Traveling alone can be a wonderful experience. You can go where you please, do what you please, and meet some interesting new people — all without having to ask your ex’s opinion about anything!
Any of you who are skeptical about traveling alone are probably sitting there thinking, “All right, maybe solo travel is easy and safe, but what the heck do I do when I get there and I’m all alone?” Never fear, you’re going to get out, explore, have fun and meet lots of people in the process.
You must fight feelings of shyness and fear when they threaten to keep you from happiness. I had those feelings on a short trip I took to a golf and beach resort in Florida. I was recovering from a broken romance and my self-esteem was basement-level. I got to my room, unpacked, then just sat on the edge of the bed feeling alone, scared, and sorry for myself. I wrestled with those feelings and reckoned how silly it was to stay in my room. I forced myself to walk over to the golf clubhouse and was soon teeing off alone. After a couple holes of play, I caught up to a twosome of retired men who invited me to join them. I was quickly engaged in the easy, joking camaraderie of the game and began to relax and enjoy. Life looked good again. I signed up to play golf every day, played with different people each time, and made some friends. That turned out to be a wonderful week!
Alone doesn’t mean lonely
Traveling alone doesn’t mean being alone. One of the reasons you’re going alone is because it’s easier to meet people.
On my most recent trip to the Greek Islands, I was “alone” only two out of the seventeen days I was there. By alone, I mean I would spend the entire day in my own company chatting only briefly with shopkeepers, waiters or my hotel staff. “Not alone” would mean that, for at least a short part of the day, I’d have a companion to talk with and maybe sightsee with. Among the people I met on that trip:
¥ Mary, a neurosurgical nurse from London. Mary and I met on the island of Crete and shared four days exploring two cities together and talking for hours over delicious Greek iced coffee.
¥ Philip, a university professor from Manchester. We met at an outdoor cafŽ when I first arrived in the tiny village of Spili. He invited me to come with him in his rental car to see an old fort that afternoon. He was a perfect gentleman and wonderful company. I saw him for a short while each day that we were in Spili, then, on a whim, I accepted his invitation to ride with him to see the city of Chania. I gladly treated him to dinner there in gratitude for his providing the transportation. I have a fond memory of our harmonizing on old songs as we drove through the hills of Crete: “When the red, red robin comes bob, bob bobbin’ along, alongÉ”
¥ John and Maureen, a delightful couple from Vancouver. I met them on the ferry boat from Crete to Santorini and they ended up staying at the same tiny hotel as I. We met each evening on our shared hotel terrace to watch the sunset, drink Greek wine, and munch pistachios and other snacks. We talked and laughed for hours. One evening Ofir and Mira, a young couple from Israel who were also at our hotel, told us that the cactus pears growing on the adjacent cliff are a delicious fruit that they enjoy eating at home. So John rigged up a “pear picking device” made from a long stick with an empty can attached. He clambered onto the cliff, while I recorded his adventure on film. Soon we were all enjoying his tasty harvest.
¥ Theo, a restaurant owner on the island of Paros, who was happy to show me his island in the hours before he had to open his restaurant.
¥ Manolis, the manager of my Santorini hotel who brought me breakfast every morning on my terrace and showed me how to make Greek-style iced coffee.
There were many others I met and shared bits of my days with; a friendly dinner conversation with a German woman who was sitting alone at the next table, a long chat with a young Greek girl on the ferry boat, pleasant talks with shopkeepers and waiters — many happy moments that made me feel anything but alone.
Finding friendly faces
Where do you start? Right in your hotel. You begin by talking to the staff; this is your family while you are there, your support group. Greet them with a smile, remember their faces and maybe even learn their names. Ask them to help you learn a few phrases in their language. They’ll be flattered that you care enough to try, because most tourists don’t bother. Start exploring slowly your first day. Your jet lag will be like a little fog that comes and goes. Find out about your hotel. Where is breakfast served? Is there a restaurant? A bar? Does your hotel have a tour desk? If not, where is the nearest one?
Explore the neighborhood around your hotel. Walk around the block, down the street. Wander where impulse leads you, noting landmarks on your way. Take the time to get your bearings and feel familiar with your new surroundings.
