Traveling single, a rewarding experience
By Tamela Spicer
I stood in the middle of the train station, overwhelmed by all the sights and sounds assaulting my senses. Checking my itinerary again I searched for platform number two. My carry on rolled along next to me as I circled the main floor one more time.
“Let me guess, American,” the young man said in clear English.
“Is it that obvious?” I asked.
Maybe it was the hint of panic showing on my face that gave away my inability to understand all the signs written in German. Or perhaps it was my aimless wondering that made it obvious I had no idea where I was going. Whatever it was, I was grateful for the young man who helped me find my way as I transferred trains in Munich.
Traveling alone can be intimidating, particularly for a woman going abroad. Yet it can also be a very rewarding experience. I’ve ventured to Europe and Israel on my own and actually found that traveling alone can be more interesting if you’re smart about the experience. Here are my top five tips to help you make the most of your single traveling experience.
Research and planning can make any trip more enjoyable and affordable, particularly when traveling alone abroad. Researching potential destinations online can be daunting. There’s just too much information and not all of it is worthwhile. Checking out a few reviews on sites like Yahoo Travel (www.travel.yahoo.com) can provide good tips, but check the dates to make sure the information is current. Websites like Foder’s Travel (www.foders.com) and Top Ten Things (www.toptenthingstodoin.com) offer travel tips on cities all over the world. A little research also helps you be safe. I did check the U.S. Department of State website (www.travel.state.gov) before I headed off to Israel by myself and I planned accordingly, keeping north of Tel Aviv until I had the safety of a tour group. My research usually includes a look at a few maps, some basic reading on the best way to get around a city and some reviews of the top tourists spots. Knowing these basics can ease the transition into a new culture and minimize wasted time and money.
Don’t underestimate the challenges of culture shock, particularly if you’re not competent in the local language. The inability to understand local signs, television or radio creates a sense of isolation which can lead to loneliness. It’s important to find ways to feel connected. Structured tours led in English can provide opportunities to socialize when traveling alone. When I was in Salzburg I did an introductory tour of the city and met two fabulous women from Louisiana. We ended up spending most of the day together and topped it off with dinner at the castle. Another way to minimize culture shock is to bring along your favorite music, a movie or audiobook. These not only help pass time when traveling between cities, but they also allow you to hear your native language which minimizes the sense of isolation and loneliness.
Don’t allow the tours to take over, leave room for spontaneity. While I’ve appreciated some English speaking tours when traveling abroad, my favorite experiences usually came from just being a visitor and not a tourist. As a visitor you want to speak to local people and experience the culture. Don’t spend all of your time with fellow tourists. I was visiting the city of Akko in northern Israel and stopped to ask directions of a local and ended up with my own private tour of the city for the afternoon. I also try to visit a Rotary club whenever I travel. Rotary International is a service club with a presence in over 200 countries around the world. As a Rotarian I’m welcome as a guest at any Rotary meeting around the world and it’s a great way to meet local people and get a sense of the community.
Do something special to pamper yourself. It’s important to indulge in some simple pleasures when traveling alone. Eat that special meal that you would never order at home, order breakfast in bed, or relax with a glass of wine in a bubble bath. One of my favorite moments in Salzburg was treating myself to the famous Sacher torte at the Sacher Hotel. It was worth every calorie that I tried to walk off with the miles of sightseeing.
Be careful of the assumptions you make when traveling. Often Americans assume that everyone speaks English and will accommodate us when we travel. While it is true that many people around the world speak English, most people appreciate it if you attempt to communicate in the native language, even if it’s only to say please and thank you. And don’t make assumptions about driving if you’re intending to rent a car. I was grateful that I had taken time to look up some road signs so that when I drove in Germany I understood how to drive on the autobahn. The blue signs with the split road indicate that the speed limit is lifted for that stretch of road, although it is recommended that you stay under 130 kilometres per hour (81 mph).
Don’t let the lack of a travel partner keep you from exploring the world! With a little common sense and light packing – that’s the bonus tip #6 – you can venture out on your own safely and affordably.
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Copyright (c) 2014 story and photos by Tamela Spicer