This blog post was updated on December 18, 2019.
Consider this scenario: You’ve snagged a steal of a deal on last minute flights to a destination you’ve never been to before; you have no idea where you are or how you got there. Exhilarating or scary? For travelers with a keen sense of adventure, “getting lost” can be the most fun part of a trip. For most folks though, not knowing where you are can be a major bummer, particularly when trying to get somewhere by a certain time or when you have concerns about your personal safety.
These days with our cell phones and mobile devices keeping us in almost constant contact with friends and family and continually updated about our whereabouts, not knowing where you are at any given moment is an increasingly rare occurrence. Still, getting lost can happen — even to the savviest of travelers. If it happens to you, here’s what to do.
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Prepare Before You Go
Pre-trip packing and planning to avoid unfortunate events are the crucial first steps to avoid getting lost and are key to ensuring you stay safe whenever you do veer off course.
Essential items to carry: Your phone is probably your best tool for getting “un-lost.” But to keep out of trouble when you’re someone with no mobile reception or when your battery is running low, always carry these essential items with you: a local map, phrasebook, universal power adapter, and fully charged powerbank. Keep enough cash in the local currency on you for a cab or bus ride as well.
Learn a little of the local lingo: It’s rather obvious, but actually learning a few key words and phrases in the local language (even before you start looking for deals on last minute flights) could be a lifesaver. Furthermore, it’s also wise to know where and how to get in touch with the nearest consulate or embassy for your nationality and to be aware of the location of nearby police stations.
Carry the business card of your hotel or a business near you: If you’re staying at a hotel, always take a few of its business cards with you when you go out — and double check that the cards have the name, address, and phone number of the hotel. These may prove especially useful if you can’t speak the local language or you’re somewhere with a different alphabet than you’re able to read. If you’re not staying in a hotel, grab a card (or maybe a takeout menu) from a local restaurant or some other business near your accommodation.
Have copies of your passport somewhere safe: It’s a good idea to have a few photocopies of the photo page of your passport as well as any pages with visas or other relevant information. Keep a copy somewhere safe back home and a copy or two with you on your trip — just not in the same place as your passport. Having a digital backup on your phone or other device is also a good idea, along with emailing the backup to a close family member, friend, or colleague.
Carry an emergency kit and wear the right gear: If you’re planning a road trip or trek through a largely unpopulated area, or heading somewhere remote or where weather conditions can be variable and extreme, taking the appropriate emergency precautions might mean the difference between an inconvenient hitch in your itinerary and a life-threatening situation. Always dress appropriately for potential weather and in layers. Be sure to pack enough food and water and an emergency travel kit with the right gear for any potential circumstance that might arise.
The Ready Scotland website has some top tips on what to include in an emergency kit and offers this advice no matter when or where you’re going:
At any time of year, think about carrying one or more ICE (In Case of Emergency) contact numbers on your mobile phone or in your wallet or purse. This means that if they need to, emergency responders like paramedics can contact people who know you, and potentially get important medical information, as quickly as possible.
Some sort of GPS tracking device or satellite phone could also be a must-have item, depending just how “out there” your travels might to take you.
So you got lost. No worries. First and foremost, you need to stay calm.
Assuming your phone has plenty of juice, checking a location app for your bearings or seeing if any of your downloaded ride-hailing apps work where you are could solve your problem instantly. But if such simple solutions don’t do the trick, there’s still plenty to attempt before you should start to worry.
Make a mental map: Have a look around for landmarks and take note of the most recognizable ones. Memorize the names of the streets and shops where you are – and don’t wander off without mentally mapping out how to get back to the exact spot where you realized you were first lost.
Look for a place to stop and get help: Odds are, in any urban area you’re probably just a short walk away from a taxi rank, bus stop, or train station. Finding these can help you start your journey back to where you want to be. You’re probably near an internet café or a major chain restaurant with free WiFi, or some other sort of public setting where you can contact someone for assistance or just get off the street for a while.
Talk to the right person: If you do need to talk to a stranger for any sort of help, a police officer should be your top choice. Second would be another “official” public worker. Taxi drivers often can be very helpful too with good knowledge of the area and the ability to speak at least a little English or multiple other languages. Shop owners or managers of businesses or families with small children are usually the safest strangers to reach out to after that.
If you’re lost in a wilderness area, a whole range of further considerations are called for:
In short you just need to remember STOP: Stop, Think, Observe, and Plan. Don’t roam aimlessly. Stay warm and dry as best as possible.
Calculate how much daylight you have. If it’s getting dark it’s probably better to stay put. If it’s early enough in the day, attempting to retrace your route (while noting landmarks and your steps) could be fruitful for getting back on track.
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As the classic song by The Doors goes, “people are strange, when you’re a stranger,” but in most circumstances, people turn out to be incredibly kind and super friendly. Still, it pays to be safe and discreet.
Practice caution and play it cool: If you feel like you’re in a sketchy place, stay aware of your belongings and try to keep any valuables out of view. This includes expensive watches, flashy jewelry, and designer handbags. You might want to be low key using your smartphone too. Don’t speak too loudly about being lost. Don’t ever take your wallet or credit cards out or count money on the street. Walk purposefully even if you don’t know where you’re going.
Following these simple tips can help make sure that you quickly get back on track to enjoying your vacation, even if it’s in a destination you just hopped last minute flights to visit.
Have you ever been lost somewhere? How did you get back to where you meant to be? Share your tales and tips with us in the comments section.