10 ways solo travelers can beat loneliness
Remember that Mel Gibson film What Women Want*? Where his character, Nick Marshall, could hear the thoughts of women for a bit?
I'm feeling a little like a Nick Marshall this week (not Mel), as Lonely Planet is joined Self magazine on Wednesday to talk to Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb on the Today Show about, well, what women want in travel, why travel's healthy to do, and why women should STILL do it if you can’t get lame friends and family to join up on that classic two-week trip around Ireland.
That's right, Kathie Lee, Hoda, Self's Cristina Tudino and me -- all talking about women. Love it.
Now, traveling alone is something I certainly know something I know about. I’ve spent 14 months on the road alone while researching for Lonely Planet the past five years – from the Yucatán and Nebraska to the Trans-Siberian Railway and Transylvania. And talking up solo travel is an EASY EASY sell – for all travelers.
You meet more people, you’re more patient and observant – and more accessible. Plus it’s a liberation to not have to jockey competing dining interests and beach activity preferences. Just do what you want, for a change. Everyone owes it to themselves to do it once.
Of course, everyone -- even travel vets like travel writers – can get those ‘first day blues’ in a new place. But here are 10 ways to beat loneliness on the road:
1. SET UP ‘COFFEE DATE’ IN ADVANCE. Before you go, beg your friends – via Facebook, email or phone – to hook up with their friends’ friends to set up a coffee or drink date with a local on your first day or two. It sits there like a little life preserver – something to do, someone to see, early on while you’re still getting rooted in a new place. You never know where it’ll lead. One time I managed to track down – friend of friend of friend – the ex-prime minister of Bulgaria, Philip Dimitrov, who happily invited me to coffee. At Dunkin’ Donuts in Sofia.
2. EVEN ODDS BY STAYING IN SMALL GUESTHOUSES. Some 85% of the women polled in the LP/Self poll said they want to socialize on vacation. Who do you think stands the better chance of socializing – a lone guest in a 500-room resort, or one in a 10-room B&B or guesthouse with a common dining and TV room? Also those smaller places tend to have more personal staff, sometimes the owners!, who help steer you directly to the places you want to be.
3. YES, GO TO VISITOR’S CENTERS. They have to talk to you. Particularly on a first day, drop by for the free map, and ask about walking tours and cooking classes and cafes with local events. While updating the Colombia guide last year, I befriended several staff members at one central office in fun Andean capital Bogotá, ended up meeting their friends for dinners and clubs throughout my stay.
4. TAKE WALKING TOURS & DAY TRIPS. Best early in a trip, a walking tour gives you the lay of the land you’re in, plus you can talk with the guide and like-minded travelers. It's also true for bike tours or day trips to nearby wineries or pyramids. In Southeast Asia and parts of South America it's practically impossible to not make friends as you go.
5. TAKE COOKING CLASSES. Speaking of which, another classic way to get rooted into a local network is learning to make food. You can find these options all over – Tuscany, Mexico, Vietnam. I’ve done it once, in the gorgeous ancient Chinese trading town Hoi An, Vietnam – where you reach a slick culinary school by boat, then finish eating your (and your classmates') creations. I'm lousy at cooking -- still am -- but it was a great day, and went snorkeling the next day with a couple I met there.
6. STUDY FOREIGN LANGUAGES. One of the most underrated trips Americans should take alone is study-abroad trips, particularly to study Spanish in places like Mexico or Guatemala. You can get one-on-one training, live with a family, and even contribute to local communities as a volunteer -- and pay under $200 a week including room/board/tuition in places like Antigua, Guatemala (one of the prettiest towns of the Americas). Plus you learn a lot (if you try). I’ve spent four two-week vacations this way, and can’t wait to take my wife and one-year-old daughter some day to do the same – as a vacation.
7. VOLUNTEER TO HELP ENGLISH STUDY GROUPS. This is a goldmine for local interaction. In countries speaking other languages, there are usually locals wanting to practice English – offer to meet some over coffee or a drink. It often leads to more meetings, sometimes a home-cooked meal or an invite to some local disco.
8. TAKE BOOKS INTO RESTAURANTS. One of the biggest concerns we saw in the Self/LP poll was eating alone. I hear you. It’s not easy walking into a loud, busy restaurant for dinner filled with happy tipsy couples – and you. Always take a book or journal as a security blanket. Or set up at the bar, possibly by a TV – so you don’t feel too self-conscious. Better yet, opt for sidewalk seats. People-watching is a universally accepted exercise. Just do it like you want nothing more than to sit alone and STARE at people. People respect that. Also choose your books carefully. Some people will even talk to you if the book you set out is something that begs a comment (eg a guidebook or How to Maim Grizzlies in 40 Seconds BY HAND).
9. GO TO SHOWS. At the theater or concerts, not only can a solo traveler grab that last isolated seat on the front row easier than a late-comer couple looking for side-by-side seats, but once the lights dim all the audience everyone's equal. All focus is on the stage. In intermission chat with neighbors in your row, and see about post-show drinks to discuss that disastrous cello interlude. ('What was Dmitry Dmitrovich thinking?')
10. ALWAYS SAY ‘YES,’ WELL WITHIN REASON. Invitations will come. Leave your itinerary loose, so you don’t have to pass on that invite from the sweet Bavarian family to picnic in the mountains so you can see a house Mozart may or may not have lived at. Personal interactions like this will always be more memorable. In Russia, I’ve had a dozen such encounters. Once in Khabarovsk, a deeply moustached man wanted to show me his bees – I went, and watched him cull the honey from hives on a gorgeous riverside setting that Chekhov gushed about on his trip across Siberia in 1890. I couldn’t have seen it if I hadn’t said ‘yes.’ (And I didn’t get stung either.)
--> All this adds up to, yes, you can go alone -- it's fun and rewarding and even transformative, plus when you get back and share the tales, you can bet your friends or family will line up to follow you anywhere you go next time!
Any others great tips on traveling alone? Submit your answers here. The best tip before April 9 wins a copy of Lonely Planet’s new Discover series to your favorite destination: Great Britain, France, Italy, Spain, Ireland, Japan, Australia or Thailand.
*The film, also starring Helen Hunt, actually turns 10 on December 15. Stay tuned for more 'WWW' events – and when that day comes let us all party like it’s 2000.
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