- For first time solo travel, choose a domestic destination: This is our recommendation for first time solo travelers. My first solo travel was the result of sheer necessity. At 16, I went to look at New England colleges. No family member was able to go with me at that time. I had never traveled alone but was thrilled with a sense of adventure. My flight took me first to Pittsburgh and then on to Boston. I had never seen such a huge airport in my life! Since this was before ride shares and the Internet, I had another first: getting a taxi. I made my way to the Cambridge, MA, Sheraton only to be lucky in getting a free upgrade to a suite. I had no idea what to do with the adjoining living room but in my teenage mind felt I had “arrived”. I immediately set out to explore Boston via subway, another first for me. I had a great time strolling through the historic downtown, visiting Boston seafood restaurants and even going to a double feature to see the newest comedy.
Lessons Learned: Going it alone for the first time can work when: 1. The trip is in your home country where language and currency are exactly what we are used to 2. The distance from home is limited and getting there is easy 3. You can still connect to friends and family if things go wrong.
- Consider carefully how you get to your destination: This is key, especially if you are a new(er) solo traveler. After decades of solo travel, my most challenging connections started on Christmas Day two years ago. I lined up at Washington’s Dulles Airport to board a flight to Beijing. Upon arrival in China, I would only have 45 minutes for immigration and connecting to a flight to Bangkok. I barely made it as the last one boarding the second flight. After spending the night at a 4-star Novotel at the Bangkok airport, I boarded yet another fight to Siem Reap, Cambodia. From there, I caught up with my river cruise on the Mekong Delta. After a brief stay in Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon, Air Vietnam whisked me away on the final leg of the trip for just under a week as a solo female traveler in Bangkok. In 17 days, I had covered thousands of miles and fallen in love with SE Asia.
Lessons Learned: 1. Be wary of short flight connections, such as 45 minutes. Even as in China where there is a 2-3 day “visa waiver” for tourists in transit/brief stays, you still must stand in line for immigration/passport control. 2. Although you may be transferring to another fight with the same airline, you may be required to go to a distant terminal. (My last trip, I was herded off to Gate Z. It was apparently the very last gate in the airport and almost a “bridge too far” when it came to getting to the gate on time.) 3. Look carefully at the city you must go through to transfer. Why? The largest, busiest airports are likely to have longer lines meaning you can be left behind when your flight takes off. I have had this happen in New York where my choice was spend the night to catch a 6 AM flight or take the last train to Washington. I chose the latter arriving in the middle of the night. 4. Try to take a route in one consistent weather pattern. Why is that? In my endless flights to SE Asia, my destination was tropical while I had to transfer via a 40 degree chill in Beijing. When our flight arrived, a planeload of tourists in tee shirts, shorts and flip-flops found themselves deplaning with no gate or jet way. Scurrying down the steps from the plane and dashing across the tarmac to a waiting airport bus, it felt like I had arrived in the Arctic!
- Think about how long you will be away: I find that when I go abroad I am away just long enough to find out how things, like light switches and door locks work. Then when I get home, everything seems to be backwards!
Lessons Learned: When you are planning your solo trip, bear in mind that varying the tempo of the trip can make staying abroad longer more comfortable. For example, I like to book a room through our search engine and use that “home base” as the hub from which I travel. That way I can unpack once and have access to day tours from the same spot. Day tours are ideal to give you your own group for sightseeing but with the ability to pick and choose how to spend time on your own special interests.
- Unless your travel budget is unlimited, work out a budget before booking. (See our free Solo Sherpa app, available for both iPhone and Android devices to project costs and track them once you are abroad.)
Lessons Learned: 1. River cruises and tours are a top way to get control of travel expenses since most costs are included. 2. If you are going independently, think about some of the “hidden” costs: Meals add up fast as do tips for guides and entry fees. In some countries, like Russia, there are reduced fees for local residents and much higher charges for foreign visitors. Some countries have “port” or entry taxes on arrival or departure. Lastly, surface transportation can add up as well.
- Research the availability of activities are you looking for: Is bad weather likely to ruin your trip? A hurricane is just one such deal breaker. Consider lesser natural obstacle.
Lessons Learned: If you are planning a ski trip or other sports-focused travel, be sure that the weather is likely to co-operate. For example, the US Southwest is much more likely to have snow that much of Europe at lower elevations.
