If you have traveled a lot as a couple as my husband and I did, traveling is one of the significant pleasures of life. I knew when my husband died that I was not willing to give up the traveling that I loved so much.
Sure, when I mentioned vacationing alone, there was a mixed response from family and friends. Fortunately, my family members were very supportive and offered comments like, “You are an experienced traveler and don’t need anyone to go with you. Go have fun.” Other people were more leery and suggested all the dangers and loneliness of traveling by myself.
I admit that my first trip alone was a place where we had visited as a couple. However, I went here not because of having been there with my husband, but because it is a place of comfort and healing. The Hemlock Inn, in Bryson City, North Carolina, is a place we had been visiting for over twenty years. This is a quiet inn on the top of a mountain in the Smokies. The innkeepers feel like family and I felt I could go there (only two months after the death of my husband) and feel comfortable and loved.
This “first” trip proved to be more wonderful than I could have hoped for. I met many new friends, some of whom I continue to hold close. It was not a sad time at all, but a rejoicing in realizing that my travel life was alive and well and that I could do this all on my own. Since that time (five years ago), I have stretched my wings and traveled to places we didn’t go to together.
Each person needs to make the decision that is best for herself. Those first few trips after a significant loss are similar to other facets of grieving. Each person must do it in her own way.
My second trip was overseas. As a couple, we had traveled throughout the continental United States and Canada, but never to Europe. I went to India with my son and his family for nearly two weeks (a trip report for another time) and decided to make the huge step of routing myself home through Paris for my second solo trip. This would actually be the first trip to a place I had never been and knew no one. This was about seven months after the death of my husband and it was one of the best trips I had ever taken.
I was pretty nervous at first about international air travel, language, and an unfamiliar area. However, after awaking the first morning in Paris and walking to the Eiffel Tower, it was all positive and uphill from there. Each new activity was a boost to my confidence. Everyone I met was friendly and helpful and, having prepared ahead with reading travel books and having maps, etc., I could do anything I chose.
That independence of making all my own decisions was exhilarating. I walked tall in Paris (even though I am a fairly short person) with a smile on my face. This was my new life and I was ready to live it.
Why would anyone want to go on a vacation by herself? There are many answers to this question. For me, it is mostly about the ability to get the most of what “I” want out of my money and time as I travel.
Traveling with a group or with a best friend can be lots of fun. However, as much as I truly enjoy those trips, I often choose to take most of my larger trips solo. When I travel alone, I can decide exactly where I want to go on the journey — the final destination and points in between. For some trips, I prefer driving, some flying, and some on Amtrak (love train travel!). Making these decisions about where I go and by what mode I travel goes a long way in determining the final cost of the trip.
Lodging can also be tricky if you are traveling with a friend whose idea of adequate lodging is different from your own – another decision that greatly affects the commitment of money.
Once those three decisions have been made, I start researching for the day-to-day part of my trip. I read the Trip Advisor Forum for the places I will be visiting, purchase at least one reliable travel book on the topic, and do extensive open ended online research about the city, the restaurants, and the sites. All of this research is what contributes most to the confidence I have when traveling. I traveled for 35 years with my husband. However, I was usually the one who studied for months ahead of time to make sure we didn’t miss anything important on our trip. Having planned many extensive trips, I was confident and ready in 2011 to start doing this job solo.
When deciding what to see on a trip, “important” is definitely in the eye of the beholder. When I went to Paris for the first time in 2011, it seemed the consensus was that “no one” should go to Paris without seeing the Louvre and Versailles. I didn’t see Versailles until my second trip in 2013 and saved the Louvre until my 2015 trip. I was able to choose what was important to me and because of extensive research, I discovered sites that those helpful friends had never heard of.
As a sideline, let me add that if you plan on visiting Paris, be sure to check out tomsguidetoparis.com. This site helped tremendously in preparing me for my first trip.
When I went to Paris for the first time, I had a plan written down of what I would see and do for every one of the 6 days I was there. After the first day of being on my feet walking from 7:00 in the morning until 9:30 at night, I had to reschedule my plans for the next day. I woke up that second morning, had breakfast, and went back to bed. I realized that I had definitely overdone it on the first full day. I also realized it was July 14, a holiday in Paris, and that I could take a holiday too. I decided to rest and then start wandering and just enjoying my day, not trying to stick to anything on my list. I must say this was one of the best days of the trip. I encountered many unexpected sites and foods.
If I had been traveling with a companion, I might have felt obligated to stick to the schedule so the other person wouldn’t miss anything. I made the decision that day that I would never be able to see all that I had planned in such a few days and that I would definitely be back. That decision lightened my stress and improved my trip even more.
Another aspect of traveling without a companion, although with one can be great fun, is that you notice and speak with more new people if you are alone. If you are traveling with a friend, most of your interpersonal interactions will be with that person. One of my great joys in travel is visiting with other travelers and with local residents. This interaction enlarges my world and enables me to view other cultures and personalities in a whole new light.
