Arlene Davis is a 74-year-old world traveler who took her first trip overseas at the age of 65, where she was clearly hit by the travel bug. These days she loves to explore alone, and has picked up quite a few savvy rules of the road along the way. Today, she’s sharing her best travel tips for women who’d like to follow in her steps.
Do your homework: Request brochures from travel companies, tourism bureaus, use the library, etc. Decide what you want to see and how much time to devote to each. Figure out what attractions are near each other so you can see more than 1 each day. Have your days planned out, but leave lots of time for unexpected finds along the way. If you’re lucky enough to have more than just a few days, try not to exhaust yourself. You can start out at 10 a.m. after a leisurely breakfast, and plan to be done sightseeing by 4 p.m. Then you have enough time to rest and relax before going out to dinner.
Plan ahead: Prior to my first trip to England, I purchased tickets online to many of the most popular tourist attractions; i.e., Tower of London, Buckingham Palace, etc. I was able to walk past long lines of people waiting to purchase their tickets and be admitted immediately. Most tickets have a 5-7 day window of time to use them. I also had all train and bus tickets between London, Bath, and the city where I stayed in the Cotswolds.
Be flexible: In addition to advance planning, be sure to remain flexible. I can’t count number of times I was headed to a particular place and en route something else caught my attention and it was hours before I reached my original destination. These little ‘diversions’ are one of the great joys of traveling on your own and not being locked into anyone else’s schedule.
Live like (and with) a ‘Local’: Name brand chain hotels are pretty much the same the world over. Try to stay in a small, locally owned hotel/inn. The desk clerk at the name hotel will steer you to all the typical tourist-y places, while the local owner will know exactly what restaurant serves the food you are craving. The accommodations may be a little “quirky” and not what you’d expect in a typical name-brand hotel, but isn’t that one of the reasons you travel? I rely on books by Rick Steves, available at your local library, for recommendations to local inns.
Go with the flow: When things aren’t exactly up to the same standards as in the U.S., remind yourself that you intentionally left the U.S. to absorb a different culture. When the shower’s water pressure feels more like someone dribbling on you, don’t tell the front desk “Back in the U.S. we have …” Delete that phrase from your vocabulary for the entire trip. If it takes an extra 2 minutes to rinse out shampoo, so what? If the bathroom is so small you have to turn sideways to get into the minuscule stall shower, so what? Enjoy each and every experience, no matter how different from “back home”; they make wonderful stories to tell.
Decide what kind of trip you want: Are you a theater-goer, a sports nut, a walker? I spent 3 weeks in London and never went to the theater; that just doesn’t appeal to me; I would rather be out walking. By deciding on your type of trip, you can pack accordingly (see “Pack Light”).
Pack light: You don’t need a fresh t-shirt every day. If it’s warm, your shirt may need to be hung outside the closet so it ‘airs out’ a little. A day or two later you can wear it again. While you might not be “out of the shower fresh”, who cares? At some point that shirt will need to go into the outside pocket of your suitcase to be laundered at home, but on this trip it can be worn for several days. The same is true for shorts, slacks, etc. Coordinate tops and bottoms so every top can be worn with whatever shorts or slacks you are taking.
Disposable underwear (don’t laugh): The smartest thing I pack is disposable underwear. They are individually wrapped (look like Tampax) and fit easily into all corners of your suitcase. It’s wonderful not to worry about finding a laundry in some out-of-the-way place. Wear ‘em and toss ‘em. When you add the cost into the total cost of your trip, the expense is negligible. I purchase mine from the Magellan’s Travel website. If I’m on a trip lasting more than 4 days, disposable undies go with me.
Soap your shoes: Small wrapped hotel-type bars of soap are perfect to keep your shoes smelling fresh. Place 2 bars of soap (still wrapped) into each shoe overnight. You’ll be amazed at how your shoes are ‘ready to go’ the next day. I’ve used the same bars of soap for several weeks. This way you can pack only one pair of sturdy walking shoes. My trips never include ‘dress-up’ days or evenings, so my one pair of cross-trainers is enough to carry me for the whole trip, without having to pack more.
Talk to (almost) everyone: Standing in line in a market, waiting to be seated in a restaurant, waiting for public transportation, etc., start a conversation with someone else in line. While on a bus in a small village in the Costswolds (England), I met a woman who has become a close, valued friend over the last 9 years. Of course, language can be a barrier, but it’s surprising how many travelers know enough English to have a conversation. It makes waiting much more pleasant, and it’s fun to talk to someone from another corner of the world.
Be aware and trust your gut: While I talk to strangers all the time, and encourage you to do so, you must always be aware of your surroundings. Never give out your hotel name. If someone innocently asks where you’re stay, you can say “I’m staying over near Victoria Station” (or some popular tourist spot). If anyone presses for the name of the hotel, I disengage and end the conversation. If you wander into an area that makes those little hairs stand up on the back of your neck, don’t worry about being the “ugly American”, just turn around and leave. I’ve never had any safety issues anywhere I’ve been, but I consider myself a smart single traveler. I’m not walking around late at night, I’m careful what I say to strangers, and am always aware of anyone who just ‘gives me the creeps’. Don’t hesitate to walk into a store or restaurant if someone seems to be watching you a little too closely. I’ve taken the pants that I plan to wear on a trip into a tailor shop and asked them to attach Velcro to the insides of the pocket openings. That way, I can keep my credit card, hotel key, etc. in those pockets and I’m sure to feel it if someone where to try to “pick my pocket”. On the occasions where I took a local train from one city to another, carrying my luggage, I stand on the platform with the luggage between my feet, not to the side of my leg. That way I know it’s safe and no one can grab a small bag and take off running.
