Finding your way around a new city by trial and error makes for great stories after the fact, but usually isn’t so fun at the time, and wastes a lot of time and money. Here are some tips on settling in and getting around.
1. Location, location, location. Assuming you don’t know the city well, it’s imperative to do some research before you plunk down your credit card for accommodations. Before you book, locate the hotel on a map to ensure its proximity to the places you’ll want to visit, as well as restaurants, shopping, etc. If you stay in the center of the action you can walk to many attractions, avoiding expensive cabs (difficult to find in rush hour or rainy weather) and complicated public transportation (which requires exact change).
2. Decide what local attractions interest you. History, architecture, museums, shopping, culinary experiences, nightlife, artsy neighborhoods, or nature excursions? Check out tour company offerings for a good idea of the highlights. Decide how much you can realistically do in the time available, and prioritize.
3. Consider how you’ll get to your chosen activities. If you stay in the center of town, can you walk to the major tourist destinations? Does public transportation reach the places you want to see? If you’re planning to use public transportation, be sure to select a hotel located near a major subway station and bus stops.
4. To get your bearings, take a bus tour your first day in a new city. You’ll get an overview of neighborhoods and tourist attractions, and you can return to areas you find especially interesting.
5. Decide whether you really need to rent a car. Hotel parking in the city center can be exorbitantly expensive, and you may only need a car if you wish to spend a few days in the countryside. Also, if you’re traveling overseas, consider whether you’ll be driving on the same side of the street as in the USA, and whether you’ll be able to read the street signs.
6. Study your destination before you go. Buy a guidebook or peruse the city’s website to learn where major attractions are located. For example, the San Francisco visitors website (www.onlyinsanfrancisco.com) lists some of the best the city has to offer: “must-see” attractions, where to shop, where to eat, discount stores, theaters, art galleries, cooking classes, and artsy, culturally diverse neighborhoods for strolling. When you do an online city search, use the terms “Convention and Visitor’s Bureau” or “Tourist Board.”
7. Find out what’s happening. Whether you want to join the fun or perhaps pick a quieter time to visit, it’s good to know what festivals, parades, free concerts, costumed fun runs, and other events are going on at your destination. Check out the “Festivals and Special Events Calendar” on the city websites, and if you’re participating, book a hotel near the event of your choice. Order the free visitor’s guidebook.
8. Buy a good map. Try a bookstore with a reputable travel department. Look for specialized maps geared to one area – such as the Michigan Avenue district in Chicago. You don’t need to memorize the whole city–ideally you’ll walk to the “must-see” attractions from a fairly central location.
9. Figure out airport transportation. Before you leave home, read the “Transportation” section of the city’s website, which offers suggestions for the most convenient transportation between the airport and the city center: shuttles, underground transportation, limos, buses, or car rentals. Listings include contact information. Or call your hotel and ask for their recommendation.
10. Ask a local. Your best source of “on the spot” information will be a local person. They maneuver around the city every day; they know the traffic patterns and the pitfalls of each type of transportation. Before you leave your hotel, ask the front desk clerk or concierge: Can I walk it? What’s the most interesting and fastest way to go? Where’s the bus stop? Do I need correct change? Would it be easier to take a taxi or subway?
The more you prepare for your city visit, the easier it will be to avoid the pitfalls that snare inexperienced travelers and truly enjoy your trip.