It’s interesting when talking to other people, particularly those who don’t travel a lot, to discover aspects of travel that don’t even cross my mind. I was surprised to hear recently from someone that one of the reasons that they don’t travel very often, especially not by themselves, was that they were afraid of getting lost.
It had never even occurred to me that the fear of getting lost would stop someone travelling. While this was not the only reason why this person didn’t travel much, it was certainly well up there.
For me, getting lost is all part of the travel experience. It’s going to happen, but there doesn’t have to be anything scary about it. We have been lost so many times it’s almost normal. Of course it’s a little different being lost in the Amazon jungle or the Australian outback for example, than in the streets of London or New York, but both can be equally distressing to some people.
In fact one of the scariest times we have been lost was here in Australia. I have been blessed with a very good sense of direction (except if I’m inside a building, which is a whole other story!) and years ago we were driving across northern Victoria, making our way back to South Australia. This was before GPS was really a thing, and all we had was a basic map of the main roads, and the road signs we were passing. I could see that the road we were on took a bit of a loop for the next three or four hundred kilometres and I thought that surely there would be minor roads that went across the loop to cut much of that driving time off. I figured so long as we kept heading west we would eventually meet up with the main highway again. Well, eventually we did, but in the meantime we had driven down numerous dirt roads and farm tracks, not seeing another car for hours. In fact, this so-called shortcut probably took us longer than if we had stayed on the main highway.
I wasn’t too scared about where we were for most of the time while we were driving. Yes it was very sparsely populated and not very many towns, but I figured we would definitely find the highway before dark. The main issue arose when we noticed our fuel levels were getting low and we had no idea how far until we could fill up. Combine this with no phone coverage in this area at the time, and things were looking bleak there for a while. I was imagining sleeping in the car and sharing out our car snacks one bite at a time. But we found fuel and asked a local for directions in this tiny town and were soon back on track.
Looking back we got to see a part of Australia we will probably never see again. We mostly enjoyed our drive, and at the end of the day, like all things that go wrong, it makes for a good story to tell.
We do still have to be careful driving around rural Australia. Phone coverage can be patchy at best in some areas, so now we ensure we download the offline version of Google Maps for the area we are going to be in. We may not be able to use it to plot a course while offline, but at least we can see where we are and work out which way to go next – you know, old style map reading!
Out in the middle of the bush is one thing, but what about in the middle of a city where you don’t speak the language? I have become an expert in reading public transport maps during my travels but I still regularly get it wrong. One of the most confusing train systems I’ve come across was in Sofia, Bulgaria. Firstly, in Bulgaria they use cyrillic text, so I couldn’t even read the names of the stations. I was just trying to match “patterns” with the ones I wanted to go to. The train lines also looped around, and invariably we kept ending up on the wrong train. Remember how I said I loose my sense of direction in buildings – I also loose it as soon as I head underground to a train station too! I don’t know how many times we went a few stops, realised we were not going the right way (I would look at my downloaded Google Maps to check if we were heading in the right direction) got off, caught the train back the other way and started again! A nuisance, yes, but we were not in any danger and only needed to retrace our steps to solve the issue.
While Sofia was particularly bad, it’s definitely not the only city I have been lost in. Vienna and Munich have also provided challenges when taking public transport. Walking too can almost as bad. I love just walking and getting at least a little lost though. I have found all sorts of interesting things while doing this, from fabulous little hole-in-the-wall cafes and tea houses to hidden museums, traditional stores and local favourites. So many times I’ve found a great place, but then when I have gone to recommend it, I don’t know exactly where we were. Wandering aimlessly in cities can’t get you too lost though, and so long as you have the trusty Google Maps offline map downloaded, you will always be able to see where you are and work out how to make your way back to your accommodation.
Getting back to your accomodation is even easier now with Uber or Ola or Grab or Lyft, depending on where you are in the world. Even if you don’t have phone coverage, finding wifi almost anywhere is not too difficult. Open up your app, and soon the car will be coming to find you are take you home.
