Beginner’s Guide to the Paris Metro and RER

I’m usually pretty good at doing my research prior to a trip, and getting my head around all the different planes, trains and automobiles involved – but Paris seemed unreasonably complicated. Personally, I would put it up there with Tokyo in terms of transport technicality. (Actually, I think Tokyo was easier). The cynic in me thinks that this is intentionally to rip off tourists, but let’s not get bitter. Instead, let’s all enjoy this super easy guide to getting around Paris on trains and metro – and save a few euros in the process!

Paris and public transport

Evidently, a major world city like Paris has a plethora of transport options – for the sake of simplicity and with the budget-conscious in mind, I’m only focusing here on the city’s express trains and underground metro, but taxis and buses are of course options too, as well as boats, funicular railways, Velib bikes, balloons…

For the vast majority of visitors, you will be able to get to absolutely everything you need to by using trains and the metro: Paris has one of the densest metro systems in the world, and it is unlikely that you’ll find an urban or suburban destination that’s out of your reach.

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The RER

Don’t worry about what it stands for, or even how to say it (R.E.R., rather that rerrrr, in case you’re curious) – just know that this means train! The RER is Paris’s express train service, which runs underground throughout the city centre, and becomes an above-ground commuter train once it starts to reach the suburbs. There are five lines, designated RER A, B, C, D and E that cover the length and breadth of Paris. They also intersect with the metro at numerous interchanges.

The main reason that you may need to use the RER is if you are arriving at either Charles de Gaulle or Orly Airports (both at opposite ends of RER Line B), or if you wish to visit either Versailles or Disneyland whilst in Paris. Several tourist attractions such as the Musee d’Orsay, Eiffel Tower and Denfert Rochereau (for the catacombs) are also accessible via RER. It’s handy to get accustomed to a combined metro and RER map: RER lines are the thicker ones, and have a letter-number combination at the end (e.g. B5; E4) Unless you are using the RER to the extremities of the city (such as the airports or more distant tourist attractions listed above), you may not notice much of a difference between the metro and RER in the city centre, but it’s important to be able to tell the difference on a map and know which signs to look for in the stations (‘M’ vs ‘RER’).

The important thing to know is that the RER has different zones, which will affect any tickets you want to use. Generally speaking, zone 1 of the RER is the same as the extent of the metro. For this reason, you can use metro tickets interchangeably on both metro and RER journeys within this area. For travelling beyond zone 1, you will have to buy a different ticket: an Ile-de-France. The easiest way to understand this is to think of the RER as carrying out two different functions. (1) Within Paris, think of it as exactly the same as the metro. (2) For going beyond Paris, treat it  as a train for which you will need to buy either a single or return ticket.

RER Top Tips

  • It is worth knowing that the RER lines tend to branch off to different terminals outside of the centre, so if you are planning on getting an RER train, check and double check that the train you are about to hop on goes to the right ‘branch’.
  • Not all RER trains stop at all stations on the line. Most stations will have a board listing all the stations on the line: stations that the train will call at have an illuminated square next to them.
  • If you are still uncertain after you’ve jumped on a train, check the diagrams above the train door’s interior: there will be an image of the line, and calling points have an illuminated light next to them.
  • Trains don’t always go right to the end of the line – again, check train departure screens before rushing on to a train.

The Metro

Paris’s metro is fab, and actually very easy to use once you get used to a few quirks. If you buy a single metro ticket (€1.90) it can take you any distance – one stop, or all the way across the city. Changing lines is permitted on one ticket, as long as it is one continuous trip and you don’t exit the station. Changing from metro to RER is also fine, in the same manner. The metro itself is fast (compared to the RER, which can feel rather slow) and trains are very frequent for most hours of the day.

Metro Top Tips

  • Similarly to other underground systems like the London underground, the terminus of the line is used to indicate the direction that the train will be heading in, so it’s worth knowing the end-point of the line for the direction that you need to travel in. Trains heading north on Line 12, for example, will have ‘Aubervilliers’ next to their signs, whilst for south look for ‘Mairie d’Issy’.
  • You also have to open the doors yourself on some of the trains when you want to get off – a small detail that caught me out! The older carriages have a handle that you need to swing upwards to open the doors; keep an eye out for locals doing this if you’re unsure.
  • Equally, the entry and exit barriers can be a bit foreboding: we saw a few people
    getting stuck…! Make sure you are ready to move before taking your ticket out of the entry barrier machine, particularly if you have baggage with you as you don’t get long to move through. (Gates won’t open until you remove your ticket). Exiting is often through similarly imposing looking doors, many of which actually open automatically as you walk towards them.

