Things that can go wrong while using public transport during travel

I use public transport extensively during my travels. Main motive for me is to save taxi money. Destination that could cost 50-75 dollars in a taxi can often be reached in under 5-10 dollars if you can figure out how to reach there using buses and trains. But then, it is not very easy to use public transport- often language barrier kicks in, we're not familiar with the system and rules associated with using bus and train in a new country and there're a dozen things that can go wrong. Even with Google maps trying its best to guide us and with several internet articles explaining the details, on ground experience can vary and could be frustrating if you can't get it right. This is why most tourists prefer the convenience of taxi.
In this post I am listing various things that can go wrong while using public transport in a new country. If you can anticipate these potential mistakes and ensure you don't do those mistakes or keep a plan B, your travel using public transport will be lot more convenient and time saving.

1. Where to wait? Level or floor: Some airports will have multiple levels- buses would be arriving at one of those levels. Map may not be able to highlight which level/floor to go to- you should check with someone or keep an eye about signs to locate the right floor to wait to. Usually there will be adequate signage in airports guiding you but at times you'll be on your own. Wait at wrong level and it may take half an hour for you to realize your mistake.


2. Weekday n weekend schedule and stops: Many cities have bus schedule that vary by weekday/weekend. Weekend schedule is usually lighter with less frequency. If you don't pay attention to this, your bus may not arrive when you're expecting one.

3. Direction: Direction awareness is crucial-you don't want to get into a bus going in opposite direction. Google maps is fairly accurate in this regard showing you where exactly to wait but at times we can still get it wrong. For example in SFO airport, both north bound and south bound buses pull into a same stop- you should differentiate based on destination shown on the bus. Keep in mind the direction of travel and direction bus is arriving from or learn to read destination written on the bus to confirm direction or simply confirm during boarding.

I did this mistake in San Francisco airport- boarded looking at the number and not destination- it went north instead of south where I wanted to go. Took me 15 minutes to realize bus is going in wrong direction, got down at next stop, waited 20 mins for next bus and in the whole process, lost about an hour.

4. Day pass,  single use: To maximize your savings, you need to understand how the ticket system works in the city you're visiting. Some bus systems offer a full day pass which could be more economical than paying for individual rides. You should be able to decide based on cost of pass vs single ride, number of rides you may potentially need that day, if the pass is for a calendar day (till midnight) or for next 24 hours, if it works on any other public transport system in town (like train) and so on.

Some cities like Amsterdam will have integrated network-a day pass would work on train, bus everything. In some cities like Vegas or SF, there're different networks- Day Pass purchased on SamTrans won't work on Muni. In Vegas, regular buses cost 2$ for 1 ride, 3$ for 2 hour pass, 5.5$ for all day pass- but this won't work on another bus system (SLS) that runs across the strip (there 6$ single ride, 8$ day pass)

5. Tap in tap out vs tap in only: Some bus systems have a fixed fare irrespective of where you get down, while other systems may need you to tap in on boarding, tap off while getting down, so that money proportionate to distance traveled can be deducted. If you forget to tap off your card may be blocked or maximum money may be deducted.

6. Limited/No service on Late night hours: Beware of limited or no service during late night hours. If you have early morning flight, be extra careful if you're relying on public transport.

7. Card only: Some bus systems do not accept cash. Like in Panama, it is card or nothing. Took me 90 minutes to get my card- the helpdesk counter won't issue a card and guide me to the machines- machine was rejecting all bills I inserted, had to rejoin queue multiple times at the counter, at the machines- finally after trying 3 machines found one that was working. However one good thing is that when I boarded the bus without a card to get to Albrook bus station from airport, one kind passenger tapped his card for me- I paid him in cash. But won't be fair to keep doing this all day. Once I got the card life was simple- just 0.25$ per ride for short distances, 0.75 $ per ride for long distance like towards airport. (Taxi is easily 20 to 50$ per ride)

8. Don't ask cab n assistants about buses: When in airport, don't ask for details related to buses from those assisting taxis. They might almost trick you into taking a taxi instead. In Bogota, a lady assisting passengers into taxi wouldn't tell me where to get the bus smart card. She was insisting I tell her my address and take taxi she guides me into. Take information from airport's information desk or ask a shopkeeper or other passengers
9. How much money to load?: This is another tricky situation. Load too less and you may be left stranded or have to scramble for a machine to load cash, load too much and you may not be able to recover unused amount. If the bus system also accepts cash, it is recommended to load slightly less than what you expect to spend, if there's no cash system or you can't buy a ticket on the bus or in a kiosk before boarding, load a few dollars extra than what you anticipate to spend.

I now have bus cards of multiple cities that I may never visit again, with few dollars still locked in them. I will keep them as souvenirs.

10. Keep Buffer time.. Never assume everything goes fine while using buses. They may not show up at the time shown by google maps, driver may not stop (because it is full or other reason), you may do one or more of the above mistakes and so on. If I am planning to reach critical destinations (like in time for a flight at airport) I always keep buffer for another bus or a worst case scenario where I may have to hire a taxi. Keep enough buffer to avoid risk of missing the flight- the flip-side is sometimes I reach hours early to airport- in such cases I spend my time writing blogs or doing something else useful at the airport.

11. Walking could be better: there're times when just walking to your destination could be quicker. In Bogota, getting into a Transmilenio bus stop takes a super long walk on the walkway. (refer pic below, which shows only a small part of distance one has to walk to get into bus stop) I had to walk about a km to get into the bus, another km after getting off the bus to reach the other side of the street- if my destination is just say 2-3kms away, it was more practical to just walk to the destination.

12. Private buses and buses that may not follow a fixed route: Many cities will have private buses details of which may not be available on Google maps-at times they also tend to cut short a route or divert if they see an opportunity to save some money (on fuel) or make some money (say a hotel having guests). In Bahamas buses tend to vary their routes a bit if they feel the need. A bus with same number may not follow same route that it took yesterday- so be vigilant.

In Manila similar issue with using Jeepneys- unable to figure out which exact one to board, I would board any one that heads in the direction I wanted, track its movement on the map, once I notice it has taken a turn and going away from the destination I wanted, get down and walk or catch another one.

13. Different bus stops: In Bogota I had another frustrating experience- there were two buses that would go to my destination- but these two buses would stop at two different bus stops, some 250 meters apart. If I wait at one stop, bus that would stop in another stop would arrive and leave before I can run and reach the other stop. If only they could put all buses together.

14. Zone system: In some countries, ticket price is decided by how many zones you're crossing. At times your next stop could be in another zone and may cost twice as much. If you buy a ticket for 2 zones and travel 3, you may get caught and have to pay penalty.

15. Rapid/Express service: A rapid/express service will have lesser stops and can take you to the destination quicker, provided it has a designated stop at where you want to get down.

Despite all these, it is always fun and fulfilling to travel using public transportation. It saves loads of money, gives you closer feel of the local population and pulse of the city.

What were your unique experiences w.r.t using public transport in a new city?

Similar: Understanding Copenhagen's Zone system * city buses around the world * Exploring Bahamas using public transport * Brunei Public transportation  *

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