The smartphone and the rise of “micromobility” have dramatically changed the landscape for getting around cities while traveling. When traveling internationally, the options compound further, with local and regional champions and city-specific modalities. Having a good grasp of the mobility options can make travel faster, cheaper, and more authentic, so it’s worth doing your homework.
Public Transit: Not So Scary
Tourists are sometimes afraid to use public transit – especially the bus. It can be intimidating to deal with payment, or to end up somewhere unexpected. But technology has gone a long way towards making that better.
Contactless payment, in the form of “tap-to-pay” credit cards and services like Apple Pay are quickly being adopted in transit systems around the world. These obviate the need for buying tickets or transit cards.
In many cities, the transit directions in Google Maps have gotten outstanding. They’ll often provide real-time information about bus or train arrivals, costs, transfers and more. While it’s still fun to read a subway map, the Google Maps digest (“ride 3 stops on red, transfer to blue and ride two stops”) is the ultimate cheatsheet. Worst case, rideshare services mean that if you end up totally lost and can’t figure out the system, help is just a tap of the Uber app away.
Rideshare: Let’s Grab an Uber via Lyft
Rideshare services like Uber and Lyft are some of the original “disruptors” in the transit space. While taxis are far from a new concept, rideshare services removed the friction that made taxis a last resort rather than a first choice. Transparent pricing, no need to worry about cash, and reliable pickups are a godsend for travelers. Beyond just making it easy to move from place to place, they enable exploration that might previously have been off limits. Set out walking and if you get tired or weather catches you out, fetch a ride. Or ride a city bus with confidence, knowing that if you get totally turned around you can always get home.
In the US, Uber and Lyft pretty much dominate the market. I generally use Lyft, because they’ve historically been (slightly) less shady as a company. When traveling abroad, things get a little more complicated, but the benefits can be more substantial. When you don’t speak the local language, an app-based service circumvents the language barrier. And costs are often very low, especially in markets where competition is driving price wars.
Uber has made inroads in much of the world, but there are strong regional competitors. Lyft is generally a non-entity outside the US. In Southeast Asia, you’ll probably be using Grab. In parts of the Russian speaking world, Yandex is the primary player. In parts of Europe, Bolt has become a great option.
It’s worth doing research on your location in advance, and do what you can to prepare. Install the relevant apps on your phone, and open an account if necessary. Some services won’t let you finish the setup process until your phone is physically located in a service region. Having Apple Pay or Google Pay setup on your device can help with occasional barriers around using foreign credit cards.
Keep in mind as well that the landscape for these services shifts from time to time. Sometimes a local government steps in and bans a service. Sometimes a provider pulls out of the market. Information on the web might be a bit out of date. Adding the current year to a Google search is a good way to look for relevant information (“uber bogota 2022”).
Oh, and don’t slam the door. Americans seem to have a tendency to close car doors with a lot of force (maybe because so many of us drive massive vehicles). It’s a habit that really annoys and offends rideshare drivers everywhere else in the world. Don’t do it.
Four Wheels Good, Two Wheels Better?
Anyone paying attention to micromobility has watched the rollercoaster ride of bikeshare services over the last decade. It’s been quite a journey. A proliferation of small services meant that many cities ended up completely blanketed in bikes. In some places, the intense competition ended up destroying all of the services. The rise of electric scooter rentals like Lime displaced bike rentals in many places.
In some cities, the bike sharing services are very intentionally not for tourists. You might need to show a local government ID to get an account, or have a local mailing address. In other cases, you can grab a bike just using an app or a credit card. Unfortunately, there’s no meta app for bikes and other types of micromobility. You’ll need to do some city-specific research, or ask your hotel or Airbnb host for some guidance.
Because it’s no fun to get hit by a car, especially in a foreign country, I generally recommend only using micromobility transportation in cities with dedicated infrastructure – protected bike lanes, conscientious drivers, etc. And in cities with great bike infrastructure, remember that at rush hour most of the other cyclists are on a mission – getting to work, taking the kids to daycare – and might not have a lot of patience for a tourist on a leisurely (or chaotic) pedal.
Mix those Modalities!
With a bit of research, navigating a foreign city is easier and more affordable than it’s ever been. Mix and match services to fit your personal mobility constraints, the weather, and your goals. A little work before your trip means you’ll hit the ground with a wide variety of options.This entry was posted in Trip Tips