tl;dr – If you easily get anxiety, skip this blog post. You’ll thank me later. If you like adventure but have been taking taxis or ground tours in foreign cities, this is most definitely for you.
I always find that one of the best experiences in a foreign country is taking public transportation.
Whether it’s by bus or subway, you get an intimate glimpse into the daily lives of someone local to the area. It feels so alive to be deeply immersed in a foreign locale. How else will you see all the drunken salary men stumbling home in Asia (!?!) or the amazing subway performers in NYC? I often read travel blogs that skip over the logistics of getting to a destination and think to myself that they’ve missed a good chunk of the local culture – #DoingItWrong.
I get that it’s scary to not understand nor speak the language.
I get that it’s daunting to not be able to read public transportation schedules or catch a bus *gasp*! (It’s crazy how few people catch the bus here in Hawaii!)
I get that it’s nerve-wracking to be lost in a place you’ve never been.
#protip: Try it sometime when you’re not alone. It’s also (generally) cheaper than a cab.
It’s exhilarating. It’s educational. It’s exactly what I love about travel. In our latest travels, Sara and I headed out to Haedong Yonggungsa – about an hour and a half adventure on a subway + bus to a beautiful temple out on the northeastern Busan coast. I won’t lie – it was a bit harrowing being out in the middle of nowhere where people didn’t understand much English, and we spoke minimal Korean, but it was absolutely worth it. I’ll link to Sara’s blog post when she posts about it. 😀
Even though I’ve done it hundreds of times at this point in my life, here’s some helpful tips so that you can stop taking those guided land tours and venture out a bit to explore a foreign country’s countryside.
Some helpful tips if you plan on following my advice:
- Always have a portable electronic device like a cell phone or an iPad handy.
- Always carry an extra battery pack to make sure #1 stays on.
- Always have an Internet connection. It could be a cell phone plan, SIM card, or pocket WiFi, but always make sure you’ll have an Internet connection. Trust me when I say that there are hundreds if not thousands of apps that can help you navigate in a foreign country. This isn’t critical, but if you don’t have a connection, you’ll probably have to do a lot of pointing and what not to the locals (trust me on this one). 😀
- If available, download offline maps (re: Google Maps) so that you can screenshot locations and show bus drivers / subway operators / locals where you want to go in the case you lose Internet.
- Always carry your hotel card (or AirBnb location starred in Google Maps) and enough money to jump in a taxi if your anxiety ever gets too great. I think having this fail-safe allows me to explore with a greater level of confidence.
- Look to download the country’s messaging app as many services are integrated. For example, if visiting China, make sure you have WeChat. It even has a helpful Chinese-English translation tool in the case you really get stuck. If you’re in Korea, make sure to get Kakao, Line in Japan, Google Translate, etc. You get the message. There are so many digital applications that will help you not only communicate with others in a foreign country, but also help you navigate so you can GTFO.
- If you can afford it, buy the all-you-can-eat daily | weekly pass, etc. In my experience, this usually costs a bit more than paying for individual tickets, but it saves you the trouble of having to purchase a ticket every time and/or having exact change. If anything, see if the destination has the equivalent of a refillable transit card that you can deposit one lump sum and just swipe at stalls like the Pasmo/Suica cards in Japan or the T-Money cards in Seoul.
- Be respectful and learn a few words that you’d use on public transportation like “Thank You” or “Excuse Me”. Nothing worse than being “that American” in a foreign country.
So take my advice on your next adventure and tweet me a photo of your transit pass!