My pick for Room 101: solo bookers who call themselves solo travellers
Apologies in advance: I’m feeling very grumpy this week. As such, it’s the perfect time for me to pretend I’m a guest on the popular BBC TV show Room 101. If you’ve never seen it, guests get to argue the case for putting something they can’t stand into the proverbial Room 101 and get rid of it for ever. Room 101 is a reference to the torture room in George Orwell’s novel 1984. (Orwell is said to have taken his inspiration from a conference room where he sat through interminable meetings while working for the BBC.)
Items banished to Room 101 include people who call you ‘mate’ when you’ve never met them before, though coming from Essex we are rather used to that and quite honestly I wouldn’t like to see that go. Other observations include the frustration of being saddled with a waiter who pours a little bit of wine into your glass (totally agree with that, utterly pretentious). People who say “have a nice day” (sorry America, I don’t know why that winds some people up) and people who don’t pick up their dog’s poo (can’t argue with that) are two more. Travel-related good riddances include the prohibition of mosquitoes and expensive water in hotels. Yes and yes! The list is as eclectic as it is fascinating.
So here’s mine. I’m a huge fan of solo travel and without wishing to sounding like a travel snob, solo travel by its very definition means travelling alone, without anyone else. The whole point of travelling solo is to get away from everyone else and give yourself space to explore your new surroundings. Google it, if you don’t believe me. I just did and this was the top result:
Solo travel means you’re going somewhere else alone, where you will spend a significant chunk of time alone once you get there.
Thank you Quora.
Now call me thick if you like (though please not to my face, had about enough this week and need a dollop of nice, thank you very much), but how does that sit with someone making a booking for a group tour? My inbox and social media feeds are awash with travel suggestions that involve a solo booker joining a singles holiday or a group tour with other lone travellers.
Let me just stress, I have no problem with anyone who wants to do just that. It’s a great way to make friends and to share the experience of visiting a new country. But there’s a distinction between someone who books a single place on a tour and someone who deliberately seeks to distance themselves from a tour at all costs. The former’s a solo booker. The latter’s a solo traveller.
And they’re two different things.
Do you agree or would you send something entirely different to Room 101? I’d love to find out what your pet peeves are when it comes to travel. But if I’m a little slow in responding, that’s because I’m off to the remote Kyrgyzstan countryside for a week – solo of course.
Why it’s hard for me to choose the best places for solo travel
It’s a popular topic, and one editors are keen to publish. You’ll find a glut of listicles all over the internet touting the places you “must go” if you’re a solo traveller, and a whole bunch more specifically aimed at females missing a plus one. I’ve been travelling on my own for over thirty years and if I’ve learned one thing, it’s that solo travel, by its very nature, is a personal thing. What’s perfect for me is unlikely to be right for someone else. When it comes to choosing a destination, perhaps it’s better to think first about the kind of person you are, where you’re likely to be happiest and what you hope to get from the trip. The decision about where to go will follow on naturally from that.
Are you truly seeking solitude?
It’s not a smart idea to find yourself on the established tourist trail if what you’re really after is some time out to gather your thoughts. But equally, it can be daunting to be completely on your own. Isolation can bring on acute loneliness very quickly. When I first visited Cuba fifteen years ago, I travelled west from Havana. I had no phone signal and no internet. At the time, I wasn’t ready to be that cut off. I was probably more homesick than I’d ever been before or since. I learnt that although I can quite happily go for days without speaking to people, I draw comfort from the knowledge I can talk to friends and family back at home if I feel like it. If anything, with the increased role social media plays in our lives, that’s even more the case for me today. I enjoy spending time on my own, but I also enjoy posting status updates and sending texts (hey – phoning’s expensive!) which allow me to share photographs and experiences with friends and family. Know yourself, and your limits, and you’ll have a much better trip for it.
Is it about the company?
I enjoy taking holidays with my husband (and I’m not just saying that because he’ll read this blog). But he’s not an adventurous traveller and there are places that I want to visit that I know will be so far out of his comfort zone that he just won’t be happy. I have no wish to force him to waste his precious annual leave on something or somewhere he’s going to hate, so going it alone is my preference. I could opt to travel with a friend instead, of course. But years of solo travel has, if I’m totally honest, made me quite selfish when it comes to travelling. I have become used to doing whatever I want, whenever I want. It’s the exact opposite of home, where family commitments mean there’s plenty of give and take. So this becomes my reward: a few days of doing whatever I please, whenever I like. I’d describe it as a kind of adult time out. I recharge my “me” batteries and come back to the real world refreshed and ready to join in again.
