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Mind the gap: Subway etiquette around the world

Sept. 14, 2019
7 min read
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All aboard! For the entire month of September at The Points Guy, we'll be exploring the world of train travel with reviews, features, deals and tips for maximizing your trip by rail.

Sleepy commuters and curious visitors zip together from place to place in crowded, underground carriages all around the world. And, if you’ve ever been to a big city, the chances are you have, too.

But while the logistics of traveling on the metros, tubes and subways of the world remain more or less the same — swipe a card, find your platform, try to get off at the right stop — the rules, regulations and unspoken social etiquette of traveling in subterranean subway wagons can often be a minefield for unsuspecting newbies.

Here’s how to avoid the embarrassment of committing a subway system faux pas in seven major cities around the world.

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Photo by Rasheed Kemy / Unsplash
Photo by Rasheed Kemy / Unsplash

The London Underground, more commonly known as the Tube, is the world’s oldest below-ground system of tracks and trains. Unfortunately, that means Britain’s preferred modes of passive-aggression and unspoken etiquette have had ample time to flourish. There are many ways to provoke the ire of a harried Londoner on the Tube, including — but not limited to — standing still on the left-hand side of the escalators; trying to make eye contact with your fellow passengers; or faffing about at the ticket barriers.

So, to avoid being on the receiving end of a frustrated tut, have your Oyster or contactless card at the ready, stand to the right and perfect your thousand-yard stare. And don’t forget to "mind the gap."


Photo by Matthee van der Plas / Unsplash
Photo by Matthee van der Plas / Unsplash

You’re supposedly never more than 500 meters away from a Parisian Métro station, meaning this mode of transportation is incredibly convenient for both visitors and locals. To avoid stepping on any metaphorical and literal toes when using the Métro for the first time, do open the doors for people behind you (some of the older carriages have doors that must be opened manually), but definitely don’t use the strapontins (folding chairs, often found next to the door) during rush hour. And remember that, much like Londoners, Parisians aren’t fond of making eye contact with … well, anyone really.

But, hey! The phasing out of Paris Métro’s signature (and fiddly) paper tickets means at least you don’t have to worry about holding people up at the barriers.

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Photo by Jezael Melgoza / Unsplash
Photo by Jezael Melgoza / Unsplash

According to a Tokyo-born friend who prefers to remain anonymous, all you need to ride the Tokyo Metro — notorious for having rush hour "pushers" who’ll shove you into the carriage — is “basic and decent consideration of other people.”

While this sounds simple in theory, in practice it’s perhaps not quite so straightforward. (This is a city which has had near-constant metro etiquette poster campaigns since 1974, after all.)

Like in most subways, playing loud music — even through earphones — is frowned upon. Eating is also a no-go for Tokyo Metro riders, along with making eye contact with fellow passengers; chitchatting at anything louder than a whisper; and blowing your nose (do it discreetly, if at all). Men should also avoid women-only, rush hour carriages, the operating times and locations of which are indicated by signs on the platform.

New York City

Photo by Yucel Moran / Unsplash
Photo by Yucel Moran / Unsplash

New York City’s subway has more stations than any other underground rail network in the world ... and some of the most confusing signage and service interruptions to boot. As you can imagine, most of the commuters using it on the daily are, well, fed up.

If you don’t want to enrage any New Yorkers on your next visit to the Big Apple, remember the following things: Don’t lean on the poles in the train cars; don’t eat stinky sandwiches; don't block the doors when people are boarding; and don’t take up too many seats.

But, perhaps most importantly, mind your own business. And if you’re traveling with a dog, make sure it’s (at least somewhat) contained within a bag or carrier. Yes, you can get creative.


Photo by Eleni Afiontzi / Unsplash
Photo by Eleni Afiontzi / Unsplash

Madrid’s Metro is, on the whole, a modern and intuitive network, which claims to have more escalators than any other subway system in the world — almost 1,700 at the last count. Understandably then, you need to get to grips with escalator etiquette quickly.

Luckily, the golden rule is simple: don’t stand to the left. Similarly, eating and drinking — even a cup of coffee — isn’t common inside the Spanish capital’s metro system, while manspreading is outright banned. Keep your knees to yourselves, guys.


Photo by Soroush Karimi / Unsplash
Photo by Soroush Karimi / Unsplash

Putting your feet up, leaving behind rubbish or letting your bag have a seat of its own on a busy train is the height of uncouthness on Berlin's U-Bahn (Untergrundbahn). On the contrary, staring (or cracking open a beer) really is not unusual, so ready yourself to be silently observed by your fellow travelers.

While you could hypothetically hop aboard a U-Bahn train without buying a ticket first — in Berlin you pass straight to the platform without needing to navigate a single ticketed barrier — as former Berlin resident Ben Wein warns, “The ticket guys dress in plain clothes to catch you out.” It’s just not worth the embarrassment (or the fine), so make sure to stamp your ticket on the platform before boarding the train.

Mexico City

Photo by GAED / Wikimedia Commons
Photo by GAED / Wikimedia Commons

As one of the most overloaded metros on earth — the 12 lines of the CDMX metro serve over 5 million people daily — the Mexico City metro at rush hour is something of a free for all. However, there’s still a certain level of etiquette to observe, such as freeing up space for the person behind you to shuffle toward the doors, acknowledging the numerous vendors — who sell everything from eyeliner to coloring books — with a simple shake of the head, and letting riders off the train before you pile on.

And the women- and children-only carriages, usually at the front of the train and clearly indicated by signage on the platform? Don’t use them if you’re not, well, a woman or a child.

Featured image by Photo by Rasheed Kemy / Unsplash