The Paris subway system is relatively easy to get the hang of if you come armed with the right information. Here are some tips to help you navigate Paris public transport like a local (and avoid unnecessary frustration and claustrophobia).
- Get yourself a metro map. These are available free of charge from any metro information booth, and can also be downloaded online. There's no use scurrying around underground trying to find your way. A map will do the trick.
- Dislike carrying maps around? Some great free apps are now available for your smartphone, IPhone or tablet. I've used a variety of these and they all work well, but I especially recommend the RATP transport company's own app, downloadable here. If you have such a device, I strongly recommend getting armed with a good app before your trip.
- Avoid riding the metro or RER (express trains) at rush hour (8:00-10:00 a.m.; 5:00-8:00 p.m.). During these times, opt to walk or take the bus. One word of warning, though: some bus lines are also swamped at these hours.
- Metro lines 1, 2, 4, 11, 12, and 13 are generally the most overcrowded lines, especially at rush hour. Bus lines 38, 28, 68 and 62 are among the most cramped-- but they also service many of the city's most central areas.
- Metro lines 6 and 2 run above-ground much of the way, sometimes offering impressive views of the city. Line 6 offers spectacular views of the Eiffel Tower near the Bir-Hakeim station. From line 2, a less striking view of the Sacre Coeur can be seen.
Learn to ride the RER when it makes sense. Many visitors to Paris never venture to take Paris' five higher-speed commuter trains, RER lines A, B, C, D, and E, which can get you to your destination much faster since they stop at far fewer stops than the Metro. The primary hub for outgoing and incoming RER trains is the Châtelet-Les Halles station. Other major hubs include Gare du Nord, St. Michel/Notre Dame, and Gare de Lyon.
The RER, which is run by a different (public) company than the Paris Metro, can be a bit complicated at first, but the time gained is generally worth it. It takes roughly 20 minutes to get from Denfert-Rochereau in South Paris to Gare du Nord in the North. The same route by metro would often add at least ten minutes.