Learn the lingo: I learned the hard way that European hotels have different definitions of what is the “first floor”, and what constitutes a “single room”. Through emails I ask how many flights of stairs to get to the room I’m asking about, and also clearly state that even though I’m traveling alone, I do NOT want a small, single-sized bed (what we would call a ‘twin’). After some back-and-forth (and sometimes with the hotel sending a photo), I am assured of the accommodations I want. Of course I always ask for “ensuite” bathroom facilities, as I don’t want to share!
Bathroom amenities: I use what the hotels provide. I manage very nicely using whatever shampoo, hand lotion, etc. is provided. That way I don’t have to weigh down my luggage bringing it from home. If my hair isn’t quite as shiny as it usually is, who cares?
Eating alone: Most locally-owned European inns/hotels provide a full, cooked breakfast that carries me through the day. When having dinner alone, I always bring a book. However on many occasions if the adjacent table is close, and they have already received their meal and I haven’t yet ordered, I will casually ask, “Is that as good as it looks?”. This starts a conversation that has frequently led to my being invited to join them rather than sit alone at my table. Many wonderful meals have been spent this way. If they don’t speak English, or don’t ask me to join them, I’m no worse off than when I first sat down. Asking that question is a great ice-breaker and without exception every time I’ve asked, it’s led to some wonderful conversation and a lovely dinner experience.
Pace yourself: If you’re going to 14 countries in 8 days, ignore this paragraph. I would rather put a trip off for a year or so until I have enough money to avoid the “If it’s Tuesday, this must be Belgium” syndrome.
Read everything: Every city has its collection of statues, obelisks, monuments, etc. They almost all have a plaque or some identifying marking. Read every one of them! You come away with such fascinating information and a feeling for the mindset of the locals who helped get it built.
Negotiate: Every small hotel I’ve stayed at had an email address where I could get room and rate information. Don’t be afraid to negotiate the first price you are given, especially if you will be there for more than 2-3 days. Most proprietors will be flexible on rates if they know they will have a guaranteed occupancy for a good many days. You can do it either of 2 ways: (1) Ask if they can do any better on the original quote, reminding them of your longer stay; or (2) Give them a price that you can “live with” and see if they will match it. You might want to low-ball that price, as there is always room to increase your offer. Ask to be quoted in USD, and be sure any quote includes all taxes, VAT, etc. Once you’ve agreed on a price, print out their confirming email and bring it with you. Most properties will ask for a credit card to hold your reservation, the same as in the U.S.
Advise your credit card company: I always give my credit card company a ‘heads-up’ when I will be traveling overseas. When they see charges from a foreign country, they have no reason to put a ‘hold’ on it. Also, ask about their ‘transaction fee’ (usually 3%). I take very little cash with me and use my credit card almost exclusively; to me it’s worth the nominal fee for the convenience of not having to carry cash.
Do the math: Learn the exchange rate of the country you are visiting so there will be no surprises. My bank exchanges my USD into a small amount of required foreign currency with no fee attached. Inquire at your local bank, or use a currency exchange, which may charge fees. Everywhere I’ve traveled there is an ATM if I needed more cash, but I’ve never had to use one.
Getting lost can be fun: Start with the premise that you can’t fall off the edge of the earth, and go from there. In the English countryside, with its many roundabouts, I frequently found myself headed the wrong way. Stopping to ask for directions led me to meet some wonderful folks, one of whom stopped his yard work, got into his own car and led me where I wanted to go. Another time, while walking toward a particular museum, I turned down the wrong street and found the most charming little chapel where I spent nearly an hour talking to the vicar. Assuming it’s daytime, and you have no urgent appointment to go to, you should allow yourself time to ‘get lost’ and just wander wherever your feet (itchy or not) take you. You’ll eventually find your way back to where you started. Enjoy the diversion.
To journal or not: Do It ! I pride myself on my excellent memory; however, in looking back into my various travel journals, I was astonished at how many little details I had forgotten. In the re-reading, I was able to once again experience the joy and wonderment I first felt on the trip. Take a few minutes each evening to recount all the day’s happenings, and most important, how each made you feel at the time. You’ll be so glad you did.
Lonely?: Most people think traveling alone would be lonely, but I have found it completely the opposite. The longest trip I took was 6 weeks in England, and while I would have given anything for my husband to still be alive and share with me, being on my own was liberating and exhilarating. I woke when I wanted, went where I wanted, did whatever took my fancy at the moment. Dinners alone (mentioned earlier) were never a problem for me. If I dined with strangers or relaxed and read my book, either way was OK. The joy of traveling alone, for me, is the complete sense of freedom I experienced every day. I’ve made 4 overseas trips for a total of 17 weeks (and a 5th trip coming up in January), and have never once regretted ‘going it alone’.
Arlene will soon be traveling to Easter Island, via a three day stop in Santiago, Chile.