Singletude: A Positive Blog for Singles

Singletude is a positive, supportive singles blog about life choices for the new single majority. It's about dating and relationships, yes, but it's also about the other 90% of your life--family, friends, career, hobbies--and flying solo and sane in this crazy, coupled world. Singletude isn't about denying loneliness. It's about realizing that whether you're single by choice or by circumstance, this single life is your life to live.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Fly Solo: Going on Vacation Alone, Part I

As we plow through the snowbanks that accumulate in the dead of winter, tunneling onward toward spring, I hear single friends sigh over photos of the Caribbean, imagining the vacations they'd take if only they had someone to go with.

Whenever I see a single person wistfully close a travel magazine, my heart sinks for them. Not because they don't have the perfect partner to accompany them on the vacation of a lifetime but because they won't let themselves experience the vacation of a lifetime on their own.

So many singles long to trek through the jungles of Costa Rica or climb the peak of Kilimanjaro but procrastinate because they think they can't afford the trip on their own, worry about the safety of solo travel, or fear they'll be bored without a partner to share the adventure. In fact, many singles spend so much time complaining about why they can't go on their dream trip that they neglect to figure out how they can.

Repressed globetrotters, I'm going to make it easier for you to stop making excuses and go swim with the dolphins in Florida, take a whitewater rafting trip through the Grand Canyon, or go wherever it is you have your heart set on going. All by yourself. I'm going to counter every one of your rationalizations and stalling techniques so that you feel more comfortable completing your world tour with or without a partner. Ready? Here we go:



Excuse
"I don't know how to plan a trip."

Answer
Planning a vacation can seem daunting if you've always left the dirty work to someone else. But gone are the days of plotting out your route in magic marker on a map you have no idea how to fold back into tenths. Between the big five travel sites--Expedia, Travelocity, Orbitz, Priceline, and Yahoo Travel--and Mapquest, you won't have to go it alone.

Your first order of business is, of course, choosing a destination. There are still plenty of travel guides in Barnes & Noble, and yes, I recommend picking up a few. Personally, I'm a fan of the Frommer's series, but almost any guidebook will do, so pick the one that seems the most comprehensive and user-friendly to you. Don't be daunted by how thick these books are. Most cover large territories or whole states, so you can jump right to the city or region that interests you.

Nowadays, many people think the web is the place to be when researching tourist attractions, but I still recommend that you carry a guidebook unless you plan to tote your laptop everywhere you go. You can print out info, too, but then you might as well let Fodor's do the work for you and buy a book. That's not to say the Internet can't be a rich resource for travel ideas. It can, and you'll definitely want to type your destination into the Google search bar and see what pops up. But in my experience, web searches can return so many pages that it's easy to get overwhelmed. Plus, it can be hard to distinguish unbiased opinions from company-sponsored reviews trying to sell you on their personal sherpas or endangered turtle watch cruises. So browse the web but do so with your eyes pinned open and a whole tablespoon of salt at the ready.

Once you know where you're headed, it's time to figure out how to get there and where to stay. Whether you're charting an expedition to Outer Mongolia or just a weekend getaway, the aforementioned big five travel sites feature discounted flights, hotels, and car rentals. You can book them separately or as a one-step package deal, which offers less flexibility but deeper discounts and freedom from all travel planning responsibility. Just punch in your credit card number, show up at the airport, and you're good to go.

Just a word of caution when booking online: Although the prices are cheap, hotels are infamous for dumping their least desirable rooms on the online market. This isn't the case across the board, but if you want to make sure you get a room tailored to your specifications (eg., a nonsmoking room, a room far from the elevator, a room above the third floor, etc.), call the hotel directly or book through their own web site. Furthermore, when scheduling a flight, although the big five travel sites appear to let you choose seats, the airlines don't always recognize your request. Again, if you want specific seating, call the airline or order tickets through their own web site.

With your reservations booked, it's time to consult Mapquest or Yahoo Maps. If you're travelling by car, these sites are indispensable. Simply enter your starting point and destination, and either site will give you step-by-step directions for the shortest route. I've used both sites for numerous car trips and have never been disappointed. Even if you're flying or arriving by some other mode of transport, if you plan to rent a car or even navigate by foot, you'll want to print out maps to the sights you want to see. They're lifesavers when you're in a strange city riddled with one-way streets and turning lanes that pop up out of nowhere, believe me.

Finally, don't forget to write your itinerary.

