Arriving In New Cities After Dark

I like cities at night, but I don't like to arrive in cities at night
I just arrived in Quito, Ecuador. My flight landed at 11:15pm and by the time I got out of the airport through what was perhaps the least efficient passport/customs control I’ve ever seen, I finally took a cab and arrived at my destination.

All things being equal, I don’t like arriving in a city at night, especially if I have never been there before. You can’t see anything and you don’t have a good feel for the city if your first impressions are after dark. Also, when you arrive late at night you have to worry a bit more about thieves, scam artists, muggers and every manner of lowlife which comes out at night. Moreover, you have to do it while carrying your bag which just screams that you are ripe for picking.

Then there is a good chance when you arrived at your hotel that it might not be open. Higher end hotels usually have staff there 24/7, but smaller hotels or guesthouses might not. I’ve had times where I sat outside the place I was supposed to stay knocking on a door hoping someone would wake up.

In some places like Samoa there are so few incoming flights that everyone is prepared and accustom to the light night arrival. When you land at Faleolo International, you’ll find taxis waiting and when you arrive at your hotel, everyone will know you are coming.

The next worst time to arrive in a new city is early in the morning. When I arrived in Istanbul last June we pulled into the bus station at about 5am. At that hour you wont find many places open if you want to get something to eat, and you certainly are not going to have your room ready for you at the hotel. Most of my group left their luggage at the hotel and went to a Turkish Bath. I slept in the lobby of the hotel where my snoring made me a high priority for the first room which was available.

The early morning arrival is a common part of many transoceanic flights and you are always stuck with the “How do I kill time with my luggage before I can get in my hotel room” dilema. I have sat a many a McDonald’s using free wifi and nursing a drink waiting for 12pm to show up.

My favorite time to arrive in a new city is around noon. The sun is out so you can see everything when you land, businesses are open and by the time you get through the airport to your hotel you will probably be able to check in immediately.

What is your favorite “arriving in a city at a weird hour” story?

30 thoughts on “Arriving In New Cities After Dark”

  1. I arrived in Tel Aviv from San Francisco around 9pm for a 3 month trip. After eventually recovering my bags and locating the shuttle vans to Jerusalem I set out on a side of the world I had never been to where I knew no one. I met friendly tourists in the van but when I was dropped off at the edge of the Old City of Jerusalem where I had decided to stay, navigating payment in shekels was mind bending. I had booked a hostel from continents away with the mindset that I wanted to stay close to the landmarks I had only seen pictures of so that I could explore in the morning before meeting the group I was staying with for the remainder of my trip. After exiting the cab with my giant suitcase I was quickly aware of the fact that I had probably made a poor life choice. As the shuttle pulled away a man approached me immediately, first offering to show me his shop of jewelry and clothes… which was still open close to 11pm? When I told him that I was looking for an address he pushed the bill for his shop for another few minutes but eventually offered to show me the way. Venturing into dark, steep and twisted alleys with a complete stranger was not my usual but it sounded like my only option. He first tried to verbally outline directions to my hostel but after a 3 minute description of lefts and rights I took him up on his offer of showing me the way. Dragging my poor luggage behind me I quickly followed him and was shocked after a 10 minute journey through the maze to see a swinging sign for the hostel. Once inside my guide hung around a few minutes more in the attempt to get me to stow my bags and return to his shop to peruse the wares. I quickly promised him a visit tomorrow and with a fast glance at the hostel staff he was on his way. After checking in and paying in advance I realized my second error. The hostel had many rooms but instead of radiating outwards through the surrounding buildings they were built straight up. My room happened to be on the “fifth” floor. To make a long story short it took three volunteers and I quite an effort to get my luggage up the winding staircase but once it was successfully done I discovered that my tiny room had a gorgeous view out over the Old City and my immediate desire was to sleep so that I could wake up and take in the view in the light of day.

