How to be a Pro metro rider
The metro is one of my favorite modes of transportation. It's fast, cheap, and environmentally friendly. I've traveled a lot in recent years seeing many different metro systems around the world from New York to Shanghai. Here are some tips on how to ride the metro.
Maps are your friend. Don't be afraid to stand in front of a big map looking back and forth at your guide book. That's what these things are for. Don't be embarrassed, nobody cares. And don't be intimidated by the spaghetti of lines you see. If you can connect the dots with colored lines that are already drawn for you, you're good to go.
They key to mastering a map is to get used to the symbols, colors, line patterns, and layout. When you have a few minutes, explore the map to get a feel for it. If you already know what places you're going to go, highlight them on the map. Figure out which symbols mean you can transfer from one line to another. Are there 2 lines that run together but one has fewer stops? Which lines are metro lines, bus lines, monorail lines, freight train lines, or just plain roads? Which stations are the big hubs? Where are the landmarks? The more clues you arm yourself with, the smoother your trip will be.
Buying the ticket
Tickets are the biggest difference between metro systems around the world. Some charge by distance, some don't, some do both. Chances are, if your city has a metro system, it's also a big tourist destination, which means they'll probably have passes that will be good for a certain amount of time. Think about how many times you might ride the train for the time you are there and do the math to see what fits. If you're at a big station, there's probably a ticket agent that will help you figure things out.
Using the ticket
If you're buying a ticket each time you ride the metro, you need to know how the system works. If your fare is calculated by distance, you need to hold on to your ticket. When it's time to exit, your ticket will be used to determine whether you traveled the distance you paid for. To be safe, just don't throw it away until you're completely done with that ride. Other than that, just follow the crowd.
Riding the metro
This may go without saying, but make sure you get on the right train. In places like New York, the same line may travel in both directions. Going through the twists and turns of underground tunnels can be disorienting. You might think you're golden just because you found the correct line, but the train behind on the same line going in the opposite direction might be the one you're looking for. You should always read the signs even when you arrive on the platform to make sure the train you're waiting for is the one that will take you where you're going.
Quick pro tip: Before standing in line waiting to get on the train, look around to see where the gobs of crowds are. Usually, the less congested places are away from the stairs that got you here. Your personal space will thank you.
A good ride on the metro starts with a simple but important thing to remember before you even step foot on the train: which way is the train going? Not just North or South, but which way it will move once you get on. Getting your bearings will be very important for knowing where to go once you get off the train. Knowing which way the train will move will help you keep your body balanced when it starts to move so you don't fall down or worse: lose your balance flailing your arms everywhere and risking inappropriate grabbing of the people standing next to you.
Which brings me to my next tip: brace yourself. There will be things for you to hold on to so that you don't lose your balance. I'm somewhat short, so the best thing for me is the vertical bars. There may also be handles hanging from the top like gymnastic rings. These are fine too, but just beware of sweaty pits. With the vertical bars, the trick is to form a triangle. Your feet on the ground are two points of the triangle. The third is the vertical bar. Spread your legs about shoulder width apart. Just don't put them too close together, otherwise you're no longer a functioning tripod. In the triangle stance, holding on to the vertical bar, you should be very stable.
It's best to face the side of the train so that when in motion, you are moving to the right or left. The reason is because you are better at balancing left to right than front to back. If you're using the hanging handles, you want to stand almost directly underneath it where your arm is comfortable holding onto it.
Did you remember which direction the train will move? If you did, you're that much more prepared to brace yourself when it starts moving. Lean into the direction you'll be moving. This will compensate for the initial force that gets the train going. Likewise, lean a bit towards the back of the train when it slows down to stop. If you're REALLY good, you won't even need to hang onto anything. You'll look like a pro.
Figure out how many stops you have before your station. Then determine if that's long enough for you to take a nap or whether or not you need to just stand near the door to make a quick exit. Look around for indicators like which stop is next. Some trains have monitors that show lots of information. Some have nice route maps that have a light next to the stop that is next. Some have scrolling signs that also give good information. Some have automated public announcments. Sometimes the conductor speaks. If you're in a non-English speaking place, watch/listen carefully for English translations. Sometimes you only get 1 or 2 chances to read/hear it. Also, glancing out the window will clue you in to what station you are at.
Quick tip from Josh Cavett: If it's hot outside and your train has air conditioning, figure out where it is and stand next to it. These are prime, often neglected standing spots.
Safety tip: Keep your belongings close by. Not only is it courteous, it keeps it safe from snatchers. Also, if you are playing on your phone, don't hold it out making it easy for someone to grab it and run. These safety tips are especially important if you're standing close to the door where a lot of thieves do their thieving.
Tip: Local vs. Rapid/Express. Some tracks offer local and rapid (or express) trains. Local trains stop more frequently whereas rapid/express trains only stop at the bigger stations. Sometimes the local train may get you there faster. While it may be tempting to take the rapid train and change to a local, make sure you're taking the rapid train for a long enough distance for it to be worth it. You may end up spending more time changing trains waiting for them to arrive when you could have kept it simple by taking the local train the whole way.
The journey after
Making it to your station is only half the battle. You still have to find your actual destination. It's easy to lose your bearings when riding the train. But if you remembered which direction the train was headed, finding the correct exit will be that much easier. It's also a bit tricky if you have to go a certain direction just to exit the platform. Either way, as soon as you get off the train, you should be looking around for your exit. If you're near a major landmark, there may be signs pointing to them. Many signs will also designate street exits. Some even number their exits. Many stations are located at intersections, so there will be exits designated by which corner of the intersection you will be at when you get out. Whatever the case may be, if you can keep your bearings from knowing which direction your train was headed, you should be able to figure it out fairly easily.
Smart phone (mainly iPhone) tips
I use my iPhone a lot when taking the metro. I'll use it just before I go out the door to know in general how to get there. But since there may be different trains to take depending on what time you arrive at the station, the directions change rapidly. If I'm in a place where I have access to the cell network (like NYC for me), sometimes I'll recalculate the route just before I walk down so that I have the most up to date information.
The iPhone maps app has a nice feature where you can lookup directions for different routes and times. After you search for directions, look for the clock button near the top right. This will give you options for different routes. So if you don't want to change trains/buses very often, or you want the route that requires the least amount of walking, this may help you. You can also choose a different departure time. So if you don't plan on leaving for another hour, it will calculate routes based on a future time.
If you're on a metro where you won't have access to the internet while riding, it's nice to have the map and directions still handy. The turn by turn directions will probably still be there while you ride, but the details of the map may not. So if you have the time, while you still have internet access, it's helpful to tap through the turn by turn directions so your phone will store the information on your phone for you to access even when you don't have internet access.
Don't be intimidated by the metro. Millions and millions of people ride them every day. Just get your bearings, brace yourself, and enjoy the ride.