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3 Tips to Avoid Getting Lost

Picture of Swiss Train Station in Switzerland
This Swiss train station is "just minutes" from the apartment - supposedly

You research and plan for weeks, but you can't plan for everything. What do you do when something doesn't work out, and you get lost? What if you were given bad information? What do you do? There we were, panting and sweating in the steep hills of Switzerland, looking for lodging in all the wrong places. We ended up sitting on the sidewalk, utterly lost, on our very first afternoon in a new city...

Lost in Europe
Of course, overall, our family had a fantastic time in gorgeous Switzerland. We did have one particular arrival  to a new city that was, shall we say, challenging. 

On just one stop in all of Europe, our lodging host gave us excruciatingly bad directions to his apartment. He said there was no need to use a taxi because his apartment was located less than 10 minutes away from the train station, by foot. It was so close, in fact, that the first step to getting there was to take a stairwell up the hill at the rear of the train station. Because the stairwell was the first step, we didn't even consider hiring a vehicle.

And, this sounded intriguing to me: we would be leaving the train station not by the front entrance, but by a rear stairwell route, like a Swiss resident? Wow, yeah, I'm in! But his directions were so bad that they were completely unreliable.

I'm changing the details a bit, to protect the identity of those involved, regardless of whether that protection is deserved, but his directions were something that seemed very easy, like:

Go to Platform 5. Take the stairwell from the rear of the train station. Turn left. The apartment will be on your right. It's got green awnings and is next door to the restaurant. 

What could be easier than that? And, we'd save money both going and coming, by not needing to hire a transport for six! Perfect, right? 

A Platform by Any Other Number...
Upon arrival at the train station, we walked through the tunnels under the train tracks then excitedly took the escalator up to Platform 5. Right away, the first thing I noticed is that we were definitely not all the way at the rear of the train station. 

There was another platform, Platform 6, visible from where we were standing, and that seemed to me to be the "rear of the train station." And, there was a stairwell going right up that hill from Platform 6! But, there was also a stairwell leading away from Platform 5, towards a different hill.

So I had a dilemma: do I follow the instruction to start from "Platform 5," like he said, or the instruction to "Take the stairwell from the rear of the train station," which he also said? My instinct was that the "rear of the train station" detail was very important, so we should check that first.

Climbing a Stairway to Nowhere
We went back down the escalator, through the tunnel, and then took another escalator up to Platform 6. From there we walked up a long, long flight of stairs, until finally, we reached a dead-end. The top of the stairs featured a tall gate which was locked. It also appeared to be leading directly into someone's back yard. If by some chance you were to get through that locked gate, you'd be stuck there, in some family's back yard. There was another gate blocking access to the street. The only additional exit from that back yard would be to go directly into someone's home!

From the wrong side of a locked gate, I peered around at the nearby buildings, looking for green awnings, and anything else I recognized from the listing's photos. As far as I could tell, we weren't even on the right street.

Well, we weren't on a street at all, really. This was no man's land, as far as following directions go: standing at a locked gate, 3 stories above the train station, looking at someone's private back yard. A teenager came up the stairs from the train station, and smiled, and asked in French-accented English if we needed help. (This was on the French-speaking side of Switzerland, in the west, not too far from Geneva.)  I gave her the address to where we were going, and described the green awnings and the restaurant we were trying to find, and she just smiled, and shook her head. "Sorry," she said, and went through the gate with her key, locking it behind herself.

So, taking that as an invitation to beat it, we trudged back down the three flights of stairs to the train station. On the way I announced to the kids,

"Okay, wrong platform. But now we've got it!" 

Once back at the train station, we went back through the tunnel under the train tracks, and hurried up the escalator to Platform 5. We took the flight of stairs from the end of Platform 5, and, guess what? We found ourselves at yet another locked gate!

However, there was another path nearby that also led up that hill. We figured that surely the path and the stairs must lead to the same place. Besides, what other options did we have?

At this point, none of the directions are working: neither the stairs from Platform 5, nor the stairs from the rear of the train station, led to anything other than a dead-end at a locked gate. So we trudged up an alternative path from Platform 5.

