Successfully planning an adventure trip requires thoughtful preparation – especially when you’re traveling alone. This post discusses two essential considerations – accommodation and transportation.
Why Plan? Why Travel Solo?
Travel planning is important. Disregarding it could mean losing precious time or experiencing an unexpected and unwanted travel disaster. The process may leave you giddy and full of anticipation one day and exhausted from reviewing tedious details another. If things run amuck in unfamiliar territory there’s no one to fall back on, so solo travelers must be intrepid and self-reliant.
Planning a true adventure means stepping out of the familiar and leaving your comfort zone behind. In my travel blog, I describe a few hair-raising experiences that taught me to try to remain calm and always have a plan B. Some adventurous souls travel on the fly, but 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 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. While focusing on the adventure, I also tried to get to know my fellow travelers and follow a deadline driven guide with a rigid, fast-paced itinerary.
At the end of those adventures I often felt dizzy and unfulfilled and asked myself why was I doing it? Was it to be safer, because I couldn’t plan 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 some semblance of structure was necessary to ensure comfort and safety.
When the basics are under control travelers can relax, forget themselves, and enjoy the real reason for traveling – learning about delicious new cultures and environments! Realizing I didn’t need someone else to do the planning was liberating.
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 lower-end of the scale (maybe) versus Turkey and parts of Asia and Africa on the higher-end. I’ve experienced both poorly and overly planned trips and lived to tell the tale. Reaching a happy medium is ideal.
Accommodation – What Kind, Where?
When staying in one place for several weeks or longer, accommodation becomes more important, at least it is for me. Although you’re exploring most of the day, everyone needs a safe, private 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, refugios, pensions, homestays, hotels, paradors, couch surfing, and more. Because my goal is mingling with the locals and experiencing the “real” culture of a foreign country, I usually look for smaller reasonably priced accommodations with glowing reviews.
Before booking, research neighborhoods to understand which areas work best for your style, budget, and interests. If you book in the wrong location, it might be uncomfortable and could ruin the 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 or business associates 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 valuable.
Ask questions, communicate well, and clarify your needs – quiet, Wi-Fi, etc. Again, read reviews to discover catch-22s, e.g., buildings with 10 floors and no elevator, noisy cafés next door, poor acoustics, and locations in crime-ridden areas or far from transportation connections.
A healthy breakfast is important before a long day exploring, so if your accommodation doesn’t have a kitchen, look for those that offer breakfast. Finally, a concierge and friendly staff are key people. Don’t hesitate to ask them for help. They take care of you and are your family away from home! At the same time beware of overly attentive staff who may invade your privacy.
To Book or Not to Book
Booking no penalty, “cancellable” accommodations before making non-refundable transportation arrangements is wise. I like to feel free to explore without restraints like worrying about making it to the next accommodation booking on time. I’m leery of accommodations that require full payment upfront and 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. In this case, advance booking may be advisable. 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 with landlords not especially tuned to the needs of their tenants.
During extended trips of 6 to 12 months, I don’t pre-book accommodations. Instead, I make reservations when I have a specific departure date and am ready to move on to a new place. This allows a traveler to linger in the special places they enjoy and say goodbye when 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, 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…. More than one pair of eyes is helpful.
When driving in a foreign country there are many learning curves from poor freeway signage to dim lighting and in some places driving on the wrong side of the road. Not surprisingly there’s never a shortage of reckless drivers all over 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, it seems there is always at least one ding when you return a rental.
Most large 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 often the most cost-effective, efficient way to navigate. If you’re rich you can hire a taxi or limo, but you may wait in bottlenecked gridlocked traffic for hours on the way to your destination. An inexpensive transportation pass works well and can help you get in touch with the “real” locals wherever you are.
Heed these notes of caution. Riding 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 cities and 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 remember being pickpocketed in Rome and reporting the theft to the Polizia Locale. 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 noteworthy, sometimes the warnings may be overkill.
Wherever you travel abroad, it’s advisable to know how to reach the nearest US Embassy.
Up front planning and 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. A variety of travel apps help address many of these concerns but they’re topics for future travel blog 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! Is anyone else planning a trip? I’d love to hear about it!