Gail and Pyramid

Gail and Pyramid

Better to be alone than wish you were, these “words of wisdom” were told to a friend of mine by his Mom. Though she was specifically referring to relationships, I think this sentiment also can apply to travel and vacations. Some of us may dream about taking a vacation and going off to have an adventure by ourselves, and some of us may travel solo out of pure necessity. My friend, Gail, has taken eight solo trips and in June will travel to Scandinavia.

Lia: Tell us about your passion for travel.

Gail: I had a father who thought sitting by a lake at a resort was beyond boring, so every year my family packed up the station wagon and we traveled around the U.S. for several weeks. These experiences really opened my eyes to the difference of place and people, and made an impression on me.

Now, I travel solo out of necessity. Being single and middle aged, I had reached a time in my life where I had difficulty finding someone to travel with. My friends either had no interest or other commitments. It was either go alone or stay home. Group tours never appealed to me, so I jumped in and took my first solo trip when I was 48. I got my feet wet by going to Wales, an English-speaking country. That went well, so the following year I went alone to Italy for two weeks. That was three weeks after 9/11 so I had misgivings, but it all worked out ok.

Traveling solo really inspires me. It pumps up my self-confidence and exhilarates me. I feel strong and capable—and brave. It always challenges me and sometimes scares me. But I always feel such a sense of accomplishment afterward.

Lia: How do you plan your trips?

Gail: Planning and anticipation is half the fun. Once I decide where I want to go, I head to the library for travel books; I also do research on the Internet and talk to people who have been there. I’m a big Rick Steves fan—he’s my travel guru and has never steered me wrong. Sometimes I work with a travel agent. I’m an urban person with a love of the arts, so usually my trips focus on big cities. I like to keep on the move and I’m primarily a sightseer.

Lia: Where have your travels taken you?

Gail: England (3 x), Scotland, Wales, Ireland (2x), France (3x), Italy (2x), Spain, Belgium, The Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Czech Republic (2x), Poland, Croatia, Greece, Turkey, Egypt, Mexico (2x), Canada, Bahamas, and many places in the U.S. Asia, Australia and many other countries are on my radar screen for the future. I’m going to run out of life before I run out of world.

Places of natural beauty that made an impression on me include the Croatian coast, the Cliffs of Mohr on the west coast of Ireland, the Scottish highlands, the countryside of Wales, the White Desert in Egypt and the Greek Islands in the Mediterranean. Then there are the more sobering sites: Auschwitz, the Anne Frank House, the remains of the Berlin Wall, Omaha Beach and the American cemetery in Normandy, France.

The White Desert in Egypt where Gail camped one night.

The White Desert in Egypt where Gail camped one night.

Lia: What are pros and cons of solo travel?

Gail: Some of the cons have turned into pros. Although I don’t get lonely or bored, I do sometimes get starved for connection and conversation and this has forced me to be more outgoing and initiate interactions with strangers— something I don’t typically do. Solo travel has made me stretch and grow as a person, and the payoff has been that I’ve met some very interesting people.

Another advantage is the opportunity to do exactly as you like. I spend as much or as little time in an art museum as I want. I start my day when I choose, eat when and where I want, and poke in and out of shops to my heart’s content!

On the down side, traveling alone is more expensive. And sometimes I wish I had someone to share an experience with. Meals can be difficult. I remember one night I was in Bayeaux, France at a quaint little restaurant. I misunderstood the hostess and ended up eating in the more formal upstairs space. It was a wonderful meal—all six courses and 2 1/2 hours of it—but alone, surrounded by couples and candlelight? Not so much. I’ve gotten used to dining alone. I always have a book with me, and I usually eat earlier than most of the locals. But it would be nice to have someone with me to linger over a meal and discuss the day.

Also, do-it-yourself foreign travel is a working vacation, especially in a non-English speaking country. You’re always figuring things out like train schedules and maps, communicating in an unfamiliar language or trying to gauge local customs and protocol.

One of Gail's favorites: beautiful Dubrovnik, Croatia

One of Gail's favorites: beautiful Dubrovnik, Croatia

Lia: Does traveling alone inhibit what you do or see?

Gail: Sometimes. While I do go for evening strolls, I try not to stay out late or stray too far from my hotel. If I go to a concert or evening performance, I’ll take a taxi back to my hotel. I’ve gotten lost walking alone at night and it can be scary. And some places you can’t easily reach by train or bus and I would love to have the freedom a car affords. But I wouldn’t rent a car by myself: it’s just too hard without a navigator.

Lia: What advice and encouragement can you give aspiring solo travelers?

Gail: Enjoy your own company—that’s very important because you end up spending a lot of time alone. Don’t be intimidated to go places alone, such as a theatre or concert. Expect the unexpected and take mishaps in stride. Be confident enough to handle a problem on your own. There is usually some kind local person more than willing to lend a hand. I’ve had many angels come to my rescue.

Book yourself into a good hotel in a safe neighborhood
, and always be alert and aware of your surroundings, especially at night and on trains or buses. Use common sense and listen to your gut—if something feels off pay attention. Oh yes, get a good, secure travel bag with lots of zippers and pockets, in Europe pickpockets abound.

Lia: Describe some highlights from your travels.

Gail and fellow travelers pushing their truck out of a sand dune in the Egyptian desert.

Gail and fellow travelers pushing their truck out of a sand dune in the Egyptian desert.

Gail: I get a kick out of seeing widely reproduced world icons in person—the Eiffel Tower, Coliseum, the Louvre, St. Mark’s Square in Venice, the Acropolis, St. Peter’s Square in Rome, the Pyramids of Giza. And, I’ll never forget attending an evening concert in the over 2,000-year-old open-air Odeon Theatre at the foot of the Acropolis. Or visiting the Alhambra palace in Grenada, Spain, which was one of the most beautiful man-made palaces I’ve ever seen. Or the time I heard a wonderful string quartet perform in a beautiful, small church in Venice.