Green Awnings
As soon as we got to the top of that hill (which was a laborious effort, considering we're flatlanders!) I spotted the green awnings he had mentioned, which would be attached to his building. The strange thing was, the building with the green awnings wasn't on the street that I was expecting. It was one street over, even further up the hill. That seemed odd

But: green awnings! You can't argue with green awnings, man. They were awnings, and they were green. What else do ya want?

So we turned towards the building - which, I was dismayed to discover, meant making a turn to the right, not the left, as instructed. I knew that this had to be the wrong way, but still: green awnings! And, as we got closer to them, we could see the little restaurant right next door!  Ah, sweet, sweet victory! 

But, tiny problem: there was a street sign, and the name on that street sign was not the name I was expecting. Now, green awnings or no green awnings, and next-door restaurant or not, buildings that you seek are usually not going to be located on streets that have street signs with the wrong name on them.

I had the family wait a moment while I went over to that building with the green awnings, and verified that its building number was also incorrect. Suffering some uncomfortable flutterings of bewildered confusion, I tried my security code on the front door anyway. It didn't open. I eyed the closed restaurant next door with mounting disgust.

Communications with The Host
I walked back to the family and gave them the news:

"Okay, I'm calling the host. This is getting ridiculous."

Ring-ring. Ring-ring. Ring-ring. Nothing! All I heard was an invitation in French to leave a message. I immediately called again. No answer, same recorded greeting.

No problem, I'll send a text. I know more than one person back home who will gleefully ignore 3 phone calls but then will answer a text within seconds. We sent our pleas for help via text, and waited around in the street for a reply. Nothing.

I called again. Nothing. Another text.  Aaaaaaaand:  nothing.

So, what do you do when you're stranded, you can't find the apartment you've fully prepaid, and you can't get the host to respond to your calls for help?

Red Flags
He made absolutely no reply to my phone calls or texts. Then it hit me: when exactly was my first warning? I remembered that about two months before the trip, I sent him a question via a message on the rental platform's website. My question (about whether it would be possible to drop off our bags a few hours before check-in) was sent a few days after the booking was made and prepaid. I waited three weeks for his answer, then messaged him a second time. Finally, he replied with an answer that boiled down to, "I don't know. Ask again when you arrive."

Western Switzerland Lake Geneva aka Lac LĂ©man
View of Switzerland's Lake Geneva and mountains,
photo taken from the green space just across from the train station

His non-responsive answer, and the timing of it (3 weeks), bothered me. A simple "No you can't," would have been preferable in some ways, but an "I don't know" seemed like a strange answer. And considering the 3-week delay, it was probably the least helpful of any answer I'd ever received via that particular rental platform. But, I stuck with the rental, for two inescapable reasons: it was a fully prepaid, nonrefundable booking, and, it was far below the price of all comparable, still-available apartments in the area (was the price another warning sign?).

Cries for Help
So while my whole family was hot and tired and lost, he ignored my requests for assistance in locating the apartment. I texted him:

We're lost. Where is your apartment? We are at the green awnings but the street name and building number are wrong. Security code does not open that door. Can you call me please?

and 2 minutes later, having received no reply, I texted again:

Were we supposed to leave walking from Platform 5 or Platform 6? Stairs at both are locked. Call me. Lost.

There was no response of any kind for about 10 minutes, until then it dawned on me... Wait a minute, I need to be having this one-sided conversation documented with the host via the rental platform, because I'm getting very close to the point of giving up on this apartment, and stomping off to the nearest hotel, where I'll have no choice but to pay an exorbitant sum for last-minute, alternative lodging. So I contacted him on the website I had used to book his apartment. That always works, right?

Not this time. He didn't even reply when I contacted him in a method that gets tracked by the third party that arranged the rental. What kind of host was this, anyway?

GPS Offers a Wild Goose Chase
Of course, I had an international smartphone in my hands, so how could I be lost? The thing is, it could not give me good directions. It wanted me to go back to the train station, and take the main road to yet another hill way off in the distance, providing a driving time of over 15 minutes. I decided there was no possible way that could be right. How could it be 15 minutes by car, if the apartment was only 10 minutes by foot from the train station?

