Public transportation is less expensive than most modes of transportation and better for the planet. Next time you’re traveling with kids, consider using these tips to learn and use public transportation with kids while traveling.
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I grew up in the epitome of the suburbs. I didn’t have a white picket fence, but I bet there were a few in my neighborhood. I liked a lot of things about where I grew up. The suburbs have a lot of benefits. But in the United States, the suburbs don’t do a darn thing to teach us how to use public transportation.
Before college, I had little idea how to ride city buses or trains. I figured out how to ride an express bus from my hometown into downtown Minneapolis for a summer job during college, and I occasionally took the train in Boston while I attended college in the city (on those rare occasions when we left the bubble of our beautiful “country-club-like” campus). But I didn’t have a whole lot of exposure to navigating the world through public transportation.
Since becoming an adult, I’ve learned much more about using public transportation especially when we lived in downtown Chicago. Using public transportation is a skill my husband and I would both like to help our children learn as well.
We aren’t experts, but we take public transportation on vacation and have used it to commute to work at various points during our careers. Vacation is a great time to teach kids how to use public transportation (especially if they don’t already use it at home), and it’s a much more climate-friendly mode of transportation than hiring cars when it’s available.
Public transportation can also enhance a family’s experience of feeling immersed in a new city and exploring many different neighborhoods. While traveling in big cities, using public transportation is a great way to see more of the city, especially with kids who might not have the endurance to walk long distances all day, every day. For us, a train ride was a great break from long walks for tired legs and feet.
11 Tips to Use Public Transportation While Traveling With Kids
If you’re planning a family vacation to an area that has public transportation, consider making it a core method of transportation while you’re in town. Even if you aren’t a public transportation guru, you can learn together with your kids. Here are 11 tips to take public transportation while traveling with kids.
Get To Know The Public Transit System Before You Travel
Know the Routes | Spend some time getting to know the public transit system in the city you will be visiting before you leave. Research their site to see what geographic areas it covers and what neighborhoods have more or less coverage from multiple lines that take you to different parts of town. It might influence where you decide to find lodging.
A few weeks before we left Philadelphia for London, I spent some time getting to know the London Underground system. I didn’t try to memorize the map or know every line (not even close). But I did start to research how we would travel between our apartment and various planned activities or between locations throughout the day.
This gave me a general idea of how much time the train or bus would take as we set a soft itinerary. I chose to stay in the Paddington neighborhood in London precisely because it was near a major train station that had quick access to the airport and many train lines to different parts of London.
Payment Methods | Know how to use their payment terminals. Some transit systems accept cash while others require credit cards. Most use access cards or tokens and some allow you to pay as you go using an app on your phone.
We had a friend who already had Oyster cards (the payment cards the London Underground system uses) from a previous trip they took to London. They lent us their cards so we didn’t have to pay £5 for new ones and could simply top off (or add money) to their cards when we arrived.
Consider Pricing and Frequency of Use
Public transportation, in most cases, is far less expensive than many types of travel through the city. Public transit systems will likely save you a good bit of money on your trip over more individualized travel throughout the city.
Once you have an idea about how often you plan to use the train, consider what type of travel or fare pass makes the most sense. In many cases, you can purchase single-use rides, single-day passes for an unlimited number of rides in one day, or a multi-day pass. Some transit systems also offer discounts if you pay for several rides at once instead of buying individual rides each time you need them.
In London, we maintained a running balance on our card and swiped to pay with each individual ride. We only had to top off our card one time during the trip to add money to our balance. In hindsight, we used the train enough that it may have made sense to purchase a 7-day unlimited pass.
I guess we just ended up taking the train more than I expected to visit so many different parts of the city, and that’s not such a bad thing. Now we know for next time.
Use a Maps App For Directions
Google Maps offers directions via driving, but you can also select directions for walking or via public transit. We spent the entire trip mapping out directions via trains, buses, and walking. Once you enter your starting and ending destinations, Google Maps will give you various public transit options using different combinations of train lines and buses.
The map app also shows you how to walk to and from the departure station and the destination station to the final endpoint and tells you how long it will take. And the directions to use the public transit system are pretty specific, ensuring you know which line to take and in which direction to travel.
While I default to Google Maps, I suspect other map apps have similar public transit and walking direction options. If not, you can download Google Maps on your phone even if it’s not an Android.
Give Yourself Extra Time
Nothing about traveling with kids is much fun when you’re stressed and rushing, and taking the train or a city bus is no different. If you’re planning to hop from place to place on public transit, be sure to give yourself a few extra minutes to make the journey.
Throughout our time in London, we realized it took a few more minutes to get to the train than Google Maps expected. I suspect Google Maps doesn’t prioritize meandering little feet in their algorithm.
With or without kids, you never know exactly how long you’ll need to wait for the next train. On many occasions, we just missed the train leaving the station. It happens often when the trains run every few minutes. But waiting for the next train instead of catching the one that arrives just as you step into the station adds time to your travel.
If you’re simply perusing the city, a few lost minutes here and there may not matter. But if you’re on the way to a dinner reservation or a timed event, for example, give yourself some cushion to enjoy the journey.
