Do you know the feeling of being hopelessly lost while you’re traveling? When you are trudging down unfamiliar cobblestone streets trying to locate your hotel, with the sun beating down and people around you speaking another language, the joys of travel may fade.
Even with GPS and maps on smartphones, I can still get lost trying to navigate a country that’s new to me. Maybe it’s a malfunction of my trusty phone. Or it’s a problem with an address being in latitude and longitude instead of street names and numbers.
I’ve taken some unintended detours in my European travels. I’m sure I’ve gone in some big circles on country roads, trying to find my way. And just to think of driving on roundabouts in Britain induces panic.
But looking back, I can see that getting lost is a way to encounter new people and adventures.
I know next time I venture to Europe, I’ll get lost again. And I hope to enjoy the experience instead of getting frustrated. Here are a few things I’ve learned from taking a wrong turn or two in my travels. I hope these lessons will help lower your stress if you get lost and encourage you to look positively on your wanderings, even when you’re not where you’re meant to be.
1. Use Landmarks For Reference
When you arrive in a new city, look for a landmark near your hotel, train station or wherever you plan to use as a base. This can help you not only as you read smartphone maps or paper maps, but also if you take a taxi.
I learned this in Rome when we went for dinner after sightseeing all day. The restaurant in the Piazza Navona served delicious food and notable wine. But we had no idea how to get back to our hotel a few miles away.
We got in a taxi and gave the address of our Airbnb. The driver said there’s no such address. I showed him my notebook. Nope, no such address. Fortunately, I knew we were staying half a block from the Santa Maria Maggiore basilica. The driver knew this large church, and off we went.
Your landmark could be a statue, such as Gutenberg in the town of Strasbourg. Or the gold dome of the Invalides in Paris. Choose something a taxi driver, Uber driver, or local on the street would know. Then you won’t have to rely solely on GPS that may or may not work.
2. Try Unusual Places For Help
While you can always run into a hotel and ask at the front desk for directions, be creative and don’t be afraid to ask somewhere else for more specific help. Consider museums, small shops, or perhaps a laundromat.
I was tracing my dad’s World War II footsteps and driving around Le Havre in France, where he was stationed for a year after the war. My dad took photos of places he saw there, and one was the World War I War Memorial. With the city being almost totally rebuilt after the war, I didn’t know if this memorial survived or how the streets were reconfigured if it did.
I wanted to give up after driving in circles around downtown, but my husband suggested we stop in a small museum. I went in and talked with the friendly young man working there. When I showed him the black and white photo my dad took in 1945, he lit up. Yes, yes, that memorial is still standing. But the streets look different. He gave us detailed directions, and we found it. I was able to stand exactly where my dad stood decades earlier because this nice man helped us.
Another time my daughter and I arrived in Bath, England, and for some reason, we couldn’t find our hotel. I pulled up outside a laundromat. My daughter ran in and asked if anyone knew of the hotel. A man said yes, and as soon as he folded his socks, he led us there in his car.
People are good at heart, aren’t they?
3. Aim Very Early For Tours, Programs, And Anything With A Start Time
When traveling, you may have booked guided tours, bike tours, shows, timed museum tickets, or dinner reservations at an elegant restaurant. I’ve learned that a good rule of thumb for anything where I need to turn up on time is to aim an hour early. It may sound overly cautious, but I would have missed out on a few fantastic experiences otherwise.
One example is the Context Travel tour I booked in Berlin. Run by scholars, these tours are not inexpensive. But I wanted to learn all I could in a short time while touring the Berlin Wall Memorial. So, we headed out, planning to arrive an hour early “just in case.”
I’m still puzzled about what happened. We took a train from our hotel. Then we got on a tram. Using smartphones, we journeyed on — and on. After a while, I noticed a different feel to the architecture. This was definitely former East Berlin, and we were supposed to be in what had been West Berlin. We got off the tram, with my husband insisting GPS said this was correct, and we took another one.
It turned out the tour was directly where the train had deposited us almost an hour earlier. We laughed about our mistake and met up with our delightful Irish guide Finn for a full morning of the Berlin Wall. We would have missed this awesome tour if we hadn’t aimed very early.
4. Take Measures To Prevent Getting Lost In Tricky Areas
Sometimes prevention is the cure. Before leaving home, I studied the area of Normandy, France, that lies behind the D-Day landing beaches. I wanted to trace the routes of the paratroopers where they dropped behind Utah Beach before the landings. It was obvious that this bucolic countryside is still little dirt lanes, old farms, and tiny villages. I figured if I took a rental car to drive myself, I would likely get hopelessly lost in a field of cows.
To ward off an aggravating experience, I booked a tour with a local guide. She drove us in her 1942 Jeep through narrow streets lined with tall hedgerows, across stone bridges, and through towns not in a usual tourist circuit, with names like Vierville and Sainte-Marie-du-Mont. We zipped along, learning from our guide about what took place here during World War II. She lived there, and she knew every twist and turn.
I learned that sometimes it’s better to plan ahead than to think I will be able to navigate through the countryside and see what I came to see.
5. Sometimes Getting Lost Can Be Freeing And Fun
Finally, remember that some places are perfect for getting lost. Losing your way is fun! Visiting such towns and cities is freeing, because much of the time you don’t need to worry about where you are or where you’re going.
Getting off the bus from the airport in Venice, we promptly went astray. We were wheeling our little bags over countless bridges, trying to find our hotel. The twists and turns of the picturesque narrow streets defied all logic of going left or right. Finally, I called the hotel and read the street signs on the corner where I was standing to the desk clerk. He had no idea where we were. So, we continued on, rounding one more corner. And there was the hotel. The desk clerk apparently wasn’t great with directions.
The street signs of Venice are another clue to how perplexing the city can be.
I discovered right away that in Venice, you can’t go too far in the wrong direction (once you’ve found your hotel) because you come to water. Then you simply turn around and walk the other direction. You are not lost; you are exploring.
So, we relaxed. We ventured out and about each day, purposely paying little attention to anything but the shimmering waterways, the gondolas plying the canals, the narrow alleyways that called for exploration, and the market squares filled with shops and people.
Venice is more fun when you have no idea where you are at the moment.
Remember that people are generally happy to help if you are trying to find your way. Locals are proud of their homeland and want you to have the best experiences there. Asking directions when you don’t speak the language is always interesting. But a smile is universal. And keep in mind that sometimes getting lost is part of the fun of traveling. Go with the flow and collect memories you can laugh at for years to come.