This was our first day back in Switzerland - we had left Barcelona early that morning - and I had already discovered on this trip that on the first day in a new country, the phone's GPS could be very wonky and unreliable (some might even say: evil), as described in this prior post.

Plunging Onward 
Meanwhile, there was not a soul in sight. Every business and residence we passed seemed to be shuttered. No one was walking in the streets, and we saw no vehicular traffic either. So I asked the wife and kids to sit in the shade on the curb (right next to one of Switzerland's much-appreciated drinking fountains, full of cool water where you can refill your bottles for free). I advised them:  

"Okay, wait here. I'm going to walk around and look for it. It's got to be here somewhere! I'm going to try that other hill again, from the street this time, instead of the stairwell."

I dropped my bag next to theirs, and marched up one of the steepest hills I've ever walked. It was one of those hills that feels more like climbing a ladder than walking. Once I hit the top of it, I picked a random direction. After about a block, guess what I saw, off in the distance? Green awnings, on a different building! Oh, joy!

Cautiously Hopeful
But, wait just a minute there, pal. I wasn't about to get suckered by any random pair of green awnings again. I knew that before I got the family to climb that monster of a hill, I had better be very, very certain that this building was the right one. I needed to walk all the way over to it and even go so far as to test out my security code on the front door. I wasn't going to be fooled by green awnings twice!  As they say:

“There's an old saying in Tennessee — I know it's in Texas, probably in Tennessee — that says, fool me once, shame on — shame on you. Fool me — you can't get fooled again.”

So I schlumped over to those green awnings, and felt my shoulders sag as I realized there was no restaurant next door. I stopped at the foot of the building, and peered up at it, trying to see if it looked anything like the pictures in the listing. I looked all around and couldn't see anything else with green awnings, or anything that I recognized from the rental listing's photos. 

With my heart thrumbing in my mouth, I made a silent prayer as I approached the front door, to try my security code. I decided:  if this code doesn't work, we're going to a hotel! I punched in the long code, and was amazed when the door gave a little buzz and popped open! Success!

One More "Short Walk"
I closed the door and tried my code again just so I could believe my own eyes. This had to be the place! I said a prayer of thanksgiving as I headed back over to the family and gave them the great news:  just 10 more minutes of walking, including climbing up the steepest hill they had ever seen, and we'd be there! There was essentially nothing left but the "short walk" we had been promised.

But first I had to fairly well collapse on the curb in a heap, to catch my breath. My wife kindly refilled my water bottle, sweetly carrying the nourishing elixir of life to her intrepid explorer as he wiped the sweat from his brow and panted like a dog.

Taking a taxi was out of the question, as the entire time I'd been on the exploratory trek, I hadn't seen even one taxi of any kind pass by, much less one that could carry 6 passengers. Making the walk with the family was an adventure, because the sidewalk narrowed until it disappeared. This was a winding, hilly street, so the town planners had made the sidewalk last as long as they could, then they just ended it. Eventually we were walking right in the street, but inside of a solid yellow line that ran along about 10 inches from a building's brick wall. This seemed like it might possibly be a traffic control line, one which I fervently hoped carried a message like this to the Swiss motorists:

 Dear car drivers, please don't hit people walking inside this yellow line.

I hollered back to the kids a warning not to let their backpacks or elbows jut too far out into the street, because now, in the last moments, we finally began to see some car traffic. We finally got there, and, using our door code with success, we made it up the elevator to the apartment. 

From the balcony upstairs, I finally spotted the restaurant mentioned in the directions: it was across the street and down the hill around a U-shaped curve - not easily visible from the ground-floor entrance of the apartment at all, and not exactly what I'd call "next door" either.

Where did Queen record their last album
This town in Switzerland features a statue honoring the inimitable Freddie Mercury, of the 70's rock band Queen. The band bought a recording studio there, where they recorded their last album.