Solo travel isn’t the same as a singles holiday
When I talk about travelling solo, I mean just that. I mean jumping on a plane, booking a single room and spending my days and nights largely by myself. I’m not single, and I’m not travelling in the hope of finding a life partner. I already have one, and I’m extremely fortunate that he’s very tolerant of my desire to wander. I like being on my own and I’m comfortable being by myself. I don’t care one iota if I don’t have a meaningful conversation with someone for days on end. I guess that makes me unsociable, but even at home, I often take myself out for the afternoon without asking someone if they’d like to join me. But home or away, if I want to, it’s easy to call a friend or join a group excursion. And that’s pretty nice too.
How do you know you’re not missing out?
The main drawback for me of not taking a group tour is losing the opportunity to tap into the specialist knowledge of a guide. But being saddled with a tour leader that knows less about the place than I do has frustratingly been a reality on more than one occasion. Researching a destination is as much a delight as seeing the places in real life. I relish the chance to choose the perfect hotel and tailor the itinerary to my needs without the hefty price tag that comes with bespoke travel. Instead of a packaged tour, I tend to book day excursions, particularly if I think I’d get more out of a place if I tap into someone else’s specialist knowledge or when, logistically, it’s the smart thing to do. Booking Envoy Tours’ Enlinking Caucasus tour facilitated sightseeing between Tbilisi and Yerevan without the need to backtrack. And on my most recent visit to New York, I joined the excellent Free Tours by Foot food tour of the Lower East Side – proving that no matter how many times you visit a place, there’s always something new to learn.
Would you feel constrained on a group tour?
A few years back I won a trip to America’s Deep South. By and large it was a good trip, but going off piste made it better. When it came to spending the alloted five hours at Graceland, I cut it to two and caught a bus back downtown to watch the duck parade at Memphis’ famous Peabody Hotel. There had been some teething problems at the start of the trip in New Orleans as the tour leader was understandably reluctant to let her precious charges out of her sight. Her protests were cut short when I told her that I’d not long returned from El Salvador – on my own of course – and come out unscathed. Let me emphasise at this point, I’ve nothing against group tours. but I do appreciate it when the tour leaders realise that there’s no “one size fits all” when it comes to their clients’ travel experience.
So where’s good for solo travel?
The honest answer: everywhere and nowhere. In the same way that being confined to a trans-Atlantic cruise for days on end would be my idea of holiday hell, solo travel isn’t holiday heaven for everyone. If that’s you, then you’re potentially going to feel uncomfortable wherever you book. Not sure? Challenge yourself. Try a short break and test the water. Fill your days during that first trip with lots of sightseeing, minimising your downtime so that you don’t have time to stop and think that you’re on your own. When you get home, take stock. Be honest about what worked and what didn’t. If you enjoy your new-found freedom, make your next solo trip a longer one. And if you didn’t, there’s no shame at all in accepting that you’re more suited to a group tour or travel with friends or family.
That said, it’s wise to mitigate against loneliness. It’s easier to meet fellow travellers if you stay in hostels rather than all-inclusives which tend to attract couples and families. Also, pick somewhere where there’s likely to be a lot of singles: the Antipodes, for example, South America’s traveller circuit, the South East Asia backpacker trail or Europe’s big cities. If you’re keen to visit somewhere off the beaten track but don’t know if you can handle being alone, sandwich it in between two places you know you’ll find company or can book excursions. But be prepared to put yourself out there: no one’s going to come knocking at your door if they don’t know you’re there.
How to travel solo without the hefty price tag
An email popped up into my inbox the other day touting an article that promised a selection of holidays this summer for under £600 per person. Intrigued, I clicked – the dreaded click bait! Though there were a couple of holidays that fell within the price range, most required a group of six people to share a villa to achieve the deal. I prefer to travel alone – yes, it’s a choice! – so the thought of spending a week with five other people is not my bag. But it got me thinking and here’s the result – how to travel solo without the hefty price tag.
