Riding the Metro is a staple of everyday life for Parisians.
But the unwritten code of conduct isn’t something that comes instinctively to the 4.5 million people who hop on board every day. In fact, each year 1.5 billion riders use the Paris Metro — that’s almost on par with New York City!
Even if you’ve ridden the subway in Chicago or New York, it’s still worth brushing up on how Parisians commute and get around the city.
Related: Will a Navigo pass save you money on the Paris Metro?
Ready to buy a ticket and jump on the Metro? Here are ten tips to help you fit in like a local while you’re sitting (or standing) on the subway.
1. Buy tickets in bulk
If you don’t have your Navigo pass, you might still be a local. I only use the Metro occasionally, opting for a bike, and thus use the money-saving “carnets,” books of ten tickets sold at a reduced rate (€14.90). And don’t always count on your credit card working in the ticket machines, though the updated ones are getting better at it. Not all machines accept cash either, so be patient.
Local tip: If you do have a monthly or weekly Navigo pass that you simply touch to the turnstile, be sure to keep it in the bottom of your bag and try to swipe your bag across the turnstile, ensuring that the people behind you will have to wait while you swipe four or five times before the magnetic reader catches your card. That’s the sign of a true local.
2. Know when to sit and when to stand
In general, if you’re sitting in one of the fold-up chairs and staring into a sea of crotches, it might be time to get up and make some room. During peak hours, those folding seats should be off-limits. Feel free to throw the stink eye at anyone who thinks otherwise.
Also, offering your seat to an older person or a child is always appreciated, but don’t get carried away with it. Sometimes, guys, offering your seat to a 30-year-old, fit-as-a-fiddle woman could seem insulting or just kind of awkward.
3. Show generosity to performers… in the station
Generosity is a virtue, but illegality is not. It is interdit (not allowed) to perform in Metro cars, and performers usually have a permit to perform uniquely in the stations themselves.
When a performer comes on board belting out an Edith Piaf song or pumping their accordion, giving them money is supporting an illegal activity, and that’s just not cool (even if they are phenomenal). Save your coins for the respectful players in the stations that sometimes produce some amazing music.
4. Take the stares
Make eye contact — often. This is the Paris Metro, where staring is a national sport. Be warned, however, that looking at someone a few too many times will be interpreted as a come-on of sorts, as it may be intended, so be sure to look for your description on a Craigslist “missed connections” later that evening.
5. Keep it down
Do us all a favor and keep the loud discussions down. Engaging in a loud conversation or telephone call is a surefire way to stand out from the crowd. During morning and evening commutes, you’ll be the only one with your phone glued to your ear or chit chatting away at full volume with your friend. Read a book, listen to some music, or play Angry Birds, but save the drawn-out conversations for the café.
6. Be pushy
While you may have to push your way onto the Metro at any hour during the day, it’s especially common during the morning and evening commute. When the doors open, the wall of people can seem daunting, but giving an angry “pardon!” and a little elbowing will help you get aboard.
Touching isn’t balked at, so don’t be afraid to use your hand and physically reposition someone if they won’t move. Locals know the drill. And once in the train, squashed in the crush of people, you’ll often notice quite a bit of vacant space that has gone neglected. Locals love standing near the door, apparently. Laws of diffusion rarely apply.
7. Eat, drink and be exiled
Parisians eat at tables, at food trucks, or begrudgingly in the streets. Those who eat in the Metro are shunned and eventually sent to Belgium, so don’t do it. Plus, with the bouquet of aromas wafting through the tunnels, it’s not really the most appetizing of eating environments.
8. Transfer strategically
Changing train lines once is acceptable, but annoying. Switching trains twice is sometimes necessary and really annoying. Switching three times is excessive and never required.
Know where you’re switching and where you’re going before you get off, to avoid that moment of lost panic that will signal to the pickpockets that you are, in fact, not a local. And avoid switching at the labyrinthine Chatelet-Les Halles for the love of all that is good.
9. All lines are not created equal
Locals have favorite Metro lines, but mostly they just hate certain lines. The 13 and the 4, both north-south lines, are among the most hated. Some revile the seemingly useless line 11, though it’s my personal favorite, catering to my needs. And taking the 1 is always like a trip to the UN, since it’s the most tourist-laden of them all. The 14 is a favorite because of its speed, and the 8 is often preferred to the more-crowded 9, since they generally go to the same areas.
So learn the lines and be prepared to exhale frustrated and roll your eyes when someone says, “We have to take line 4!”
10. Love it
While the Paris Metro is far from perfect, it beats counterparts in New York and London by a landslide — at least this is what locals think. So when anyone disses the Metro because they have to wait six minutes for a train or because it smells like three-day-old urine, be proud and stick up for it, because love it or hate it, it’s the fastest and cheapest way to get you where you need to go in this town.
Have a tip to add about the Paris Metro? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.
For more on the Paris Metro, visit the website of the RATP, the government agency that runs the Metro. They also provide information in English for tourists. Also, if you’re currently planning a trip to Paris, be sure to swing by our guide to Paris for more articles on ways to save, plus reviews of recommended budget accommodations.