A Share of the Blame
How much of all this situation was my fault? Well, some, surely! I was very busy prior to the journey, and didn’t put much research time into it.  Well, I mean, I researched it for a couple of dozen hours, of course, but, compared to what I would usually have done for an international journey, that's nothing. I usually spend twice as much time researching a trip as actually being on the trip! But that's okay. I really enjoy research. It's a big part of what I do for a living, and when I get to research something that interests me, I can keep that up for hours.  

But prior to this trip to Europe, I had been busy day and night, and had just let some things slide. I figured that smartphones were so useful that their services would rescue us from any failure to plan on my part. But, as I experienced on the day of being lost, the phone's GPS was useless in this situation. Too many hills, too many curves, too many pedestrian-only paths and (locked) stairwells - the GPS could not help in this town.

Another mistake on my part: I had committed a blatant violation of our own One Thing Per Day Rule (described in this post) that day. It was an egregious case, too: we left Barcelona while it was still dark, traveled by plane and then by train, then spent two hours touring a historical site, and then went swimming, and then went out for pizza, all in one day! What was I thinking? While we were lost looking for this apartment, we were all still a bit damp from a recent swim in Lake Geneva, and our backpacks were loaded with our wet swimsuits. So we hadn't left ourselves the necessary cushion of time and reserves of energy, to deal with the unexpected issues that can arise when traveling.

When, many hours later, the host finally responded to my texts, he conceded that he must have given me bad directions. He said he lives out of town, but the last time he was there, some while back in time, the directions seemed correct to him. However, he concluded that the train station must have changed the platform numbers! And, also, the town must have added a locking gate to a stairwell which formerly had no gate at all.  But, the real problem here is that I was renting from a host that lived nowhere near his hosted property. He didn't use a local to manage the property, and with him being so far away, and rarely visiting, his knowledge can't possibly be kept up to date. He assured me he would correct the directions that he provides to other families that rent his 6-person apartment.

More Surprises
The directions the host gave me prior to the trip were so awful that it resulted in my family getting lost on foot, with luggage, for over 30 minutes. And since this was in a very hilly Swiss city, we were sweat-soaked, exhausted, and furious with the host by the time we finally found his apartment. 

And, there was more news to come: this was only the beginning of the problems with that particular apartment rental!  But, more on that in a future post, tentatively to be entitled: When Things Go Wrong, Switzerland Edition Part II: The Dirty Apartment. [Update: that post is here.]

Our Big Family's Tips
Our tips to avoid getting lost:

#1:  Walk it Online First
Research where you’re going, verifying that any of the provided walking directions will actually work, from home. Use online "Street View" tools to digitally "walk it" from the comfort of home. If you run into questions or problems with the directions, you'll have ample time and leisure to resolve those problems before you begin your journey.

#2:  Paper Maps as Backups
As a backup to using GPS on an international smartphone, print out the walking/driving directions along with a simple map from the train station (or airport) to the lodging. Pack that in the same place as your plane tickets or train tickets. If you arrive some place to find that your battery is dead, or you don't have a signal, or your GPS is attempting to sabotage you, it will be a big relief to remember that you printed your maps out at home and brought them with you.

#3:  Trust Brains First, Technology Second
My basic navigational mistake in Europe was something I’ve never done on any prior trip: relying far too heavily on technology, by assuming I didn’t need to know anything much about where I was going because my international smartphone was going to take care of everything. That was a dumb attitude of complacency on my part. While traveling, use smartphones as a potentially handy tool, but not as your lifeline or only source of knowledge.

And:  Document Any Issues
If a problem arises with a rental lodging, whether it is with malodorous directions, or being locked out (as described in this post), or any other aspect of your ability to check-in, always contact the host via the rental's website or app, rather than by text, or WhatsApp, or any other platform the host may try to convince you to use for supposedly “easier” communications. Those alternative contact methods are considered “easier” for some hosts, because the actual rental platform can't grade them on how fast they respond, and can’t read the messages if there is a problem that ends up requiring their intervention or a full or partial refund later.   

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What About You?
Ever been utterly lost in between the airport or train station, and the place where you're supposed to stay? Ever had to give up on finding your hotel or apartment, and just stay somewhere else? What did you do?

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