How To Survive Bus Tours When Traveling Alone

11949851611473942866bus1_bw_jarno_vasamaa_01.svg.medTraveling solo on a packaged bus tour with a group you have never met can be a pleasurable adventure, if you …

1. Do Your Homework.
Don’t depend on the tour guide to fill in all the spaces or to know the answers to all your questions. Usually they do know where the best bathrooms are located, but most are not experts in the local culture or literature. They know enough to impress you with their knowledge, but a good grounding in travel sites – Fodor, Frommer, Rick Steves, and, of course, tripadvisor, may lead you to places you’ll enjoy and can supplement the tour.

I could never understand why tourists would arrive at a new place without preparing first. On a recent tour of England, a fellow traveler astonishingly had never heard of the Lake District and was amazed to discover that a childhood favorite was written by the local poet – Wordsworth. Later, in Bath, a dentist asked the tour guide to explain who Jane Austen is.

Exploring brings welcome surprises, but knowing a little about the area can go a long way to better enjoying the short time spent there. Download a few local maps, or ask the hotel for one of the area – those are usually better than most in the guidebooks. Make friends with the concierge. Checkout the New York Times column –  36 hours in …wherever you are.

2. Observe Your Fellow Tourists
These same people will be with you for a while – sometimes up to 3 weeks. Take your time getting to know them before you strut your stuff. It’s fun to stay incognito at first; eventually, you will know everyone’s deep secrets but better not to reveal yours. Unlike the person sitting next to you on the plane, the sad widow or haughty office clerk who despises anyone with an advanced degree will be still there after breakfast. Listen judiciously; try not to empathize; and mentally note the needy you should avoid so your trip does not become a confessional. After 10 days, everyone will be tired of each other anyway, and it will be fun to watch the dynamics of couples, while you make character notes for your next novel.

3. Find Your Grail
Whatever makes your heart sing, be it medieval castles, cathedrals full of Renaissance art, old bookstores, Shakespearean productions, bespoke clothing, or the best local food you can eat (fish and chips, ice cream cones with a Flake), plan time on your own to find it. Don’t expect your fellow travelers to emulate your pleasure; sometimes a hidden discovered treasure is best kept to yourself to savor. Some travelers worry about missing something on tour when left to their own devices, and, like kindergarteners, will try to outshout others in their determination to outdo others. Don’t fall prey to the game; quiet satisfaction is its own reward.

4. Always Have a Book
Although my iPad was crammed with best sellers and books I had saved to read, I never turned it on. New bookstores always offered a tome or two that I read along the way, and passed on to another. After a discussion of common reading interests, the helpful concierge at one hotel was a happy receiver of a bestseller I had finished and did not want to pack.

5. Enjoy Spending a Time With Yourself

No matter what waits for you on your return, traveling alone offers an opportunity to explore, think, read, eat – whatever and whenever you like – with no negotiations. Meeting new people and exploring new places is part of the fun of traveling alone, but getting to know – and enjoy – yourself, is a unique pleasure.tourist

“The man (or woman) who goes alone can start today, but he who travels with another must wait till that other is ready.” – Henry David Thoreau

How about you, fellow travelers, any tips to pass on?

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Bring Up the Bodies – the London Play

The new plays in London adapting Hilary Mantel’s award winning best sellers have been compared to a British version of House of Cards – full of political intrigue and back-door negotiations. If you have read and enjoyed the books, seeing them in play form can feel like stepping through the looking glass into Henry VIII’s world. “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies” play on alternate nights with a cast of characters (seven of them called Thomas) from the Royal Shakespeare Company.

I recently sat in a packed house to see “Bring Up the Bodies.” Over a thousand pages of print unfolded through two acts. The action is easy to follow and as compelling as Mantel’s books with teasingly ambiguous subplots. You will have to decide if Anne Boleyn was promiscuous and incestuous, or if the accusations were merely a convenient way for Henry to move on to Jane Seymour. The asides are as juicy and memorable as Noel Coward’s zingers.

I may have to reread Mantel’s books now; on second thought, it would be easier to wait for the BBC televised series in 2015.

Read my reviews of the books:

Wolf Hall

Bring Up the Bodies

And check out the RSC cast:

Bring Up the Bodies RSC

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The Night Guest

Fiona McFarlane’s “The Night Guest” combines the fears of growing old with insights on watching loved ones diminish. With detailed descriptions, McFarlane transports the reader to New South Wales, Australia, as newly widowed Ruth battles her loneliness and oncoming dementia. The storyline turns into a thriller with the introduction of the formidable Frida and the lurking tiger in the house.

As Frida’s stalking of a seemingly helpless elder develops, McFarlane is careful to maintain the drama and the possibility that all will end well. It doesn’t. Her topic is timely as seniors strive to maintain their independence, sometimes fighting off increasing physical and mental decline. Those villains who would pounce on their vulnerability are everywhere. Placing Ruth’s sons in Hong Kong and New Zealand, McFarlane noted in an interview:
” I am interested in the ways in which older people are suffering from different forms of isolation, as families are becoming more geographically spread out.”

“The Night Guest” followed me from the book group in Edinburgh’s Waterstones to a display in a bookstore window in Oxford. When I finished, I was reminded of my mother’s susceptibility in her 93rd year, and wondered about my own in the future. “The Night Guest” is a thoughtful read with the flavor of mystery and a dramatic climax.

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