Singles holidays are often a no when it comes to budget solo travel as they usually slap on a significant single supplement. Even when they don’t, the price of that single supplement has usually been absorbed into the package cost which bumps the price up. Ditch the tour operator (but not the insurance!) and go it alone. You’ll be more in control of what you pay and who you pay it to. If you’re a bit worried about travelling solo, why not read my post about travel hacks for solo travellers which contains tips and tricks learned from years of going it alone.
Consider a hostel
The cheapest option for a solo traveller is a bed in a dorm room, but that’s not going to cut it if you need quiet to sleep and you like to shut the door on the world when you turn in. Instead, consider a private room in a hostel. Check out the cleanliness ratings on a reliable website and if it scores well, don’t rule out a shared bathroom. Try the Acco Hostel in Stockholm’s Södermalm district. £18 will get you a bed in a four-person dorm room but double the budget to £39 and you can have a room of your own. I can also recommend the excellent Adventure Queenstown Hostel in New Zealand. They only have one private double (book well ahead!) but it has a balcony and starts at a budget friendly £59 a night. If that’s too dear, their 6 bed dorm rooms will cost you £17.50 per night.
Seek out accommodation that’s designed for one
The best way to avoid a single supplement is to find somewhere that isn’t big enough for two. There’s plenty of budget accommodation out there that will keep your costs down. I stayed in the central but basic Pension Vergara in the heart of Seville’s old town for £18 a night. If you think you have to travel off season, you don’t – that price is available this August. It wasn’t a room I intended to use other than to sleep, so the lack of space didn’t bother me, and I really couldn’t have found a more convenient location. Turkey’s also a good option. I travelled to Cappadocia and stayed at the Kelebek Cave Hotel. Their most expensive suites come in at 180 euros per night but stay in one of their atmospheric cave rooms to keep the cost down. The cheapest double is currently £39 per night, including a 20% discount for single occupancy. Yes – you read that right – a discount, not a supplement.
Save money by self-catering
Renting an apartment doesn’t have to break the bank and if you can find one with a kitchen, you can save money on eating out too. I’m off to Barbados as soon as rainy season ends and have found a studio apartment for just £45 a night by using Airbnb. It’s part of a complex on a golf course near the beach which means I have access to a shared pool too, and the apartment is configured so that the bed is on a mezzanine, leaving the ground floor free for a living room and kitchen. It’s a short stroll to the bus stop so I can get around easily and just 15 minutes’ walk from the beach. On paper it sounds perfect: check back later in the year to read my review.
Grab a flight deal while it lasts
Unless you’re holidaying close to home, it’s often the cost of travel that represents the biggest outlay. I try to keep an open mind about where I might travel to next and keep my dates flexible. If you’re tied to school holidays, plan well in advance and take full advantage of February and October half terms as they often throw up the best deals. Sign up for email alerts from airlines so you don’t miss out on any flash sales and also from deal spotters such as Secret Flying as they will hunt out the bargains for you. If a bargain flight crops up, grab it while it’s available and worry about booking accommodation later. But don’t believe all you read: I once saw a post from a respected blogger promoting a fare of almost £1000 as a cheap flight to Seattle yet a couple of weeks ago, Secret Flying advertised the same route for £290. Both were on scheduled airlines. Keep an eye on these comparison sites and you’ll soon learn what’s a good price.
Do you have tips for saving money as a solo traveller? Why not share them by leaving a comment?
Tips for keeping yourself – and your stuff – safe while you’re travelling
Travel safety is a big consideration for most travellers and as a solo female, it’s something that has to be thought about, both at the planning stage and while I’m on the road. Here’s some advice based on what I’ve learned over the years about keeping myself safe.
Plan before you go
I hold what I call my reserve bucket list. I contains places that I hope to go to one day, but for safety or security reasons aren’t top of the list right now. One of the websites I go to when I have a trip idea involving somewhere that might just be a bit dodgy is the FCO’s – and in particular its Travel Advice by Country. Sometimes it can make for scary reading, but knowledge is never a bad thing. The FCO’s up to date facts about a country can help rule it out – sorry, Mali, you’ll just have to wait in line with Yemen – but where it’s clear that any issues involving safety are contained to a specific part of the country, it can sometimes rule a country in.
