Navigating the Paris Metro

With nearly 300 stops in the underground system, the Metro takes Parisians and tourists alike from neighborhood to neighborhood

Paris France Metro
Though it’s one of the oldest subway systems in Europe, the Paris Métro has some sleek, 21st-century stations. Jeffrey Blackler / Alamy

Paris’ Métro is one of Europe’s great bargains. Hopping from railed strand to railed strand, you pass musicians pulling Brahms out of plugged-in cellos and beggars with greasy hair pasted to their faces. Hoping for step-across-the-track transfers, you end up on 500 yards of moving sidewalk sliding past a parade of meaningless ads repeated and repeated and repeated. And budget travelers — the kind who eat too much at a buffet — delight in the thought that you could go around and around forever on just one ticket!

Waiting for my train, I peer down the tunnel. In the distance is another subterranean bubble, a hamlet of light with more people waiting for the same train. Two-hundred eighty-eight such bubbles — some hamlets, some virtual cities — fill that parallel world...under the streets of the City of Light.

Trains whistle, wheeze and screech around corners and past venous intersections. Gazing out the window into the darkness and recalling the “Lara on the tram” scene from Dr. Zhivago, I accidently make eye contact with the reflection of the lady across from me.

Upon arrival at my station, I seek out its Plan du Quartier. This neighborhood map generally offers a few unexpected sightseeing treats. Happy blue and white signs announce sortie (exit). Another slice of Paris...right this way.

Tickets and Passes

In Paris, you’re never more than a 10-minute walk from a Métro station. Europe’s best subway allows you to hop from sight to sight quickly and cheaply (runs daily 5:30–24:30 in the morning). Learn to use it.

The Métro, RER, and buses all work on the same tickets. (You can transfer between the Métro and RER on a single ticket, but combining a Métro or RER trip with a bus ride takes two tickets.) A single ticket costs €1.70. To save money, buy a carnet (kar-nay) of 10 tickets for €11.70 (that’s €1.17 per ticket—€0.53 cheaper than a single ticket). It’s less expensive for kids (ages 4–10 pay €5.70 for a carnet). Carnets can be shared between travelers.

The transit system has introduced a chip-card, called the Passe Navigo, but for most tourists, carnets are still the better deal. The Passe costs €22.50 (including a one-time €5 card fee), covers Monday–Sunday (expires on Sun, even if you buy it on Fri), and requires a photo, which means it’s not shareable. In contrast, two 10-packs of carnets — enough for most travelers staying a week — cost €23.40, are shareable, and don’t expire until they’re used.

If you do want the pass, ask for the “Passe Navigo hebdomadaire” (pahs nah-vee-go ehb-doh-mah-dair) and supply a small postage-stamp-size photo of yourself (bring your own, or use the €4 photo booths in major Métro stations). You buy a chip-embedded card (€5 one-time cost), then “load” a weekly value onto it (€17.50); this gives you free run of the bus and Métro system. At the Métro/bus turnstile, you scan your Passe to enter, and you’re on your way.

The overpriced Paris Visite passes were designed for tourists and offer minor reductions at minor sights (1 day/€9, 2 days/€15, 3 days/€20, 5 days/€28).

How the Métro Works

To get to your destination, determine the closest “Mo” stop and which line or lines will get you there. The lines have numbers, but they’re best known by their end-of-the-line stops. (For example, the La Défense/Château de Vincennes line, also known as line 1, runs between La Défense in the west and Vincennes in the east.) Once in the Métro station, you’ll see blue-and-white signs directing you to the train going in your direction (e.g., direction: La Défense). Insert your ticket in the automatic turnstile, pass through, reclaim your ticket, and keep it until you exit the system (some stations require you to pass your ticket through a turnstile to exit). Fare inspectors regularly check for cheaters and accept absolutely no excuses, so keep that ticket!

Transfers are free and can be made wherever lines cross. When you transfer, look for the orange correspondance (connections) signs when you exit your first train, then follow the proper direction sign.

Even though the Métro whisks you quickly from one point to another, be prepared to walk significant distances within stations to reach your platform (most noticeable when you transfer). Escalators are common, but they’re sometimes out of order. To limit excessive walking, avoid transferring at these sprawling stations: Montparnasse-Bienvenüe, Chatelet-Les Halles, Charles de Gaulle-Etoile, Gare du Nord, and Bastille.

Before taking the sortie (exit) to leave the Métro, check the helpful plan du quartier (map of the neighborhood) to get your bearings, locate your destination, and decide which sortie you want. At stops with several sorties, you can save lots of walking by choosing the best exit.

After you exit the system, toss or tear your used ticket so you don’t confuse it with your unused ticket — they look virtually identical.

Pickpockets and Panhandlers

Thieves dig the Métro and RER. Be on guard. For example, if your pocket is picked as you pass through a turnstile, you end up stuck on the wrong side (after the turnstile bar has closed behind you) while the thief gets away. Stand away from Métro doors to avoid being a target for a theft-and-run just before the doors close. Any jostling or commotion — especially when boarding or leaving trains — is likely the sign of a thief or a team of thieves in action. Make any fare inspector show proof of identity (ask locals for help if you’re not certain). Never show anyone your wallet.

For more details, please see Rick Steves’ Paris.

Rick Steves ( writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. E-mail him at [email protected], or write to him c/o P.O. Box 2009, Edmonds, WA 98020.

© 2010 Rick Steves

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