Stop at a cafŽ when you need a rest. Consider asking someone to take your picture. My camera has been in the hands of people all over the world who were kind enough to oblige. It’s a good way to meet people and, if they are also tourists, you can return the favor. When you sit in cafŽs, people-watch. Notice details: clothing, hair, grooming, gestures, attitude. What are people eating and drinking? How are they eating — how do they hold their fork? Their cigarette? Can you spot other tourists? Can you guess what country they are from? Can you spot other North Americans? What makes us look different? While you’re taking note of all the contrasts, always keep in mind the many ways we’re all the same. Record your observations in your journal.
You might take a half-day sightseeing tour your first or second day. This will give you an overview of the city and an idea of places you’ll want to return to for a closer, more in-depth look. It will also help you get your bearings and a feel for how large the city is. Many cities have a river flowing through them, and a river cruise is a wonderfully relaxing way to tour. A few of these cities are London, Paris, Prague, Amsterdam, Budapest, and Bangkok.
The tourist thing
Find out what other tours are available. Nightclub tours are great if you’re nervous about going out alone at night. There are also all-day tours and even overnight tours to places beyond the city you’re in. In San JosŽ, Costa Rica I booked an all-day tour that took me out into the countryside, to a resort where we got to swim in a stream with a thermal pool and waterfall, then to watch a live volcano. The tour included lunch and several other stops. I met some nice people and had a delightful day.
If you feel more confident and adventurous, read the tour company’s brochures for ideas, then head out on your own using a train or public bus. Any good guidebook should explain how to do this, and it will save you a lot of money, too.
Find the local tourist office. Your guidebook should give the location, often near the train station or a major tourist attraction. You can get up-to-date information here on hotels, Bed and Breakfasts, and things to do including festivals, concerts, theater and sporting events. Some European tourist offices, for instance, will find you pleasant guest rooms for as little as $15 per night. I obtained concert information from the tourist offices in Prague, and the staff of the tourist office in Sintra, Portugal was able to direct me to a delightful farmers’ market that was just outside of town.
Learn how to take public transportation. Your guidebook should explain this, but check with the people in your hotel as well. They can also tell you if it’s safe to use public transportation after dark. It’s a great way to mingle with the locals as they go about their daily routine. They’ll be very helpful in pointing out your correct stop, once they understand you’re a tourist. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Using public transportation will save you a lot of money over taxis, but more importantly, it will place you smack in the middle of the culture you’ve come to observe.
When you meet other tourists, compare notes. Ask them where they’ve been, what they’ve seen and done, what they recommend and what else they plan to see. Ask them about their own country as well — you may want to add it to your list of places to visit.
Stores and markets
One of my very favorite ways to explore a different culture is to shop in their grocery stores. You’ll see many familiar items made by North American companies, but you’ll also find many unusual and sometimes exotic things as well. You can buy the makings of a wonderful picnic for yourself: fresh fruit, bottled water, yogurt, bread, cookies, cheese, etc. Grocery stores are also a great source for affordable gifts and souvenirs. In England, look for marmalades, preserves, tea, and biscuits. In France, check out the mustards (I’ve found the cheaper, the better — at least for strength), the salad dressings, and herbs. In other countries you’ll find olives and olive oils, coffee beans, soups, cereals, puddings, spices and seasonings. Browse the aisles for canned goods — curried tuna in Singapore, steak and kidney pie in England, braised octopus in Greece, cassoulet in France. Scan the local wines, juices, and soft drinks. Many things you see will catch your eye and spark your curiosity. They will also be a nice reminder of your vacation.
Pharmacies are also fun to browse. Check out the creams, lotions, shampoos, soaps, and toothpastes.
Another great way to immerse yourself in the culture is to shop the various markets where people go to buy fresh produce, meat, fish, household supplies, clothing, or even antiques. These are usually outdoor events, though sometimes they’re under a roof or tent. Each vendor sets up his or her own display. If you don’t see prices posted, then bargain away! Your guidebook should mention these markets, but also ask at your hotel. Sometimes they only operate between certain hours and on certain days. Some are centrally located but others are on the outskirts of town. Markets are usually crowded, bustling and picturesque. Purchase something, participate, take lots of pictures! I have wonderful snapshots of different types of markets from all over the world:
¥ The flea market in Rome where I bought a shirt, a belt and some cassette tapes.
