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February 21, 2008

Can you, single female, travel alone? YES. YES, yes yes.

Alright, enough blah blah blah Rome/food/wine/popes. While my little travelogue of Rome was fun and contained many pictures of food, there was more to it than pasta. There was the real part of this trip for me: the traveling-alone part. The logistics. The cheap airfare!

Traveling alone sounded exciting and also SO SCARY. Part of the reason I never expressed my own private reservations about traveling alone was that I didn't want to hear people either telling me:

A) what a ninny I was for having any worries ("I travel everywhere by myself! I just got back from Afghanistan! It was great! You're a weirdo for worrying! Pansy!")

Or telling me:

B) What a foolhardy fool I was for wanting to travel alone ("But bad things happen, you might die, you might get accosted, bad things happen, are you sure you want to go alone? You sure?")

Ya'll know.

So this column is just my personal take on the subject of one female americanus averagenus traveling solo for the first time (but definitely not the last). I suspect I am not the only gal out there who wants to go off and see the world. I can't be the only human on the planet who has found herself without a current travel partner. Or perhaps there are plenty of folks to travel with -- I have several friends I could have easily sweet-talked into this trip -- but your schedules don't sync up or you have different travel styles or maybe you just want to try something new all by yourself. You're itching to go somewhere, anywhere, and you're wondering like I did... can I really do this alone?

Yes! Yes yes yes you can! Listen, I'm a big baby. I get lonely, I get scared, I am prone to being maudlin, I'm not superhuman. I get upset when some stranger leaves a mean website comment for chrissakes. If I can do this, anyone can do it. Seriously, anyone. You may not start in some foreign country, but maybe you always wanted to see Denver in the snow or Miami in the heat of summer. Or Banff... I really want to see Banff one day.

The first question on anyone's mind is ... how can I afford this?

To me, affording travel is usually a matter of priorities. I drive a thirteen-year-old car with no air conditioning. IN THE VALLEY. Most of my friends and family assumed that once I climbed painfully out of debt I'd be immediately running out and buying a new car. But I saw travel on my horizon and my Jeep works fine for now. I would rather travel a lot (and oh yes, this is only the beginning) than have a car payment and that's where my priorities are.

If you really want something in life, you usually find a way to afford it. And don't let anyone tell you that you're being selfish, or "Ooooh, looky there! World traveler! blah blah blah fancypants!" People don't live your life, YOU live your life. Travel is one of the greatest life experiences ever. When you are sick and dying, I doubt you'll say, "I wish I spent more time in traffic or standing in line at Rite-Aid..." so let people say what they're going to say and you just go on with your bad-ass, world travelin' self.

Step One: Deciding to go it alone.

I was terrified to go on a vacation by myself. I didn't tell anyone this detail, of course. My family, my friends, my coworkers... every time one of them remarked about my traveling alone or my upcoming solo trip all they heard back from me was that I was really excited! Can't wait! So ready for an adventure! Send wine!

All of that was true or I wouldn't have booked the trip to begin with. But as my trip got closer and reality sunk in and I realized I was going to get on an airplane BY MYSELF and fly off to a country I'd never before visited ALL BY MY LONESOME with just a passing grasp of the language ALONE ... yeah, I got a little nervous. Had I made a terrible mistake? Would I walk off the plane and immediately be relieved of all my possessions, cursed to spend my vacation wandering the halls of the embassy begging for a free meal and a ride home?

One night about four days before my trip, I was lying in bed wondering if I had made a grave error in judgment. I might have a bad time! I might be lonely! I might not fit in! I might get pickpocketed! I might cry! I might not find a place to eat!

Then I remembered who I am. I love to see stuff in new places. I have worked for all my pennies and dimes for just this very thing. There are three things I love to do best in this world: write, travel and eat. (Drinking wine falls under the "eat" category.) Life is short. Fear passes. Even if all the bad stuff I was worrying about really happened on vacation, at least I would have a funny story to tell.


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Step Two: Booking your trip

Normally, Step One "Deciding to travel alone" is a well-thought out plan that comes before Step Two: Purchasing a ticket and booking a hotel in a foreign country. Yeah, anyway. Moving on.

I knew I wanted to go somewhere anywhere just not on the freeway on my way to work again, please Lord. Instead of planning a destination ahead of time I just left myself open to going wherever the cheap fares took me. I have always traveled this way, which is how I've seen so many different places on vacations. I'm comfortable being flexible in my destinations and travel times to get a great deal because for me, it's the ultimate shopping thrill.

