One of the challenges of traveling is how to deal with being lost in an unfamiliar city. I frequently find myself in a city where I don’t have a map or GPS but still need to find my way around. I’ve developed a few tricks along the way that have helped me get around and might help you too.

  • Notice landmarks. When I was visiting Providence, Rhode Island a few weeks ago, I got there by commuter train. When I arrived, I didn’t have a map or guide of the place, so I used landmarks to get around. In my case, the state capitol building was just across the street from the train station and located up on a hill. This made the station easy to find no matter what part of the city I was in.
  • Know the layout of a city. My college town of Gainesville, Florida was laid out in a fairly neat grid system where the town was divided into quadrants. The streets were also numbered with higher numbers being to the outside of the town. So just by looking at an address you could usually figure out what quadrant the place was and how far it is from the center. Many other cities also follow some kind of system with their layout. Knowing what and where the main roads are can also help in navigating around.
  • Find a library, convention center or internet cafe. All of these places are great spots to get help if you’re lost. I once got lost in a town where I had been given the wrong address to a resturant. I went to the local library where I used the Internet to look up the right address. When I was in Providence, I picked up a map of the city from the convention center, even though I was not attending an event there. Internet cafes tend to be prolific in large cities, so it’s another option.
  • Take pictures. Odds are if you’re out exploring, you probably have a camera with you. And since most cameras are digital these days, it makes it easy to look back on previous pictures. So if I do something like park my car in an unfamiliar area, I’ll take a picture of the nearby intersection signs so I know how to find my way back later.
  • Use the transportation maps. In some places, maps of the bus or subway systems are posted at the stops, which can be useful in figuring out where you are. You may even be able to pick up a map of the system to take with you.
  • Hire a taxi. This is by far the most expensive option, but if you can split the cost between several people and you know for sure that your destination is not within walking distance, it’s worth it. I did this once with a group that was trying to get out to a haunted corn maze outside of Indianapolis, Indiana. Someone else in the group ended up having to work with a friendly (and patient!) hotel front desk person and the cabbie to get directions, but it worked out in the end.
  • Ask for help. If all else fails, there’s usually some friendly person around that can point you in the right direction.

Fortunately, many cities have put up signs and other navigational devices that make it easy to get around. Philadephia is one of the best examples- they have color-coded signs about every block that pointed towards nearby landmarks. Boston has the historical trail, where there is a red line painted down the sidewalk that leads to all the major historical spots in the city. GPS devices are getting smaller, cheaper and more ubiquitous, so a day where they become as common and as handy as cellphones is not far off. So there may be a day when getting lost is as common as using a record player. But until then, happy navigating!