Riding the Metro in Paris: 7 things you should know

I know not everyone will agree, but I love the Paris metro. There are fourteen different lines webbing all over the city, trains come every couple minutes, there’s music, there’s art, and it’s relatively inexpensive. Sometimes it’s dirty, sometimes it’s overcrowded, and it has a pickpocket problem, but as city public transport goes, I think it’s pretty great. Before Paris, I lived in Chicago, and let me tell you, waiting fifteen minutes for the red line outdoors in the dead of winter is no fun.

Actually, the public transport is so good in Paris that I only see three reasons to take a taxi: 1) it is after 1am or 2am and the metro is closed, 2) you are physically unable to cope with all the stairs, or c) you have to transport something you cannot carry more than three meters.

Paris metro red.jpg

Of course, I’m always the first one to say, “That’s only six metro stops away. Let’s just walk!” because I love walking in Paris, but there are times when you’re running late, it’s zero degrees out, or you’re lugging a 50 pound suitcase (about 23 kilos) and in those instances, the metro is your friend.

If you’re not familiar with the metro, here are a few tips to help you out. (And if you are, scroll down to the bottom for the link to my favorite Paris metro game!)

Botzaris metro, Paris
I took this photo because Botzaris is a funny word.

Buy a carnet

Let’s start with Paris metro 101. If you’re staying for less than a week, you want to get a carnet of 10 tickets. You save a bit in relation to buying single tickets. I don’t recommend buying single tickets ever, unless you are only going to ride the metro one time and you are never coming back to Paris. I didn’t finish a carnet I bought in 2009, but I held on to the leftover tickets and they were still good when I returned to Paris in 2012. (They had been demagnetized, but the RATP agent at the window could see they hadn’t been validated and replaced them for me.)

Multiple use passes do exist (3 day pass, 5 day pass, etc) but unless you’ve carefully calculated the value for your needs or if you’re regularly going to be leaving Zone 2 (aka taking the RER to the near suburbs) it’s almost never worth it.

What’s up with the zones?

Paris has five zones of public transport. The metro and the city of Paris are within zones 1 and 2 (the basic zones you get with any ticket) and the RER and some buses go out to the suburbs, the airports, and Disneyland. The further out you go, the more expensive your ticket is. If you don’t have the right ticket, you could get a fine. Moreover, you won’t be able to exit the RER if your ticket isn’t valid for that zone – you have to put your ticket in the turnstile to get out too. You could get on the RER in Paris with a regular ticket, since the machine doesn’t know where you plan to get off, but once you get out to Versailles, that ticket won’t let you out. Merde.

My personal zone pet peeve: You can get to La Défense by metro or RER. If you take the metro, you’re in zone 2 and can use a normal ticket. If you take the RER, La Défense is considered zone 3 and you’ll get a fine with a regular ticket. Considering it’s the same place, that seems a little unfair, no?

Get a Navigo pass

If you live in Paris, you have a Navigo. Your employer probably reimburses half of the cost. If you’re visiting for a few weeks and you plan on taking the metro quite a bit, it may be worth it to buy a Navigo découvert, which is 5 euros at a ticket window for the card itself (don’t forget to glue on your photo!) plus 20.40 euros for a week pass (or 67.10 euros for the month). Added bonus? It’s “dezoned” on the weekend, which means you can go to zones 1-5 without any added cost. For example, going to Charles de Gaulle airport would normally cost you around 20 euros round trip because it’s in zone 5, but with your Navigo, you won’t pay anything extra on the weekends.

Note: The Navigo découvert card is really convenient because you can buy it at a ticket window with no hassle, but if you’re staying in Paris longterm, you’ll want to get an official Navigo card, which you can do in person or online. There’s not huge difference between the cards except that the official one requires a Paris address, but with the official card, you’re protected against loss or theft, and with the découvert, you’re not. I didn’t bother to get the official card when I lived in Paris, and when my découvert Navigo card was stolen, the 67 euros I had just paid for the month went down the drain. Ouch.

Update: Prices have gone up since I wrote this. The week pass starts and ends on specific days of the week, not any seven consecutive days, so it may not be worth it depending on the dates you are in Paris. Please verify zone access with a Navigo pass.

More on Paris RATP transport tickets and prices here.

La Motte Piquet Metro, Paris
La Motte-Piquet Grenelle metro, Paris

Don’t get fined!