However, this seat-of-your-pants destination bingo may not work for you. You may want to go to England in June, for example, or have your heart set on Australia for spring break. You may only feel comfortable traveling in a cruise setting or to an all-inclusive beach resort -- and that is perfectly 100% A-OKAY. You have to find a travel style that suits your personality. What works for other people will not always work for you. What works for me might make someone else break out in hives.

To find amazing fares all you need is an internet connection. Most people already know about the biggest internet travel websites like Expedia, Travelocity and Orbitz. All of these sites are great, and I use them all to check fares from time to time. But the sites I use most often are:

Kayak.com - The "Buzz" feature of this site is a good way to find lower-cost fares. You can select your departure airport, then use a drop down menu to select a general destination (divided up into chunks of the world, like Europe or North America or Oceania/Australia) and then look for all the cheapest fares to that area of the world by month or by certain dates. Keep in mind that you need to click through on the fares to find the "real" price, Kayak doesn't add in the taxes and fees.

CheapTickets.com - Hands-down my favorite way to travel surf. This is where I got my $600 ticket to Rome, and this is where I have found 90% of all my best travel fares. Use their Flexible Search tool to find the best deals on tickets. In the search area on the left-hand side of the homepage, look for the small link that says "Flexible Dates."

cheaptickets-flex1.jpg

The expanded search page has tons of great options (for example, you can search for weekend trips in June to wherever...) but I like to use the 30-day search matrix, which is option 3. It works for international fares, too:

cheaptickets-flex2.jpg

You type in your departing city, an arrival city, and then look for flights for a trip of 4-6 days (or however long) in any 30-day period and you get a huge search matrix with all the prices for all travel dates in that time frame. IT WILL CHANGE THE WAY YOU BUY TICKETS! (Orbitz.com also has the exact same flexible search tool, but I noticed they add an extra $3-5 bucks on top of each ticket price. Same search, five dollars more.)

And listen, if you're planning to travel definitely sign up for a frequent flier program and use it. For example, my flight to Rome would have cost me $12 less on a different carrier, but they weren't part of the frequent flier network I use the most. For that $12 extra, I got 13,000 flier miles on the airline of my choice. Plus, you can use your accrued miles to upgrade to first class, baby!

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Step Three: Where will you stay and will it be funky? The bad funky. Not the good funky.

While I am very flexible and adventurous with flights, picking where to sleep is a whole 'nother ballgame. I fully admit that when it comes to hotels I AM PRISSY. I am not a camper, roughing-it, pee-down-the-hallway-in-a-shared-closet kind of gal. I will not be staying in a hut or in a tent. Personally, I do not want to feel the rustic appeal of bedbugs or scabies or the creeping crotch funk.

There will be people who try to tell me I'm wrong and explain emphatically that I cannot experience a place like the locals do if I insist at staying at a clean, lovely hotel. To these people I say: enjoy your scabies! Live long and prosper, ye of crotch funk! I will be sleeping on clean sheets and watching BBC news before bed, thankyouverymuch.

Picking a hotel requires a little research. Be sure your hotel is centrally located to the stuff you want to see and do, and be sure it's in your price range. Check out the most recent guidebooks at the public library or buy a few at your bookstore and start looking for hotels. (I love the entire Rough Guide series of books the best.) Plot your hotel on a map so you don't get a surprise when you arrive -- discovering you're staying on the runway at the airport, for example, or tucked away 25 minutes outside of town.

Once you have it narrowed down, cross check the hotel with TripAdvisor.com. Real travelers just like you and me can comment on their experiences at a hotel. Sometimes travelers also upload their own candid pictures of where they stayed so you get to actually see the rooms, and not just from pictures on the hotel's official website. I LOVE TripAdvisor.com! It's the very best place I have found for real, honest reviews of hotels.

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Step Four: Getting to and Fro and To again or "My personal safety and peace of mind is not negotiable."

Once I had my flight picked out and my hotel booked, I needed to figure out how to get from the airport in Rome to the hotel. In the past when I had a travel partner we always grabbed a cab at the airport and made it to the hotel safe and sound. Or we were renting a car. But what made financial (and safety) sense in a pair didn't seem to work for me as a single. Last year when I was on the book tour I had an icky cab experience that scared me half to death and I wasn't real keen to get in a cab with a stranger in Rome after having traveled for a bazillion hours straight.

Now, some folks like to take the mass transit options when they arrive, and I know there are plenty of transportation solutions. But for me, the idea of schlepping all over the airport and then the train station and then finding a cab or bus at the main train station to get to my hotel sounded exhausting after such a long flight and the potential for getting ripped off and crying and puddling away in a corner of frustration seemed quite high. Hey, I know my limits.

