Solo travel for me is the norm, not the exception. I don’t even call it solo travel, I call it travel.
My first job out of university was as an aviation journalist. I traveled the world on assignment. Europe, South America, Africa and memorably, to what was at the time Communist Eastern Europe. That job is where I learned how to travel.
Afterwards, when I was working in Manhattan and going to grad school at night, my vacations were severely limited by exams and work demands. My friends and I all had different vacation schedules. I wasn’t about to stay home for my precious two week vacation, so off I went — hiking in the Lake district and climbing Mt. Snowden in Wales. There was a trip to Rome, Florence and Venice. Often I would go to Paris and live the local life.
When I married and had kids, I vacationed with my children. Vacations were affordable family visits, because taking the kids to Europe was not a financial option. I adore vacationing with kids, both young and grown. It’s a 24/7 pajama party. Becoming either a vacation destination, or helping your kids financially to vacation with you is a great way to spend time with them, especially when everyone is scattered around the world.
Now I’m back to solo travel again. Sure, if a friend can go with me, that’s great and I enjoy it. But I never let the idea of traveling alone stop me from taking a trip. If it did, I wouldn’t be traveling anywhere.
Sometimes I get on a plane and go. If it is a bigger trip to a challenging and exotic destination where for some reason I feel vulnerable, I’ll join a group.
I never feel “less than” when I travel alone. Au contraire, I feel like the most fascinating woman in the room.
I’m thinking about a dinner I had in Milan recently. I left my hotel and wandered into a neighborhood that I had read was a cool, lively place. I looked at the various trattorias, read the menus, looked at the patrons. I found one I liked and was seated by a waiter. I’m not self conscious and feel perfectly wonderful having a meal by myself.
As I writer, I’m big people watcher. I imagine lives as I observe what they’re wearing, what they ordered, tone of voice and snippets of conversation I manage to overhear. Two women sat down next to me. We said hello, and then I turned my attention away so they could have their privacy. I tuned my ears into what turned out to be a stilted conversation between a British mother visiting her daughter in Milan. Cold, forced, uninteresting, uncomfortable. They might have felt sorry for me, but I felt sorry for them. Lesson learned: don’t fantasize about other people just because they are together.
First rule of solo travel: Become a voracious people watcher. It’s the best entertainment. I watch the Japanese tourists snapping selfies en masse in Notre Dame. What are the wealthy patrons buying in the Via Montenapolone boutiques? Who are those jolly businessmen dining at the Kronenhalle? (Turned out to be hospitality execs.) You get the idea.
Second rule: Self consciousness. Banish it. It ruins a vacation. We all suffer from self consciousness at times. But I find that Europeans, because they live close to so many different cultures, flow more easily in and out of situations without embarrassment. They are comfortable interacting with strangers who don’t speak their language.
Here are some more of my thoughts on solo travel.
- Take your time. Travel comfortably. Nowadays, I’m just not in such a big hurry to get to my destination rapidly at any cost. I make the journey part of the whole deal. I’d rather arrive more slowly but fresh and rested. It often takes me three flights to get anywhere and I won’t fly three airplanes in one day. Two yes, three no. I spend the night or a few nights along the way. I either plan it as a side excursion, or as an R and R.
- I treat myself to some glam comforts when I travel alone. I may stay in a better hotel than I would if I were paling around with a friend. I may take taxis instead of public transportation. Although I always leave any airport in public transportation — it really is so much more cost and time efficient.
- My friend Margaret does just the opposite when she travels. She stays in more adventurous places where she feels she will meet more kindred, adventurous souls. She seeks out interesting hostels, and internet incubators, inspiring me to be more adventurous in my accommodations.
- Traveling alone really does force you to meet people. I’m a natural chit chatter. I will ask anyone anything to get a rapport started. My life has been enriched in so many ways by having conversations with people I meet on tour buses, restaurants, museums, shops, airports. People like to share information. Is this where the tour bus picks up? Can you tell me what time it is?
- Don’t take selfies. Ask someone to take your picture.
- Waiters and shopkeepers are especially great to talk to and get good tips — about places to go, eat and what to do.
- The phrase most often heard around the world? “Do you speak English?” When a Chinese tourist wants to speak to an Italian, when a Frenchman wants to speak to a Austrian, when you need to communicate with someone on a train and everyone’s from everywhere, it’s, “Do you speak English?” So, be happy if you do!
- Take more breaks. I mentioned traveling more slowly to get to my destination, but I also sightsee less frenetically than I used to. Travel is exhausting. Do less, do deeper, do slower. You’ll enjoy it more. Sit in the Plaza Duomo, like everyone else, just to hang out and enjoy.
- Sit your butt down in a cafe whenever you feel like it. Surprising how many breaks I need in a day, to recharge and relax.
- Take pix. Jot your notes in a journal.
- Do go out at night! For a walk, a cafe cocktail, dinner, theatre, concert. And if you do plan a night out, make sure you get back to your hotel for a rest beforehand. Pace yourself.
- As much as I adore museums, I don’t visit them when I first arrive in a new city. I need to feel the city, see the architecture, enjoy the street life, before I shut myself away in a museum. Also, you don’t have to visit every museum, no matter how famous it is. Enjoy more by seeing less.
- Travel like pilots and flight attendants. Start observing them. They know where to eat and sleep. Arriving in Heathrow to spend the night in an airport hotel, I stopped at M&S in the airport to buy water, lunch and snacks to nibble in the hotel so I wouldn’t have to dash out immediately.
- Watch how airline personnel pack. I always see three small bags: a small roller carryon, on top of which rests another small bag that is soft sided, plus a bag over their shoulder. Small bags can always fit into odd spaces, and you can lift them more easily.
- Learn how to read travelers’ reviews. Separate out the complainers, whiners, haters and find what’s important for you. Your trip begins with planning, one of the most fun parts of every trip. Anticipation is free!
Go forth and travel my friend! Write me when you do! Do you have any travel tips to share? We’re waiting!