Successfully planning a long trip requires thoughtful preparation – especially when you’re traveling alone. This post discusses two essential considerations before embarking on a long-term solo journey – accommodation and transportation.
Why Plan? Why Solo?
Travel planning is important. It may leave you feeling exhilarated and full of anticipation or exhausted after confronting tedious details. When you’re in unfamiliar territory, a lack of planning can result in chaos and disaster. If things run amuck, there’s no one to fall back on, so solo travelers must be self-reliant.
In my travel blog, I describe a few hair-raising experiences that taught me to remain calm and have a plan B. Although some adventurous souls travel on the fly, even in today’s electronic world wise travelers think their trips out in advance. The key is viewing travel adversity as empowering, not terrifying, but it’s OK (and expected) to scream a few times along the way!
Years ago, before taking to the road on my own, I traveled with one other person or in large and small groups of friends or complete strangers. While focusing on your adventure, you must also get to know your fellow travelers and follow a deadline driven guide with a rigid and usually fast-paced itinerary.
At the end of these adventures I felt dizzy and unfulfilled and asked myself why was I doing it? Was it to be safer, because I felt incapable of planning a trip myself, or was I afraid of being alone and in need of having others to share the experiences? The answer to these questions was a resounding “no”. At the same time, I knew planning and some semblance of structure were essential to my comfort and safety.
When the basics are under control travelers can relax, forget themselves, and enjoy the reason for traveling – learning about delicious new cultures and environments! The eureka moment was realizing I didn’t need someone else to do the planning.
People are as different as travel adventures and the way you plan or IF you plan depends on your personality and the journey you’re contemplating. The consequences of your decision are more serious depending on where you’re headed – Canada on the low-end of the scale versus Iran, Cambodia, Turkey, and parts of Africa on the high-end. I’ve experienced poorly and overly planned trips. In both cases I lived to tell the tale. Reaching a happy medium is ideal.
Accommodation – What Kind, Where, When
When staying in one place for a month or longer, accommodation becomes more important, at least it is for me. Although you’re exploring for most of the day, everyone needs a private, safe place to rejuvenate and collect their thoughts. For me a suitable accommodation is clean, well-managed, and in a good location.
Today there are abundant on-line booking sources, and they’re getting better and better. There are many choices depending on your budget and preferences – short-term apartment rentals, hostels, bed & breakfast, guest houses, pensions, hotels, paradors, and more. Because my goal is mingling with the locals and experiencing the “real” culture in a foreign country, I usually look for small, reasonably priced accommodations with glowing reviews.
Before booking anything, research the neighborhoods to understand which areas work for your style, budget, and interests. If you book in the wrong location, it might be uncomfortable and could ruin your experience.
Unless you’ve stayed at a place before, remember that reality and on-line photographs are two different worlds. Read traveler reviews and make sure they’re “verified” and not written by friends of the owner or someone benefiting from your choice. Honest people who have stayed in an accommodation are in the best position to rate it. Their comments are invaluable.
Booking no penalty, “cancellable” accommodations before making transportation arrangements is wise. I’m leery of accommodations that require full payment up front and usually don’t like to commit to long-term bookings until I’ve seen them with my own eyes.
If you travel during high season, finding the right accommodation can be expensive and challenging. I’ve experienced the trauma of seeking accommodation in popular Cape Town South Africa during their glorious summer season. Vacancies are scarce and accommodations overpriced. The city’s infrastructure clearly hasn’t kept pace with the growing tourist industry.
Ask questions, communicate well, and clarify your needs – quiet, Wi-Fi access, a safe in the room, etc. Again, read reviews to discover catch-22s, e.g., buildings with 10 floors and no elevator, noisy cafés next door, and locations in crime-ridden areas or far from transportation connections.
A healthy breakfast is important before a long day exploring, so if you’re not renting an apartment with a kitchen, look for accommodations that include breakfast. Finally, if you’re staying in a hotel, a great concierge and friendly staff are important. They take care of you and become your family away from home!
To Book or Not to Book
During extended trips of 6 to 12 months, I don’t pre-book accommodations. Instead, I only make the next reservation when I have a specific departure date and am ready to move on to a new place. This allows a traveler to stay longer in places they enjoy and say goodbye when they’re not comfortable.
Transportation – Getting Around in an Unfamiliar Environment
In some countries renting a car and driving is the best way to go, but even with a good GPS system, this scenario is difficult for solo travelers. I’ve driven solo in Italy, Germany, Spain, New Zealand, and South Africa and admittedly scared myself more times than I care to recall….
There are many learning curves from freeway signage to poor lighting and driving on the wrong side of the road, not to mention an abundance of reckless drivers everywhere in the world! If you’re in an accident or put a dent in a rental car, it will cost you big time unless you pay a large fee up front to cover any damages. I’ve learned that no matter how careful you are, there is always at least one ding when you return a rental.
Most larger European cities have horrific traffic congestion but fantastic public transportation systems. It may take a few days to figure things out, but in the long run public transportation is the most cost-effective, efficient way to get around big cities. If you’re rich you can hire a taxi or limo and wait in bottlenecked gridlocked traffic for hours on the way to your destination. For long-term travel an inexpensive transportation pass helps you get in touch with “real” locals wherever you are.
Heed these notes of caution. Traveling on packed public transportation during busy commute hours isn’t a great idea, especially if you’ve been out all day and are feeling tired. Clever thieves and pickpockets know what they’re doing and can spot the most vulnerable targets easily. You can be sure that they won’t show you any mercy.
In Europe, traveling between countries via the Eurail system or local train connections is comfortable, affordable, and in most cases less expensive than flying. PLUS, you meet new people and enjoy incredible scenery along the way!
What If You Need Help?
If you’re involved in an accident or need help from a local organization, be calm and realize it may be a frustrating experience. I recall being pickpocketed in Rome and reporting the theft to the local police department. It was a long drawn out process and felt more like I was being arrested than reporting a crime. In the end, the experience produced the paperwork needed to send an insurance claim for my stolen camera.
I recommend visiting the US Department of State’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) and registering your trip – especially for long-term and solo travelers. The State Department’s notes, cautions, and special alerts are interesting and informative. When you register, you’ll receive email alerts about situations of concern in the countries you’re visiting. Keep in mind that even though this information is worthy of noting, sometimes the warnings may be overkill.
Wherever you travel, it’s advisable to know how to reach the US Embassy.
Understanding the basics of booking accommodations and local transportation helps demystify your journey, making it easier and more enjoyable. Other considerations for long-term travelers include preparing for language differences, obtaining visas, exchanging money, and packing light but for both hot and cold weather. Travel apps help address many of these concerns but they are topics for future posts.
Next Solo Adventure
I’m planning my next travel adventure through five European countries on the way back to South Africa where I have a retirement visa. I decided to revisit three magnificent cities that stole my heart in the past – Prague, Rome, and Istanbul. Portugal and Denmark are new destinations on the itinerary. I’m so excited about the next adventure!