How To Survive Public Transportation

Traveling can be tough. But whether you're going by bus, train, or airplane, we have some tips for being crammed up against other passengers for several hours without going insane.

No matter what the mode of transportation, riding in close quarters with people you don't know can be stressful. What if you need help? Should you help someone else? When should you give up your seat? And what about that guy next to you who won't shut up about Keynesian economics? But have no fear! We'll answer these questions and more, and maybe even show you how to enjoy public transport a little bit.

First, be prepared.

This may seem obvious, but a little prior research into whatever system you're traveling on can go a long way. Buses especially can be confusing, as drivers don't always announce the stops, and sometimes skip stops if you don't request them. But no matter how you're traveling, if you have some idea of the route and schedule, you'll be less stressed and more able to roll with whatever challenges present themselves. I spoke with Darrin Nordahl, author of My Kind of Transit: Rethinking Public Transportation in America, who says a little prior research is especially key when traveling abroad:

The best advice is to plan ahead. Get to know the names of the stops and stations of the places you want to visit before you travel. Buy a day or multi-day transit pass, so you don't have to worry about exact fares.

This is true if you're visiting a new city within your home country too — every system is different, and knowing a little bit about the one you're on will help you have a more pleasant experience.

Next, be considerate.

Okay, to the seat question! Whether to give up your seat to somebody else on the bus or train isn't just a matter of whether or not you have to stand — it's also a miniature social minefield. Who should stand up for whom? When should you assume someone else needs a seat? What if they get offended? Carla Saulter, who writes the Bus Chick blog, offers a simple rule: "you should get up for someone who looks like they need a seat more than you do." This could include the elderly, people with disabilities, or just people who have a lot to carry. As far as giving up your seat for someone who appears pregnant — given that she might not be — Saulter advises, "You don't necessarily have to say, 'wow, you're in the family way, can I give you my seat?' You might just say, 'do you want to sit down?'"

Consideration also applies if someone looks sick — Saulter suggests that if a person seems in distress, "You could just say, 'are you okay, can I call someone for you?' — anything you would do in any public space, [...] anything you can do to humanize the experience and treat your fellow human beings like fellow human beings." In more serious situations, you could offer to talk to the driver — or in an emergency, alert the appropriate services.

And if you spot someone struggling to get a heavy bag into an overhead bin on a plane or train, and you have the necessary upper body strength to assist, help them! The weaklings and back-injured of the world (and I've been both) will thank you.

If you need help, ask.

Asking strangers for help can be scary, but pretty much everyone has been in a shitty travel situation, and many will be more than willing to help you out. Need a seat on the bus due to illness, pregnancy, a disability that may not be visible, or just a ton of heavy stuff? Says Saulter,

I think it's perfectly valid to say to someone, "is it okay if I sit down," not in a way that's demanding or accusatory. [...] A lot of times I think people aren't being rude, it's just that they're clueless. The thing about buses and trains is, like elevators, you do whatever you can to pretend the other people aren't there. You're looking at your phone, you're listening to music, you're reading, you're really studiously avoiding the other people, therefore you might not notice if someone needs a seat.

If you need help getting where you're going, Nordahl says, "don't be afraid of asking for help. Conversing with the locals often provides the best memories of foreign travel. Be patient, and polite, and try not to get frustrated."

What about putting bags in overhead bins on airplanes (a constant problem of mine)? I asked Patrick Smith, airline pilot and host of AskThePilot.com, who says,

Nine times in ten you're going to be helped by a fellow passenger. Carriers have certain rules where cabin crew are not supposed to lift something heavier than what they feel comfortable with — it's a liability issue. [...] The course I would take is, assuming there are a lot of people around, just say out loud, "is there anyone who can help me with this," and almost always a passenger will jump up. If there happens to be a cabin crew member very close by, then I would direct that concern at that person first, just because that's the protocol. But I probably wouldn't go and seek out a flight attendant just for that.

Earbuds are your friend.

Are you someone who prefers a little solitude while traveling, and doesn't like to talk to seatmates? If so, Smith recommends a subtle approach: "putting in earphones, picking up something to read, [or] leaning against the bulkhead or the wall and making as if you're going to sleep." For my part, I'm a big fan of the earbud option. Some people take reading material as an invitation to conversation, and while this can sometimes be pleasant, it can also lead to a drunk dude lecturing you about the principles of economics, all the while mispronouncing the word "Keynesian" and generally being an ass. It's not like no one will ever try to talk to you when you're wearing earbuds ("Wow! You have a lot of music on that thing! Is it all yours?"), but the chances are much lower. Plus, you can pretend you don't hear them.

Earbuds also help insulate you against boisterous fellow passengers. If that doesn't help, though, Saulter advocates a polite conversation with the offending party — or, if it gets serious, a conversation with the driver. And if unruly kids are bugging you, check out our tips on dealing with them.

If you're being harassed, talk to an official.

Smith says that if a fellow passenger's behavior crosses the line into threats or harassment, "you should always go to a crewmember in that case. They're trained to handle those situations." On the bus, talk to the driver. At least in New York, authorities recommend reporting subway harassment to the police. Another approach, says Saulter, is to "absolutely shame them. Get loud. [...] I'd make a scene." If you're wondering how to do that, this lady may have some tips.

Try to think of transportation as an experience in itself.

It may be hard when the train is stopped in the tunnel forever or a colicky baby is screaming in your ear, but if you can think of transportation as a valuable experience in its own right, you'll be a lot less likely to hate it. If you and they are comfortable with it, you can talk to your fellow passengers — Saulter even met her husband on the bus. And, says Nordahl, "Passengers should recognize that opportunities to meet strangers could actually be rewarding. It is amazing how an otherwise dull or uncomfortable transit journey can be positively transformed with stimulating conversation." He adds that mistakes, too, can sometimes be fruitful: "When you end up on the wrong train or get off at the wrong stop (and it will happen), think of it as an opportunity to meet new people and see new things."

Sometimes a bad bus (or plane, or train) ride is just a bad ride. But it's possible to have a good ride too, and traveling together with a whole bunch of strangers is a great way to broaden your mind and get a little perspective. And some of the most obnoxious travel experiences can still make good stories.

My Kind of Transit: Rethinking Public Transportation in America
Bus Chick [Official Site]
AskThePilot.com [Official Site]

Image via l i g h t p o e t/Shutterstock.com