Before We Begin
Uber/Lyft/Grab – Look to see if the city you’re going to has Uber, Lyft, or a local version of it. For example, Bangkok has Grab. Sign up for these services while you still have data. If you get to your place abroad and try to sign up it might need verification through a text message, which you might not be able to get.
Download Moovit App – This has saved our bacon so many times. You pop in a few locations and it shows you how and when to get from A to B. It’ll have a detailed map and you can use it to signal the bus or tram when to stop. Can’t recommend this enough.
GPS works abroad without using data. You may not be able to get a signal everywhere, especially in rural areas, but it works just fine in the city.
Google Maps/GPS – Even if you aren’t going to be using data while abroad, you should really download the areas you plan on being on Google Maps so you can more easily navigate offline. This is a huge help so you can see where you are in the city if you’re walking or taking cab. We use it all the time in a strange city to make sure we’re heading in the right location and the driver isn’t mucking around by taking us somewhere weird.
English – Luckily many places (especially big ticket offices) will have someone who speaks English. Speak slowly (but not super exaggerated, just like you were talking to someone important) and enunciate clearly. Remember, some speakers might speak English but not be able to produce certain sounds like the L, R, or S. But still write down or learn some common phrases (how much?, do you speak English?, etc).
Ease of Use – Subways and Light Rails are probably the easiest modes to use, and are often in the best shape. Use them if possible.
Tag On Tag Off – Once you have your ticket or pass for whatever public transportation you are taking, you will have to process it through once you board. If you have a solid plastic card like the locals do, you’ll have to tag on and off. Each person should have a card of their own. It’ll flash green when it’s been read properly. Don’t forget to tag off! You can do so shortly before you arrive at your stop.
If you have a less permanent (paper) card, you’ll have to feed it through a reader, usually in the subway but sometimes seen on buses, too.
Not Paying – If you choose to hitch a ride for free, just know the ticket checker might get you. In my reckless days I almost got pinched in Prague. I hadn’t paid for a ticket in weeks and felt pretty tough. Once night when some friends and I were taking the subway back home, I scurried out of the train ahead of the group because I badly needed to find the toilet. It was lucky for me because I passed some officers and they bee-lined it right for my friends. No one had passes and they all had to pay up front big bucks, plus get their passports copied. Don’t risk it – buy a ticket.
Daily/Weekly Public Transportation Passes – If you plan on taking public transportation for quite a while, look into weekly passes. Look up “[your city] public transportation” to find the city’s website on transportation. See if it translates to English and then look at the prices for passes. Otherwise, you can find out this info when you’re in country and looking at options in the train station.
Subway – These are often the easiest because you don’t have to talk to anyone. In major cities you can buy tickets from humans (who usually speak English) or from a kiosk. If you’re doing the kiosk, look for an English option. English is the international language of business and travel, so it’s nearly ubiquitous. You can either buy single tickets, return tickets, or a day/week pass. Choose which best suits you. Also remember that the location you’re going to might be in a different zone. The farther the zone you’re going to, the more expensive the ticket, generally. The concentric colored rings below show different zones (1-6).
Rent-a-Bike – Search the Internet for “[your city] rent a bike”. Odds are some random startup has installed publicly shared bikes. You’ll just need to download the app get started. You’ll pay something like $7 for all day usage or $2 per half hour or whatever.
Prices vary but are affordable. Other cities have city bikes for rent. You check them out of a stable and have to return them to another stable in a certain amount of time. The longer you have them out, the more you pay. If you choose to do this, know the local bike laws! You might need a helmet and may not be able to drive on the sidewalk.
Trams – I love the old style feel of these, but they’re my 2nd least favorite to negotiate in a foreign country. Some cities have free trams which run the immediate city center. Research to see if your city has one. Find a map of your city’s tram lines before you hop on one. Once you figure out which to take, you can take a couple of actions:
- Be a good citizen and pay the driver. He probably won’t speak English unfortunately. So make sure you have the name of the specific tram stop you want to go to written down (in the local language) and hand signal how many tickets you want to buy. He’ll give you change (no credit/debit cards, please) and it’s up to you to signal where to stop. He will not stop at all tram stops unless a passenger requests it. Use your Google Maps/Moovit app to figure out where you are.
- Be a bum and ride for free. In all the trams I’ve taken, I’ve never seen a really well regulated one. I’ve noticed people frequently climb on through a backdoor without paying. Yes, I have done this in a past, reckless life. I’ve never seen anyone get caught, nor have I myself.
If you’re headed from city to city, you’ll probably take a train. This is similar to buying a ticket for the light rail. Go to the ticket counter and state your destination and how many tickets. You’ll have to choose if you want first class or coach. Coach is more affordable.
Sometimes there are also different levels of train. You probably want to stick to direct trains to get to your destination faster. If not, you could always take auxiliary trains – slower but cheaper.
Cab Warfare (No Meter) – Taking a taxi can be fun but stressful. In places like Ecuador or other developing countries, you’re expected to haggle over price. If you flag down a taxi and it doesn’t have a meter, you’re going to need to communicate. It’s useful to know the phrase “how much?” in whichever country you’re going to.
- If possible, before you go out write down the names and addresses of the areas you’re visiting in the native language so you can show the driver if you need to.
- Have the location you want to go to pulled up on your Google Maps. Everyone has a smartphone these days and they’ll understand what you mean.
- Agree on a price beforehand. If the country you’re headed to uses Arabic numerals (1, 2, 3, 4, etc.) you’re in luck. Once the driver knows where you’re headed, ask how much. He’ll tell you a price and it’s up to you to give a counter offer. If you don’t really care about haggling just get in and go.
- Know about tipping custom in your visiting country. If you didn’t haggle you don’t need to tip.
Normal Cab (Meter) – When you flag a taxi that has a meter installed, one person should get in to show the driver the location to see if he will even drive there. If he declines to drive, find another cab. If he agrees to to go there, insist he use the meter. Sometimes they will, but many times they’ll insist on giving you a better price by negotiating a price. For us, if a cab has a meter, we always use it. If the driver doesn’t want to use the meter, threaten to leave – and leave if need be. If you don’t really care about money (especially in poorer countries where you’re arguing about $1.50) you can just go with the flow.
These are the wild west. Negotiate best you can, show the driver where you want to go, and pay in cash. These are more for tourists who want the feel of running around a city the “authentic” way. Don’t be upset if you pay extra for this (even when they are supposed to be cheaper than taxis) because the experience of riding in them is well worth it.