from one line to the next.
PRO TIP: Always allow for an extra 20 minutes to transfer lines so you have enough time and you don't have to rush.
Beware of Pickpockets
Much like any other crowded city, you need to be aware of pickpockets when you travel.
The subway can be VERY crowded with people bumping into you. This is a typical move for people who pickpocket so just be careful and keep your possessions close and keep everything closed. They may also be working in groups so just be cautious.
PRO TIP: Bring TSA-Friendly Safety Items When You Travel
As an added precaution when I travel, I bring my self-defense siren keychain. It is TSA-friendly. If you feel like you are in danger, you simply pull the tab and a loud siren will sound and a light will flash. Make sure you purchase a self-defense siren for your travels.
CONGRATULATIONS, now you are on your way to being a metro expert! If you have any questions please leave them in the comment section below and I’ll try to help!
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LET’S CONNECT: Now that you’ve read the Ultimate Guide for How to Use the Metro in Europe do you feel more confident in giving it a try? Comment below!