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 annoying, tedious details. When you’re in unfamiliar territory, a lack of planning can result in chaos and disaster. If things run amuck, there’s nowhere to run and no one to fall back on, so solo travelers must be flexible, resilient, and self-reliant.
In my travel blog, I describe a few hair-raising experiences that taught me to remain calm and always have a plan B. Although some adventurous souls travel on the fly, even in today’s electronic world wise travelers think their trips out well in advance. The key is trying to view 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 and acquaintances or complete strangers led by a professional guide. With group situations, in addition to focusing on your adventure and where you are, you must also be aware of your fellow travelers, often while following a deadline driven guide with a rigid, fast-paced itinerary. Be prepared, as sometimes this can be a daunting experience, and one I decided to forgo by becoming a solo traveler.
At the end of these group adventures, I felt dizzy and unfulfilled and asked myself why was I doing it? Was it to be safer? Did I feel incapable of planning a long trip myself? Was I afraid of being alone and in need of having others there to share the experiences with me? The answer to these questions was a resounding “no”. At the same time, I knew traveling solo would require up front planning and some semblance of structure to ensure my comfort and safety. Guides are expensive, especially for solo travelers. You can join local group tours for adventurous activities that are unsafe to take on alone.
When the basics are under control travelers can relax, forget themselves, and enjoy the reason for traveling – meeting locals and learning about new cultures and environments! My eureka moment was realizing I didn’t need someone else to do the planning for me.
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. It’s all up to you, but 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 and South America on the high-end. I’ve experienced poorly and overly planned trips. In both cases, I lived to tell the tale. Of course 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 clean, private, safe place to collect their thoughts and rejuvenate. For me a suitable accommodation must allow for privacy and be well-managed, and in a good location. Unfortunately, you will never know the quality of a bed until you sleep on it.
Today there are abundant on-line booking sources, and with more competition, 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, airbnb, hotels, paradors, and more. Because my goal is mingling with locals and experiencing the “real” culture in a foreign country, I usually look for small, reasonably priced accommodations with “verified,” glowing reviews.
Before booking anything, research neighborhoods to understand which areas work for your individual 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 enhanced online photographs are two different worlds. Read “real” traveler reviews and make sure they’re “verified” and not written by friends of the owner or someone benefiting monetarily from your choice. Honest people who have stayed at an accommodation are in the best position to rate it. Their reviews, shared experiences, and comments are invaluable.
Booking accommodations with “no penalty cancellation” before making transportation arrangements is wise. I’m extremely leery of accommodations that require full payment up front, and usually don’t like to commit to long-term bookings until I’ve first seen them with my own eyes. Sadly, I’ve relearned this lesson many times.
The tourist industry has become a primary source of income in many countries, and landlords can be unreasonable and deceptive. For that reason, when possible, I always avoid dealing directly with landlords and prefer using a service like Booking.com as a go between. Booking.com is OK, but there are still many thing to consider and be wary about. Make no mistake, most rental companies and landlords are ruthless and in the rental business purely for money. Given the chance, they will likely cheat you, and in a foreign country, there isn’t much you can do about it. A misrepresented apartment or bad landlord can make for a miserable experience.
If you travel during high season, finding the right accommodation can be expensive and even more challenging. Although I prefer traveling off season, I’ve experienced the trauma of seeking accommodation in popular Cape Town South Africa during their glorious summer season. Vacancies are scarce and accommodations heavily overpriced. The city’s infrastructure clearly hasn’t kept pace with its popularity and the growing tourist industry.
Ask questions, communicate well, and clarify your needs – quiet, Wi-Fi access, a safe for your passport and valuables, view, natural light, bathtub, heating and air circulation, 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 away from attractions and transportation.
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 who communicate well 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 location. This allows a traveler the flexibility to stay longer in places they enjoy and say goodbye when they’re ready to leave or uncomfortable.
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…. Rental cars can be pricey carry many challenges.
There are learning curves from freeway signage, to poor lighting, confusing roundabouts, and driving on the wrong side of the road – not to mention traffic gridlock and 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 and all damages. I’ve learned that no matter how careful you are, there is always at least one ding when you return a rental, and rental car companies always find it!
Most larger European cities have horrific traffic congestion but efficient public transportation systems. It may take you a few days to figure things out, but in the long run public transportation is the easiest most environmentally friendly, cost-effective way to get around big cities. If you’re rich you can hire a taxi or limo. Even so, you might end up waiting 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.
Heed this note 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 their 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 safe, 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 difficult, frustrating experience. I recall being pickpocketed in Rome and reporting the theft to the local police. 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.
In addition to conducting your own research, 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. Don’t necessarily let them scare you.
Wherever you travel, it’s advisable to know how to reach a 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, climate, and food differences, obtaining visas, exchanging money, and packing light but for both hot and cold weather. Travel apps help address some of these concerns, but they’re 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. Denmark, Portugal, and the Azores are new destinations. I’m excited about the next adventure!