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By The Way
Detours with locals. Travel tips you can trust.
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trust me, take a cab in a new city

The best way to savor the first moments in an unfamiliar place is through the window of a taxi

(Min Heo/Illustration for The Washington Post)
4 min

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It is a truth universally acknowledged, that the first moment in a new country is magical and must be savored.

I’m pretty sure my compatriot Jane Austen would have had the same take, had she ever flown in an aluminum skybox to a distant land.

Whether you’re flying for business or pleasure, once you’ve gotten off the plane, patiently lined up in immigration and yanked your bag off the carousel, it’s finally exit time. My advice: Now is not the time to pinch pennies; take a cab.

I know it’s a luxury, often a costly one, but trying to find convoluted ways to your accommodation on an unfamiliar public transport network (although climate-friendly) robs you of that first rich experience, where you can hang your head out of a window like an eager Labrador and drink in those precious first moments in a brand-new country.

I’ll admit that if I’m traveling with friends, I’m usually the lazy group member who will follow the leader and let them worry about routes and logistics. I’m busy ogling at the funny signs or wonderful names of stores, as they scratch their heads, gallantly puzzling over how to get us from A to B.

But, when I’m traveling alone, I like nothing more than waltzing over to the inevitably long taxi line outside an airport, haggling, chatting and letting a person familiar with the country take me on what feels like a personal private tour as the landscape unfolds ahead.

I still remember landing in New York for the first time and crossing the Brooklyn bridge from JFK airport wide-eyed as the Manhattan skyline I’d seen in so many films came into view across the water. In Azerbaijan, my cousin and I chuckled at the black cabs that mimicked those we knew back home in London, as we got very obviously ripped off making our way into central Baku. In Iceland, cabs cost a small fortune — but how else can you take in the spooky landscape and sun that still hasn’t risen even at 10 a.m.?

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When I moved to Libya for work in 2012, my airport taxi driver reassured me that the gunshots I heard were jubilant rather than sinister, as people cheered the Arab Spring and toppling of dictator Moammar Gaddafi. On that chaotic and memorable journey, I could quiz my driver for local intel (always fun for a nosy traveler), take in the revolution-inspired graffiti on sandy sidewalks and pour over bombed-out palaces as I sat in traffic jams, in a place that would become my home for the next few years.

In Lebanon, I took my first international cab ride across the Syrian border from Beirut to Damascus, stretched out on the back seat. I was invited for dinner with my driver’s family after he explained that my accommodation was just around the corner from his home.

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When I was backpacking in Asia and trying to cross from Thailand to Cambodia, I realized in panic that I needed a full-page visa (rather than a stamp) in my passport, which had run out of pages. It was my taxi driver who helped me as I steamed out an old visa sticker (probably illegally) over a boiling pan of water in a tea shack on the side of the road to free up space. Angkor Wat was worth it.

Of course, if you’re traveling somewhere you’ve been a lot, ignore me. If you prefer ride-hailing to traditional cabs, fair enough. And this advice doesn’t mean you can’t get cheaper and cleaner transport throughout your vacation or even back to the airport on your way home. But for me, as an avid traveler to almost 60 countries, I often wish I could bottle that magical moment of entry. I would implore you to splurge, relax and watch the big grin dance across your face as you take in the sights and sounds of a new country. It’s priceless.