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To make the start of your trip (or a new leg of your trip) smoother, it's often good to make some practical preparations. If you're visiting friends or family, asking them to pick you up can make your arrival much smoother and may also make immigration formalities (if applicable) a lot easier, as your "I am visiting X" story is much less likely to be doubted.
Arrival can be the hardest part of a trip. It's late, you're jet lagged or road-weary, and everything is new and strange. You need an affordable place to sleep, something to eat and drink, and probably a way to get around. Whether it's the first stop on a trip or the fifth city in as many days, every traveller feels a little overwhelmed stepping onto a new street in a new city. The sense of excitement and potential for discovery ends up in the shadow of practical matters. It's enough to make you wish you were back in your home town. If your first thought is "What am I doing here," don't panic. You will soon have a good checklist of arrival essentials that lets you head out into the unknown, free to focus on the real adventure.
Get informed about the timetable of your means of transport, and avoid arriving in a foreign city in the middle of the night. Obvious? Yes, but when you get there at 2 AM, it's too late: you can't do anything. You will have to choose between spending the night in the train/bus station or at the airport or searching for a hypothetical hotel open at this late hour. If you're arriving early in the morning, especially after an overnight journey, you might want to arrange an early check in with your hotel. Check beforehand if there are any particularly dangerous places in the city along your intended route of travel – for example the districts right outside São Paulo-Guarulhos International Airport are reportedly not places to explore for a tourist.
Cash for two days. No matter what city in the world you are arriving in, you won't get too far on an empty wallet. A good rule of thumb is four times your hotel cost for one night. Know in advance how hard it is going to be to get cash. Try to find out whether it is usual to pay for things in the city by cash or by card. Sure, the guidebook may claim there is an ATM, but is it on the other side of town? (Not a problem in New York City, Bucharest or Barcelona, but potentially a tricky question in Cairo or Vernazza.) Will your hotel accept your credit card? Also be aware that it is possible to have too much money—a stack of bills won't help you buy a bottle of water that costs 3 coins. Public transportation or even small guest-houses often won't have or won't give you change for large bills. Make sure to ask for some small denominations at the exchange counter or break large bills at the airport.
Some idea about things to see, do and experience in the city and their locations can also be a good idea. Even if you arrive with an open schedule and aren't in a hurry to move on, you'd probably still want to have a thing or two to look forward to.
Don't count on an open tourist office, if there is one at all. Try to have a map or at least a rough idea of the city layout.
Virtually any city in the world will have some sort of map available somewhere on the Internet (try starting at your favorite search engine). Openstreetmaps can be accessed freely and often has better coverage than the commercial competition. Google or Bing Maps can be accessed through any modern web browser, and Google Maps Mobile is a very useful, standalone application available for Android and Apple devices, although it requires a steady internet connection either through your cellular provider or otherwise, unless you download an offline city map before your trip. Map apps have search features that accept queries ranging from "nightclub" to a specific address, and they can also locate your current position based upon network and satellite data. The location feature is fairly accurate on modern smartphones when you are in a city and have a good Internet connection. Additionally, although it requires a high-speed internet connection and a fairly fast computer, Google Earth (basic version) is a standalone application available as a free download, displaying many overlay maps of cities and towns worldwide, some impossible to find elsewhere.
In any case, make sure the map is detailed enough for the part of town you will be in, as often 'Old Towns' or pedestrian areas are just a mess of squiggly lines on a city-wide map. When traveling in a country that uses an alphabet you can't read, a bilingual map is invaluable—it will also help any locals trying to help you. For locals, knowing a landmark near the hotel area—and how to pronounce it—should suffice.
Know how much a taxi, bus or train would cost and how long it should take (sure a bus is half the price, but see if it doesn't add two more hours to your travel time). If you are traveling alone or at night, find out about any safety issue for that town: is the subway patrolled by security officers? Is it a cultural issue for a woman to ride alone in a bus or taxi? If you have a reservation at a hotel or guest-house (see below), ask if they offer an airport or train station shuttle. Even if they don't, they may be able to send someone to meet you. This can turn the chore of getting to town into a guided tour. Also, while you are at the airport or train station it might be a good idea to check out possible bus lines or other traffic connections you will use when returning for departure.
Finally, read up beforehand about some common scams you may encounter when you arrive. Places where travelers arrive, such as airports and railway stations, are magnets for touts advertising transport services, accommodation, tours and such.
Sometimes you arrive in a city at times where there is not much to do, such as late at night or early morning. As many venues (museums, restaurants, shops etc) are closed until well into the day, you might need to find alternate activities. Some venues which are commonly open in early mornings are market halls, fish markets, bakeries and breakfast-serving restaurants.
Knowing the typical opening hours of your arrival city is also important for getting yourself fed. Before you arrive, it's worth knowing how early and how late the typical café or restaurant is open and whether there are certain days of the week when many places are closed. Or, if you don't wish to eat out on the first night, either because you'll be too tired or are on a restricted budget, find out where the nearest food shops are in relation to your accommodation and again check those opening hours! If at all possible, avoid arriving during a public holiday or festival, as the chances of finding a supermarket that's open or a restaurant that isn't fully-booked could be slim to nil. In areas where religious beliefs are important or workers' rights are strong, this may also apply to a specific day every week (Friday in Islam, Saturday in Judaism, Sunday in Christianity). Eateries and shops at airports, railway stations and the like may be open during times other places aren't, as they fulfil travel needs but lines may be long and/or prices high on days when they are the only shops open.
If you are arriving after dark or after noon during the high season, having a lodging reservation for the first night can save a lot of running around. Some country's immigration arrival forms ask where you will be staying for the first night - having an address can simplify this. Remember, you can always go somewhere else in the morning.
Try to confirm your reservation a few days in advance and ask about transportation options—maybe the hotel has a shuttle. Be sure to inform them of your arrival time in case there are any special instructions; in many countries the front desk is not staffed 24 hours a day. Having a reservation doesn't require staying in a ritzy hotel. All over the world local guest-houses, hostels, and even alternative accommodations such as working farms are part of on-line reservation systems. Always print out a copy of your reservation, and make sure you have the name and address of the hotel in the native language and script.
- See also: Phrasebooks
If you are arriving in a country where you don't know the language and they don't know yours (presumably English if you're reading this), learn six phrases - "Hello", "Please", "Thank you", "Sorry", "Yes", and "No". Next numbers, and after that, get yourself a good language app or podcast for the flight in. Translation and dictionary apps are very useful. If you might not have a reliable internet connection the first day, get apps that work offline. Make sure to check out Wikivoyage's phrasebooks too, which can be downloaded as PDFs and printed.
Although you should never let your guard down completely when travelling, during the first few hours in a new place you should be especially careful: you'll likely be tired from the journey, will probably still have all your luggage with you and may not entirely know where you're going, so are potentially vulnerable. Some unscrupulous people wait in the vicinity of train stations and airports specifically looking for new arrivals who look lost or unsure of their surroundings.