  2. The only two places I arrived after dark have been New York and Bangkok and I managed to enjoy both experiences. Sp I guess i have only good to expect from now on;)

  3. Good job bro..keep it up!!! well i love traveling in dark..Traveling in moonlight, such a unforgettable experience..

  4. Great post..this doesn’t apply to a city like Singapore. It doesn’t matter if you arrive there late night, morning or afternoon. You’ll find the place pretty safe :)

  5. I always hate getting to a place late at night… I am never sure about where it is safe to go or what area of town I’m in. That’s where I think hotel quality makes the biggest difference, because they generally have something in house or someone who will help you out.

  6. Worst I ever had was arriving in BKK sick as dog from Nepal. Could barely see, had no idea where to go etc… Khao Sahn road was a bit of a lifesaver with the large hotel signs enabling me to actually find my way :)

  7. That photo all lit up at night is gorgeous. I don’t have a story for arriving in a city late at night. I agree, daytime is the time to get there. I recently had a friend who went to Equador to help a poor area. The photos I saw included security guards, so your photo has shown me a better “light” of the country.

  8. HI Gary, I hope you love traveling through South America as much as I do. You’ve already been in Quito–I really enjoyed the “old” Quito, and the Galapagos Islands are fascinating. I also recommend the town of Ban~os, and there is also a really cool lodge in the Ecuadorian Amazon called La Selva. As for stories about first arrivals…the first time I arrived to Guayaquil was pretty memorable. I entered by bus from Peru. This was back in March of 1983, and northern Peru and Southern Ecuador were reeling from the horrendous rains caused by what was later deemed the first El Nin~o effect…roads and bridges were washed out everywhere. In fact, the day I arrived was the first day that land travel was possible between the border and Guayaquil. A trip that normally took a few hours took most of the day…we took detours through banana plantations and at one point the bus forded a river because the bridge was unsafe. I was on an old converted school bus for local transportation…all luggage was strapped to the top of the bus, and halfway there it began to rain torrentially. By the time the bus arrived to Guayaquil, everything inside suitcases was quite soaked. We arrived at night. I was going to stay at a friend’s house, so I grabbed a taxi, and gave the address. To my great surprise, my friend lived only about 3 blockes away from the bus station. I luckily had a place to lay out all my clothes to dry, but the two French guys and German girls that I had met at the border, and who were backpacking, I’m sure spent a couple of days drying out!

  9. My first time overseas I landed in London at 8pm. I was told beforehand that when I get out of my tube stop to go left. I decided right seemed better, I was wrong! The next time I got to London I arrived in the morning, it was so much better!

  10. This past January I arrived in Managua on a Spirit Air flight at 1am. By the time the cabbie dropped me at the Backpacker’s Inn -where I’d booked and paid for a private room online earlier that day- it was 2am. I had to bang loudly on the door. Finally a woman awoke and opened up. Fortunately I had enough Spanish to explain the situation as she had no knowledge of my arrival. She didn’t have a key to a private room so stuck me in the dorm w/out turning any lights on. I’d forgotten repellent and got eaten alive while not being able to sleep. I had a flashlight but couldn’t find a bathroom and eventually found her and needed to wake her again to show me where I could use the facilities.

  11. Your absolutely right i just arrived in D.C an it was a bummer. The air was hot the stores were closed an i could not see a damn thing lol so i just bought an high priced cup of noddles an called it a night in till the tour the next day

  12. Hmm. That’s a good question.

    One place that I love arriving at night is the Fort Myers Internation Airport in Fort Myers, Florida (United States).

    The Airport is nearly brand-new (about 5 years since renovation) and the place smells of a soft scent that i can’t explain.
    The people there are extremely friendly, and the staff their are as jolly as Saint Nick. The airport terminals are painted a nice beige colour with a sandstone floor. Everything about it makes you feel welcome.

    And the best part?

    It may the fact that the airport is hardly busy, but once you step outside, you get blasted with a breathe of Florida air: Warm, calm, and nice.