Sometimes you’ll see people in green outfits patrolling around the metro and on the bus. These are the contrôleurs. If they ask to see your validated ticket and you don’t have one, you will get a fine, so hang on to your ticket until you exit the metro in case you bump into these men and women in green. On the bus, usually the contrôleur will ride up front next to the driver, so if you get on the bus and there’s an extra dude in green up there, you’d better make sure you have a validated ticket.

You are likely to see people jumping over turnstiles without paying for a ticket. The people at the ticket windows don’t seem to care. It’s not their problem. Once, I saw a well-dressed lady get stuck climbing over a turnstile while on her cell phone, and the woman at the ticket window five feet away didn’t bat an eye. But the contrôleurs definitely do care. You’re most likely to see them in busy stations like Saint Lazare and Chatelet, but I’ve been “controlled” way up in little stations like Jules Joffrin and Simplon at midnight and on Sunday morning.

Hang on to your valuables

Seriously, there are pickpockets and they will steal your stuff. You know the drill – nothing in your backpacker, keep your purse zipped and in front, don’t have your phone out while the doors are open if you’re by the door.

Line 1 is particularly known for its pickpockets because of all the tourists, but I had my keys stolen out of my pocket while commuting home on line 12 to Jules Joffrin in January (a great time of year to be locked out of your apartment, by the way!) There were no suspicious characters around – everyone looked like they were coming home from work, just like me.

Each metro station has multiple exits

Thank goodness someone told me this the first week I moved to Paris. A metro stop looks like one tiny dot on the map, but the different exits of one station can spread out quite far, especially if there are multiple lines that stop there. For example, Chatelet has more than eight different exits, so saying “I’ll meet you outside the Chatelet metro stop” isn’t specific enough.

There are usually little close-up maps of the neighborhood with the exits listed – very useful. Or alternatively, you can meet up with all your dates at Saint Paul in the Marais – the two metro exits are right next to each other. (And the Marais is obviously awesome.)

 Anything else?

RATP route calculator here and RATP website here.

I like this post on the Paris metro by Almost Never Clever so much more than mine.

I have spent way too much time playing this game that tests your knowledge of the Paris metro map.

There are quite a few Paris metro stations that are no longer in use – the ghost stations.

 

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Return to Paris

I hadn’t been to Paris since September, which is a long time considering I only live two hours away. I’ve actually been to California more recently than Paris, and that’s about a twelve hour flight. Hm. What do you think of that?

I love Paris, I really do, and when I got off the train at Gare de Lyon in May I was thrilled to be back. Of course it was crowded and the weather was more bipolar than Russell Brand (it all makes sense now, doesn’t it?) but it was lovely to stroll through the 12th past where I used to go to the Marché d’Aligre and to walk up those tall bridges over Canal Saint Martin.

Gare de Lyon, Paris
Gare de Lyon, Paris

My favorite thing to do in Paris is walk. This is probably why I didn’t care to make the trip all winter long – it’s no fun to stroll in the wind and cold (although I did miss the Christmas window displays – no one dresses up for the holidays like the Grands Magasins of Paris). On the day I arrived back in Paris, the weather was warm and stormy, fluctuating from sunny to rainy countless times throughout the afternoon. It was humid and windy and reminded me of an indecisive June in Chicago.

I walked from the 12th to the 5th to visit a close friend and her nine-month-old, then back to the 12th to crouch over my laptop for an hour before hopping on the métro to République. I never spent much time in République when I lived in Paris, but I love the expansive place that serves as a stage and a meeting point. I’ve lived on the ritzy left bank, and I’ve lived north of Montmartre – next time I live in Paris, I’d love for it to be around here, in one of these eastern arrondissement pockets.

Place de la Republique
Place de la Republique

After rosé and charcuterie at Chez Prune on a street corner terrace opposite the Canal that was just barely protected from the multiple (!!) flash storms that poured downed, we walked down the Canal and out of the 10th all the way to Bastille. My friend discovered that a bar she had loved during her student days had changed hands. It’s funny how so much of Paris stands still in time, unchanging through decades and centuries, and how rapidly the rest of the city is constantly evolving.

Canal Saint Martin
Canal Saint Martin, Paris 10th arrondissement

I always say I prefer living in Lyon to Paris, and it’s true. I breathed a sigh of relief upon returning – no more fighting through crowds, constantly worrying about pickpockets, or passing through the stench of urine. So freeing to go out in public without having to hold your purse and your nose for dear life, don’t you think?

But it can’t be denied that Paris is a city unique and alive, so multifaceted that one person can never know all of its secrets. That’s the charm of it, isn’t it?