When it comes to travel, one of the things that people tend to find most intimidating is finding their way around an unfamiliar city. Believe me, I get it! Finding your way around, especially when you don’t speak the language or don’t understand the transportation systems can be a bit tricky. I want to share with you some tips and tricks that I’ve learned in my years of traveling that make navigating a new city just a little bit easier.
Always aim to make a local friend, whether it’s someone you meet through Instagram, a Facebook Group, at the hostel bar, through a friend of a friend, or just a local that you strike up a conversation with on the street. Why? For starters, they can introduce you to the best of their culture. Locals can show you all the hidden spots, the hole-in-the-wall pubs, and all the places that aren’t listed on the tourist maps. They can also help you with language barriers, which is a huge plus (especially if you’re in a country that doesn’t have much of an English-speaking population.) Making a local friend will give you an excellent feel for the place you’re going, and plus—culture exchange is so fun!
Let’s talk about different methods of exploring cities! There are pros and cons to each, depending on what you are looking to get out of your travel experience.
Walking is a great way to really see a new city because you can take your time, take pictures, meet people, and stop to look at anything that catches your eye. It can help you discover those little corners of the city that you would have missed if you were moving too fast on a different form of transportation. I recommend you have an idea of what you want to see, get on your feet, and JUST GO! After all, walking is exercise, and it’s an underrated way to stay fit! Time goes fast when you’re walking because you’re having all these different emotions and experiences at once.
I also prefer to get started early in the morning—the best time in most cities is 5 or 6 am when the sun is just coming up. It’s the time when people are setting up their shops, and life is starting to come alive in a city. It’s so easy to wake up early when traveling, too! You are excited to see a new place, and you’re not thinking about just sleeping in because you don’t want to waste those precious hours you could be exploring.
So please, don’t skip walking! Some of my best travel memories are walking, and it’s something that I highly recommend!
I also recommend Google Maps as a great travel tip in general. This app is a great way to keep track of where you are so you don’t get lost! Just follow the blue dot. Look at the landmarks, look at your hotel on the map, and make a plan before you leave your hotel. Know which part of the city you want to go to, and then use Google Maps to get you there. Pro tip: you can download offline local maps of a city in advance, just in case you don’t have cellular data or WiFi available. Also, pinpoint your favorite places as you walk so you can remember that local patisserie or park you want to revisit in the future.
Biking offers even better exercise than walking, and many cities have convenient places to rent bicycles. Depending on where you are in the world, there are often apps where you can rent a bike and then drop it off wherever you want. You can also pay to rent a bike like you would a car, usually $10-20 a day. It’s most enjoyable to bike in a bike-friendly city like Amsterdam or Copenhagen.
There are a few things you should know about using bicycling as your primary transportation. One, it can get tedious. It is a workout, and depending on the area you’re in (flat vs. lots of hills, or city center vs. suburbs), it can be even more of a workout than you counted on. Other things to keep in mind include bringing a lock with you and making sure you lock up the bike and the tires. They can also be a little bit dirty when you rent them.
If you do decide to rent a bicycle, ride safe! Especially if you’re on the road with cars, be aware and follow traffic laws. Get a bike if you can—you will love it!
You can often find excellent public transportation in other countries, including metros, trams, or buses; most big cities around the world have some combination of all three. They are a cheap way to get around and honestly kind of fun! Do watch your belongings as certain cities are known for pickpockets in busy metros. I always keep cheap small locks on all my bags and keep an eye on them. Wearing your backpack in front of your chest is a good move too!
If you take a tram or a bus, you can look out the window and see the city from above ground, which is nice. If you take a metro underground, you obviously won’t be able to see any part of the city. It is a cool experience in its own right, but just keep in mind that you don’t get the beautiful vibes out the window.
If you decide to go this route, see if they offer passes (like a 3-day pass, a 7-day pass, or even a month-long pass) where you can pay a really low price and get unlimited rides. Buying one ticket at a time will cost you a lot more, so just like with anything else, buying in bulk is always a good idea!
Make sure you keep in mind the different systems each form of transportation has. Do your research! You can also use this opportunity to find a local friend, and they can help you figure out how to navigate the different options.
Taxis have been around for hundreds of years, but they aren’t always the safest option. Getting in a taxi can definitely be misleading. You are new to the area, your phone probably doesn’t work, and the drivers can be sketchy. Taking a taxi can lead you into a dangerous situation if the driver wants to rob you, or aimlessly drive around the city to try to get extra money. These are just a couple of the reasons that I try to avoid getting in traditional taxis; it’s essential to stay safe when traveling abroad.
Good news—there is this super cool app called Uber!
Uber is currently available in over 10,000 cities worldwide, and it has probably expanded to even more by the time you read this.
Basically, it’s the sharing economy—a local person will come and pick you up in their personal car and take you to your destination. You can either share the vehicle with another passenger or just ride solo with the driver.
There are some really great things about Uber. For one thing, if anything bad happens, you will be backed up by the app. If there is a robbery, Uber will be liable, and you will likely be compensated for the damages or losses. You never have to take out your wallet, so there is no physical exchange of money. Also, if there is a language barrier, you don’t need to pull up Google Translate or figure out how to communicate. You simply enter the address of where you are going in the app, and the driver will take you there. Most of the time, Uber drivers are cool, hip, young people who want to talk to you (almost a mini cultural exchange!) You don’t have that sketchy feeling that you get when you take a traditional taxi.
Uber is not always the main app of choice to get around cities, depending on where you are. In the Middle East, they use a taxi app called Careem. In Southeast Asia, there’s an app called Grab that functions just like Uber. Some of the ride-sharing apps in other places of the world include Yandex in Russia, Cabify in Spain and Portugal, and Easy Taxi in South America. Make sure you do your research before your trip and download the appropriate app for where you’re going!
If you have more than one person in your group, you can share the transportation cost by renting a car. It makes travel a lot more fun because you’re the one driving, and you don’t have to plan around the schedule of a bus, train, or metro. You can literally stop wherever and whenever you want!
I especially recommend renting a car if you’re wanting to visit multiple places in a region. You can leave whenever you want, you can fill up the car, you can hang out, and it’s much cheaper overall. Rental cars can be $20-$100 a day depending on the country you are in. (If you just want to stay in one city for your whole trip, then you’re probably better off just ride-sharing and using public transport so that you don’t have to deal with traffic, parking, etc.)
A great tip for rental cars that I recently used with AVIS—you can actually sign up to be a preferred member for FREE. This instantly gets you a spot in the front of the line, and they may even upgrade your car for free as well! You can also look into using a travel rewards card to get other perks and benefits on rental cars, so keep that in mind.
No matter which method you decide to use to navigate around an unfamiliar city, promise me one thing—play it safe! Stay away from taxis, because they can really be dangerous. Download apps ahead of time, use Google Maps to stay on top of your location, and most importantly, enjoy the journey.