Keep abreast of news while on the road
I’ve found Twitter to be an invaluable help in finding out what’s going on within a country from the inside. In Haiti last year, it was the most accurate way of tracking the unrest triggered by fuel price rises and ensuring that I didn’t leave sleepy Jacmel too early. It’s also been handy to check how the roads are running in and out of Calais when my family have taken a cross Channel ferry during the recent difficulties.
Think about luggage
Habitually I travel with a rigid-shell wheelie, which would be harder for thieves to slash than a soft suitcase. My aim is usually to appear a more difficult target than someone else, so to that end I ensure zips and fastenings are done up, small padlocks secure outside pockets from interfering fingers and bags are worn cross-body so they can’t easily be slipped off my shoulder. Valuables are buried deep within inside pockets and expensive equipment like cameras are in plain bags rather than labelled ones with Nikon or Canon clearly visible. One thing I never do, though, is wear my rucksack on my chest – personally, I just think that marks you out as a dumb tourist and makes you more of a target.
Trust your instincts
Over the years I’ve either been lucky or I’ve developed the skill of knowing when something just doesn’t feel right. Of course, I could have been blissfully unaware of any potential danger. Sometimes, you just have to go with your gut and accept help or hospitality from complete strangers. I’ve trusted people to give me a lift and turned others down simply because it didn’t seem right; spoken to others at length and entered their homes while avoiding eye contact with others. One of the most rewarding aspects of travelling is the encounters you have with people along the way, which would be impossible if your guard was always up. So far, though I shouldn’t want to jinx my luck, I’ve never got myself into any situation I couldn’t get out of. Perhaps that’s the key – have an exit strategy in the back of your mind.
Choose accommodation in a safe location
It can be tempting to book a hotel or hostel near a bus or train station but I do check first to find out if that puts it in an insalubrious district. Better to have a short taxi ride or subway trip than to risk walking around somewhere that I’m more likely to get robbed. That’s especially important if I’m arriving after dark, which may be earlier than at home, of course. If arriving after nightfall is unavoidable, then I’ll almost always take a taxi; to do otherwise could be false economy. It’s also good to take local advice. The hostel I stayed at in Windhoek, Namibia’s capital, was very clear with the advice posted on its gate: leave anything behind that you didn’t wish to lose – pickpockets were, sadly, rife.
Ironically as it turned out, when I visited Syria just months before the civil war kicked off, I took the airport bus from Damascus into the city and then walked alone through its deserted streets at 2 am – and have rarely felt safer than I did that night. Perhaps safety is a state of mind?
Travel hacks for solo travel
For almost three decades, I’ve happily travelled the globe alone. While I enjoy travelling with family or friends, nothing beats the joy of being by myself as I discover a new place. But there are, as with anything worthwhile, a few issues to consider. Here are a few tips to help you discover solo nirvana.
Watching the bags
One of the most inconvenient things about travelling alone is having no one with you to watch your bags. With a bag on your back or at your feet, you become very vulnerable when your attention is distracted – like when you’re booking a bus ticket for instance. There are several ways of reducing the chances of being robbed. Travelling light is the obvious one – carry less stuff and there’s less chance of that stuff being stolen.
Also consider which type of luggage you’re carrying and how to avoid being the victim of an opportunist thief. I travel with a hard shell wheelie and when I’m off somewhere dodgy, pop a mini padlock on my rucksack. It’s not foolproof – a bag slasher obviously wouldn’t have a problem – but it is a small deterrent. If the person next to you has their bag wide open, you’re not going to be the first choice for a thief. Keep your bags in sight and where possible, keep the strap across your body.
Timing is everything
On a related point, I’ve never thought it would be smart to leave my bags unattended. I’ve no wish to be the reason an airport is evacuated. But I’m also regularly the victim of suggestion – and if I see a toilet, then there’s a good chance I need to visit it. That can be tricky when you’re on the move with all your bags and the floors are at best grubby, at worst, well, let’s not go there…
Timing is everything. Go before you leave your hotel, in an airport where the cubicle could be big and clean enough to leave belongings on the floor or somewhere there’s a solid, heavy duty hook. And pray it’s not a squat toilet. Believe me when I say it’s almost impossible to keep your balance with a rucksack on your back.
