Thursday, April 24, 2008

The Art of Travel

Belle and Nick asked me to blog about travel. I do a fair amount of my travel alone, so if you are interested in taking a solo trip, here are some tips.

1. Choose a destination. As a solo woman traveler, I prefer to visit countries that are relatively well-developed and don't have reputations for misogynist cultural practices. If you are considering someplace that uses a different script or alphabet, bear that in mind that this will make getting around on your own more challenging. I purchased group tours to Greece and Egypt in part for that reason. I generally avoid countries that would require a lot of vaccinations, making most of Africa out of bounds (is that irrational enough, Nick?).

2. Read up: Figure out what interests you about a country. If you're into the history, immerse yourself in it and figure out which sites you want to see.

3. Guides and reference materials: Get a guidebook with English-language maps for whereever you are going. Some key things to note: hours of operation for anything you plan on visiting, transportation schedules, national holidays, and clothing restrictions for sites. Double check everything online just before your visit. Many countries have excellent websites for rail and bus travel. Find these before you go and bookmark them such that you can access them from internet cafes abroad.

4. Language: Figure out how to say the basics, but as a solo woman traveler you will probably also need to learn some variation on "no thanks/I have a boyfriend/go away, please." Carry a pen and notepad so you can write notes or have helpful people draw maps for you.

5. Transport: If possible, purchase a transit pass in advance or immediately upon arrival in a location. Even if it's not the best deal, the decreased hassle will make it worthwhile. Pay attention to whether you need to make reservations or pay supplements, though. And always write in the date on your Eurail pass before boarding or you may (hypothetically) be shaken down by a shady Hungarian conductor and have to give him your last stash of American dollars to avoid being thrown off the train!

6. Itinerary/Lodging: I generally sketch out a rough itinerary, reserve accommodations for my first location before arrival in country, and then make future reservations one to two days before arriving in my next location. This way, if you set aside three days for a city and realize immediately that it's only worth two, you can shift your schedule with minimum disruption. Unless you are traveling to extremely popular destinations at the height of the season and have particular standards for lodgings, this should work. I usually end up telephoning my next hotel from the preceding one or booking it online from a kiosk.

7. Being alone: This is the part that may not work for other people. When I travel alone I do not go out at night. Period. I go to dinner and then I head back to my hotel, read, and go to sleep. Travel is very tiring, especially if you are walking all day. Being well-rested is key to your enjoyment and appreciation of the trip. It also gives you a chance to read about whatever you've seen that day or plan to see the next. I enjoy being alone in foreign countries and don't try to meet people (natives or tourists) while I'm there. The solitude accentuates the sense of dislocation. On the plus side, not going out means you probably won't be hung over, roofied, mugged, etc. On the minus side . . . you miss out on the nightlife.

8. Books: Long trips, especially on trains in foreign countries, can provide curiously meditative interludes perfect for catching up on reading old books that demand your full and sustained attention. Bring something educational.

9. Buying Stuff: Buy anything of high quality that is emblematic of the area and significantly cheaper than in the U.S. The handcrafted whatzit? Buy it. The rug? Buy it. Don't buy little tchotchkes with the justification that they will fit easily in your bag. They are junk and will end up in a box in your closet. I often buy clothes as well. This allows you to pack lighter at the beginning. Eat the crazy food. Don't ask what it is. Avoid the tourist restaurants if you can. Take advantage of cool street food opportunities. But: Go to the fancy restaurant. It's worth the money.

10. Generally: Don't worry about looking lame. You're never going to see any of these people again. (Not that you should be a rude American jerk, but don't get hung up about embarrassing situations.) Assume you'll never go back and do everything you can. You will get lost. Don't stress.

11. On traveling with others: Communicate beforehand. Does your partner hate walking? Get motion sickness? Have allergies or phobias? What are your expectations about sightseeing versus partying, early rising versus late nights, and the acceptability of plan changes? All of this seems obvious, but you might never think to ask about whether someone gets violently ill on buses until you are ready to take the bus to your most anticipated destination.
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