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How to Ask Directions

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 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?

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 88 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3413 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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Wade Shepard is currently in: Prague, Czech Republic

11 comments… add one

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  • Dave from The Longest Way Home January 25, 2011, 1:01 am

    Hmmm. I find that in big touristy towns my gps comes more use than people. So many people are jaded from “dumb” lost touristy they will literally walk across the road to avoid.

    In Romania at 6 am I staggered for hours with a backpack on trying to find one of two terrible hostels. I remember one woman near on running away when she saw me. Another thought I was asking for money. Yes, I was sweating and looked a mess. Not everyone is so friendly.

    When I don’t have a big back back on then asking for directions is something I enjoy. It’s a two way road. New people are wary of strangers in many parts of the world these days. Remote villages are no problem. But try asking in downtown Barcelona and expect to be surrounded by a gang of kids very quickly.

    In big cities being lost can be dangerous if you let the wrong people know. So I say, yes ask for directions, but choose who you ask carefully.

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com January 25, 2011, 2:15 am

      Yes, this is an excellent addition. “In big cities being lost can be dangerous if you let the wrong people know.”

      This is one reason why I prefer asking questions to obviously looking at maps — if I have one. If I am asking directions then I am the aggressor, standing around like a jerk looking at a map is to invite helpful people — some really helpful, some plain annoying. I usually choose people who are working, aiming mostly for pharmacies (there seems to always be a pharmacy at precisely the right point). I also try to ask pretty quickly.

      I sort of think this entry may have made me sound like a bumbling idiot haha. I am not walking around asking directions everywhere, just at opportune times on the road. I also generally have a good idea where I am going anyway and just head out in that direction. I actually consult my compass more than any map or other people. My wife often questions my sense of direction, but I have full confidence haha.

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  • mike crosby January 25, 2011, 12:06 pm

    Good advice Wade. Point in two different directions–either, or.

    Men seem to be more reluctant to ask for help. It must be some kind of macho thing, or possibly not humble enough to ask for help. The baton analogy too, that’s good.

    I’m not a traveler like you, but lately I’ve been spending time in Los Angeles just walking and biking around. I’m telling you Wade, I’ve been having a total blast. For all the years I’ve lived here, it’s like LA had been invisible to me, or something I just passed through in my car. I’m finding I love the vibrant environment, the foods and the people.

    Not trying at all to push my blog, but you may like this:
    http://longbeachblogger.com/2011/01/23/los-angeles/

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com January 25, 2011, 12:50 pm

      Great approach. You can be a traveler anywhere, even in your home city. It is amazing how absorbed into your sub divided sector you can become in a car, getting out and walking or biking is to be open to whatever options that come and to find and discover for yourself — this is what traveling is all about.

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  • Bob L January 25, 2011, 12:24 pm

    This is a great tip in that in many places, people tend to give you detailed directions, even if they have no clue as to where you want to go. If you show them a map they will give you EXTREMELY detailed insttructions, just so that you don’t find out they don’t know how to read a map. Giving them only two choices means they will be right 25% of the time 8^)

    Remember, a camera (perfereably a cheap one) can be of use here. You may not know how to say the name correctly, but if you photograph a sign, or the name off a map, or a picture of the place from a guidebook, you can show it to anyone, and have a better chance of getting to the right place. Even if they cannot read, they will likey recognize the letters as the place you want to go. A bit of a risk showing a camera repeatedly on the streets though.

    I have used this technique to find my way by myself in places where the letters and/or spelling may be confusing. This way, you can hold up a photo of the next sign to be sure it is the right place. I found this technique extremely valuable in Thailand where there would be one sign with a combination of english, phoenetic and Thai letters, then the next signs would only have Thai letters.

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com January 25, 2011, 12:58 pm

      Very true. Even if they do sort of know where they are going, directions are often difficult for people to communicate — especially when going between cultures and languages. I have gotten so many truly complex and stupid directions in my time that I now seldom give people the option — it is this way or that way. But this method also has the effect of bringing out some good directions to, as this sometimes invites the people who know will often tell you how to get all of the way there.

      The camera strategy is good. To think that I have been trying to copy out those spaghetti lettered signs in notebooks all of these years haha. This is especially a good tip for China, where many places still only have Chinese characters on street signs. I can write in Chinese and copy out signs pretty well, so I am OK there — but not everyone has sat for years in Mandarin classes haha. This is also good because almost all people in China are literate. This camera strategy can be used for almost all communication in this country — from directions to food to even photographing phrases from books. A cell phone with a camera would be best as you can just flip it out and shoot and don’t need to worry about filling it up with too many photos to use — oh, you had a good meal, photograph the characters on the menu (or the food itself) and get it again. Yes, the camera can be an essential “travel where you don’t know the language” tool. Thanks.

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  • Bob L January 25, 2011, 12:27 pm

    Be a MAN. Just keep walking like you know where you are going. Don’t ask directiions. Men have been traipsing through the jungle without maps or someone to ask for tens of thousands of years. Asking directions is for sissies. 8^)

    Bob L

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com January 25, 2011, 1:02 pm

      Yeah, I almost wrote in this entry:

      “There are two choices when trying to figure out how to get somewhere in a group: 1. Look at the maps and help figure out how to get there 2. Keep your mouth shut.”

      It is annoying to be leading people somewhere to criticize your direction without having any knowledge to base their criticism off except the fact that it doesn’t look right haha. I am 99% correct when it comes to directions haha, I know where I am going through the wild, I am a MAN.

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  • Dyanne @TravelnLass January 25, 2011, 2:23 pm

    Brilliantly simple and great advice, Wade. I’m just wondering how… you choose the TWO directions to point (uh, from the FOUR cardinal possibilities)? Then again, I guess if the locals have a clue of the end destination you seek, they’ll kindly direct you to the correct direction of the 4.

    I’m not dismissing your brilliant notion of making it as simple as possible (i.e. choice of 2 directions), and I surely think interacting with the locals is much preferred to staring at a techno like a GPSr (though I HAVE used one to find my way back to my hotel amid the convoluted maze of the Marrakesh Medina after dark when there was nobody to ask.) Or worse yet, sending a screaming message to all of “VULNERABLE, CONFUSED TOURIST HERE!” by fiddling w/ a map (while the local pickpocket silently relieves you of you wallet).

    Indeed, far better to ask a local shopkeeper for a nudge in the right direction at intervals along the way – great tip!

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com January 25, 2011, 2:56 pm

      Generally, each street only goes in two directions. Though I am sure this could be upped to four if at an intersection. But, ultimately, I usually have a general sense at where I am trying to go. This is derived from either looking at a map, a landmark, or just gathering from talking to people that where I want to go is, more or less, “over that way.” The asking is just to confirm that I am still making progress towards my destination and haven’t gotten off track.

      Thanks for the comment and the Marrakesh tip. Yeah, maps are not going to help you there haha.

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  • Da Nuck August 12, 2011, 9:16 pm

    You are never lost unless you don’t want to be where you are at ……

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