Hiking is one activity we love to do while we travel, and it also often has us getting lost, at least a little bit. Luckily I’ve only been lost on hikes that are relatively close to civilisation so there has not been a risk to my life. One of my most memorable was hiking near Saalbach in Austria. It was towards the end of May and we had been in Europe for five weeks, dealing with rain and snow almost every day. I had pictured a beautiful spring in Europe with lots of hiking, but we had barely done any due to the weather. I decided to do a short hike, just a few kilometres, leaving and finishing in the town. As someone who hasn’t had a lot of experience with snow, I didn’t think the whole thing through very well. We didn’t have snow in the town, but as soon as we got up a little higher into the hills, the snow became quite deep quite quickly. More importantly, it obscured the path. We kept going along, finding the path then losing it again until we came to a creek. It was only about a foot wide, so easy to jump over, but with the snow piled up and so much running water the muddy banks just slipped away under our feet. Once across, it was very difficult to get back, so we had to keep going. We were still going uphill, and of course the snow was getting deeper, and eventually we lost the trail altogether.
Imagine, it’s cold and raining, we’ve both slipped and slid in the mud and snow, we had waterproof shoes and jackets but not pants and we are completely clueless to the dangers of walking like this through snow. We could see lots of water running down the hillside, and sometimes could hear it under our feet, so we very easily could have ended up even more wet if we stood on a bank of snow that was in fact only inches deep with water underneath. It was becoming a little scary, but there was one thing that kept me calm – I knew where we were! I knew the path followed a road, and that road went straight back to town. The only issue was there was a creek in between. When we decided to give up and make our way down to the road, we of course encountered the creek. It was relatively small, but mostly too wide to jump. We eventually found a place to cross, climbed the three metre muddy bank on the other side, and were on the road back to town.
If we hadn’t lost the path, this would have been an ordinary hike and I may never have mentioned it again. Instead it became a memorable new travel experience. While I don’t suggest getting lost and putting yourself in danger, getting a little lost, or at least putting yourself at risk of getting lost, can create a day you will remember forever.
While I have a good sense of direction and am usually the navigator when we travel (I actually asked my daughter if she could remember any times we got lost while travelling and she said “whenever Dad was reading the map” lol) that doesn’t mean you cannot manage if you have a bad sense of direction. My sister-in-law has the worst sense of direction I’ve ever seen. She regularly astounds me with her ability to get lost in the city she has lived in for much of her life. She has also travelled to every continent apart from Antarctica, sometimes solo and for months at a time and has always managed to work it out. She was often lost when travelling, but always knew she could work it out.
And if you are worried about getting lost, you can work it out too. I’ve already mentioned some of my favourite tools above, and you can probably guess that if there was only one, I would make sure I had Google Maps on my phone. If you don’t have data while you are travelling, no worries, just download the map for the area to your phone and it will work like a GPS system and at least you can see where you are and the streets around you. I also use Google Maps for public transport. Put in your to and from locations, select the little train icon at the top, and it will give you directions by public transport. You need to be connected to the internet for this, so I often do this when planning my day and then screen shot the options so I have them available when I need them.
An alternative to Google Maps that many people use is Maps.Me. I’ve heard people say that Google Maps does not have all the information for certain areas whereas Maps.Me does have it, but I’ve not had an issue with that myself yet. If I do, I will be giving Maps.Me a go.
As I also mentioned, set up a ride-share app applicable to the country you are in and have it ready to go. If you run out of other options you can at least use this to get you to where you need to go.
A third useful app would be a language translation app, for example Google Translate, to help you out if you need to speak with a local and get directions.
But most of all, believe in yourself. I’m sure you can get around in your own city even if it’s to a place you’ve not been before, so just do exactly the same when you are somewhere else. What is the worst that can happen? You might have an adventure!
Please share with your friends and pin for later
Josie is a forty-something budget traveller. She only discovered travel in her late thirties, but since then has travelled extensively including taking an adult gap year. She is now based in Australia and loves sharing all she has learned about travelling on a budget but with the comforts a Gen Xer requires.