    We go here once a year or so, and the trips here are some of my most relished vacation experiences ever.

  13. Being hungry and having nowhere to eat sucks. I keep a supply of granola bars in my bag just in case everything is closed when I arrive.

    Sometimes I’ll find a spot at the airport to sleep if I arrive too early in the morning.

  14. I arrived at around 11:45pm in Spokane, WA. There really is no reason anyone should be visiting Spokane, but that’s another story.

    I picked up my rental car from the airport and off I went on what was suppose to be a 90-minute drive to Sands Point, Idaho. Again there is no reason anyone should be visiting Sands Point.

    But driving between point a and b was quite the challenge as there were no street lights along the way. Lovely.

    As I nervously gripped my steering wheel on this windy night, my gps told me I was nearby. My hotel sat on top of a small mountain. Of course it did!

    As I am getting closer and closer to what my gps says is a street I must turn left on, I see nothing but fields of weeds and trees.

    I pass it and the gps says “Calculating route…when possibly turn left at High Street.” Remember I can barely see anything…even with my hazards on.

    I make the turn onto High Street slowly bc I cannot see what the hell I am turning on to. Then I hear a loud noise…a really loud noise.

    It’s a god damn train flying by right in front of my car! No lights on the train except for the front and back of it.

    So I sit nervously waiting for the ghost train to pass and then go ahead driving down High St. Turns out High St. was repaved and the gps never updated it.

    I had to drive around for an extra hour and at 2am finally found a gas station open. He told me directions and I made it to my room at 245am.

    Never going to Spokane or Sands Point again!

    • Ha! That GPS story reminds me of one of my own, but not at all a nearly-fatal one like yours! It was my own fault – I had programmed my GPS for the various locations needed for a trip to the LA area. Landed (after dark), picked up rental, driving waiting for the GPS to acquire. At some point, I must have hit it and redirected it, because I’m driving, driving, off into residential area….clearly not hotel type of location. It took me to the house of a coworker who would be hosting a get-together later in the visit. Backtracked (WHY is it always a backtrack?) to the hotel. Lesson learned on this trip: ALWAYS do a rough map check for your first stop so you’ll know if you’re heading to the right place!

  15. Been to Bangkok twice for work; arrived in the late evening, both times. The first time, after traveling (and not sleeping much) for 29 hours (complicated by a delay getting out of Narita), I arrived at the airport in Bangkok close to 1 a.m. Got in the line for the shuttle service a co-worker had praised…a few others, were, too. My hotel was the Sofitel on the outskirts; I give them the information (and location). Get in the car they direct me to…we travel for about an hour. Maneuvering through noisy, colorful crowds on tiny streets. Surreal, amazing, especially because I’m exhausted. Car arrives at “my” hotel. By this point, I’m suspicious….turns out it’s the wrong Sofitel; they must have swapped ‘who goes where’ with someone else (I had known enough to recheck just before stepping into the car, but only thought to say “Sofitel?”, not knowing there was a downtown one, too.) Well, the driver wants to leave me there. I’m having none of it. Hotel security comes over to see what’s going on (the driver’s outside the car). I tell them (they *do* speak good-enough English), and they yell at the driver (in Thai). He gets back in (with complaints) and takes me to the proper hotel (45 minutes *back* the way we came). Got into hotel room after 3 a.m. Would it have made a difference when I arrived; not sure, but the darkness certainly added to the “uh-oh” aspect of the adventure!

    • I think how familiar you are with a place makes a difference. I’ve been to Bangkok many times, so if I arrive at night it isn’t a big deal for me anymore. I always stay at the same place, I know the route there and I can tell the taxi driver in Thai where I want to go. It is also centrally located so it is easy to find.

  16. I agree with all your reasons for arriving in the daytime and would add that I think it impacts your impression of a city when you can’t start enjoying it right away. In fact, I think that’s part of the reason I never liked Quito or Lima much – we arrived late, felt unsafe, and just got off to a bad start.

