5 Secrets to Traveling in a Big City

September 26, 2019 by · Leave a Comment 

I lived for so long in a smallish city, and later in a small town, that when I moved to Indianapolis — a city of roughly 1 million people — it was very stressful to try to find my way around. Even before then, visiting was a real country-mouse-in-the-big-city adventure. But after working and driving around downtown, I got used to the chaos and constant motion going on around me, and I could navigate like a pro.

When I moved to Orlando — 2 million people — I was able to quickly adapt and find my way around, even when the city was at its busiest. Central Florida gets roughly 60 million visitors per year, which can make getting around rather nerve wracking, but the residents learn to take it all in stride.

But when I was recently in Washington DC, a city with some of the worst traffic in the entire country, I knew better than to try to navigate my way around by myself. I typically won’t do it unless I’m going to be there for a few days and I have time to figure it out, or if I’m going to be in a lot of different places all over the city.

If you’re traveling to a big city and you’re not used to it, here are a few ways you can function and get around without pulling your hair out.

1. Know that parking will be expensive.

Free parking in the big cities is about as rare as a singing unicorn. And when you do find public parking, you can bet that the parking prices will be sky high. When I was in Chicago 10 years ago, daytime parking was $50 for 8 AM – 5 PM.

There’s a very good chance you’re going to have to pay for parking at your hotel too. My Washington DC hotel charged $50 per night for parking, but it was worth it because I didn’t want to park in a public garage. They also let me leave my car there until 3 pm, which meant I didn’t have to take it with me and fight for parking at my last appointment.

If you’re staying in the city, research parking options before you even get there. Make sure your hotel has it, and consider long-term parking in a different location, like an airport, and then taking public transportation to your hotel.

2. Pick a hotel based on location, not price.

Traffic is always a big problem when traveling to a big city.When you stay in a new city, there’s going to be a lot of temptation to pick the cheapest hotel, especially if you’re trying to stay brand loyal. The problem is the cheap hotels are nowhere near the good locations; you’re going to pay a little more for easy access.

Several years ago, my father-in-law traveled to a trade show in Atlanta and stayed in a hotel his company picked for him and the company executives because it was $20 per night cheaper than the hotel right next to the convention center. The executives swore they would never stay that far from downtown again after they spent $40 per day in taxis and had to sit in rush hour traffic for an hour each way.

You may save money by getting a cheaper hotel, but you’ll end up being so far away, you’ll spend all those savings in ride sharing, taxis, or parking. Not to mention, you’ll be up to 60 minutes away from your destination, which is going to put a serious crimp in your travel plans.

3. Study maps and GPS apps before you go.

Whenever I go to a new city, I plan out for the places I want to go: the restaurants, coffee shops, meeting sites, and other attractions. I’ll even start planning before I’ve booked my hotel so I can make the best choice. However, I’ve learned I don’t really understand the city and the traffic patterns until I get there and can actually see what the city is like.

For example, I once traveled to Boston and got a hotel that I thought was easy walking distance to a conference center. And it was, as long as I didn’t mind walking along a five-lane parkway with no sidewalks. That didn’t show up on Google Maps, and I didn’t realize it until I got there.

4. Leave plenty of time to get where you’re going.

One thing you can count on in big cities is that there will always be traffic jams. You could have a traffic jam on I-4 in Orlando at 2:00 AM. (Trust me, I know.) And you could get stuck in major traffic, even traveling around the downtown area in the middle of the ay.

So check out the traffic conditions on Waze before you head out to your events to see if you need to add a little more travel time. Do the same if you’re using a ride sharing service, because they’ll be stuck in the same traffic. However, they also know the city better than you, so they’ll know the side streets to duck down to avoid the worst of it.

5. Use ride sharing or taxis

I’ve been to Washington DC twice in the last six months, and I can tell you that the smartest thing I did was to leave my car in the parking lot and take a Lyft everywhere. I was already paying for my parking but the cost of traveling everywhere on Lyft — $9 – $12 per trip — was less than I would have spent to park somewhere else.

And even if the ride sharing would have cost a little more, it was worth it to not have to drive around and around and around trying to find a parking space even remotely close to the place I needed to be. That would have added time to the actual commute time, not to mention the extra minutes spent walking from my car to the destination. And if it had been raining or beastly hot, that would have just been worse. At least with Lyft, I was able to go from door to door to wherever I needed to be.

What are your travel strategies when you’re in a big city, especially a new one? How do you find your way around? Tell us about it on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream.

Photo credit: FrTed (Flickr, Creative Commons 2.0)

Last updated by at .