Asking for directions abroad
Running around backpacker-style is a great way to see the world. Often times, you leave with little plans and leave most up for adventure. Inevitably at some point, you are going to have to ask for directions of some kind. Whether it is for guidance to some famous landmark or some back alley hot spot, you will likely need assistance at some point. This is a guide to asking directions
Typically, I choose to get lost when I am discovering a new place. When I first leave to go exploring a new city I’ll stick a map in my back pocket (if I can get a map) then wonder. I do my best not to have to ask for directions, but occasionally I do. I chose to write this article because I’ve learned there is not always an exact science to asking for directions. In fact, I’ve learned that sometimes you can’t believe a word that someone says whereas other times you can follow them wholeheartedly. I’ll give you an example.
I remember one time when I was trying to meet someone in Madrid. I was walking the streets looking for Plaza Mayor, a well-known destination in Spain’s capital city. I asked a few people along the way as I was late (really me?) and needed to hurry up. I asked 5 people, directions and each of them said something different. I couldn’t help but laugh. Especially when I asked the last two. I asked the 4th person, he looked way down the street and said it was really far, maybe 15 or 20 minutes walking. The 5th person overheard him, stopped, looked at him strangely and said, “It is right here.” pointing just behind us. Thus, lesson learned in asking for directions.
Why would someone give you bad directions?
There are a lot of potential reasons for this, but most likely they just don’t know where something is. If you ask the wrong person or someone who isn’t local, they might just have no idea where something is. Rather than appearing stupid and simply saying that they are not sure, they would give you faulty directions.
How to ask for directions?
Asking for directions does not have to be difficult. If you need directions you can get them, and get good quality directions, you just need to know how to ask. My suggestions for you:
- Get specifics (times, distances, landmarks) – When you are asking for directions, get a few specific details if you can. Possibly ask for about how long time wise or what should you see. It is unlikely that people will memorize distances, but there is a good chance that they can give you a ballpark figure for how long it takes them to walk it. If they can’t give you times, then that can surely tell you what you should see (i.e. gas station, big tall tree, forest of elves, big foot’s house, you know the usual.)
- Take a poll – I’d recommend asking 2-3 people and taking the general consensus. Ask I mentioned before, you are likely to get a few different answers if you ask enough people. If you ask a few people and take the most consistent answers than you are likely to be successful in reaching your destination.
Things to be aware of
There are some places in the world where you need to be careful about asking for directions. Reason being, is that people will often take it as an opportunity to try to get money from you or scam you. This isn’t everywhere but it can and does happen. I know that I have heard stories about people being led down the wrong direction or being asked aggressively for money. That being said, you can prevent this by following a few tips.
Tips for asking for directions:
- Learn local phrases – I always recommend learning local phrases when traveling as I am a big supporter of cultural immersion. Learning local phrases for directions will not only enhance your experience, but it will also aid in communication in asking for directions.
- Ask public officials – Public officials are generally a good resource in asking for directions. They are often easy to find and can be dependable. If you can confirm the authenticity that someone is an uniformed official such as a police officer, military personnel, firefighter, et cetera, then it may be a good opportunity to get good directions.
- Seek out locals – This one I used with a bit of ‘yes’ and ‘no’. When asking locals, I’d say choose people who would have nothing to gain from helping you. Meaning, do not just choose anyone off of the street. Walk into a hotel or nice restaurant, perhaps a vendor on the street.
- Choose upstanding looking individuals – This may sound judgmental, but I would argue in line with Blink, that it is just part of human nature. Use sound judgement.
- Carry a small notebook with you. If you need to use it, you can draw a miniature map for directions and/or add little things to help you remember the way. This will serve as a good reference for you.
- Don’t be afraid to say ‘no thanks’ – There is no harm or foul with walking away from someone. I recall one time in a North African alley way I asked one of the local guys sitting by the street if I was on the correct street. He quickly said yes and started walking me deeper into the alleyway. I called him on it and said ‘la shukran’ meaning ‘no thanks’ in Arabic. Then walked away. He acted a bit disgruntled, but that is all part of the act. Turns out, that wasn’t the street that I was looking for.
What do you think?
What are your methods for asking for directions when traveling? Have you had any good or bad experiences in the past?