    We arrived late at night in Quito twice in our travels – once we witnessed a car/motorcycle accident where everyone involved was drunk as our taxi drove us through what had to be the worst part of town to avoid political protests, and the second time we ended up at a hostel near the bus station late on Christmas Eve that we affectionately named “the serial killer inn.” We had crackers for dinner and slept in our clothes and couldn’t believe what a scary neighborhood it was when we saw it in the light the next morning.

    In Lima we arrived late on the bus and then tried to find our way to the apartment rental with a cab driver who said he knew the way but didn’t. Especially when you are staying in a residential area of a large city, it is important to get there in the daytime to find your way. No one is out to help with directions when you arrive late!

  17. I can remember flying into Vegas in the middle of the night. You can imagine that the view from the plane was pretty spectacular!
    If I remember correctly, pretty much everything was still open, so it wasn’t such a big deal. God bless 24/7 cities.

  18. When I arrived in Jakarta from Sydney last year, my flight was due to arrive at 9pm. But thanks to a storm, we got diverted to Singapore for a while, and eventually made it back to Jakarta at after midnight. By the time I’d made it through customs and bag collection, it was after 1am….and due to a slightly chaotic final week in Australia I had no hotel booked.

    So I jumped into a cab towards the area known for it’s cheap hotels and traveller services, hoping that at least *something* would be open at half one in the morning – and when I got there, was surprised (and very, very relieved) to find the street buzzing and all the guesthouses still open. In no time at all, I was checked into a bargain room and back out onto the street with a cold beer.

    Thank god Jakarta is a proper 24-hour city!

  19. My favorite time to reach my destination in noon or evening. I think you can easily check in at that time and get your meal, on the other side if you reach at night or early morning you have to wait only.

  20. I arrived in Moscow at 5:30am on a Saturday once, tired and hungover. I was going to do my darndest to go and explore the city, but ended up crashing for 2 hours in the hotel. Best laid plans!

  21. Great post!
    I agree, I really try to avoid arriving at a new location late at night.

    I had a bad experience in Jo’burg South Africa a few years back. Basically, I had to stay in the airport until daylight because the airport staff people kept cautioning and warning us not to leave the building in the dark without a plan of action.

  22. One time I arrived in London pretty late and it was around 1am before I got to my bags and realized that one was missing. I went to the BA counter but they told me to come back in the morning. I wasn’t going to head into central London only to come back first thing in the morning, so I slept in the airport. By morning they had “found” my bag, but it was missing a few things after going through customs.

  23. When I was 19 my friends and I arrived in Amsterdam around 10/11p after missing our flight from London and having to take a later flight.

    We were three girls and we must’ve looked perplexed. I’ll never forget this red-headed girl came up to us and asked if we were looking for a certain hotel. We told her no, and told her where we were staying. She offered to walk us there. We blindly followed. In hindsight I’m not sure I’d be so trusting, and looking back I wonder if she was expecting a “tip”? But either way she got us to our hostel safely.

    I agree, especially as I’m now a “bit” older :) I would prefer not to arrive in a new city that late at night!

  24. Before sunset is prime. Still a bit of time with light to walk around the city for a bit get to the hotel, enjoy the night for a few hours maybe until 10 or 11, and then sleep and get up ready to go the next morning!

  25. When I was a kid, we always used to arrive late in the evening in Florida (from Michigan) when visiting my grandparents. The experience was always surreal to wake up in a completely different ecosystem.
    It’s even weirder now waking up in a whole new country when I travel. I remember arriving in Hong Kong for the first time after dark. All you get is glimpses of what the city is about.

  26. Now see, I like practical articles such as these on blogs; not those 10 reasons why you should avoid ariving in the dark.

    I also asked in the BNA (Boots n’ All) forums about arriving in the dark, what everyones’ thoughts were on that.

    I pretty much got the same consensus as you offer here.

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