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What to Do First When You Arrive In a New City

A woman in a sundress, exploring the streets of a new city she's visiting

The key to a good vacation is to start things off right. If everything goes smoothly on that first day, the whole trip is more likely to go well. Your vacation starts as soon as your plane lands so, here’s what to do when you arrive in a new city.

Ditch Your Bags

Erwan Hesry on Unsplash

Nothing cramps your style like a big, heavy bag. If you’ve just grabbed your luggage from the baggage carousel, your first thoughts should be about how to get rid of it—unless you like to travel super light, in which case you’re already sorted.

If you’re staying in a hotel or hostel, things are pretty straightforward. As long as you’re checking in that day, they’ll almost certainly have a luggage room where you can store your bags. It’s ordinarily free in hotels (though you may be expected to tip the porters) while some hostels will charge you a nominal fee.

If you’re staying in an Airbnb or with friends who won’t be available until later in the day, things are a little trickier. Your best option is to look for somewhere in the city that will store left luggage. You’ll typically find somewhere around large transit points like big train stations or bus terminals.

If you’re feeling cheeky, you can also ask a hotel or restaurant concierge somewhere you’re not staying if they’ll look after your bags for a generous tip. Another option is to do some activities, like go to a museum, where there’s a big cloakroom. Unless there’s a size limit on bags, they’ll take them in.

Though really, who wants to fly with any bags at all? Services like Lugless will ship your bags to and from your destination from as little as $15. When you factor in the cost of checked bag fees and storage fees, the economics can work out quite well, especially if you’re traveling with your family and want to minimize your stress levels.

Orient Yourself With a Hop-On Hop-Off Bus Tour

Jeff Smith on Unsplash

Hop-On Hop-Off bus tours have a bit of a rough reputation. Yes, they’re super touristy, but they also have a lot to offer.

When you first arrive in a new city, you don’t have an idea of where anything is relative to everything else. Distances that look short on a map can be serious treks and vice versa. This is where Hop-On Hop-Off bus tours come in.

By taking a surface bus tour with a guide (or at least an audio tour), you’ll quickly see how a city is laid out. You’ll see what’s on which side of the river, where the old quarter is relative to the financial district, and so on. At the same time, you also get a whistlestop tour of a city’s major tourist attractions. Some things that tourism boards make a big deal about—mainly buildings and statues—really are only worth driving past on a bus to say you’ve seen them. You don’t need to take 20 minutes to see The Bean in Chicago, for instance.

Better yet, Hop-On Hop-Off bus tours tend to run frequently so you never really have to wait around too long to get on one. And, if you buy a multi-day ticket, you can use it the following day to properly visit any of the museums or tourist attractions you want to see.

Check Out the Public Transport System

Pau Casals on Unsplash

One of the biggest decisions you have to make when you arrive in a new city is how you’re going to get around. Sometimes you’ll need to rent a car, others you’ll make do with taxis or Ubers. If you’re lucky, however, the city will have a functioning public transport system for you to use. They’re by far the cheapest way to move about a city.

If there is a public transport system, download whatever schedule or map app is available. Google Maps and Apple Maps also offer transit information. You should research what the best value way to travel is. Many public transport systems offer unlimited cards that tourists can buy; they’re much more convenient than buying individual tickets and typically save you a few dollars.

If the public transport system is nothing to write home about, then you need to figure out whether Uber or Lyft is legal, if you need to use a local equivalent, or if you can only hail taxis at dedicated ranks. Grab the necessary apps and get ready to pay through the nose for every trip.

Find the Essentials

You should view the area around where you’re staying as your own little village. As soon as you settle in, take 20 minutes to walk around the streets outside, and find the essential businesses. For most people, they’ll be some combination of:

  • A nice café to get a morning coffee.
  • A pharmacy for any immediate medical needs.
  • A corner shop for things like water and snacks, whatever the time of day.
  • The nearest subway station or bus stop.
  • A decent bar.
  • A family-friendly restaurant you can default to when you don’t want to overthink about where to eat dinner.

By taking 20 minutes to explore the local area—and talk to a concierge if you’re staying in a hotel—you won’t be stuck Googling when your caffeine withdrawal symptoms kick in.

Get a Local SIM Card

Some examples of PAYG data plans in the UK.

If you’re traveling outside of your home country and have an unlocked phone, it’s worth getting a local SIM card. Short term, tourist-friendly data plans usually are dirt cheap and are a great way to get your phone back to full functionality. There’s nothing more annoying than always searching for Wi-Fi.

Have a working phone isn’t just about updating the ‘Gram. If you’re traveling with your family, it’s a good idea to have one online cellphone between you in case something happens. They’re also handy for checking live updates to public transport, making sure you don’t get lost, and finding somewhere to eat nearby.

In a Group? Decide on the Ground Rules

Now that everyone has cellphones, people are getting very lax about laying down ground rules for what happens if people get separated or something goes wrong. When you’re in a new city, it’s entirely possible someone will get lost, and they won’t be able to contact you. It’s better to have the conversation immediately on arriving rather than in a panic later on.

You should decide:

  • What someone should do if they get lost. Should they head to the nearest train station? Go back to the hotel and wait there? Find a police officer and explain what’s going on? What option you go with depends a lot on who’s in the group and what age they are.
  • Are people free to wander off and do their own thing, or do they need to check in regularly? One good idea is to pick a bar or café and make it a pre-dinner meeting point. Let everyone do their own thing until 5 PM and then meet up to decide on evening plans.
  • If people are doing their own thing in the evenings, is there a curfew?
  • If there’s only a limited number of keys to the rooms or apartment, where are they left and under what circumstances?

All of these the above are things you don’t want to have to figure out on the fly when somebody is missing, or your phone battery is dead.

Check the Weather and Schedule Your Trip

Weather forecasts get more accurate the shorter they are. Instead of scheduling your vacation down to the minute from the comfort of your own home, it’s a good idea to leave flexible plans until you arrive. Once you get there, check the weather and work out what day is best to spend at an outdoor theme-park and which might be better spent indoors at a museum. You can then book the required tickets and have everything sorted.

Ace the first day of your vacation and the rest of your trip will likely fall in line. By taking some time early on to get your bearings, work out how to get around, sort the essentials, and lay down the ground rules, you’re setting yourself up for success.

Harry Guinness Harry Guinness
Harry Guinness is a photography expert and writer with nearly a decade of experience. His work has been published in newspapers like the New York Times and on a variety of other websites, including Lifehacker. Read Full Bio »
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