Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Arrival in Paris and Metro basics

After a 12 and a half hour flight from Kuala Lumpur, my wife and I finally touched down at Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport Terminal 1 at about 6.45 in the morning. The walk from the exit of the plane to the terminal building was very long and after what seems like an eternity, we finally reached the Immigration. Apart from the usual queue, it was a breeze through with no questions asked. We reached for the baggage claim area and since the main terminal building is circular, you just walk round to reach the right carousel allocated for your flight. Then it was an anxious wait for the luggage to appear as we watched the pieces literally tumbling down from the chute onto the waiting conveyor belt. It was pretty crowded as it was a full flight and as the crowd thinned, we grew more anxious as the worry of possible missed luggage surfaced. What a relief when we spotted our luggage taking the plunge!

We have booked and paid for a shuttle service online from the airport to our hotel despite reading a lot of negative remarks in Tripadvisor since I figured that it would be easier than taking a bus or the RER with our big luggage (2 x 20kg) and cheaper than getting a taxi. We used Parishuttle (the one with one s) and it cost 38E for the two of us against maybe 50E or more by taxi. Actually the main reason was that this particular shuttle service is bilingual (they speak English) and somewhat I have French language phobia after all the usual remarks about the French. 

I was given a number earlier to call the shuttle service after picking the luggage that is free from any public phone and after some difficulty of finding one, I was relived that I got through and was told to wait at Departure level exit door #2, in English! This was one level down from the Arrival level. I saw many Parishuttle vehicles came and gone and was told that I was not on their list every time I enquired, I was very worried that my shuttle have left without us since it was already more than an hour after our arrival and saw many other passengers getting onto theirs. Imagine my relief when the next driver I asked said I was in his list, whew! So the shuttle service works but don't expect to see your names on placards waiting for your arrival.

I have booked the Hotel Lyon Mulhouse Bastille through booking.com and we were the first to be dropped off among the other passengers. I wanted to give the driver a tip but the smallest euro I have was a 5E note so I gave it to the driver anyway since I was so happy to arrive at the hotel safely. Tip #1: always have coins ready for tipping and other small purchases, especially upon arrival. Tip#2: have you destination address printed clearly on a piece of paper to show it to the taxi driver (if you need to use the taxi) since French pronunciation is never easy. In my case I did not have to show this as I have already given the address earlier during my booking.

Traffic to the hotel was smooth as it was a Sunday and checking in was smooth as well but since my room was not ready (arrived before 2pm check-in time), we left our luggage at the baggage room before we venture out in Paris. Tip#3: Though bookings via booking.com is reliable, I did get them to confirm on my behalf to have peace of mind since the hotel did not respond to my e-mail to them. The hotel is located conveniently near the Bastille column and the Bastille Metro station, the main reason for my choice. My first disappointment was then one of the 3 metro lines was temporarily closed at Bastille and luckily it did not caused much inconvenience as the major Line 1 (for tourist sites) was open.

I then had my first encounter with the Paris Metro at the Bastille station. When I went to buy the Metro tickets at the counter, I was told to use the ticketing machine. The lady spoke in French but somehow I got her message. Tip#4: Many counters in the Metro stations are just information counter and do not sell tickets; you need to get them at the ticketing machines. The machines in Bastille are the latest ones with touch screen but I could not figure out which one is for the carnet of 10 tickets. I ask a lady in uniform (presumable working for the Metro) and since she could not explain to me in English, she just happily proceeded to do it for me on the machine. The unfriendly French? Not this one! So I got my first carnet of 10 tickets and was on my way. Actually they are not clipped in a book, just 10 separate single tickets.

The Paris Metro works just like any other urban train transport system. First determine the Line number to be used and then the terminal station to see which direction to go. After my many encounters with the Paris Metro, below are some tips that may be useful for first-time users.
* Insert the ticket with the brown magnetic stripe face down at the gate slot. Enter and retrieve it at the other end and keep in case of inspection. (Did not encounter any ticket inspector in all my usage of the Metro but don't chance it.)

* The same ticket is use on the Metro as well as on the RER (the double decker train) where the lines interchange.
* Once inside the Metro, you do not need to inset the ticket to enter a Metro interchange station to change lines along the way or to exit the Metro station but you usually need to reinset it to enter a RER interchange station or exit one at the end.
* Interchange between Metro and RER lines seems to involve longer walking distances and RER trains appears to be less frequent than Metro trains. Some RER stations have many platforms so may appear more confusing.
* Avoid interchanging at stations that have many lines if possible since you may walk long distances. My worst experience was in Chatelet/Chatelet Les Halles where I have to cross countless gates and reinset my ticket numerous times.  
* Some Metro exit gates open automatically while others you need to push pretty hard. 
* On newer trains, the doors open automatically at all stops (e.g. Line1) but in older trains, you need to press a green button and in the oldest ones, you need to push a lever up to open the doors. This applies to both entry and exit of the coach.
* Get hold of a free Paris RATP map (Lecture confort, whatever it means) from the Metro stations. This shows the Metro, the bus and full RER routes in bigger print (much easier on aging eyes) that those shown in the normal free tourist map of Paris.

* All the ticketing machines have multilingual instructions (French, English, German and Italian). The newer ones have touch screen and accept both coins and notes and give change while some of the older ones that use the roller bar for navigation accept only coins.  
* Some stations have temporary closure of certain lines so it may mean re-planing your route. This is clearly indicated in the station and the line map on the train concerned with the line number crossed out.
* The smaller stations have 1 or 2 different exits while the larger ones have 5 or even more that are numbered with the street name or sites indicated. Exiting at the right one will save you same leg work.
* The carnet tickets are actually valid only for travel within Zone 1 in Paris and luckily most tourist sites are within this Zone. La Defense (the Grand Arch) is in Zone 3 so it will cost more to get there if you follow the rules. (Added later: somebody in Tripadvisor said that the same ticket will get you anywhere on the Metro but not on the RER and this is now confirmed at the RATP website. The t+ ticket (normal carnet ticket) can be used anywhere on the Paris Metro but only Zone 1 of the RER.)
* Added later, comment from Sunshine817 in Tripadvisor Paris Forum:- 
"The machines will jam if you try to go through the turnstile too soon after the person in front of you. Let the turnstile stop turning (or let the door close) behind them before you insert your ticket. Re-using a ticket will not work -- the system recognizes it as a used ticket."
This was in response to posts about the turnstiles not working. I actually was caught once in this situation and I had to request the lady behind me to inset a new ticket that I had before the turnstile worked.

   Though the long list may seem daunting but after 2 or 3 rides on the Metro, it will become second nature. 

More on my actual first day in Paris in my next post.

Ronald Kwok 


  1. Hi Ronald

    Thank you for sharing your experience. Very informative and interesting reading. I will be traveling to Paris in September ( the last visit was 11 years ago ) so your blog will come in very handy!

  2. Thanks for viewing; hope you will enjoy Paris even more this time around. Bon voyage!

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  4. Very insightful blog.i stumbled on it while browsing about paris.
    We just came back from paris our fourth and the public transportation never failed us.

  5. Thank you for your comments. I will be going to France for the first time in May and i am trying to do as much research as i can.