Transportation in major Polish cities is extremely efficient and pretty easy to navigate once you understand the rules. The first step might be to check out the websites for the different cities: Warsaw, Krakow, Gdansk, and Wroclaw. There may be more sites for other cities but unless you’re using Couchsurfing you’ll probably be staying somewhat close to the center of town and Polish cities are quite walkable. If you’re staying with someone, they’ll know the exact website to use to look up the bus and tram routes. If there is a route planner like the one for ZTM Warsaw you can easily put in your starting and ending points to get the information you need. If there isn’t that option, you just have to do it the old fashioned way.
By Panek (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons
Most bus and tram stops will have a big map of the city with the routes highlighted. If you know where you are and where you are going, you can trace the route and which buses or trams you will need to take in order to make the trip.
At each stop you will find a small timetable. I’m bad at this blogging thing and thought of writing this after I left Poland so I didn’t think to get a picture and can’t find one online. But it’s easy to describe. At the top in bold numbers will be the bus route. Under that will be a listing of times looking similar to this 14 :02 :12 :22: 32: 42: 52. This tells you what times the bus will arrive. There may be different schedules for the weekends, so look for the words sobota and niedziela, Saturday and Sunday respectively. If the schedules are different it’ll be marked with a new timetable.
Next to the timetables on the paper will be the bus routes. First you need to locate the name of the stop where you are on the route. Each stop is labeled on the waiting area so match that up with the stop on the route which looks like a line with circles on it and words next to the circles. Then find the small numbers 1, 2, 3 next to station stops. Those are the next three stops on the route telling you which direction the bus will be going.
Now here’s where you need to pay attention. If the stop you need to get off at is a white circle instead of black, the bus will only stop there if you push the Stop button near the doors as you approach it. If you skip this vital step, the bus will continue on it’s merry way until the next black circle stop arrives or someone needs to get on or off.
Sometimes you’ll arrive at a bus stop but not find any bus going to where you need to go even though the internet said the routes run that way. This often happens when you need to transfer buses or trams. In this case, look around for another waiting area in the vicinity. It’ll have the same stop name, but a different number next to it. Visit that station and repeat the previous steps to ensure you are going to where you want.
By Mateusz Włodarczyk via Wikimedia Commons
You’ve finally found the right bus route, the right stop, you know how far to go, it’s time to buy a ticket. There are three main options for buying a ticket. You can use the automated ticket machines at the stops. This is the best method because you can have the machine work in English. You may also go to a small shop near the station and ask for a normaly bilet. The odds of the person working there speaking English are pretty low unfortunately. And lastly you can take a risk and hope the bus or tram you get on has a ticket machine on board. If it does just buy a ticket there.
Wil at pl.wikipedia from Wikimedia Commons
The system is run with the honor method. You’re supposed to purchase a ticket for one of the options (one trip, 20 minutes, 40 minutes, 60 minutes, etc) then validate the ticket on a little stamping machine on the bus or tram. No one actually sees you validate the ticket so there is a bit of temptation to simply not buy a ticket and save a few zloties. I did this the first few times I visited Poland. But now I’ve learned from a Polish friend of mine that they are beginning to crack down on fare jumpers. In between stops a plainclothesed officer will announce something in Polish and people will start rummaging around in their pockets and purses. This is the cue to pull out your already validated ticket. Don’t try to validated now, they don’t like that. Also don’t think you’ll be able to play the ignorant tourist card. I was coming back from Wieliczka mine to Krakow and one of the officers was able to nab five Korean tourists who didn’t have a ticket because they didn’t know where to buy one. You’ll get a bit of a fine and then allowed to go.
It’s a pretty easy system right? I learned how it all works through trial and error. My first experiences with the buses in Warsaw came on my first trip there. I was returning with my friend from dinner on the metro and saw a poster with a guy doing BMX tricks. It got me interested so I asked my friend to write down the details since it was all in Polish. We got back to her apartment and looked it up and where it was being held, I wanted to go while she was at work. She plugged the information into ZTM Warsaw’s route planner and wrote down what buses I needed to take and where to transfer.
The next morning I take my piece of paper with the details and head out to the bus stop. I get on the first bus no problem and place myself near the route maps located in every bus. I counted each time we stopped at and was getting ready for my stop… and then we drove right past it. This is where I learned that the buses don’t stop at every single stop. I hit the Stop button and figured I could just walk back to the stop I missed, no problem. Well of course the stop I was supposed to get off at was the last stop in the district so the bus crossed the bridge into the Praga area of Warsaw. A mile and a half later I hopped off the bus and started walking back.
I come from really rural areas in America. I’ve never ridden public transportation before because it doesn’t exist where I live. This was brand new to me. My yokel side will come out in a moment.
I finally get back to stop I missed and check my paper so I know what bus to hop on next. It arrives and I get on, feeling pretty good about myself that I solved this problem all alone. We’re cruising along and after twenty or so minutes I get this sinking feeling that I should have reached my stop by now. But we didn’t pass it yet, I knew that for a fact. I looked at the route on the wall of the bus and realized we were going away from where I needed to be. My lack of public transportation use never allowed me to think that ‘Hey, buses with the same numbers go in opposite directions along the same line. That means each bus stop should have another bus stop with the same name to service both directions.’
I hopped off the bus and looked around, finally finding the other waiting area. I dashed across the street and saw a bus coming up. I glanced at the number at the top of the bus and then quickly at the route list. It was going to the stop where I made the mistake. Smiling at my good luck I hopped on the bus, feeling pretty good about myself that I solved this new problem all alone. I’m riding the bus and I hop off at the stop. I’m not at the BMX show yet, I’m just finally at the last stop I before I get there. Since there were no buses coming I decided to spend a few minutes making the acquaintance of the waiting area, maybe there was some information here I could use. I started looking at the schedules and route maps and was pleased to discover that the bus my friend wrote for me was expected to come in about five minutes bringing me to the show. I was a little less pleased to discover that the bus I just hopped off of also went to the show.