But, Elsie,
you're thinking, this sounds dangerously like writing an outline for English class, and that sounds like--yuck!--work. This is supposed to be a vacation! The point is to go out of your way not to work.

The problem is that if you don't organize your vacation into something resembling a schedule, you're going to beat yourself up for missing Artsy Fartsy's Most Amazing Laser Light Show Evah because you spent too much time being disappointed in the selection at Crafty Granny's World Renowned Quilting Faire. Your itinerary doesn't have to be eloquent or grammatically correct, trust me. ;) It just has to be relatively accurate.

To create an itinerary, remember that less is more. Pick a few attractions you're dying to see and relegate the others to your "maybe" list in case you have unexpected time to fill. While a few sights may not live up to their hype, it's likely that there will be more to see and do than anticipated, and if your schedule is too tight, you'll have to content yourself with skimming through exhibits or activities that are best appreciated in-depth. Reserve an hour's flex time on either end of any event to compensate for this as well as for transportation mishaps, long wait lines, or other delays. Remember to factor in travel, which should be easy with your Yahoo or Mapquest printouts since both give accurate estimates of time on the road, unless you encounter traffic. Try to plan your time-consuming must-sees for the morning and your more relaxing or skippable events for the late afternoon when you're tired and may just want to head back to the hotel.

Guess what? You've done it! You've planned a trip! See, that wasn't so hard, was it?

All right, all right. If you still can't fathom undertaking all this mapping and plotting, call a travel agent. As handy as do-it-yourself online travel sites are, they're still kind of like Lieutenant Data without the people skills. If you want to interact with a real person who will take full responsibility if she booked you a plane to Portland, Oregon instead of Portland, Maine, an agent is your best, uh, resort (no pun intended). They're more costly, but they'll save you time, worry, and inexplicably cancelled reservations.


Excuse
"I can't afford to go on vacation by myself."

Answer

Let me take a page from Barack Obama and say, "Yes, you can!"

Sure, it's helpful to split the expenses with someone, but that doesn't mean vacationing alone is beyond your means. So many singles have only travelled as half a couple that they mistakenly assume vacationing is all about five-star restaurants overlooking the yacht club and hotels with bellhops and valet parking.

The truth is you can travel cheaply if all you need at the end of the day are clean sheets and a shower. And be honest. When you stayed in all those Zagat-approved hotels with your exes, did you hang out in your room all day admiring the spectacular ocean view? No, you were out visiting the sites you came to see in the first place. So do yourself a favor and ditch the penthouse suite for a reasonably priced room where you can stash your stuff while you're off doing tourist-y things.

For good deals, check out the big five online travel sites mentioned above, but also try entering into a search engine the city you want to stay in or the attraction you want to see. Many times, a general search for "Yellowstone National Park" or "Orlando, FL" will return tourist-oriented web sites dedicated to promoting local accommodations. Price conscious singles should visit these smaller sites since they're likely to list more modest, affordable motels that might not make it onto the splashier sites. If the city has an official site, trust this one first.

If you're concerned about cleanliness, safety, or other issues, Travel Post, Trip Advisor, and the big five have reviews of almost every wayside lodging that ever hung a vacancy sign on the front porch. In my experience, the reviewers are pretty accurate, so take their advice into account, especially the most recent comments.

Also don't be afraid to consider hostels if "inexpensive" tops your priority list. Once upon a time, hostels were, well, a hostile environment for the out-of-towner. In cramped, musky dormitories, one could expect to bed down with unknown insects, bathe in view of 20 or 30 travellers of dubious hygiene, and possibly have the pleasure of waking to find one's wallet snatched by a sticky-fingered bunkmate. Nowadays, more hostels are offering private quarters, open cafeterias, and even wireless Internet on premises. To find a hostel and get the lowdown on it, try Hostels.com.

Of course, accommodations are only half the equation. Transportation is another significant expense. If you can, travel by ground. Most people prefer to drive, but if you don't have a car or don't feel comfortable exposing it to strange parking lots and unmanicured streets, public transportation is a wonderful, overlooked option. Bus lines like Greyhound boast service to 3,100 destinations around the country and cost half as much as air fare. Trains like Amtrak are comparable in speed and pricing and hold the trump card for dramatic scenery.

