8 Transport Tips for Most Big Cities

Many people have asked us for advice on various travel-related subjects. Today, we will cover transportation advise for cities around the world. We have probably done most of our exploring traveling in Europe, but a lot of the same principles apply elsewhere. Everything works pretty much the same in Asia too. On our most recent trip, we figured out that using the local rideshare app was so cheap that we called for a ride whenever we needed one and didn’t bother with anything else. But that isn’t always the case and it pays to be prepared.

1. Before Departure

Possibly the best piece of advice I can give for having a great experience is to download a local map in Google Maps (GMaps) for offline use. If you oppose the Goog universe, consider Maps.me, or Apple Maps as an alternative. Having an offline map means you can still navigate even if your data connection doesn’t work, which can happen. It also saves data while you are roaming.

Next, really study the layout of the city. We tend to try to stay in the light yellow colored areas of GMaps. Frequently, they are pedestrian only and tend to have cafes we can try if we just want to get out of our lodgings for a bit. You can also see bus and metro stop with the right map layer and try some routings to see how long it will take to get to interesting sites on foot or by public transit. Lodging location can have a huge impact on your experience, so think about paying for a hotel in the center of town near the things to see.

2. Transportation Apps

In addition to a good maps app, you’ll want to get apps for rideshares, taxis, and maybe even local transit. Google or map directions can show you potential rideshare apps in the area. Some popular ones are Uber (most places), Lyft (Western US), Bolt (Europe), Grab (Asia), FreeNow (Spain), InDrive (some Mexico), and Gett (Israel). Get an account and a payment card into the appropriate app before you need it. Trying to get payment info set up before you need a ride because doing it when you need a ride adds stress, especially if you are tired or stuck in bad weather at the time.

Some of the apps just call a taxi but your rate is fixed and it is easy to charge the fare. I think that is way better than betting on the meter and you can see what the rate will be ahead of time. Some taxi companies even have their own app.

We learned an interesting taxi thing the last time we were in Italy. We asked the hotel to call a taxi to take us to the train station. When we got in the taxi, the meter already read more than 3€. Apparently, if you call them, taxis start the meter from their own location to the pickup location. That practice is super variable and unpredictable. How should we know where the guy who answers the call is coming from? We found this to be very disturbing, so from now on, we will ask what the local taxi rules are before calling one. Another good reason to use a rideshare app.

3. Getting Into Town From the Airport

There are a variety of ways to get from the airport to your hotel: airport shuttle, public bus, train, metro, taxi, prearranged private ride, or via a rideshare app. We usually figure out the local rideshare app before we travel. That works better in some places than others. However, if it doesn’t work you have a good idea of what the ride should cost, which can help in negotiating with a taxi if you have to.

I really like having a prearranged ride when it makes sense financially. Sometimes it is fun having a person with your name meet you after a long flight, immigration, and customs. Often, we are tired on arrival and not yet oriented to the new city so a point-to-point ride is our thing. In addition, while we do travel with minimal luggage, I don’t like to take the luggage on public transportation right after arriving in a new place.

4. Tourist Buses Are for Sightseeing, Not Transportation

We frequently take the Big Bus tour on our first day in a new city, to get oriented. In Rome, there were at least five different companies offering tours. Just pick one and go, the routes are pretty much the same. I even have a Big Red Bus application on my phone. While you can get on and off on the day(s)you purchase the ticket, it isn’t great transportation. It is a city tour and is priced accordingly. After your orientation, you can figure out the places you want to go back to on your own.

In nearly every city we have visited, we have seen little tourist trains that apparently provide a city tour but we have never taken one. At this point, we chuckle every time we see one because they are everywhere.

5. Out On Foot

If you’ve picked a good hotel location, there is often a lot you can see by setting out on foot. We typically make a list of saved places in GMaps for a given area. Below is our one for Nice. It helps us easily route to points of interest and food. Sometimes we set out on foot and figure we can get a ride back once we get tired.

Not all cities are car friendly, however. Some have large (and growing) pedestrian areas where no cars are allowed. Prague comes to mind and all of the walled parts of Dubrovnik. While getting a hotel in one of those areas is nice in some ways, getting to/from your hotel with luggage to meet a tour bus or just get back from a long walk can be challenging. Another reason to really study the GMap with the transit layer.

6. Taking The Metro

There is great public transportation in most major cities in the world. Do take the metro if there is one. They are easy to follow, clean, and fast. They can also give you a better view of the culture of a place. Most subway/metro stations are laid out the same way.  There are ticket machines in the stations before the turnstiles. They all have a language option, even in Japan, so you won’t be confused.

