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.
“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?