¥ A small farmers’ market in a Slovakian town where people sell produce and flowers.
¥ The Central Market in San JosŽ, Costa Rica where I saw many unusual types of fruit including the brightly-colored fruit that grow attached to cashew nuts! There were tubs of fish, a pail of sea-turtle eggs, leather belts and bags, and vegetables. Many vendors were selling assortments of dried plants and herbs, most of which I did not recognize. These, I was told, were for medicinal and other uses including insect repellent.
¥ In Hong Kong, the bird market offers for sale an assortment of birds, intricate bamboo cages, tiny blue-and-white china bowls for seed, as well as a fantastic array of live lizards, worms, and insects to feed to the birds.
¥ The markets in Thailand — the most extraordinary I’ve seen so far — where carts are piled high with fresh orchids, exotic fruits and vegetables. I also saw dried pig faces for sale and huge dead waterbugs neatly arranged on trays. And those were just the things I could recognize!
¥ A very large flea market on the outskirts of Paris where I discovered a vendor who sold old postcards — many were over 100 years old, sent by French travelers to their friends and families back home. I bought some postcards of old Chicago, Detroit, and San Francisco. These were fun souvenirs, inexpensive, and very easy to pack.
Remember to guard your money at these markets. It’s easy to be distracted and pickpockets work these crowds. I’ve gotten into the habit of mailing a few postcards to myself while traveling. I write a few cheerful words and a small detail of the day to jog my memory when I receive it. I’ll keep the cards on my fridge at home for awhile then add them to my growing collection.
Explore your options
Attend a cultural event such as a ballet, concert or a play if language will not be a problem. In Paris I tried one day to see the inside of the celebrated Opera House with its Chagall ceiling and famous chandelier, but it was closed due to rehearsals in progress. On impulse I bought a ticket for a dance performance that evening. I couldn’t figure out the ticketing and paid a price somewhere in the middle range — around $20. To my amazement, the usher led me to a private box just above and to the left of the stage. There were maybe half-a-dozen seats in the box, but that night it was mine alone! I delighted in watching three performances of modern dance, a new experience for me, and enjoyed shouting “Bravo!” through the applause with the nice French couple seated in the next box. The Chagall, the chandelier, and the performance were all magnificent.
Make time in your itinerary to get out of the major cities and explore the small towns, villages, and countryside. You can’t know England by visiting London alone. Think of it this way. I frequently have on my flights travelers from European countries who are seeing the United States for the first time. I love to ask them what they plan to see while they’re here. The reply is always something like, “New York, Miami, and Disney World.” There are slight variations, sometimes including Washington, DC, or Los Angeles. The thing is, you know they’re going to be seeing just the major tourist attractions of just the major cities. But to get a real sense of a country, you must balance the hustle-bustle of the cities with a view of everyday life in the suburbs and small towns. Of course you want to see the main cities, but, while you’re there, buy a round-trip train or bus ticket to a nearby small town or two. Spend a day exploring and discovering a different facet of the country you’re visiting.
To really know a place, we must go beyond the tourist attractions that are detailed in our guidebooks. The guidebooks are simply our starting point. We must meet the people who live there and find out from them how to participate in their typical activities.
When you travel alone, strive to participate in the life of the culture to the greatest extent possible. Talk with people. Behave as if you’re attending a party. It is a party — the party of life — and you’re expected to mingle!
This article has been edited and excerpted from Travel Alone & Love it: A Flight Attendant’s Guide To Solo Travel by Sharon B. Wingler (Chicago Spectrum Press, $14.95, © 1998 by Sharon B. Wingler). This easy-to-read guide offers the inspiration and information you need to travel by yourself with confidence. You’ll learn how to: overcome fear; decide where to go; enjoy dining alone; pack efficiently; protect yourself and your belongings; save money on meals and accommodations; and much, much more. It’s the perfect companion for those considering solo travel — for the first time, or the first time in many years. The book is available at better bookstores, on the Internet at Amazon.com, or by calling toll-free at (800) 888-4741.