If you must take a plane, though, comparison shop for tickets at least a month in advance of your flight. The cheapest flights are, of course, the least convenient ones--"red eyes" that leave very early or very late, flights with at least one connection, and midweek departures. But if you're willing to compromise, you can save quite a bit of cash for dozens of strawberry daiquiris on that tropical beach in your future. I have found that the least expensive domestic airlines are Delta and Continental, but occasionally some of the others will have good promotional deals. Whichever you choose, if you chug a coffee and stay up till 12:00 AM on a Wednesday, you'll have a one-hour window to order at bottom-of-the-barrel rates when company computers release the previous week's reserved but unclaimed discount tickets. Also, don't forget to sign up for your favorite airline's frequent flyer miles program and patronize their affiliates so you earn miles between flights! :)

Now, one final word: Before you book anything, read the fine print pamphlets that come with your monthly credit card statements. (You wouldn't dream of throwing those away and adding to America's already engorged landfills, would you? ;)) Unbeknownst to you, that little piece of plastic may entitle you to big savings on hotel rooms, car rentals, and airline tickets. So don't leave home without it cuz it's everywhere you want to go. ;)



Ok. Travel plan...check. Affordability...check.

You're running out of excuses...Only two left for next time!



Fun Link of the Day

6 comments:

bobbyboy said...

Good topic in which I have some experience.
Most of my far off trips have been to Thailand or the Philippines. I used expedia many times and a travel agent a few times with no problems.

Maybe I'm a bit weird, but I had made a number of online friends from those countries before going. I am even met at the airport every time I arrive ^_^. Yes, it can be dangerous and caution and common sense should be used, but from my own experience (And many other friends experiences as well), it's safe.

I would be careful about hostels as opposed to hotels in foreign countries when booking online or even by phone. If for example, it's a tropical country, hostels will tend to have more insects, lizards and maybe even a rodent or two than hotels. Keep in mind that hostels cater to the "backpacker" type traveler which in many cases is a good deal cheaper, but the clientele may be also; drifters for example.

There really are limited reasons for not taking a vacation solo. A little research, common sense and desire can open up a fun filled experience for you. That is, if you don't have an excuse not to ;)

doubtful dater said...

This article is great! I have been wanting to take a vacation, but used the I can't afford a vacation excuse! Great job I never thought about the greyhound! Duh! Also most hostels have free breakfast and activities for you to do with your fellow travelers, some even have bike rentals! You have encouraged me to look some of that up today and start planning my get away!

Clever Elsie said...

Bobby and Doubtful--Thanks so much for the additional info on hostels! I know a few people who've used them but have never tried it myself, so your contributions are very much appreciated. :)

Bobby--If you've known someone online for awhile and have had substantial contact with them, I think visiting them in a foreign country is comparable to visiting any other friend. In fact, I would venture to say that it's even safer than traveling alone because you have a native resident to look out for you.

I have to add, too, that it's a little safer for men to travel alone than women, especially in countries that don't respect the equal rights of females, so ladies should be even more cautious when traveling alone in general and meeting up with online friends specifically.


Doubtful--I'm so glad this post inspired you to take off and explore! Don't forget to give us the inside scoop on your adventures solo when you get back. :)

Glam Fab Demetria Nicole said...

Hi Clever Elsie!
Thanks SO much for posting this! I went on my first long distance solo vacation (because I've traveled within the U.S. many many times) just this past July 2009! On a whim I decided to go to Cancun, Mexico because I have never gone there as a spring breaker in college; I am unmarried right now and have no children and I am adventurous so I said WHY NOT? OMG...I caught such flack from family and friends! Gheesh... But I paid them NO MIND and boarded Continental en route to Cancun...I had a hard year teaching high school and that was my treat to ME...I had the money and the time so again WHY NOT? I met the most awesome people there; I was at an all-inclusive resort so I didn't have to leave the resort area much when I was there...and I even met a group of 3 brothers who were like my own brothers while was on my SOLO TRIP...it was just awesome awesome awesome and YES I intend to do it again at some point.

So for anyone reading this GO FOR IT...life is short...live it up! Don't wait for others to help you live it!

Love Demetria

Clever Elsie said...

Demetria: Welcome to Singletude! Thanks for sharing your solo travel story! I hope it inspires other singles to venture out on their own.

Annie said...

Loved the article! Going on a solo trip can be better than going with friends. I just recently got back from a week long trip to London. I rented a room from Airbnb.com (there is also craigslist.org) from a lovely lady from Spain. It was about the same cost as a hostel, but the accommodations were much nicer. Traveling alone gives you a whole new perspective on the city, and an opportunity to make alot of new friends. =)