Helen Eby, frequent intercontinental traveler and conference-goer, shares her tips on how to prepare for a visit to a new city, a few indispensable apps, and what you should know about getting around DC in particular.
Familiarizing yourself with transportation is key when visiting a new city. I look for apps on my iPhone that provide support for public transportation. Today there are apps for subway maps, bus maps, train routes, train ticketing, and even light-rail ticketing. Some of the apps I will be using in DC are DC Metro Map and iTrans DC Metro.
No matter where you are, Google Maps is indispensable for general navigation. Taxi drivers abroad even use this app for directions, and it has excellent information on how to connect with public transportation.
My first stop when I get off the plane is the information desk in the baggage claim area. They often sell loaded cards for the subway system and can tell you where the nearest stop is. They also tell you which subway line to take to get to your hotel and can provide paper maps of the city. Alternatively, they can recommend the cheapest shuttle for getting to the hotel or to a taxi stand. I often take a taxi, because I don’t always want to walk around alone in an unfamiliar city with suitcases.
I also contact the hotel ahead of time to ask them what the best way to get to the hotel is. The front-desk staff has that answer memorized! (Bonus app: Hilton Honors, which offers a digital key to your room!)
For affordable alternatives to taxis, check out apps like Uber and Lyft. Download the app before your trip to explore your options and avoid having to find wifi or use data to download the app when you land. (The app automatically detects your location using GPS, but you can manually set your pickup spot and destination to investigate pricing and travel time in advance.)
A word of warning: Shuttles are often less expensive, but they make lots of stops before you get to your destination. In one city, my 20-minute ride lasted an hour and a half. I got off the plane late at night and ended up wishing I had paid for the added convenience. Ask first. In big cities like Madrid and New York, I take a taxi to the hotel, but on the way from the hotel to the train or the airport, I might do things differently (by then, I’ve gotten my bearings.)
Rush-hour traffic in Washington, DC can be either a nightmare or a spectacle worth watching, depending on your perspective, because of the motorcades for government officials. On my last trip, a 15-minute taxi ride took 45 minutes. This time I am using the subway.
When taking the trains, there are often many lines using the same track. The locals know exactly how to identify them. I ask them to help me, because I have ended up in the wrong place before.
I make sure I have good walking shoes. If something is five blocks away or even 10, I am more likely to walk than use a transportation system I’m unfamiliar with. After all, this is faster than walking to the stop, waiting for the train or the bus, and then walking to your destination.
As for DC, the city redefines the city block—government buildings are huge and can take up a whole DC block. On that note, if you visit any government offices, check your pedometer after visiting several offices in the same building! Let’s just say many people who work there have comfortable shoes. Leave the hotel with what you can carry easily for a good walk! If you are sightseeing, keep in mind water fountains can be few and far between. You might want to have a way to carry a water bottle. And check the weather to see if you’ll need an umbrella. No one likes being wet and cold!
I always arrive at conference cities a day early to get my bearings, get over jet lag, take in a few sights, find my favorite restaurants, and just feel relaxed. I often meet other attendees, and we do some sightseeing together. No business talk; we are in “off” mode. It’s also nice to stay after the conference. Going to DC and not seeing the Smithsonian, for example, would be a real pity. Last year I went to the Congreso San Jerónimo in Guadalajara and saw the book fair and attended the conference, but didn’t see the city at all. I really missed out. (I was rushed because I was getting ready for my daughter’s wedding two weeks later!) This year, I’m making up for it by taking an extra week in Guadalajara with my husband. I can hardly wait to get to know the city better in November!
But for now, DC awaits. See you at the conference!
Helen Eby, prolific conference-goer