- “Know before you go” what surface transportation is readily available: The good news is that most of Europe is easy to tour via trains. However, as I discovered this Christmas in the Czech Republic, in some areas, buses may be more direct and therefore quicker (plus cheaper). However, I found on arrival that travel by car was the best solution. If you plan to drive abroad, check out the legal requirements before you leave home.
Lessons Learned: You may be required to get an International Driver’s License (available via AAA). If you have an accident and don’t have such a license, your insurance carrier may reject your claim. (See Insure My Trip. You should not overlook travel insurance for your upcoming trip. We have partnered with InsureMyTrip, because they are the best option to compare plans and find the right coverage for you. They have thousands of travel insurance plans and a one-of-a-kind recommendation engine to help travelers find the right plan. Most importantly, they will be there for you before, during and after your trip if you should need anything – especially help with a claim with the provider.)
- Don’t overlook immigration requirements: Even when you do everything right, you can still fall afoul of entry and exit regulations. With the current concern about terrorism, immigration rules are more stringent than ever and strictly implemented. I found this out the hard way. When I traveled solo to India, I was shocked on arrival at the Delhi Airport that I was held up at Immigration because of a surprise visa irregularity. After the official conferred with a superior, I was admitted to the country. Unfortunately, this problem was not yet resolved. A few days later in-country, I discovered what had happened. My visa bore a caption as a “special endorsement”. It required me to register as a “foreign national” in person within 14 days. The error likely started with the way I had filled out my visa application. There was a question as to whether the traveler is, or was, in the government or military. I dutifully replied that years ago as a young attorney, like many Washingtonians, I had worked in a US government agency.
Lessons Learned: 1. If you are filling out a visa application, check with the destination’s embassy if you have questions about the “right” answer/issue raised. 2. Watch your travel dates carefully to avoid overstaying your visa. 3. Read your visa carefully when it is granted. 4. Go to the Internet and to the embassy for your destination to check out regulations for importing/other drugs legal at home. Also watch currency restrictions.
- Plan ways to go alone without feeling that you are “going it alone”: If you don’t join a group tour, the easiest way to have your own group for sightseeing is to go on day tours. Most hotels can set up local tours or even private guides. I recommend varying it as you get better acquainted with an area. As a solo female traveler in Bangkok, on arrival I joined a half-day city tour in a large bus. The next day I took a large tour outside the city to the ancient capital of Ayutthaya. By the third day, I was ready to spread my wings and had my hotel book a private guide to take me around Bangkok and show me the subway system. My last day I took a self-guided tour through popular tourist areas and markets.
Lessons Learned: 1. On large day tours when you leave the bus, get the mobile number for your guide, and take a photo of your bus showing its number/company name or whatever you need to find it again. The reason this is so important is that buses may drop off a group and then head to a more remote parking area. When there are scores of buses in the area, it can be almost impossible to find the right one quickly. 2. If you are a solo traveler and a meal is included on the tour do find out if space has been allowed for individuals. In one river cruise, when all the tables were set for 8, as a solo, I was left along with other solos competing with couples to find a place to sit. I privately asked the hostess if they could set several of the front tables for an odd number, such as 7 or 9. There was no problem after that! No more “standup buffet!”
Another good way to have your own “team” is to sign up for a class from skiing to diving to perfecting your French. This is an easy way to meet fellow travelers to join for meals or on day tours. Cooking classes in popular areas like Tuscany have morphed into opportunities for social dining. That way you can team up with travelers from around the world for lunch or dinner or to visit a local home for a meal.
Lessons Learned: 1. If you are fairly new at solo travel, plan ahead. Find several options via the Internet and create several days where you have already scheduled a day tour or registered for a short-term class. 2. If you will not have a car, book lodging near the classes you sign up for and/or in the area where you are planning to spend your time. 3. Identify museums, architectural highlights and historic areas where lectures and concerts might be given. For example, at Christmas time this year in the Czech countryside, I found a quaint, small church with a Bach concert one evening. They even offered blankets since the church was unheated! 4. Be aware that while off-season rates may save you up to 50%, some sights may be closed in the dead of winter.
