Where in the world can you travel for free on public transport?

·6-min read
A train crosses a viaduct in Luxembourg City (iStock)
A train crosses a viaduct in Luxembourg City (iStock)

“Mobility is one of the most important challenges of humanity in the 21st century” – so Luxembourg’s deputy prime minister, François Bausch, told me on the day the Grand Duchy abolished fares for public transport in February 2020.

“The system that we developed in the last century cannot function any more. Everywhere we have congestion problems, the quality of life in urban areas is going down.

“If we organise the big urban areas, this will help with climate change,” the Green Party politician said.

Luxembourg is at the forefront of the free transport revolution, but other locations are picking up the pace. This is a snapshot of some of the places where you can move without money.

Australia

Melbourne, the southernmost big city in the world, also has probably the best tram system – and rides are free anywhere in the central area, as well as on the vintage tram that rattles around the central business district.

Luxembourg

The first nation on earth to make all public transport free happens to be very rich and very small (the size of Oxfordshire). In 2019, trains, trams and buses were costing about  €1bn annually to run, but fares covered 4 per cent or less.

With four out of five commuters preferring cars to public transport, the decision to abolish fares looked a wise way to encourage a shift from private to collective travel.

To explore this beautiful country, from Trois Vierges in the north to Schengen in the far south-east, you need no travelcard or any form of ticket. Just step on board. The impressive funicular in Luxembourg City is also covered.

Not every aspect of public transport is free: commuters who want to “work in serenity” can pay an extra €3 for the privilege of going first class on trains.

Netherlands

In Amsterdam, ferries from the rear entrance of Centraal station across the IJ river are free and take you to a fascinating area, called Waterland, with very few tourists.

Spain

Train travel in Spain is free for the rest of the year on all but the fastest trains. But to reduce the cost to zero, users must pay a deposit and book multiple trips. The rules are understandably designed to help regular travellers rather than benefit short-term international visitors.

The passenger can choose a deal for either local suburban services around big cities (known as Cercanías except in Catalonia, where they are called Rodalies), or Media Distancia (“middle distance”) trains, or both.

For either type, the traveller first registers: at renfe.com, or on the Renfe Cercanías or Renfe app. They can then acquire an abono gratuito (free pass) through the Renfe app, or at a self-service ticket machine or a station ticket office. The pass requires a deposit of €10 for shorter journeys or €20 for middle distance trains. It comes with a unique QR code. The offer for frequent travellers is that, if they make at least 16 trips before the offer ends on 31 December 2022, they get their initial investment back.

As you can deduce, even on a short visit it could be worth the tourist buying a pass – for example to explore the areas around Madrid and Barcelona, or to make longer journeys by stringing together Media Distancia services and avoiding high-speed Ave trains. A traveller would simply make the €10 or €20 investment knowing they will not qualify for a refund but that they will still save handsomely.

United States

The Staten Island ferry in New York is free and provides superb views of Manhattan from the water. It is difficult to think of why anyone would hang around in the borough; most people travel straight back. “Be aware of scammers trying to sell tickets,” the city authorities warn.

In many cities fares are extremely low, but there are several stand-outs. In Kansas City, “RideKC buses are Zero Fare through 2023” – which also applies to the streetcar (tram).

Detroit’s excellent reinvented streetcar is free “sometimes” – yes, that is actually what it says, even though there is no indication of why or when.

Most impressive of all: in the Lake Nona area of Orlando, driverless urban transport has arrived. The local bus service uses a fleet of autonomous electric shuttles that will take you on free rides around town and into the future.

Airport links

Many airports are moving towards applying premium fares for people using public transport. At Barcelona, for example, airport tickets cost 115 per cent more than others. And Geneva has dropped its longstanding free city ticket for all airport arrivals. But Luxembourg’s airport links are (like the rest of the nation’s transport) free, and there are some other excellent counter-examples.

Albuquerque

“To minimise face-to-face interactions with other passengers” all bus fares were scrapped in the New Mexico city in March 2020. Free travel continues, including on the buses to and from the airport – numbers 50 and 250 (the Airport Express).

Boston Logan

I never pay to travel from Logan airport to anywhere in the centre of Boston. An excellent free bus, known as the Silver Line, runs from the terminals through a secret road tunnel beneath the harbour to South Station – serving the Amtrak link to Providence, New York and Washington DC, as well as long-distance buses.

Even better for the Boston-bound traveller: the bus enters a zone which is effectively inside the paid-fare area, so you can transfer to the Red Line subway (which connects to the Orange and Green Lines).

London Heathrow

You can travel on not one but two limited rail networks around the UK’s busiest airport. Access the train (signposted Heathrow Express) from Terminal 2/3 to Terminal 4 or 5 by collecting a free ticket at the machines at each station.

The Tube is also free within the airport area, covering the stations at Heathrow Central (Terminals 2/3), Terminal 4, Terminal 5 and, crucially, Hatton Cross. You need to use a bank card or Oyster card (London’s prepaid system) to get through the barriers, but you will not be charged.

Budget travellers can save on the fare in or out of Zone 1 by touching out and then in again at Hatton Cross and returning to the platform to catch the next train.

Hatton Cross is also a much better place to summon (or be dropped off by) an Uber.

Nancy

“Take any route free of charge every Saturday and Sunday,” says the tourist office for the city in France’s Grande Est region. That includes the several public transport links to and from Nancy-Essey airport. The less good news is that the only flights in and out are on private planes. But these difficult days, every little helps.