I travel the way I do. I’m not saying it’s the best way to travel or that everyone should travel this way. It just works for me.
I do a LOT of research when planning out a my Fabulous International Sightseeing Trips. And yes, I do plan my itineraries down to the minute. Having my day planned out in such detail allows me to see and do as much as possible. If I didn’t have the day planned out, I would be sureto sleep late, which is my natural tendency. And with everything planned out ahead, I don’t have to make any decisions while I’m out touring other than what to eat. I just follow along with the day’s agenda as if some in-the-know travel expert has planned everything out for me. Some people say I don’t allow for spontaneity this way. I’m not allowing myself to wander off and be surprised by a cool neighborhood. Here’s what I say to that: When I’m in a new city, every step I take is a step I’ve never taken before. Everything I see is a new discovery for me, even if I planned on discovering it months earlier. Every meal I take is at a restaurant that is brand new to me. No matter how much I’ve filled up my days with a rigorous, minute-by-minute itinerary, none of it diminishes the breathtaking sensation I get the first time I lay my eyes on “The Last Supper” in Milan, the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, or the Great Wall of China in Beijing. And you know what? Making out a plan and carrying it out (making changes on the fly as necessary) makes me happy!
As a rule, I do not check bags. First and foremost, if I don’t check a bag, the airline can’t lose it. This has happened to me too many times. It can really put a damper on my mood upon arrival at my destination. Another reason for not checking bags, it just makes things so quick and easy to be able to walk off the plane and head right to the exit. No waiting around at the baggage carousel, and no wondering if your bag maybe didn’t make the connection in Tokyo or Amsterdam. Finally, mobility is key. I’m going to be lugging my bags around with me as I travel from place to place via trains, buses, and the like (as I discuss below). If I can’t carry my bags around easily, it just isn’t going to work.
For me, it’s a duffel bag and a small backpack. (A “daypack” is probably a more specific term.) With one exception, I’ve never had an issue bringing these 2 bags on board a plane. The only exception was flying from London, where there was a strict one-bag policy. I think this policy is no longer in effect.
Because I’m packing light, I plan on getting laundry done at the hotel about a week or so into a trip. (I always check to make sure the hotel has laundry service.) Yes, this isn’t cheap. But it’s worth it to me not to have to check a bag. I never worry about forgetting anything thanks to my “Foolproof Trip Inventory“. If you travel a lot, it makes sense to keep a list of what to pack. I’ve added things to the list based on experiences, such as when my sinuses were clogged in Germany, and I ended up getting bronchitis medicine at a pharmacy in Wittenberg. It didn’t help. Now I always make sure to pack nasal decongestant. Same thing for when I had an amusing time trying to buy talcum powder in Shanghai. Lots of hand gestures. Now it’s on the list and I don’t have to worry about it. You can check out my Foolproof Trip Inventory and modify it to your own needs.
I usually select a seat near the back of the plane. Typically, there’s more room in the overheads further back in the plane. And if the flight isn’t full, the back of the plane is where the best chances are for getting a row to myself. Who needs first class? If the compartments are getting full,I can stow my bag in an opening further up in the plane as I make my way to my seat further back. Also, I always board as soon as possible. I don’t want to board late and have the overheads already full. The worst possible thing is to have a bag stored in a compartment behind my row. Having to fetch a bag from a location further back in the plane with everyone rushing to deboard is like being a salmon swimming upstream. And I ALWAYS select an aisle seat. It’s nice to have a view out the window, but I like to be able to get up whenever I want without disturbing my aisle-mates or feeling trapped in the row. Especially on a long-haul flight, I’m going to be getting up to take off my contact lenses, brush my teeth, take my prescriptions. I want the freedom to do this whenever and as often as I want.