- Volunteering abroad is a good way to give back and at the same time explore new locales: For my first foreign trip as a solo, I joined an international YMCA group in the dual island nation of Trinidad and Tobago. Ten miles off the coast of Venezuela, Trinidad is an English-speaking British Commonwealth Member. The people were delightful and warmly welcoming. It was a fascinating and complex combination of many races and religions from Christianity to Hinduism and Islam. One of my duties was walking with the children on Sundays to the Anglican Church as we meandered through palm trees and an array of bright flowers. I was still a teenager and the youngest in the group. It was a perfect way to see a remote location while having the safety of the group and all plans and transportation taken care of. One of the good things about such a trip is making a contribution of services needed while exploring a new destination.
Lessons Learned: 1. Find out about the charity’s work and its reputation. I was fortunate in that I was already familiar with the “Y” having been a member and worked out in their gyms and other athletic facilities.) 2. Become acquainted with the destination where you will serve, its customs and safety. 3. Find out if you can reduce costs by sharing a room and/or obtaining grants and scholarships that may be available.
By chance, my return home was quite memorable. After boarding a flight from Miami on my way to see family, shortly after takeoff the plane had engine trouble. At first there was a loud noise as though we had been hit. The woman in front of me reassured her child that “it was just a seagull”. Not at all reassured, I kept repeating to myself silently “just a seagull”. We were quickly informed that we would be making an emergency landing back in Miami and instructed on “brace position”. Fortunately, no one was injured. The good news is that more and more passengers survive and/or are not seriously injured in such circumstances.
Lesson Learned: 1. It is important to note two exits before takeoff. 2. Be aware during the first few minutes after takeoff and before landing.
10.If your work takes you abroad, become a member of the “bleisure” class: US travelers are leading the pack for combining business and leisure travel. Known as “bleisure”, this fits easily into our lifestyle where almost everyone in the US at some time in their life will be working if not 9-5, for a substantial number of hours each week. In addition, unlike Europeans who take one to two month vacations, many US residents don’t even take all the vacation days they have coming each year. As a result, bleisure trips are a very natural way for US travelers to use this intense focus on work as a way to “borrow” a few days leisure here and there. On most of my holiday trips, I do take a look at how I can add a meeting or look at new business opportunities. In the past, that has taken me through Norway, Sweden and Denmark as well as Australia, Zimbabwe and South Africa. However, this does not always work perfectly. If it is almost impossible to have a really bad day in Paris, on one such “bleisure” trip, I found a way. While staying in a 5-star hotel in Sweden, one of my business associates asked that I take a day trip to Paris. That seemed easy enough. Unfortunately, I failed to realize that this short flight would have all the rigorous requirements of any “international” journey. It all started to go wrong pre-dawn. I waited for coffee to arrive via room service in my hotel. When it never came, I grabbed a cab and dashed to the airport looking forward to the local coffee shop. At that early hour, I had to make do with a coin operated coffee machine. When I had an “on time arrival” in Paris, I headed for the subway. At that point, I discovered there was a massive transit strike. I arrived at the first meeting when it was about half over. Luckily, I was able to make it on time for the second meeting after jogging, briefcase in hand down street after street. When the meeting was over, I discovered a taxi had been waiting for me outside for a half hour with the meter running. The total was far greater than the Euros I had on hand! After waiting 4 hours for a one hour flight, I arrived back at my hotel just in time for a $35 hamburger. There was to be no happy ending to this bleisure odyssey: The proposed terms for the engagement could not be agreed upon so my trip was in vain.
Lessons Learned: 1. Be sure that flight delays and cancellations won’t cause your business appointments to be missed or otherwise implode. 2. Be aware that short connections cross-borders can add hours of delays. 3. Pick lodging as close as possible to key meetings. 4. Allow extra time to get to and from meetings. Road closings and strikes can make it hard to judge the time needed. 5. Always set your own alarm either on your phone or the old-fashioned way by bringing your own alarm clock.
See our upcoming Blog on some of our favorite destinations!
For updated information as to Washington-Dulles Airport, click here. In recent years, they have added non-stop flights to Beijing and Dubai. I used to go to NY to connect abroad. However, I found if local weather in the Metro DC area was inclement and/or experiencing high winds, the overseas larger plane might take off in NYC without me. The lesson, wherever you live, where possible, make your flight from home abroad non-stop to avoid missing the first day(s) of your vacation. In addition, if you are connecting round-trip, your return flight can leave you in long immigration/customs lines, thereby missing your last flight to arrive at home!