When arriving in a new city, 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.
Thanks to the Internet and sites such as WikiVoyage, you can do all the homework you need and the city won't be as intimidating.
If you came by air, the first thing you want to lock down is how will you leave the airport. The most common options are family or a friend, taxi or public transport (bus/train). Now there are also drive sharing options such as Uber, Lyft and whatever else the local versions are.
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. Sometimes you can avoid a late arrival by using an overnight ferry or sleeper train, or just leaving the last leg for the next day.
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. If you cannot get to your rooms right away, do check if the hotel or bus or train station has lockers or a guarded luggage room or similar where you can store away your bulkier belongings. In that way you can spend a few hours sightseeing without having to carry around everything. If you need to sleep, there are fewer opportunities for pickpockets and other thieves if your stuff is locked away rather than next to you sleeping. If the city isn't awake yet, find out where you can spend your early morning. For those flying in, the airport is often an option.
How will you be getting around? Do you want to buy a 24- or 72-hr travel or tourist card right away? Can you trust taxis? Is public transport safe and comfortable? Is the city centre small enough for just walking? Check beforehand whether 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.
If you will travel across time zones, consider the implications, including jet lag. Flying east, you might arrive late in the night, but feel like early evening, and flying west you may be long over bedtime even if the local clock shows early evening. Similar in the morning, but you probably did not sleep well on an overnight flight. And a two-hour difference between when you start from Murmansk and when you arrive in Kirkenes doesn't mean that the voyage takes two hours.
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 know what money you will need — 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.
Check whether your phone and internet connection will be working. If you need a local phone or SIM, know where you will get them, and whether you need to survive without them for some time (you downloaded the map and guidebook, didn't you?). Research whether you need to purchase an adapter or transformer to charge your electronics or to use your appliances. If you crossed a border, your destination might use a different voltage, different plugs or otherwise have a different electrical system.
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.
Your trip and its purpose will influence your schedule. It could range from flying in for a meeting and flying out the same day to spending multiple weeks there specifically to sight-see. If you are in a hurry, you will want to know whether there is an attraction or activity that you definitely want to see or do. If you have more time, you may still want to plot out a basic schedule of when to do and see a number of particularly interesting things. For a longer visit, it may make sense to visit two or more nearby attractions on the same day, or to spread out similar attractions over a number of days. Some attractions may require some planning to fit into your schedule, or may be at their best on a certain day. When you know that the "musts" will fit, you can more easily fit in time to be spontaneous.
Of course another possibility is to be completely spontaneous. It all depends on how you most enjoy traveling.
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). Check country specific options, which may be tailored to what is relevant locally (but may have other deficiencies). OpenStreetMap, which is open-source software, can be accessed freely and often has better coverage than the commercial competition. It usually loads quickly, though sometimes the quality of mapframe images is a little pixeled, particularly on Safari. 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. Apple Maps is an alternative, though in its early years it gained a reputation of being full of glaring inaccuracies. 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 (and in some cities, 3D imagery) of cities and towns worldwide, some of which is impossible to find elsewhere. In case you're concerned the city doesn't have good internet accessibility, paper maps, such as those that can be printed via travel guides on the internet, are an option, although in many cases these are not to scale. They provides the advantage of focus upon the areas a tourist is likely to visit, while the downside is the inability to proportionally measure distances between parts of the city and, therefore, travel times. The best tourist-oriented maps use clear icons showing an extensive list of restaurants, hotels, and attractions. A common technique among map-makers is to use numbered, color-coded markers for these destinations, with a legend listing the names of destinations with the corresponding number.
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. Parks and natural attractions are often available around the clock, and early morning may be a good time to visit. This also depends on the time of year you are visiting. For instance, a number of amusement parks aren't open during winter months.
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 health, religious, ethical or other reasons limit what you can eat and drink, it's even more important to inform yourself about what options there are beforehand. Especially when travelling with children you might want to check whether your standard food items are available, or what you could substitute for them. You might want to pack a first meal.
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 countries' 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 and particularly at smaller hotels and smaller towns 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.