Check For Free or Discounted Rides for Kids
Three days of paying for J to ride the Tube in London passed before I realized he could ride for free. What a bummer that I unnecessarily paid for so many rides, but at least we identified our blunder before the final day.
Many train systems offer free or discounted ridership for young children. Know the rules and save some money by not paying (or at least not paying the full fare) if it’s not required.
If you’re going through the turnstile with a child traveling for free, you’ll probably need to use the larger gate intended for strollers, wheelchairs, and luggage. Otherwise, you may find the gates close after one person crosses through. I learned the hard way when the gate closed right into my stomach. You better believe I didn’t make that mistake again.
If you can’t find information about discounted child fees on their site, you can also ask any of the employees working at the station. Many stations have at least one or two attendants managing the turnstiles to help riders navigate the system.
Don’t Be Afraid To Ask For Help
Whether it’s about fees, travel guidance, or a variety of other issues, don’t be afraid to ask for help. As I mentioned above, most stations have someone who can help answer your questions and get you on the right track (like that pun there?).
In my experience, the attendants run the gamut in terms of how cordial they are (much like dealing with people in all walks of life). Some are super friendly while others are more stoic and to the point when answering your questions. But in any case, they have lots of information and can answer most of your inquiries.
Play A Quite Game or Read a Book on the Train (or while waiting for the train)
If your kids are getting bored or antsy on the platform, at the bus station, or while sitting in their seat, consider a quiet activity to keep them busy. I Spy is typically a winner, and Rock/Paper/Scissors works well too.
At times, we’ve also read aloud when it wasn’t disruptive to other people. I brought whatever chapter book we were reading together at the time and read a few pages to pass the time while leaning close to them so we didn’t bother other riders.
Look for Elevators and Escalators If You Have A Stroller
Called lifts in London, most public transportation systems in major cities have accessibility features like elevators that make it feasible to use strollers, even when traversing down to trains deep under the city streets or above the roads. They have elevators between the station entrances and platforms as well as larger gates that fit strollers to get in and out of the stations.
When we lived in Chicago, we took our boys all over town in our City Select double stroller (huge fan if you’re in the stroller market). This definitely required getting to know where the elevators were in each station.
While nearly every station had elevators, I do recall one older station in particular that did not have elevators. If I ever stopped there with the boys on my own, I always had to ask someone to help me carry the stroller up or down the stairs. But by and large, you can find elevators in just about all stations (and in the United States they are required under the American Disabilities Act for any stations that have been built or substantially updated since the legislation became effective).
Strollers are amazing when traveling with young kids. They hold so much gear and are a great resting place for little ones. But admittedly, they do make using public transportation less convenient. Sometimes the elevators are slow or hard to find. Sometimes they smell like urine (gross but true…).
If you don’t need a stroller for a particular trip to a restaurant or activity, you’re probably better off leaving it at home to ride the train. If you’re taking a bus, these are quite a bit easier to navigate strollers on and off because you don’t have to make your way several stories underground. But if you do need a stroller (and you may), you can almost always find elevators to and from the platform so you don’t have to carry a stroller up and down flights of stairs.
Families Often Get Priority For Seating
On all the train systems I’ve taken, they have rules that expect riders to offer up their seats to those who need them most. And fluent public transit riders generally know and respect these rules. Families with young children typically have priority to use seating over many other riders.
If you need a seat on a crowded train, don’t be afraid to kindly ask for someone to give up their seat. The worst they can say is no. Accept their answer; not all disabilities or circumstances are visible, so who knows why they need or want the seat. But most likely someone else will offer up their seat when they see you ask.
Teach Your Kids To Use Public Transit
As you’re traveling on the trains, use those extra minutes you build into your travel time to teach your kids how to navigate public transit themselves. Let them add money to the train card and swipe it when you go through the turnstile to the station. Show them where to find signage to know which train to take, which platform to use, and how to confirm they are headed in the right direction.
Using public transit is a learned skill. It can definitely feel intimidating if we aren’t used to the expectations and nuances of how these systems work. But it’s such a valuable skill to have and well worth the investment.
In all likelihood, especially if you’re somewhat new to public transportation yourself or traveling on public transit in a new city, you’ll probably make a mistake at some point. You’ll ride the train in the wrong direction. You’ll get off at the wrong stop. Or, like my Dad in London, you’ll lose your favorite hat when the train breeze blows it off your head right onto the tracks (and definitely don’t chase anything on the tracks – that’s super dangerous for a variety of reasons).
Be patient and know that no one is great at something the first (or second or third) time they do it. We all make mistakes when we’re learning new skills. Give yourself and your kids some grace. Using public transit is such a useful skill to have (and it’s great for the planet). It definitely beats sitting in city traffic in a taxi as the fare keeps climbing and you aren’t moving!
Got any other tips for using public transportation with kids while traveling? Share them in the comments. I’d love to hear how you make the most of this pro-planet transportation mode while you’re on the road.
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Jen Panaro, founder and editor-in-chief of Honestly Modern, is a self-proclaimed composting nerd and an advocate for sustainable living for modern families. In her spare time, she’s a serial library book borrower, a messy gardener, and a mom of two boys who spends a lot of time in hockey rinks and on baseball fields.
You can find more of her work at Raising Global Kidizens, an online space to help parents and caregivers raise the next generation of responsible global citizens.