Travel Tales-Failing at Public Transportation in Ottawa

How us small town folk get confused navigating big cities

Before we begin, let me just say that my husband and I are from a small town, where Uber is non-existent and everybody just drives themselves everywhere. So when it comes to public transportation in a big city, we get easily confused.

Especially because Ottawa’s public transportation is nowhere near to the level of cities like London, which I find easy to navigate. You simply get on the tube at the nearest station, and then follow the colored lines to get the closest underground to your destination. And they come regularly! Like, every other minute!

Ottawa’s public transportation system, I had a much harder time figuring out (especially because we had no overseas data in Canada, so it felt a little like we were flying blind).

I eventually came to understand it (missing three buses will do that to you), but for those of you like me, who don’t get big cities, or for those of you who just want to laugh at us… this story is for you.

The Rideau Centre train station/bus stop in downtown Ottawa.

Step 1: Purchase Tickets

Seems straight forward enough…

Our first full day in Ottawa, we drove ourselves out to Almonte on a day trip. So for our second day, we were going to explore the city a little more, starting with a tour of Rideau Hall. Because I read it was a hidden gem in Ottawa. Don’t tour the Parliament builidings, nooo. Everybody does that! Do this instead!

After walking past Parliament Hill to get to bus station, and walking around the grounds of Rideau Hall in the snow searching for the entrance, I was seriously questioning the wisdom of leaving behind my comfortable tourism bubble.

Nevertheless, it was our day to explore the city. So we were going to start by purchasing 1-day transportation passes (giving us unlimited access to Ottawa’s public transportation for the day), and catch the 9:30 (9:27) bus to… somewhere near Rideau Hall.

I figured there would be a kiosk at the bus stop where we could purchase the tickets.

There was not.

I also figured we could just go inside the pretty, warm building by the bus stop that I thought was a train station, and buy tickets there.

The problem (one problem) was, I was expecting a train station like the ones in London. This was not that.

We found our bus stop outside of Rideau Centre, but no ticket kiosk. So we head into the building, but not downstairs, because we do not want to take the underground train, we just want to buy tickets.

For those of you following along at home, the Rideau Centre above ground is a shopping mall (most of which was not open yet). The Rideau Centre below ground is a train station (where you can purchase tickets at this kiosks).

We came back outside into the cold, snowy weather. Thankfully, we had got there with a little extra time to spare, but now I’m starting to worry. Can we just buy tickets on the bus? Not without exact change, and we don’t even have any Canadian money!

We walk back up the hill to the kiosk we had seen on our way down, that we thought for sure was a ticket kiosk. It was not. It was just an informational board.

We were now standing right outside of one of the government buildings, with lots of armed guards standing outside. Jason went over to one of the guards while I hid behind the “kiosk” and pretended not to be with him.

The armed guard was literally no help.

I guess they don’t pay him to be a tour guide…

The only thing he offered us was that we could buy tickets at a convenience store (fun fact), but they didn’t open till 10 (how convenient).

Running out of time, we head back to what we thought was the train station, and this time, went down the steps, instead of inside. And then down another escalator.

And then found a ticket kiosk!

And bought tickets!

And still had to wait five minutes in the cold for our bus!

But we made it, and now we were on our way, and all we had to do was follow the bus to the stop I had marked on Google Maps and get off!

We were taking the bus to get to Rideau Hall for a tour of the building.

Step 2: How to Get Off the Bus

This, also, seems straight forward enough. But remember, small town people who don’t usually ride the bus!

I thought we were doing great. I was following our progress on the map on my phone, and we were all set to get off at our stop.

Except the bus didn’t stop.


I thought, “Wait! That was our stop!”

So… I guess we’ll just get off at the next stop…

But the bus didn’t stop.

And then it didn’t stop again.

Jason and I looked at each other, like, “How do we get off this???” as I watched us move further and further away from our destination on my map.

Finally, about three stops later, the bus stopped for someone wanting to get on, and Jason and I jumped up, and, perhaps a bit rudely, pushed our way out of the bus first, before the driver could take off again!!!!

Because, you see, the bus driver will not pull over at a bus stop if there is no one there waiting for him. Unless you push the little stop button on the handle bars in the bus. In which case the sign will light up that a stop has been requested, and the driver will kindly pull over and let you out.

We did not know that…

So, after we escaped the bus, we wandered around slightly lost, but eventually found our way to the grounds of Rideau Hall, where we were going for our tour. We passed the closed visitor’s centre (remember, it’s winter), and wandered through the gorgeous, freezing, snow-covered grounds until we found the house.

We had arrived 10 minutes early (amazingly!) as per request, and waited outside in the cold with the (few) other tourists until our tour guide came to get us, slightly after the 10:00 start of our tour.

All this time, I really had to pee. I expected there to be somewhere inside the house where I could use the restroom. There was not. That is what happens when you tour the hidden gem that is an actual government official’s house, and not the popular downtown tourist destination.

Thankfully, even though the visitor centre was closed, the bathrooms (though freezing!) were open. So we eventually made our way back to the bathrooms at the front of the grounds, and then made a plan to get back to downtown.

We could get some wifi from the visitor centre enough to see the bus schedule and know that we just missed the bus. Oh well.

We made it back to the (correct!) bus stop (where we should have been dropped off), and sat down inside the relative shelter of the glass bus stop to wait, what we thought was going to be about 30 minutes for the next bus to take us back to where we came from.

