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Four Tips for Navigating a City Solo

I've been to New York City with my family since I was a small, tiny, pint-sized child. I've had uncles, cousins, and family friends living in the city for as long as I can remember, giving us a built-in tour guide every single time we came into town. I went on my first "solo" trip to the city when I was a sophomore in college. I had about a week off of in early November classes because of the way a holiday fell and my class schedule aligned. Instead of hanging around in Cleveland alone for a week without any work to do or going home when I was going to be home in a couple of weeks for Thanksgiving, and then another couple of weeks after that for our month-long winter break. I decided to take a trip to New York and stay with my cousin who was living in Queens at the time.

The trip was fairly last minute and during the week, so I didn't expect my family to drop everything to entertain me and make sure I had things to do. I was just shy of 19 and for the first time, I was in the city "by myself." Sure, I wasn't staying alone and I had people there who helped me get to and from my cousin's apartment, but at that point, I hadn't had that much freedom in a city so huge. I'd been living in Cleveland, for all intents and purposes, by myself for over a year at this point, but Cleveland and New York freaking City are much, much different.
My second solo trip to New York was only about a year and a few months later, during spring break of my junior year. I went for another week, this time staying in the empty apartment of my uncle's friend who had been out of town. I took the bus to the same place as I did the trip before, but this time I walked by myself (this was apparently a really huge deal that I couldn't tell my father, even if it was just two blocks at like, 10 p.m. which meant literally everyone and their grandma were still wandering around outside) to the apartment and let myself in and was alone. Seriously, this all is not a huge deal in the slightest, but you know how parents are. I ended up ordering takeout because delivery would've taken too long, put in my headphones, called my mom because she insisted that we be on the phone together when I walked to get the food only three blocks away and came back to the apartment and at my favorite Thai food by myself.

With all of this said, I'm not an expert traveler. I rely so heavily on map apps and struggle to read maps and figure out where the hell I am in relation to everything else. But I've also never had to rely on this. Downtown Cleveland was extremely easy to navigate. There weren't a lot of streets to venture down, so it was easy to get a hang of this mini-city (compared to, you know, NYC). I've also only lived in cities with pretty dismal public transporation systems. I don't understand how any of the buses in Niagara Falls or Buffalo work. We just got Uber over the summer. People just drive everywhere here. There's no dire need (well, I mean, there probably is but it's still not in existence here so...) for this massive, complex public transporation system. Cleveland was a step up, but again, it wasn't uber developed and it was just easier to walk, drive, or Uber if you wanted to go someplace.

Coming from a background of no public transportation and relying on either muscle memory or my GPS to get from place to place, navigating a new city, especially a city so large and with such a complex metro system, can be a struggle. It's even more difficult when you're alone and your go-to lines are closed on the freaking weekend (I'm looking at you, C and E lines) and you're slightly too afraid to ask anybody for directions because dammit! you can do this yourself! Coming from one directionally inept human being to potentially another (I don't doubt your skills, but you've read this far into my ramblings for a reason, correct? Unless you just like my rambling. If that's the case...thank you for tolerating me!), you can do it.

Get Google Maps, Maps, or City Mapper

I'm not going to lie, I've used my standard Maps app on my iPhone to get me around the past few times I've gone to New York. It tells you which lines to take, where you transfer, how many stops you're taking, and all of those wonderful things. It gives you walking directions and multiple options for which subway line to take (don't want to make transfers? Don't worry, just walk a little further to find a direct line) and just all around makes the life of an introvert afraid of asking questions easier. 

Towards the end of my trip, I ended up using an app called City Mapper, which my friend Nat suggested that I used. City Mapper still gives you the same detailed train directions but also gives you options for buses, Citi Bikes, Uber, Lyft, and all with price ranges. It's a really comprehensive and easy app to use. I prefer this to regular Maps for help with the subway, but I think I still do prefer Maps for walking directions...for now. You can also use City Mapper for other cities, too! Right now mine thinks I'm in Toronto, go figure!

Be aware of your surroundings 

Y'all, just pay attention. I know it's tempting to just sit down and zone out when you're on the subway, especially if it's not insanely crowded and packed like sardines. But if you're not paying attention, you might miss your stop or transfer and disorient yourself. Until you're a seasoned pro, stay on alert. 

If you're lost, pull over to the side and gather your bearings

If you think you're heading in the wrong direction...don't keep walking in the wrong direction! But also don't just stop in the middle of the sidewalk and be The Worst™. Stand off to the side to let foot traffic through, take out your phone, type in your directions, and really focus on trying to locate yourself and your destination. You'll ultimately save time if you just take a few seconds to sort your directions out instead of wandering blindly through a city that you don't know like the back of your hand. 

Suck it up and ask for help

I know, I know, we're all too proud to ask for help. It seems really uncool to express the fact that you don't know everything and anything in the world. Just find a friendly face, ask your simple question, say thank you, and go on your merry way. The worst they do is tell you to screw off. Totally joking. That has literally never happened to me in my desperate times when I finally just give up and swallow my pride so I'm not lost in the middle of Manhattan by myself. Seriously, just ask for help. If asking a complete stranger on the street intimidates you, go to a subway stop or find some sort of city worker to assist you. Whatever makes you comfortable.

Obviously, these tips vary from city to city. I mean, if you're going to, I don't know, Madrid, you'll want to learn Spanish. Not every city has a subway system, so familiarize yourself with buses or the above-ground trains. Do your research before you go so you're not thrust into a world of confusion and end up dropping tons of cash on taxis or Ubers.


  1. This is great! I have solo traveled to a few cities this year, and found that I do the same things. It can be disorienting but after a few days things start to look familiar! Awesome post! :)

    xx Alyssa

    1. It just takes a little time and focus to get yourself familiarized with everything around. Glad you liked the post!


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