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Paris has a wonderful public transit system, but there are a few tricks that it helps to know in advance, depending on how you arrive and where in Paris you’re going. (This post is a work in progress that I will update as I get more information.) If you’re just interested in my experiences in Paris, however, you can jump to the next post.

I highly recommend the wonderful RATP app, for iOS and Android. The only problem is that it requires data, so you will need to find a WiFi (which the French pronounce as “wee-fee”) hotspot if you don’t have data in France. In that case you will also want to get a navigation app that doesn’t require data access, such as:

  • Paris métro (99 cents) – Not as powerful as RATP, since you have to specify your starting métro station, it doesn’t include busses, and it’s limited to Paris and immediate suburbs.  Beginners may, however, prefer its relatively simple map and the fact that the index includes only Paris métro and RER stations.
  • TripAdvisor City Guides – Paris – This doesn’t navigate but it has a good, zoomable city map that doesn’t require data. It also has lots of information on restaurants and sightseeing, all of which is downloaded to your phone so does not need data access. Allow some time to download the Paris City Guide via WiFi before you leave home.

Your navigation app — or your host — will help you find out where to go on the métro and RER once you get into the city. But you still have to get into Paris.

Charles de Gaulle Airport

Most international travelers will arive at Charles de Gaulle Airport (CDG), in a northeastern suburb called Roissy. You have three main options for getting into Paris, although the confusing CDG website shows lots of others.

Taxi

If you feel like paying 50-70 euros follow the signs for taxis. Make sure you get a real one, with a Taxi sign on top. Yankee that I am, I’ve never done this, but if I were traveling with two or three other people, or had several pieces of heavy luggage, I would. If you don’t speak French you might prefer this option, although if you’re brave and frugal read on.

Paris by Train – RER

I have always come in on the suburban train system, or RER (pronounced “Air-Err-Air,” for just under 10 euros. Follow the signs for “Paris by Train,” or you can use the CDGVAL shuttle to take you directly to the nearest train station. (Don’t go to the TGV train station, you want the RER.)

You can get a train ticket either by waiting in line for a human vendor or by using one of the many vending machines. You can use U.S. credit cards or euro bills with the human, but the machines take only chip-and-pin cards or euro coins. (Note that the chip-and-signature cards currently being rolled out in the U.S. probably won’t work in these machines. You need a chip-and-pin card like the one I got from Andrews Federal Credit Union.) If you have euro bills but not enough coins there is a change machine in an obscure corner, or you may be able to get change from the Info desk if the line is shorter.

Once you have your ticket, use it to get onto the platform. Always save your train and métro tickets until you leave the station at your final destination. All the trains will be going to Paris, but it’s worth waiting for an express train. This will not say “express,” but there will be a scrolling sign showing the stations where each train stops, and you want one whose first stops outside the airport are Gare du Nord and Châtelet.  The train will continue to Saint-Michel and Denfert-Rochereau, and other irrelevant places. Depending on your location within the city you will probably want to get off at one of the Paris stations. If you have to take the métro and/or another RER line to get to your ultimate destination just keep using your train ticket.

The RER normally takes about an hour to get into the city, but there are often delays for one reason or another so it’s good if you have some mode of communication with your host. It may also take an additional half-hour or so by métro and/or RER if you’re not staying near one of the listed stations.

Note that you cannot rely on finding escalators or elevators at Paris métro and RER stations so you may end up carrying your luggage up and down quite a few flights of steps — good practice, probably, for when you arrive at your apartment!

RoissyBus

The RoissyBus takes you from the CDG terminals to Opéra. It costs 10 euros and you pay a person so there are no hassles with machines. If your destination is near Opéra you may find this useful.You will need to buy a métro ticket, however, if you can’t walk to your destination from Opéra.

My issue with RoissyBus was one time when there was a huge crowd at Opéra and busses to CDG kept filling up. I eventually caught my flight but it seemed needlessly stressful. The train basically never fills up, though it can be standing room only.

Orly Airport

The transport options are simlar at Orly, although I have never arrived there myself. It’s closer than CDG but it still takes about an hour to travel to or from the city center.

There is a bus between Place Denfert-Rochereau and Orly that appears to operate like the RoissyBus. It currently costs 7.50 euro.

Eurostar Train

The Eurostar runs from St. Pancras station in London through the Channel Tunnel to and from Gare du Nord in Paris, which is central and well-connected. All you need to do is buy a ticket and take the métro or RER to your destination.

Note that Eurostar prices vary widely depending on when you buy the ticket, like airplane tickest. Plan ahead!

Returning to the Airport

If you return to the airport by métro and/or RER you’ll want to confirm that the relevant métro and trains are running normally before you set off. You can check this (in French) on the RATP “state of the network” website. There are frequent strikes in France against all types of transport. When the RER is affected the strike usually takes the form of a reduced number of trains rather than a complete interruption of service. But if this is happening you will want to allow more time to catch your train, or you may want to switch to the RoissyBus.