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How to Ask Directions

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Asking directions travel tip

OAXACA, Mexico- Any traveler who moves without holding the gingerly hand of a tour company is going to have to ask directions to get somewhere at one time or another. I ask directions all day long. I like to walk, and, if walking in a particular direction to a particular place, asking directions is almost an invariable part of the process. I sometimes ask for directions so frequently that any people accompanying me often take me for being really lost.

But getting lost is precisely what I am trying to prevent.

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In small towns and villages, getting directions is often a simple affair — the landmarks are often clear, the options fewer. This travel tip is predominately for getting around cities.

I have grown a standard operating procedure for asking directions over the years. If I am going to a place that I know is over a couple turns away, I do not ask, “Where is ___?” No, I have found that this question just breeds a lot of blank stares and the suggestion that I should just take a taxi.

Not helpful.

Who really wants to explain to some babbling foreigner how to completely traverse their city on foot — a feat that most locals do not bother to even attempt?

People ride the bus; people take taxis.

Put the map away and ask directions like you've got a pair

How to ask directions

So when I ask locals for directions I say, “In what direction is _____ in?” I do this while holding both my arms up in the air with fingers alternately point in the two possible directions that I can go in. This makes it easy for the person I am asking to say, “This way” or “That way.” It is a vastly simpler exchange, much easier than having someone rattle down a list of directions that I may or may not be able to understand or in starting a big local debate as everyone within ear shot vies to tell me how to really get to where I am trying to go.

Pantomiming, “In what direction,” is also an easier thing to do when you are not able to communicate effectively in the local language, as the only thing you need to do is say the place name of where you are trying to go in a questioning tone and do the “this way or that way” hand motions outlined above.

The only drawback to this method is that it can only get you as far as the next turn. In point, “this way or that way” is an interrogative question of sorts, and any twists, turns, or corkscrews in the road cannot readily be communicated. With luck, the person you ask will walk out into the street with you and point out the next corner you need to turn at. But, ultimately, this method of asking directions demands you to ask frequently. I tend to ask someone at each major twist or turn in the route. So I walk for a little bit, request directions; walk for a bit more, ask again; go to a major intersection, ask, and on and on and on until I arrive at where I am trying to get to.

I think of this as a sort of traveler relay race: I take the baton from one local who tells me what way to go and I carry it to the next, and on and on.

Who to ask for directions

It is easy to find people to ask directions from. The streets of cities in much of the world are filled with people, and finding someone to ask directions of is often no challenge at all. I usually aim my requests for directions at people who are occupied with a stationary task. I ask people who are working or otherwise busy doing something, as it is not uncommon for someone with nothing else to do to try to show you the way — sometimes this is cool, sometimes it becomes a hassle, like if they want money from you for the service.

This travel tip seems incredibly simple to me, almost too base to publish, but I am publishing it because I often see tourists standing lost in the streets trying to orient themselves in vain on their little guidebook maps. They often look frustrated, confused, vulnerable. I have no idea why they don’t just turn to the crowd of locals that are right next to them and ask them how to get to where they are going (no, no, no, don’t show them the map, that will only worsen the situation!).

The only way that you can become lost in a city is if you don’t know where you are going. For every other circumstance, just put the map away, go into a shop, and ask the first person you see “this way or that way.”

What do you think? Good tip or not?

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Filed under: Navigation, Travel Strategy, Travel Tips

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 76 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3054 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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