I love the Paris Metro. I hate the Paris Metro ticket system.
I’ve been to Paris four times in the past couple of months. Not being smug. I know for most folks in the States a trip to Paris might be a once-in-a-lifetime event, if that. But in context, Paris is about three hours by train from where we live in Switzerland or six hours from the south of France. Akin to someone in New England or Georgia visiting Washington DC. A treat perhaps, especially in contrast to life in a small village, but not that big a deal.
To start with, the spaghetti web of trains, trams, subways and buses in and around metropolitan Paris is a confusing array of acronyms and names – SNCF (Société nationale des chemins de fer français), STIF (Syndicat des transports d'Île-de-France), RER (Réseau Express Régional), RATP (Régie Autonome des Transports Parisiens), Optile (Organisation Professionnelle des Transports d'Ile-de-France), M for Metro, T for Tramway, and BUS for bus. Add to that the multiple artificial travel “zones” … central Paris is Zone 1, but cross the Seine to the west into the La Defense area, and you’re in Zone 3.
The ticket machines are not always terribly clear about what type of ticket you need to traverse which zones on which type of transportation.
For residents of Paris and the surrounding suburbs, access is simple. They purchase an electronic Navigo photo ID pass, payable monthly. As they enter the turnstile gates for whichever mode of transport they’ve chosen, they flash the Navigo over a sensor and move on.
For those of us who are non-resident in Paris, not so fast. You must purchase a paper ticket with a magnetic stripe, and you damn well better get the type of conveyance and the zones correct, or you could end up dying in the subterranean depths of the station.
When we arrived, we bought RER tickets for the Red Line A train from Gare de Lyon rail station to La Defense, which is a short bus ride from where we were staying. No problem getting in to the station at Gare de Lyon; however, at La Defense, those tickets would not open the exit gate. Fortunately we found a gate that was stuck open and got out.
We had purchased a book of extra tickets for the three days we would be traveling around Paris. But the next day, we discovered the tickets purchased at Gare de Lyon (inside Zone 1) would not even allow us into the train-access gates at La Defense (Zone 3). And, of course, the tickets I purchased at La Defense would not allow us to exit at Chatelet (Zone 1), so Donna-Lane tailgated someone with a Navigo and I managed to trick the baby stroller gate to open.
Another time I purchased a ticket which I thought was for the tramway, but it wouldn’t work, and I realized I had bought an SNCF rail ticket (even though the ticket machine indicated tramway also).
At times we had legitimate unused tickets which did not work, probably a magnetic stripe malfunction.
For the bus, at least, the driver would accept euro coins without a ticket, as not all bus stops have ticket machines.
And don’t get me started on the irregular directional signage in stations. Apparently Paris signmakers only have access to left- or right-pointing arrows. No such thing as an around-the-corner or u-turn arrow when it would make more sense.
Next time, perhaps, we’ll try one of the all-day, all-access passes they promote to tourists. But I’m not confident they will always work. I have these visions of never getting out of the underground, forced to sleep on trains and subsisting on vending machine snack foods.
Oh, another thing. Like most public transportation, there’s no real security in train and bus stations. Yes, there are the occasional soldier or gendarmerie strolling around. Not nearly as many as you would expect under France’s “state of emergency” situation, but perhaps many of them are undercover (cleverly disguised as clueless visitors whose tickets won’t work). However, when we exited the Chatelet station into the huge Halles shopping centre, there was a security guard inspecting bags. Apparently protecting the merchandise in the stores is more important than protecting the people traveling on the trains.