Once the flight is ready to go, I’ll reset my watch to be on the time zone of my destination. Then I do my best to get in sync with that time. Sleeping on a plane is always a struggle. I tried the neck pillow thing, but it just didn’t work for me. I don’t know if I wasn’t using it right, but I found it very uncomfortable. I just do the best I can to try to sleep. Regardless of how much sleep I get, I’m going to be tired when I finally arrive on the other side of an ocean. For the first couple of days, I plan to begin my days a little on the late side, and I try to schedule a dinner somewhere the first evening so I’m not tempted to go to bed early and delay recovering from jet lag. On my first Fabulous International Sightseeing Trip, I blew it in Brussels. I went to bed early and then I was up all night watching tv. It’s important to learn from mistakes. (My plan didn’t work out my first evening in Dubai. At the end of the day’s sightseeing, I went to my room to change for dinner at a nice place I had picked out. The bed looked so inviting. I crashed and when I woke up, it was way too late for dinner. Fortunately, I tend to do pretty well with jet lag and I was raring to go the next morning.)
I love taking public transportation. In fact, I recently sold my car, and I now rely on public transportation to get around San Francisco. I like that it is good for the environment and it consolidates traffic, reducing the number of cars on the road. When I travel, I feel more in tune with the locals taking public transportation than I would taking a taxi. And let’s not forget, riding a bus is a lot cheaper than taking a taxi. Only a handful of times, when things didn’t work out, I had to resort to taking a taxi. This happened in Malaysia, Bahrain, Qatar, and Oman. So for typical places on a tourist’s agenda, getting around with the masses is not a problem.
Riding around a city in a streetcar, like the Antwerp tram pictured above, is a form of heaven to me. When I plan my trips, I schedule all my getting-around by public transportation. If I can’t get to a site by public transportation (and a reasonable amount of walking), I don’t go there. In the cities I travel to, this is rarely an issue. (Sometimes I stretch the bounds of reasonableness, such as when I walked a half hour in Bahrain, partly through what I came to realize was a dangerous neighborhood, from the bus stop to a fort I wanted to see.) Some day I hope to do trips through the American South and Midwest. It remains to be seen if I make exceptions to this policy and instead rent a car and do an American-style road trip. Or I could just leave the driving to Greyhound.
When it comes to dining, I always avoid international chains. It’s hard to get a taste of the local flavor when you’re eating at McDonald’s or Pizza Hut I make an exception to this if I’m in the chain’s hometown. It only made sense to hit up a Dunkin Donuts when I was exploring Boston. Someday when I’m on tour of the American Northwest, you bet I’ll schedule some time at a Starbucks in Seattle. For my first few trips alone to Europe, I was somewhat intimidated by sitting down in a restaurant where a foreign language is spoken. Italy was a great place to get over that. Italian food is so familiar, much of what’s on the menu is recognizable. With a “prego” here and a “grazie” there, I was good to go! The language barrier in China was certainly an issue when it came to dining. But by my last night in Beijing, I got a fabulous dinner without a word of English spoken and no English menu in to be found.
Getting ready for my first Fabulous International Sightseeing Trip (Benelux ’04), I was nervous about what it would be like to travel alone for 11 days. Turned out, I loved it! I felt very free (not too dissimilar from having an aisle seat). I can spend a lot of time trying to get the perfect picture. I can adjust the day’s itinerary for any reason without having to explain why. I can rush if I’m behind schedule and not feel like I’m dragging someone along. I can have the occasional misadventure without having to apologize to anyone for screwing up. I can take notes about the day during dinner. Don’t get me wrong. There have been 2 times (both in Germany) when I have had company for part of my trips. (This doesn’t include the excursions I’ve had in Boston and San Francisco. These times, friends joined in and it was a lot of fun.) I enjoyed the company and I loved getting to share my adventure. It was nice for dinner to be a social time for a change. But the bottom line is that traveling alone wasn’t at all the dicey proposition I had feared the first time out.
Granted, I am an only child and can amuse myself more easily than most. I won’t deny that this plays a part in my enjoyment of solo travel. On the other hand, my friend Phillip (not an only child) recently went to Paris by himself. He was nervous ahead of time about what it would be like. Turned out, he loved it! The moral of the story is: Don’t be afraid of solo travel. Anyone can do it. Anyone can love it! (And if you need a little assistance get ready for your solo trip abroad, I’m here to help.)