We thought wrong.

The grounds of Rideau Hall, covered in snow.

Step 3: Waiting for the Bus

About 20 minutes after sitting down inside the bus stop enclosure, we see a bus heading our way. It was a little earlier than we were expecting, based on our quick glimpse at the schedule back at the visitor centre, so we weren’t quite prepared for it.

By the time we jumped up and went out to meet it, he had already passed us by…

Now we had another 20-some minutes to wait for him to come again…

Jason stood up and waited, so as not to be overlooked by the bus driver again, while my feet slowly went numb as I sat in the less and less protective feeling of the glass enclosure (not to mention how often I jumped because the snow slid off the top and landed right in front of me!).

We finally decided we were just going to have to suck it up and walk the 2 1/2 miles back, a walk I was very much not looking forward to now that my feet were completely numb.

But just as we took the first few steps back toward the city, lo and behold, a bus appeared! We cheered! Hooray! We will not have to walk back.

We relax, get on the bus (he did see us this time!), and double checked with the driver that when we want to stop, we push the button, correct?

Everything was all set…

Step 4: Get on the Right Bus

What I didn’t know about buses (besides you have to tell them to stop), is that they only go one direction!

I thought the bus we had come on would do a loop, and go back into town eventually, and drop us off where we had come from.

We went back to the bus stop where we should have got off. We got back on the same bus (number 9) that brought us here from the Rideau Centre. What could go wrong?

I was watching our progress on the map on my phone. I kept waiting for the bus to turn and head up toward the city centre, but it didn’t.

Eventually, the bus turned into a train station. Ok… it’s just dropping people off here, and then it will go back out and start it’s loop over again, I thought.

“This is the last stop. Last stop, Hurdman Station,” the friendly automated voice announced.

But she just means the last stop in the loop, until they start at the beginning again, I thought.

So we didn’t get off the bus.

Everybody else did.

But we didn’t.

(In my defense, we waited to see if everyone else was getting off, but one guy stayed on. For a minute. Because I think he was waiting for us to get off, since he was a larger guy and took a minute to get down. But by that point we were committed to staying on the bus).

Let me set the scene: Hurdman Station is a train station for the underground that goes through the city (and out of the city). The friendly automated voice called out the last stop. Everyone (but us) got off the bus. The driver pulled around the parking lot, singing to himself (he did think he was alone at last).

He pulls around the corner, and then into a parking spot. He turns off the bus. He starts to climb out from his little enclosure.

He sees Jason there, asking if we were supposed to get off the bus…

He jumps out of his skin.


Um, yes children, you were supposed to get off the bus when she announced it was the last station.

And what we really should have done was to get on the bus across the street, going the other direction. Because that’s how buses work.

The poor driver was so kind and gracious to us. He walked us across the parking lot back to the station, so we didn’t get in trouble for crossing at the wrong spot (apparently he didn’t trust us to handle this on our own).

And then we got a train back into the city centre, which I could easily navigate because it stops at every stop it’s supposed to, and I just have to watch until I get where I want to be and get off! Easy Peasy.

The rest of our big day out in Ottawa was spent curled up under the blankets in our hotel room, trying to warm up. Until we ventured out to see a couple sites and catch the elusive bus to the Christmas market that evening.

But this time, I was prepared.

This time, I knew what I was doing!


Step 5: Plan for Unexpected Disruptions

Before we finally dragged ourselves out of our hotel room and back out into the cold that afternoon, I looked up all the bus routes we needed to take to get to the Christmas market.

I screenshot our bus numbers, and several times the bus would be coming, so we would know about when to catch it to and from the Christmas market.

I marked the bus stops where we would catch the bus, where we would get off the bus, and where we would get off on the way back on my Google maps.

I noted the final destination of each bus, to make sure we got on the one going the correct direction.

I was prepared.

Until the buses couldn’t get to their designated bus stops because there was a giant protest marching down the street in front of Parliament Hill.

At the correct time, we dutifully showed up at our designated bus stop. A couple minutes later we saw the exact bus we wanted coming toward us.

And then it turned a street early, because the street above us was blocked off for the protest.

What do you do if you’re in another country with no data, and no way to tell how to get where you want to go??

Well, you can start by asking the other people at the bus stop, who are just as confused as you…

Then you can decide to walk down the street to the next bus stop, where there are plenty of people waiting, and where there shouldn’t be any problem getting through the streets. It even has the bus number you want noted on the sign.


Except then another couple comes down the street and informs everyone that the buses are skipping this stop, and you should go down to the next one.

But I already went down to the next one! I complain.

Nevertheless, we again walk a little further down to the next bus stop.

At this point, I know there are other buses that could take us to the Christmas market location, but I don’t know what they are, since I can’t look up the schedule.

So even though we wait through three number 7 buses that fill with people heading for the Christmas market, we wait another 45 minutes for a number 6 bus to come, because I know where that one is going!

(We also wait through a number 7 bus on the way back from the Christmas market, because we know that the number 6 will take us back where we want to go, and we just aren’t taking any chances now…)

And there were so many people wanting to go to the Christmas market that we didn’t even get to push the stop button, because someone else already had…

So that was our day of exploring Ottawa, and learning how to be big city people and get off a bus…

I hope you enjoyed reading about our shortcomings…!