You can typically buy one ticket or ticket packs and you pay with a credit card. In most places, you just insert your ticket in the turnstile and then collect it after the turnstile opens. Please note that in some places, you need to use your ticket to exit the station, so hang on to it. In Berlin, you are supposed to buy a ticket but there are no turnstiles and no one will ask you for a ticket, they use the honor system. We were actually able to buy a ticket for $9 that allowed travel on trains anywhere in Germany, crazy, right?

7. Trams and Buses

These days, many towns in Europe have electric trams running. They are very easy to use and again, you buy the tickets using an app on your phone. You can usually download an app from a QR code at any tram/bus stop to your phone and buy some bus tickets online as we did in Singapore. The trams are usually new, quiet, and mostly travel above ground so you can watch the city go by.

Usually, your metro ticket also works for public trams and buses. However, when taking a bus, it can be a little harder to know you are on the right bus or when to get off. I often confirm with the driver that we are on the right bus by naming our destination. In such cases, they frequently help us by telling us when to depart. In addition, using the transit part of Google maps you will how many stops on the bus and the walking required after you exit the bus.

GMaps also work really well to help you with public transit. Just say where you are and where you want to go and press the bus icon in the directions section to get the bus and or metro options. When we were in Rome last summer, we took the buses everywhere, always using GMaps for the bus timing.

8. Car Rental

We rarely rent a car when staying in a city. Our experience with parking ranges from expensive to difficult to impossible. Your car may wind up far away from where you are staying, making getting your luggage to your room another challenge. In Lisbon, we found it challenging to understand where and when we were allowed in to park. Some places were only ok on certain days of the week

One time in Spain, Mike had to basically drive down a crowded sidewalk to get the car to the hotel garage. Of course, many cities also have narrow, one-way streets, too. We sometimes rent a car for a day trip out of town, but even that takes time and expense.

What forms of transportation do you use when you travel in a new city?

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  1. I can’t resist responding to a travel tips article. Are y’all baiting me 🙂

    Our jaunts around town are mostly on foot, even in big cities. That’s mainly because we like to walk, but also because my wife gets motion sickness easily. Underground metros are avoided and when we can’t, I try to remember to bring a barf bag just in case.

    On subway and tram tickets: Some cities don’t have turnstiles and work on the honor system. This system is more prevalent in central and Eastern Europe. You buy an “any time” general ticket but are required to timestamp with a validating machine before boarding. If you don’t, you might get in trouble if a ticket inspector (Kontroll in eastern Europe) Ask me how I know :-O. Playing “dumb tourist” doesn’t always help and can lead to other troubles.

    On your first ride on any transport system, whether it be a local bus or long distance train, budget a few extra minutes to figure out how to buy a ticket. Though most machines can converse in English, not all are easy to use. And in some locations you buy the ticket from a corner tobacco shop. A good travel guide will have the details.

    Rideshare at airports can be tricky, in part due to constraints placed by legacy taxi guilds. Sometimes rideshare cars are not allowed to pick up in the obvious places adjacent to the baggage claim and you have to find a “central” rideshare pickup point. One time our pickup point was on the far side of a parking garage and several minutes from the terminal.

    I totally agree about your rental car in the city comment. They are a unnecessary and annoying in the city. You might end up paying exorbitant fees for inconvenient parking. We have a dichotomy in our itinerary: Rent cars for traveling in the countryside and ditch the car in the cities. We often organize our trip to consolidate city and country destinations to avoid transitioning between city and country every few days and instead do at least a week city, then a week country, etc. Car rentals are usually cheaper by the week anyways.

    We usually pick up and return rental cars from city or town center offices and avoid having to travel to the airport just to pick up a car. But those city offices are not open as long as airport offices so be sure to know their hours and days open (many close Sunday, some close weekends).

    Our car rentals are usually “open jaw”: picking up in city A and dropping off in city B. Most European rental companies allow this with no extra fee, especially if you return in the same country. Even if there is a fee, it is often better than looping back and getting other transport to where you wanted to go next.

    On maps I exclusively use an ap called Guru Maps which can work entirely offline because you download (very detailed!) maps to your phone. As a side benefit, the ap response time is super fast. We do the “mark the map in advance” as you do which is nice when wandering. You can look at the map and see that here’s that store you wanted to stop by, just a block away for example. Guru maps is based on OpenStreetMap, basically Wikipedia for maps. OSM contains info that you won’t find on Goggle maps. For example we can often find a good place to stop for a lunch break by looking for nearby picnic benches or water fountains.

  2. Thanks so much Diana and Bart! I knew a lot of this from our travels, but I’ve never had an offline walking map with me, so I will look for that next time!

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