The dreaded single supplement can make it all too obvious that solo travellers incur a financial penalty from some establishments. While I understand how frustrating it must be for hoteliers to lose half the potential revenue from a double or twin room, I still have a travel budget to stick to. I look for hotels with single rooms – they’re not all windowless cells shoved in basements – and unpackage my trip to swap private drivers for public transport.
I also avoid tour companies promising single rooms without the single supplement – usually all they’ve done is absorbed those charges into their headline price. If I do need to take a tour, I opt to share with a same-sex stranger – sometimes you get lucky and get a room to yourself anyway and where that’s not been the case, I’m relieved to say my room mate has been a pleasant distraction for a few nights and not a surprise snorer.
Most of the time, while I’m happy for my husband to rest his head on my shoulder, the same doesn’t apply for complete strangers who just happen to be occupying the seat beside me. On buses and trains, I seat myself on the aisle seat with my bag by the window. Most people would prefer to slide into an empty seat rather than have to ask someone to move, so you often keep your seat even when the bus is quite full. I’m always gazing intently at something out of the window, though if they ask me to move over or let them in, I always do so with a smile. There’s no sense in pissing someone off who’s going to be next to you for hours. It’s also easier than you might think to find single seats, whether on trains or on the overnight sleeper buses that are common in South America.
If you do end up next to someone, it’s not the end of the world. The most comfortable flight I ever took was an overnighter from Ghana wedged tightly up against a very large woman – she was as soft as a goose feather pillow and happy for me to snuggle up as she spilled over into my seat.
Eat at the bar
Often, the only time when I’m really conscious I’m travelling alone is when it comes to dinner. Where eating breakfast without a companion rarely feels odd, there still seems to be a stigma about sitting alone over dinner. I’ve never been one for room service (and let’s face it, rarely stay somewhere smart enough to even have room service) so how do I overcome the thorny problem of dinner for one? I’m not frightened to say no to a table shoved up at the back of a restaurant by the kitchen door – if they don’t want to give me a decent table, I’m quite happy to take my business elsewhere.
But if I’m feeling sociable I often sit at the bar to eat, as the bar tender and fellow patrons are often chattier there. And if I’m not, I’m quite happy to read a book between courses or simply people watch.
If you’re thinking of travelling solo but are scared to try it – don’t be! It might just be the best thing you’ve ever done.
Looking at the familiar with fresh eyes
“The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.”
London born writer Gilbert K. Chesterton wrote this oft quoted phrase about Battersea in his essay “The Riddle of the Ivy”. It’s an idea I’m embracing while out and about in my home county of Essex.
Often overlooked in favour of neighbouring Suffolk or Kent, the greatest pleasure for me of travelling in my local area is the lack of visitors in all but the most obvious of destinations.
Researching for Countryside Dog Walks, I’ve quite literally walked for miles without seeing a soul. It’s taken me to parts of the county I’ve never visited and to my delight, I’ve had as much enjoyment discovering new sights in my own backyard as I’ve had anywhere in the world.
Part of the joy of independent solo travel for me is to unpick somewhere new, to learn how it’s constructed and to find out how it ticks. Realising I can still do this in Essex has been a satisfying revelation. Another great British writer, Lawrence Durrell, famously wrote:
“Travel can be one of the most rewarding forms of introspection.”
Walking along the Essex coastline and through its surprisingly empty countryside, the lack of specific sights and attractions makes it perfect for pondering while wandering. Life’s full of things to be done and these walks feel deliciously self-indulgent, yet unlike a big trip, they only require me to take a few hours off.
Being alone makes me more in tune with my surroundings. Sounds that are concealed by conversations push their way in to a solo walk. The salt marsh fizzing, the wind vibrating the rushes, the stream trickling – all lost unless you really listen. For me, one of the biggest distractions from the landscape is my camera. It can be hard to give up the search for the perfect shot and just look without a lens. But when I force myself to do so, it’s more than worth it.
To find out more about the hidden corners of Essex, why not visit my Essexology blog? You’ll find it at http://www.essexology.com