What to Do if You Get Lost When Traveling

Caroline Morse, August 17, 2016
Fares from Washington DC, District of Columbia:

    I can't help you if you're feeling existentially lost (although travel is a great remedy for that), but I can give you some tips on what to do if you don't know where you are or how to get back to your hotel when you're traveling.

    In a world where we have GPS at our fingertips in a smartphone, getting lost may seem like an old-school problem—until you find yourself disoriented in a foreign country. Maybe you don't speak the language, you have no idea where you are, and you can't get a Wi-Fi or cell signal. Or maybe you've gone on a hike and lost the trail, and now your phone battery is dead.

    Remember these tips. They could even save your life.

    Navigate Using Satellite Dishes

    The modern equivalent of using the sun or the stars to find your direction—looking to satellite dishes. According to Tristan Gooley, author of The Natural Navigator: A Watchful Explorer's Guide to a Nearly Forgotten Skill, TV satellite dishes (which you'll spot on many rooftops all over the world) usually point towards the equator. So if you're in the Northern Hemisphere, the satellite dishes should all be pointing south.

    Follow the STOP Rule

    If you're lost in the wilderness, follow the STOP Rule:

    Stop: Wandering aimlessly will only make you harder to find for a search party. Stay where you are.

    Think: Try not to panic. Don't waste your energy trying to do anything until you've thought it through.

    Observe: Look at what's around you and see if there's anything (shelter, water, etc.) that can help you. Figure out your supply situation: what have you brought that can help you?

    Plan: Figure out how to find/make a shelter, build a fire, place a signal to attract attention, and find water.

    RELATED: Essential Hiking Gear for Travelers

    Find a Landmark

    Was there a memorable landmark—maybe a tall building, a famous site, or a mountain/ocean near where you're trying to go? Ask people to point you in the direction of that if they've never heard of your actual destination. Can't find anyone? Try to get up to a tall point—maybe an observation deck or a large hill, which should give you a better viewpoint.

    Find a Public Transit Stop

    A bus stop or subway station will generally have a street map showing the surrounding area, which can help you figure out where to go on foot if the buses/trains are no longer running. Or, hop aboard the bus/subway/tram to your destination if you know what the closest stop is.

    RELATED: What to Do in an Emergency Situation Abroad

    Get a Cab

    If you're tired of wandering around aimlessly, your best bet might just be to hop in a cab. If you have your destination written down, your driver should know how to get you there. You should always be sure to have the name and address of your hotel written down in the local language (tip: grab your hotel's business card or brochure before heading out) to give to a cab driver, or for when asking for directions.

    Find a Nice Hotel

    Can't hail a cab off of the street? If you can find a fairly decent hotel, someone at the front desk should be able to call a taxi for you, even if you're not a guest. Bonus: If you just need directions, the hotel's concierge should be able to help you out, and they're more likely to speak English than the average person you might stop to ask on the street.

    RELATED: The Best People to Ask for Help at Every Hotel

    Obtain Wi-Fi

    Even in the most remote places, most bars or cafes have Wi-Fi. Buy something small and get the code along with your purchase so you can look up directions. (Don't forget to screenshot them so you don't get lost again!)

    If you're lost without money or can't find an open establishment with Wi-Fi, you could try roaming around until you find a place with unsecured (free Wi-Fi) that you could borrow for a few minutes. But be careful, because free unsecured Wi-Fi comes with its own risks.

    Ask Someone

    This tip sounds obvious, but can be tough if you're in a dangerous area or don't speak the language. If you don't speak the language, try asking for a famous landmark near your hotel that you know the name of, or use Google Translate's offline app to speak for you.

    If you don't feel safe asking someone on the street (for example, if you're traveling alone and it's a deserted area), head to the nearest open bar/restaurant/cafe/shop to find someone who can help.

    Another group of tourists with a guide could be a good option, as the guide will usually speak at least two languages and can help. Or, as you've learned as a child—seek out a police officer for help.

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    Read the original story: What to Do if You Get Lost When Traveling by Caroline Morse, who is a regular contributor to SmarterTravel.

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