Illustration by Kelly

Like any young love, a first car is easy to romanticize. Mine was all white and so smooth, a Nissan Maxima with a sunroof and speakers that shook the whole thing if I tuned in to the local rap station. With it came big ideas about getting away and going wherever I wanted, whenever I wanted–I was 26 with nowhere I really needed to be, but having the option to be anywhere felt important.

In reality, owning an escape-mobile can be as much of a burden as it is a privilege. There’s an age requirement to get a license and so many rules to remember (like exactly how far away you need to park from that fire hydrant). Cars are expensive and, yeah, driving can be dangerous: you have to keep your eyes and your mind on a hundred things at once, especially while looking out for other wild drivers, while music and passengers (like the siblings your parents expect you to cart around) provide constant distractions. Then there’s gas money, traffic, tolls, and parking to contend with.

But there is another way. When I moved from the suburban wasteland of Orlando, Florida, to New York City, I left my car behind like a high school crush and experienced the wonders of public transportation. I fell in love again, and never looked back (sorry, first car).

Buses and trains don’t require a driver’s test or a bank account, and they can just as easily get you where you’re going as they can carry you away on an aimless, day-long adventure. With someone else doing the navigating, you’re free to sit back and take in a view, get lost in a book, play air drums, zone out, do a crossword puzzle, compose a text message, or just eavesdrop and people-watch. But it’s also a game to be mastered, with its own set of rules, cheat codes, and competing players. Here’s a primer.

Buy a ticket.
You’ll need one. Most payments on public transportation are made through automated machines, but if there’s a booth, try to talk to a human. They’ll make sure you have the card or token or ticket that you need to ride, and they can point you in the right direction. Keep in mind that student discounts exist–you’ll probably need to fill out an application or go through your school in order to get one, but in some cities, you can save up to 50 percent of the fare this way, so it’s totally worth it.

Depending on how much you’ll be traveling, weekly or monthly cards can save you money, too, and if you’re a regular passenger, it’s never a bad idea to buy extra rides so you never end up stranded. Paying once you’re onboard is often possible, but don’t assume it’s allowed, and in any case, it will probably cost more. Buses often require EXACT change (and sometimes it has to be in coins), so be prepared, and if you find yourself counting quarters, step inside the bus, explain to the driver that you are getting your money together, and let the other passengers board. And don’t even think about jumping turnstiles or sneaking on to save a few bucks, because if you get caught (and at some point you will), the penalty will cost you about 10 times what you would have normally paid. It’s just not worth it.

If you use a machine, credit cards are usually the easiest option, and crisp dollar bills are best if you’re paying in cash. Warning: if you use a big bill for a $2.50 ride, expect to get a bunch of one-dollar coins in change, and expect those to sit in your drawer for the rest of time.

Ask questions.
Don’t hesitate to consult drivers, conductors, station agents, or other passengers if you’re lost or confused. Is this train going in the direction you want? How many more stops until you reach your destination? What time does the last bus leave? Can you please move that bag so I can sit down? (OK, that last one is just a matter of manners.) But don’t keep these worries to yourself! There’s almost always someone who is happy to help, you just have to let them know what you need.

Consult a map.
Get acquainted with the routes you’ll be using. Everything is likely to be numbered, color-coded, and covered in symbols, so study up. The relevant maps are likely to be posted on the wall somewhere in the station, as well as inside cars and buses, but you can probably get a pamphlet or pocket-size copy of the city’s transit lines from a station agent or local tourist shop.

There are also tons of websites, apps, and other technological thingamabobs that will get you where you’re going. Every city has an official page from the transit authority that will have directions, times, and info about service changes, but other sites are even more advanced: Google Maps has an awesome “public transit” option for giving directions, and it’s even built in on a lot of smartphones (although it’s unlikely to work underground). HopStop is a great site/app that will tell you exactly where to get on, transfer, and get off, along with estimates of what time the next ride is coming and how long your trip will take.

Bus routes can be more complicated than trains, because there are more paths to take, but the good news is there’s cellphone service, so if you have the option, follow along on a map as you move. Buses will also sometimes skip a stop if no one needs it, so make sure to hit the button or pull the cord when you want to get off. If you’re at all unsure about where you’re going, grab a seat by the driver and ask him or her.

No matter the vehicle, be aware of signage. If you’re blasting your iPod or otherwise zoned out, you may miss signs and announcements about service changes. Also, learning the stops along your route will help you anticipate your next move. Eventually, it will be second nature. Then you can feel independent and pay it forward when someone else is lost and asks you for help.