Here are some things I’ve learned in my travels for getting around in foreign cities, especially in Asia. Not any particular order of importance, just some things I’ve noticed and picked up along the way.
1: Get the app. These days most public transit authorities have some sort of app, as do many private developers. These are too obviously useful to ignore, often giving you schedules, routing from station to station, info on what bus to take and how to pay. Some are better than others so you’ll have to just try several to find one that works for you.
2: Get a local SIM Card. You can get offline Maps, but if your phone is GSM capable and unlocked, rather than pay roaming rates for data which is in the realm of absurdly expensive, get a local SIM card for your phone. Often these are cheap (my SIM in Taipei was about $12.00 US for 500 minutes of talk time and 1GB of data usage, which is even cheaper than my contract plan in the states) and can be purchased at the airport before you even get your ride to the hotel or tickets for the subway or train.
I stress this one because having the data is really useful for navigating. You have the power of live maps and internet searches at your disposal, not to mention often live translation and other useful features.
3: Get a pass card. Rather than buy tickets individually for subway travel, bus travel or whatever, get the local CorbinDallasMultiPass. (Bonus points if you understand the reference). In Taipei, they have the EasyCard. In Tokyo, there is Suica and Passmo. These cards are pre-loaded with money and are used on pretty much all subways, train lines and bus services. Additionally, you can use them at vending machines and convenience stores to buy food.
In Tokyo, you can even use your Suica or Passmo at some of the restaurants and gift shops in the Airport.
The fares are usually cheaper and it’s a LOT easier to throw a few bucks on the card and use it to buzz in and out of the subway or bus than it is to buy tokens or have to worry about exact change.
4: Walk when the locals walk. In Taipei, like many other crowded Asian cities like Manila, Macau and Tokyo, traffic can be even more unpredictable and deadly than at home. So pay attention to crosswalks and traffic lights. Hold up and move when the locals move. Stand when the locals stand.
5: Every station has a map, you just need to find it, and they usually have some English. I’ve yet to pass through a station that did not have both a line map showing the routes of various rail and subway lines and a map of the station itself showing all the exits and the station in relation to everything surrounding it. Find the map, orient yourself and don’t end up popping up on the wrong side of a 6 lane street full of madly dashing cars, trucks and scooters.
Also, the maps can be a life saver. In Tokyo, often two or more stations from the various lines are connected by tunnels and the underground warrens of shopping mall / rail station can go on for miles. It’s very easy to get disoriented and lost wandering down hallways that all look identical.
6: Learn when the lines run and when they do not. Some cities have a 24/7 public transit system, some do not. In Taipei and Tokyo (as with London) the last trains leave around Midnight and don’t pick up again until the next morning in time for the business commuters. So pay attention to the time and learn before you go when the trains and busses run. Nothing sucks more than being on the far end of a strange city with no easy way to get back.
7: The trains can be … crowded. And that’s an understatement. Being on either the Taipei or Tokyo systems during the busy hours is an adventure in and of itself. The stations will be packed to the walls with commuters and the trains will be like sardine cans. There is no personal space on these trains during rush hour, so be prepared, and if you are claustrophobic, perhaps you should consider taxis.
8: Taipei has a great system of public biking that is tied into the EasyCard system. If you know someone local, you can get their help in activating your EasyCard on the U Bike network. Another advantage to getting the transit card. With U Bike, you can pick up bikes at various places near most subway stations and ride your way around town. Biking is a great way to see the city and explore as well as a healthy way to get form place to place.