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Travel passes: options

I looked into this for a very long time, and in my personal opinion, the carnet – a job lot of 10 metro tickets purchased all at once for the reduced price of €14.50 – is the best option. However, this is obviously hugely dependent on what you want to see and do, and there are other options available. I’ve given further details and a few pros and cons below.

Carnet: 10 Paris Metro ‘Ticket t+’

You may see Paris metro tickets referred to as ‘ticket t+’ on machines – this is just your standard metro ticket. And a pack of 10 is called a carnet (“car-nay”). These can easily be bought from ticket machines or cashiers, and each ticket will be good for one journey on Paris metro, RER within zone 1, or a combination of the two (see above information about using the metro).

If you select 10 tickets, the machine will literally give you 10 tiny tickets – we kept these tucked in our wallets, and were strict about not mixing them up. Tickets that were being used were stashed in our back pockets (you sometimes have to go through a couple of barriers if changing trains or going from metro to RER so keep them handy), and at the end of each journey we made sure we binned them, as they couldn’t be used again. 10 trips will actually get you a long way on the metro – we stayed from Friday to Monday, and still had one ticket left over after buying 10 and doing a serious amount of sightseeing. If you do run out, you can always buy one or two extra tickets, depending on the length of your stay.

Pros: At €14.50, these are excellent value for money. You could also split them between people if you’re only staying for a short period, and the option to buy additional tickets if you run out gives you flexibility and control over your expenditure. Perfect if you mainly plan to travel using the metro and RER zone 1.
Cons: Although these tickets can also be used on certain buses and trams, you may feel confused by the restrictions for use. There are no additional perks, such as discounted entry for attractions that some travel cards offer.

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Paris Visite Travel Pass

This is the pass that you buy if budget is no issue, and you want an easy life. The Paris Visite Pass can be bought for different zones, and for different time periods. Zones 1-3 will cover you for Paris’s centre, as well as those important locations on the outskirts that otherwise require those pesky RER Ile-de-France train tickets mentioned above: airports, Disneyland and Versailles. (Zones 1-5 passes are available too). They can also be bought for 1 day, 2 days, 3 days or 5 days, and are valid on metro, RER trains (for the relevant zones purchased), tram, bus and SNCF trains.

My main issue with the Visite Travel Pass is that they rather cunningly make you pay for either 3 or 5 days, when I’m sure they know that a lot of people will visit for a long weekend – 4 days. Considering we paid €14.50 each for a set of metro tickets that lasted us the entire 4 days, the equivalent Visite Pass (which would have to be 5 days) is a whopping €37.25 by comparison.

Pros: Easy to use, with no real restrictions to consider and unlimited travel for the period purchased. The pass will also give you discounts at many of Paris’s major attractions.
Cons: Expensive compared to the simple metro tickets, and passes will have to be purchased per person (a pack of 10 metro tickets could be shared). Unless you plan to venture far and wide across Paris and make many journeys on public transport, you may not feel like you have had your money’s worth.

Navigo Découverte Pass

You may also see Navigo passes mentioned – the normal Navigo pass is only for residents, but the ‘découverte’ or ‘discovery’ version is for tourists. Similarly to the Visite Pass, this covers all Paris zones and suburbs, including airports, Disneyland and Versailles, and is valid on the usual suspects: metro, RER, buses and trams.

Where this pass gets more complicated is the timing of its validity. Unlike the Visite Pass, which is activated for the number of days purchased from the first day of use, Navigo passes run for set periods of time, with the week pass being valid from first service on Monday morning to last service on Sunday night. This means that if you stayed from Thursday to Tuesday, for example, you would in theory need to buy two passes. The cost for the week is €22.15, plus a €5 fee – if you do happen to be in Paris from Monday to Sunday, this option would work out much cheaper than the Visite pass, for example (€27.15 for 7 days is good value for money), but if not, this may not be the travel pass for you.

Pros: As easy to use in practice as the Visite card, and potentially a cheap option.
Cons: Tricky validity in terms of time, and as with the Visite card, each individual will need their own pass. Passes will need to be purchased at the station, and require passport photos.

Bon Voyage!

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