So, for a flat fee of 45 Euros, I made arrangements with a car service in Rome for someone to meet me at the airport and take me in a nice car to my hotel. (I used http://www.romecabs.com. THEY ARE AWESOME. AWESOME.) It was the best money I spent the whole time I was in Rome! The peace of mind of having someone (with detailed contact information) meet me at the airport made a big difference to me and it was the exact same price as hailing a random taxi.

The reason I'm going into all this detail about ground transportation is that this was my personal little scary zone. Your first trip alone will contain its own unique scary places, too. It was worth it to me to spend some money in this area, because it gave me much-needed peace of mind and got the vacation started on the right foot. Safety first! I knew some people would think I was frivolous and dumb to spend money on a car service when there is a perfectly serviceable train somewhere else. But you know what? This was MY vacation, not someone else's vacation. I feel happier about spending the money on my safety and comfort than trying to be someone else's idea of a traveler.

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Step Five: Ok, I'm here. I've checked in to the hotel and looked for bedbugs (all is well). I've washed my face and peed and unpacked. NOW WHAT THE HELL DO I DO?

When I got to the hotel I kind of walked around my room and stalled. It was a little weird, being all alone on my new vacation. What the heck do I do now?

It became very clear that I needed to immediately leave the room and conquer the fear of the strange city. RIGHT NOW. All freshened up, I went to the hotel desk and asked for a map of the city (I already have a map, but I wanted one of the free paper maps hotels give out, because I like to highlight all the walking I do on vacation. Dorky habit.) Usually the front desk clerk will offer some help if you need directions or at least circle the hotel's location on the map for you. With my map in my pocket, I decided to go out and do the one thing universal in all cities: eat and drink! The front desk clerk gave me some great recommendations and I found a restaurant nearby. It was good to just sit and soak in the city, get acclimated, and get fueled up.

On your first day, try to find something small and comforting to do ... walk around, window shop, eat a good meal, get your bearings. I wanted to stay awake as long as possible so I would be on the local time zone (as much as possible). I just walked. I walked and walked and walked. I saw the Trevi fountain and the Pantheon and shops and people and found a bench and just people-watched for hours. With my sunglasses on (so I could hide behind my shades), I pulled out my knitting and sat on a stone bench and let it sink in that I was finally, totally on vacation. And vacation was GOOD. Sitting there and knitting -- a comfort activity if ever there were one -- and watching the people walk by was AWESOME.

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Step Six: What On Earth Do I Wear?

When I first started traveling I was obsessed with what to wear. I know there are folks out there who could care less about how they look, and I was not one of them. So this next part is only for those people who, like me, wanted very much to not be pegged right away as a fresh-off-the-farm yokel abroad. After all, I may be a yokel but I do enjoy my accessorizing!

There's a thrill in being able to mix in, blend into the crowd of some foreign place. I think it's because you can sit back, observe someone else's city and wonder what life is like, wonder if you could live there ... it's part of a fantasy. Not everyone travels this way but this is how I have always been, because for me part of the thrill of blending in is being able to soak in the new culture. Rather than trying to establish your identity and all that, you're just morphing for a few days, letting the you-ness melt out and letting the new city melt in.

It's a great feeling, especially when you love a city. You become a temporary resident. So this list is for the other gals who like the fantasy of blending in, even a little. Skip this part if you could care less...

1) Ditch the backpack. For one thing, all your stuff is open to anyone standing behind you and for another thing, do you walk around your hometown mall carrying a backpack? (If you do, I'm sorry. Don't send hate mail.)

2) Shoes. Shoes. Shoes.
The issues that divide us as people are not religion or politics or money. The dividing issue is FOOTWEAR, pure and simple.

Once a few years ago I was sitting in an airport waiting to get on a plane to Zurich. I listened as two women who were from Somewhere USA bickered about their shoes. I think they were sisters. Anyway, one woman was irritated that her sister had chosen to wear her Nikes because that made them stand out as tourists. The other lady was pissed off, because she said, and I quote, "These are my damn shoes and I'm wearing them. I don't know why I have to go changing my shoes for a bunch of strangers."

They both had a point.

Anyway, bring comfortable shoes that you like. And yes, you can bring your jeans. Everyone that I saw was wearing high-end denim and boots or Euro-tennies (I saw more silver D&G tennis shoes on this trip than I have seen in the entirety of the Beverly Center.) No one wears sweats anywhere but America as far as I have been able to discern. In my desire to be helpy and also stalkery, I took pictures of random representative Rome fashion. The look everywhere was something like this:

rome-fashion.jpg
Yes, I take pictures of people's clothes. Is that weird?

