In the spirit of my Amtrak tips post, I’ve decided to write more tips. More general tips that is, about traveling in the city when you’re not at all from “the city.”
1. Going somewhere? Know the way. When you’re moving from one safe place to the next, it is essential you know each move along the way BEFORE you leave your first stop. While there is a little more leeway during daylight in good neighborhoods, it is always better to play it safe. Phone GPS doesn’t always work downtown, and asking locals isn’t always smart. For example, I want to go from my hotel near the airport (see tip 6) to the train station, via subway and walking. I need to know:
- Walking directions to the first stop.
- How much the subway is, and how to pay (asking the hotel concierge is best method)
- Line and direction I want (direction by final stop in that direction)
- Transfer stop
- Transfer to which line, which direction
- Final stop
- Walking directions to destination, with direction of travel and # of blocks with landmarks
Knowing the basics allows you to focus on your safety, travel details (how to get to the other side of the tracks, etc), and enjoying the experience.
2. Maps, maps, maps. While all that preparedness is great, you will get lost, often and badly. Apple maps has saved my life again and again, and the google maps app can give pretty detailed instructions on mass transit (subway/bus) routes to your destination. Sometimes though, saving the subway map or the picture of the apple map route saves the day when your data just can’t come through. Having everything on your phone also allows you to surreptitiously check the map as well, rather than pulling out the paper and making a scene. Nothing says theft target like holding a map and wildly turning your head.
3. Numbers. When your maps and planning don’t cut it, or whenever you need help, you’ll want to have that phone number handy. And handy to a dead phone as well (write it down). Two essential numbers: a trusted taxi service (ask hotel), and the hotel front desk (for shuttles from nearby transportation hubs, tips, help).
4. Cash money. I know that in Kansas, I get by exclusively on a debit/credit card. That’s not entirely possible when traveling in the city. And since you’re on your own, being prepared is the way to go. You’ll want enough cash to buy yourself out of trouble ($50-100 felt good to me) for cabs, train tickets, etc. I’ve also had my card rejected many times too (mostly worn out), and that’s not a corner I want to ever visit again. You’ll also want small bills for tips (for hotel housekeeping, room-service guys, baggage people, shuttle driver, taxi driver, tour guides, on and on). Three or five dollars in quarters also come in handy for picky subway stations, meters, vending machines, etc. Having cash means you can always find a way out.
5. Charger. I lived on my phone on my last trip, and it was my lifeline. So when it got low, I got nervous. It’s easy to stop in a coffee shop and buy a cup while recharging your phone. It’s not so easy to get a cab or directions without it.
6. Cheap hotels without bedbugs? My dad uses the trick of the airport hotel. Where ever he is staying, he often stays by the airport unless the cost of transport into downtown equals the difference between the room rates. In Boston, I found that to be true, and my $179 hotel was about the cheapest when considering it was within walking distance to everything I needed. It was a fun treat too! However, in Chicago the airport was the way to go, as transport into town was $2, and the rates were $100 different. Damn fine suite, $120 a night (I was sick, which means my wallet hemorrhaged a bit). In D.C., even the hotels by the airport were expensive ($200-ish), so I formulated a new strategy:
- Look at the subway map. That’s the easiest and cheapest transport around. Pick an arm that extends furthest from the city center.
- Using apple maps (or whatever), zoom in on the furthest stop. Are there hotels nearby? Are they good and well-priced? If no, take the 2nd furthest stop and repeat.
- If that line doesn’t yield results, pick another line and start again.
This got me a $100 a night hotel that was effectively 1/4 mile walking from city center (20 min/$5 train ride, but that’s easy when on vacation).
7. Bags. I have seen some pretty big errors in this department, both in this trip and elsewhere. I could dedicate a whole post to it, but I’ll try to keep it short here. My rules are pretty simple, keep it close and keep it sealed. With a big bag, all you can do is keep an arm/leg on it and hope, but with a purse you have a few more rules.
- Picking the purse: Shoulder strap. External zipper and at least 1 internal zipped pocket. Thick enough material to withstand a quick razor cut (a thick cotton canvas like material does it).
- Placing the purse: Don’t put that sucker on your back and forget about it. It should be in front with an arm draped over it. It definitely should NEVER be left alone.
- Packing the purse: Valuables shouldn’t be able to be plucked from the top. My wallet often goes into the internal zip pocket. An umbrella, headache meds, phone charger, water bottle, carabiner, packable grocery bag, stamps, and pens are useful. Though, if you can buy it, you don’t necessarily need to pack it.
8. Pockets. Putting things in your back pockets is like sticking a “Rob Me” sign to your butt. Put that wallet in your front pocket or in your purse (if you’re good at keeping an arm on it). I find that some women’s pants have rather shallow pockets though, and even the front pocket can’t cut it. I found a coach wallet with a detachable wristlet strap that worked nicely as a wallet chain. Your phone however has a little more leeway though, as even iPhones aren’t too big of a target. When bumped up against people though, I preferred to put it all in my purse and grasp it for dear life. People do accidentally touch you though, and is not reason for alarm. Alarms should go off when somebody is near you and there’s room for them not to be. That’s a problem.
9. When in Rome… The point of traveling is to experiencing new things, and it drives me mad that many Kansans stick to their comfort zone. I go so far as to not visit a Starbucks when there is a Dunkin Donuts available. I eat at local eateries when possible, walk between scenic sites, visit the new and exciting sights, use mass transit, and stay in the hotel room as little as possible. That being said, if you’re alone and vunerable, the hotel room is exactly where you should be at sunset most days.
10. Have fun! Big cities have diverse cultures, new experiences, and great opportunities. Being worried about everything sucks the fun right out. I’ve seen people ruin their vacations by being paranoid and judgmental. I had a roommate on a trip to India that wouldn’t leave the room, and would start crying or yelling whenever somebody bumped her. In a pat-down at the Delhi airport, she began to shout that she was an American and they had no right to touch her. Don’t ever let your fear ruin your and everyone else’s day. There are solutions to everything, and nice people along the way. With adequate precautions, you’ll figure anything out.