The last part of my 43-year U-M career took me first to China, and then to much of Southeast Asia, where I served as a “scout” on behalf of University interests wishing to develop alumni relations. It was scary at first, then exhilarating. By the time my husband died, unexpectedly young, I knew I’d continue traveling the world, even on my own.
There’s almost nowhere I’m not willing to go. I pick a region and then do LOTS of research to find just the right accommodations and use that as a base for a minimum of three nights. I prefer small boutique hotels or guest houses. There has to be on-site 24-hour management, a main entrance that’s locked, and a smoke-free room with windows that open. I Google “inns,” “boutiques,” “jewels,” “unknown hideaways,” and follow leads that pop up. I check mainstream website reviews, some of which can be filtered by “solo travel,” and read everything recent. I contact the establishments directly, outline specific interests, ask for any specials, and keep the name of every person I talk with. I always ask about on-site or nearby construction. I never book without a very flexible cancellation policy. I travel off-season, ask for upgrades when I check in, and am willing to move after a day or two if something nicer opens up. If it’s a new place, I almost always arrange for hotel transportation on arrival. I befriend the on-site staff. Most of my restaurant recommendations and lots of local exploring tips come from them.
Late lunch or early dinner – often extravagant – is my main meal. I’m in by mid-evening and don’t socialize after that unless it’s in the hotel or a performance where I’ve booked the best seat available. I use “hop-on, hop-off” buses to get the lay of the land and for some transportation. I have a list of interests, map them out, check opening hours, and plan to visit one or two per day, leaving time open for whatever might come along.
Google Maps (for public transportation) and Google Translate (to talk with cab drivers) have been immeasurably helpful. Lately I’ve begun to look for small, locally led English-speaking walking tours. I love visiting grocery stores, where I buy most of my “souvenirs.” I frequent massage spas recommended by the hotel. I use Uber if I learn that the locals do and follow along on the route on my phone. I carry the hotel business card with me and have called the desk when drivers are confused. I have a deep fear of running out of battery power, so I always have a power pack handy. I always use my room’s safe, but I do carry a fair amount of cash, two credit cards, and a copy of my passport daily.
I have an awful sense of direction and have realized that after a period of triple-checking itineraries, maps, transportation, museum hours, etc., I’m ready for a break and company. I look for small group (12-16 pax) travel companies that either don’t charge a solo supplement or include one that’s not outrageous. Overseas Adventure Travel and Road Scholar have been good so far. My only issues are that solo spaces are really limited and I’m often assigned the crappiest hotel room available. After a couple of weeks with a group, I’m ready to be on my own again, and so plan for another solo experience before coming home.
My only big fail so far was when I was pickpocketed in Athens, during a period when German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited and protesting citizens shut everything down. I didn’t learn that until after I’d taken cash from the airport ATM and then found my pre-arranged transportation was canceled. The train crowd was crushing, and that’s when the thief got me. The University of Michigan Credit Union had a replacement card for me in 24 hours; I had to get to an American Express office for theirs.
My destinations, and I’ve loved them all, have included:
2013 (with three of my sisters): Bangkok and Angkor Wat (arranged on our own); Myanmar (with help of a local agency)
2014: Quito (with a friend on our own), then a Galapagos tour by 80 pax ship, then a solo stay at a bed-and-breakfast on San Cristobal island
2015: Key West (with a sister), Cuba (with a group), and Miami Beach (sister)
2016: Paris and London (with a friend on our own)
2017: Johannesburg (solo), Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe (with a group), and Cape Town (solo)
2018: Morocco (with a group), including Essaouira (solo), followed by Paris (solo)
2019: Puglia and Sicily (with a group) followed by the Amalfi Coast, Naples, Rome, and Paris (solo)
2020: Portugal (solo), southern Spain (with a group), Barcelona, and Madrid (solo)
Though my travel is on hold for the pandemic, I next plan to travel across southern France and northern Italy.
(Written Feb. 4, 2021)