When Madelaine and I studied abroad in England, it took us about a month to finally learn how the train system worked.
It probably shouldn’t have taken us that long. But we were new at this and we (well, I) had major transportation anxiety and were desperate to prove ourselves.
Before settling down in York, our first trip to Scotland was ridden with experiences of eating money on train tickets because we didn’t know how long in advance we should purchase, whether or not to use the train app, or that the 16-25 railcard was even a thing. As two midwestern introverts who’s only solo experience with public transportation included campus buses and a few light rail trips, this was all new territory for us. But by the time September rolled around, we were something like experts. Maybe there’s some truth in that the best way to learn new things is being thrown into the fray. Regardless, it would have saved us a lot of stress (and time…and money…) if we had known how to approach these things earlier on.
Ok, this is where we really had to ready ourselves over time. We did a LOT of research before the first leg of our Scottish trip. Like, a LOT. To the point where I was checking maps of the train stations ahead of time. This was a bit overkill. But by all means, checking the timetables was extremely helpful. Some buses only ran a few times a day, and throughout the planning process we were constantly matching with museum hours to make sure we wouldn’t end up stranded on the other side of town.
The trick was trying to find that balance between researching until you feel comfortable, and researching until you’re even more stressed than before. Take a breath. Don’t overplan. Expect things to go at least a little bit wrong.
Discounts and/or passes
In England, these only work for residents (see 16-25, Friends & Family, Senior, etc.), but they still applied to us as study abroad students. We were able to save a third on all train tickets, which helped out a lot on longer weekend trips to Edinburgh or London.
Regardless, check well in advance if this is an option. If they are, put the work in to get them applied to your tickets. Make sure that you’re following all the rules (including having any required documentation with you). If you’re using public transport often, it’s worth putting the work in. Trust me.
Which leads to…Trust
When I first started riding trains, I used to sit with my eyes glued to my google maps, terrified that I had somehow gotten on the wrong train and would end up in Belgium. I never did end up in Belgium. I never even ended up in the wrong town over. That said, you’re allowed to be stressed. Especially if you’re not used to train travel, or if this is your first time out of the country. That said, sometimes the best thing you can do is understand that eighty percent of your navigation can be figured out ahead of time, and the rest you just have to believe will turn out right. Maybe you will get on the wrong bus or train. Maybe you won’t. If you do, at least you’ll have a good story to tell afterwards.