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Tips on Using Public Transportation Abroad

Tipos on TransitWhile abroad, most people will have to make use of local public transportation at some point or another. Whether you’re going to or from the airport, finding your hostel, or just going across town to class, you will have to maneuver your way through bus and train systems.  In some places public transportation works in much the same way as it does in the US–you buy a ticket on the bus or at the train station and take it as far as you need to go. The process is different in many other places, though, and foreign languages make it difficult to get help from the locals.  In order to avoid confusion and hefty fines, here are some things to keep in mind:

  1. Sometimes you will be able to enter a train or bus without presenting a purchased ticket. Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean your ride is free. In these cases, transit workers will occasionally walk around and ask to see each passenger’s ticket. If they ask to see your ticket and you don’t have one, they can give you a citation worth hundreds of US dollars. Don’t step on a bus or train unless you have purchased a ticket or you know that you can buy one on board.
  2. Additionally, some transit systems require you to present your ticket in order to exit the station only, so if you’ve managed to get onto the train/bus without a ticket, and no one from the transportation authority has fined you, keep in mind you’ll still need a way (i.e. a purchased ticket) to get off, so don’t throw away your ticket once you are on the train.
  3. Often times tickets are purchased based on how far you are traveling, as measured by the number of “zones” you pass through. For example, if you are caught having traveled through 3 zones with only a 1-zone ticket, you may also get an expensive citation. Before purchasing your ticket, map out exactly where you’re going and make sure your ticket covers you for that distance.
  4. In some places bus tickets are purchased at street kiosks rather than on the bus, try to ask the locals for the proper protocol.
  5. Catching a bus may require that you flag it down, especially if at the bus stop, there is more than one route designated to stop there. If you don’t do this, the bus may just pass right by you. Arrive at the bus stop early and see how the locals indicate that they would like the bus to pick them up.

Finally, here’s a tip for minimizing difficulties with using public transportation: plan ahead and bring a pocket-sized notepad.  It is best to plan out your transit itinerary using the internet/transportation book or other resources before leaving home because it can be difficult figuring it out on the fly, especially if you are not comfortable with the local language.  If you are going somewhere from an airport and haven’t devised your route yet, ask for directions there; virtually all airports have informational booths where employees can tell you in English how to get to your destination via public transportation, if it’s possible. Also, it is very helpful to write down notes for your trip (such as the address of your destination, the names of the train/bus lines you’ll be taking, what stops you’ll be getting off at, etc.) on a small notepad and keep it with you while you’re traveling.  It may come in handy if you get lost or confused and makes it easier for locals to help you when you don’t speak their language.  Also, an actual notepad is preferable to an electronic device because they draw less attention to you and are not dependent on battery life or finding a signal.

–Eli Kliejunas, Illinois Study Abroad Office Peer Advisor

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