Thinking twice before taking public transit in Melbourne

Understanding the passes, prices, and processes of public transit when visiting as a tourist

I can think of no better way to visit a city than to walk its streets. And while I’ve had a few memorable moments behind the wheel of a car, and a few more chatting with cab drivers, any time I’m unable to reach my destination by foot I prefer to take a local subway or bus.

The overarching benefits of public transportation don’t apply only to commuters. As a visitor, you’re often able to keep your costs lower while better understanding metro areas through their infrastructure and people. The routes, timetables, and maintenance (or lack thereof) help explain a place and its priorities, as do the demographics and demeanors of your fellow riders.

So on our second day in Melbourne, we were looking forward to catching a tram or train from the main Flinders Street railway station in the city centre to see the southeastern neighborhoods of Windsor and St. Kilda, about 30 minutes away. Unfortunately, we couldn’t quite figure out how to buy a ticket from any of the machines at the entrance to the station.

A tram runs past the Chinatown arch on Little Bourke Street.

An agent for Public Transport Victoria seated behind a nearby ticket window explained we could only purchase a ticket at the machine if we first purchased a “myki pass.” Like the Oyster card in London or the Charlie Card in Boston, Melbourne’s myki card is the size of a credit card and works with a hover or tap rather than a swipe. It would have been ideal, if we were staying longer.

We couldn’t purchase two one-way tickets, the agent said, unless we first had a myki pass. (She also quickly corrected by mispronunciation of “mickey pass,” explaining it was intended as “my key.”) To be issued a myki pass, we would have had to pay AU$6 (US$4.25) each. If we lived there or were around for longer, this would have felt negligible, but it added a 240% premium to the cost of one-time one-way tickets. When I asked if there were any other options, we were greeted with a smiling but sharp, “If there were, don’t you think I would have told you?”

When we checked, the total of AU$20.60 (US$14.70) for two adults on public transit would cost more than an Uber to the same destination and almost double the time. (And the 80-minute walk was longer than we felt like tackling while carrying our daughter.) Therefore, we took a pass on myki passes—and therefore on being able to take public transit—at least this time around.

Instead, we stayed put, changing our day’s plans to enjoy a waterside walk along the Yarra River, an avocado smash and couple of coffees at a cozy cafe, and the Immigration Museum, all much closer to where we were staying.

Cathlin pauses for a photo of Melbourne from the Yarra River

An exhaustive list of issues and criticisms on myki’s Wikipedia page provides ample reminders that a short-term visitor’s grumbles pale in comparison to those of local residents. And public transit systems everywhere—and the companies implementing these payment systems—seem all too keen to hold onto whatever extra funds they can keep.

While I wish all cities would make it easier for tourists and other visitors to explore using public transit, it’s much more likely the onus will fall on you. So be sure you set aside a few minutes to understand the different passes, prices, and processes before you get on board, especially if you’re somewhere for only a day or two. Don’t assume it’s always the most cost-effective option.

As for our time in Melbourne: later that evening, we learned what it would have been helpful to know when we first arrived: that all stops within a dedicated Free Tram Zone, including a historic City Circle tourist tram, cost nothing. It wouldn’t have helped us reach the outskirts of the city as we intended, but we at least could have gotten from one side of the Central Business District to another.

Instead, we appreciated our walks, but felt like we hardly scratched the city’s surface. Next time we visit, we hope to have even more time—and not just so we can make good use of a myki pass.

Three sillies off-kilter and on-foot reflected in an outdoor mirror in Melbourne.

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