The conversations also often result in one or the other of us, if not both, making suggestions of other sites to see or places to eat. On one trip, I became acquainted with a couple from Wisconsin who were very much “not into riding on a subway.” After our discussions about the Metro in Paris, they were ready for me to take them along and teach them one step at a time about how the Metro works. At the end of our trip on the other side of the city, they felt confident to continue to do this themselves. Had I been traveling with a friend, we would have probably never struck up the conversation that resulted in this fun afternoon together.
Traveling alone has also apparently made me look more like a local. There are often people who come to me to ask directions to somewhere in the city or about how to function with a particular mode of transportation. On one trip to Paris, I had the need to travel on an RER train. This train system is incorporated into the Metro system, but operates just enough differently to be confusing on one’s first time through. I was very confused at one point and frustrated that no one was there to answer questions for me. I took a chance and made the trip just fine, promising myself that I would “never do that again.”
Two days later, I encountered an older couple and their teenage grandson standing outside the train/metro station. They stopped me to ask which train they needed to take to get to their destination. They thought they needed the RER but couldn’t figure out how to operate in the system. I took them into the station and, from my frightful personal experience, was able to explain the process to them. I sent them on their way only to be stopped by another couple as I turned around. They asked “are you the person who can tell us where to go and how?” I was beginning to think that Paris should be paying for my Carnet of Metro tickets for all the help I was providing the tourists.
After that first solo trip in 2011, I have continued to plan extensively. However, the results of my planning and research are only organized into lists, not daily schedules. I list sites and restaurants that I know would be of interest to me, often according to which neighborhood or side of a city each is located. However, I do NOT list them on specific days. I star the most important ones and start the trip. Each evening I think about what I might do the next day and each morning I wake up to either confirm that plan or, as many times as not, change my mind and do something else. Our moods are different each day and if you are in charge, you can change your mind on a moment’s notice and do what you feel like doing or do nothing at all if that is your fancy.
As I mentioned before, traveling with a friend can be very rewarding. You have some one with whom to share all these new experiences. However, if you are traveling for an extended period, like my 2015 trip to Paris, where I was traveling 24 days door to door, you might get a little tired of each other and a little stressed about whether your friend is happy or if you should be doing more to compromise.
I suppose now is the time to address the issue of family and friends who express concern for your safety when traveling alone. My guess would be that most of you go around at home in your town and neighboring areas all by yourself without encountering any security problems. Other people visit in your town without problems. Everywhere you go, there could be safety concerns. However, the truth is, as long as you use common sense and research specific safety issues related to the places you are going, you will probably fine. Wherever you travel, you will need to be alert to pickpockets and people trying to sell you things you don’t need or want. Before walking alone at night in a new area, I always check with the hotel desk clerk or concierge to get advice on if this is a safe place for a woman to be alone at that particular time of day. If I encounter a situation that I feel doesn’t seem right, I turn around and go a different way.
One way to ease the minds of concerned friends and family and also to build your solo travel confidence is to travel somewhere within your own country or even your own area for your first solo trip. Get used to making all the plans and discover, through experience, how to do it better next time.
Stay in touch with those who are concerned. Always let them know you are safely on your train or plane or leaving in the car at that time. Then contact them soon after you arrive. If you are traveling within your own country of residence, this can easily be done by phone. They can probably tell by the sound of your voice that you are having a good time. If you are traveling far away, tell them to check email and that you will be contacting them. Remind them about the time differences and extra time that you might need at an airport or train station before you are able to find WiFi services.
When I travel alone, I email a daily report to my family members each evening. If I have had a long day and it is late at night, I note that everything is fine and they will get details tomorrow. This report is a diary of what happened during my day. Some of my family members read it religiously and really enjoy the tale of the joys, mishaps, and triumphs of the day. Other family members have little interest in the little details of my day, but know if they see an email from me that I am alive and functioning. These daily reports become an excellent diary of my trip once I am home. I have printed out all the emails at home and made notebooks of each trip.
When I know I will be taking a solo trip, I can run through a vast array of destination ideas and do a little research on each and change my mind several times before being ready to finalize my trip. My last trip to Paris started in the summer of 2014 as being a summer 2015 trip to Quebec. By October, I had decided to go to Alaska instead. By January, I had my eyes set on Paris and was making reservations. This may be too much indecision for friends traveling together.
Many of my senior friends rely on a large group touring vacation. They promote this as a good idea because they do not have to make any travel plans. They just get on the plane and then the buses as directed. They put their suitcases outside their doors early in the morning and spend most of their trip eating and sightseeing at places they are told to go.
Because I have traveled so much doing all the planning myself, I think I would find it difficult to go to a destination and not get to pick what to see or where to eat (although some tours do let you make choices on some days). I would feel obligated to go and do as directed and feel tied down not getting to make my own decisions.
So it really amounts to what you want out of travel. Do you want to have someone plan it all for you and save you the stress of making decisions and reservations OR do you enjoy the research and the planning and the deciding? The latter is what makes me happiest. I think the most important thing is that you travel. Get out of your own world, your own habits, your own schedule, your own daily menu, and open your eyes and heart and mind to other people and places in your country and the world.