And this look was everywhere, little miniskirts or short tunics over opaque tights and knee boots... oh yeah, and lots of fur coats:

rome-fur-boots-mom.jpg
That is one chic mommy.

So aside from the fur, of course it's basically the same stuff you see in L.A. during the winter (and no pajamas, what is this trend in Los Angeles with people wearing their pajamas to Starbucks? Really now.) (Carson Kresley would JUST DIE.)

I do recommend you bring two pairs of shoes. You walk more than you ever dreamed possible while on vacation and you will want to switch it up in the show department.

3) Other stuff ...

• I like to travel in the off-season when it's cheaper and less crowded. This also means it can be COLD! A basic black or dark-colored wool pea coat will take you everywhere. Puffy coats were also in this year (especially ones trimmed in fur) and real fur was EVERYWHERE. I wish I would have taken another coat because all my pictures have me in one outfit but my suitcase wouldn't have closed. Ah well.

• I tried to do the carry-on only thing but after about five minutes of packing I sighed, got out the suitcase and it was fine. I am not a light packer. I can deal with it.

• Oh, and I was wary but it worked -- the dual currency hairdryer from Brookstone (along with one of those cheapy two-prong outlet converters from Target) worked awesome! (Sadly, bangs are way high maintenance.)

• My over-size spy sunglasses were $14.99 at Target. Yup. While Drew was out here in January we were in the car and the sun came out and we were sans shades so they were an impulse buy that I love. I have to have my dark big sunglasses on vacation! They hide my eyes and let me people watch in peace. It was easy "hiding" behind my big shades. I also usually bring two pairs of earrings, one set of hoops and something else, but both are inexpensive pieces in case I lose them. And I brought my handknit beret, it was perfect for the cold weather.

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Once you're there...
One of the first things I do anywhere I go is to hit up the first grocery store or market I find. It's the best way to stock up on water (do you get really dehydrated when you travel? I do, I'm just thirsty all the time) so I have my own stock back in the room. I also pick up a few snacks and some wine if they have something cheap that looks good.

• Oh and speaking of money!
Call your credit card provider and your bank (for your ATM card) to alert them that you will be traveling and where you'll be. If not, they could block your transactions for suspicious activity. I changed a little money before going, and used plastic for everything else because my exchange rate was better that way. If you are on the dollar, be prepared that the exchange rate is just dismal. I just made the decision to go with it and not cry too much, but dear economy: please improve. Love, laurie.


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Check in with someone back home to let them know you're okay.

Internet cafes are everywhere, but to me "vacation" means "no computers, hooray!" so on my first day in Rome, I bought an international phone card for 10 Euros and I think I still have a million minutes on it. It was easy -- I found a magazine stand and asked the guy if he sold phone cards for international calls. It went like this:

Me: Scusi? Um, per favore...? Posso avere un...um? Carte de telefono? Per favore?

Guy at magazine stand: Would you like to purchase an international calling card for Europe or for North America?

hee.

Then he told me how to use it (you just dial the 1-800 number from any phone, I used my hotel phone the first night and also a payphone one day, ask your hotel if they add charges for 1-800 calls) and then enter in your pin code from the card. Voila! Be sure to write down your local country code and the numbers you want to call back home. (In other words, to dial the US from Italy, you dial 011 - then the area code - then the number.) It was awesome calling my folks from Italy, and something about hearing their voices made me feel happy. So take a minute or so to let people know you're okay one way or the other.

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Finally: Have fun!

I picked a few key things I really wanted to see: the papal blessing on one day, a walking tour of the ruins (led by a pHD!) on another day. The rest of the time I just walked, sat in cafes, looked at people and art and churches and shoes and ate good food. It was relaxing and just my speed. I even slept a fair amount, which is very unusual for me and made my trip seem like such a luxury.

The very best things about traveling alone are that you get to move fully at your own pace and it's easy to meet people if you get lonely. You're on no one's timetable but your own, maybe for the first time ever! I spent one entire day in Rome just people-watching, walking around and having good meals. I did not take a tour, learn anything useful or apply myself to history and context on that day. It was probably one of my favorite days in my entire life.

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And don't worry, I won't be blabbering on about it forever. Surely tomorrow it will be the normal cat hair, poop and knitting. But it sure was nice to walk outside my life for a while. It was really really nice.

I hope your trip is lovely, too. Wherever you may decide to go!

Posted by laurie at February 21, 2008 6:32 AM