Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Independent travel for dummies

Not that any of you are dummies, but you know what I mean...

A number of my friends and online buddies have commented on how envious they are of my adventure holidays, how much fun I seem to have had and how much they'd like to do it themselves. My response – what's stopping you? Don't be envious, try it for yourself. It's really not that hard.

In these days of internet, it's easy enough to sort out your travel and accommodation independently. Admittedly it can be time-consuming and going to a travel agent or booking an off the shelf package would probably be quicker but there wouldn't be as much sense of achievement, if you ask me.

There are great websites these days for those who want to do the independent travel option. For trains in Europe I swear by TheMan in Seat 61. I don't know if he really is a man or not, but the site is a veritable gold mine of information and ideas. It was on there that I learned about the great train on boat Sicily option. Need I say more? Since I don't tend to fly on these holiday adventures of mine, I don't often source flights, but a good one if you are is Skyscanner. Less restrictive than the 'all-in-one' sites and generally good value. Oh, and the best site for add-on UK rail journeys is, in my opinion, RailEasy - beats Trainline hands-down!

For accommodation, I tend to use Trip Advisor as a really good starting place, particularly now that it takes you straight to a range of bookings sites for your chosen hotel, and also has information on things to do, places to eat etc all in one handy place.

A good guidebook is the next essential, combined with a decent amount of research. Particularly, if you're a solo female traveller, it's essential that you know where you're going – what's good, what's not, what's safe and where to avoid. A good guidebook (I generally swear by LonelyPlanet) will pay dividends and often saves you cash at your destination through not needing to buy separate booklets about each place you visit. I made the mistake this time of economising on my Paris and Rome guides – never again. It's worth the initial outlay, believe me.

And if you don't want to buy them, why not check out your local library to see if they've got what you're looking for. The only downside of that is you can't write on them – and I do, lots. I mark up where I want to visit, write notes about what I've seen, and occasionally compose bits of blog posts, all in the margins of my book. It also means that when you lend it on to someone, they've got your tailor made version too. But remember, they're a guide book, not a rule book!

Perhaps not as easy as arranging the holiday, is finding the confidence to do it in the first place. I realise that if you're not used to making your own way to strange places it can be a bit intimidating. My advice would be to start small – try it out for a short break, or in a place you already know a little but want to explore more. Choosing somewhere you can speak the language is also a help – along with that other essential, a good phrase book – great for making friends and getting your haircut, as well as a few less useful things like booking a hotel room, ordering a meal and asking for directions.

Your other option is to try out a group holiday that involves travel, preferably not by coach as that doesn't really get you the real adventuring spirit, or if you don't like the idea of groups of strangers (and I'm with you on that one), why not see if you can find a like-minded friend who wants to try it out too. Having company can be great, particularly if you both pledge to push the boundaries and not allow the other to fall too far back into their comfort zone.

My other essential on this type of break is a way of staying in touch with friends and family. For me it's Wifi and my trusty netbook. It allows me to email, Facebook and – in case you haven't noticed – blog incessantly. I always carry a pen and (old fashioned paper) notebook with me when I'm out and about during the day, as well as my camera to capture the sights, and you'll frequently find me composing blog posts – either in my head or straight into my notebook. There something about thinking about how you'll describe a place to others that makes you look at it with a closer eye and sometimes from a slightly different perspective. For the same reason, it can be good to put your camera down every now and again, and just see what's in front of you instead of photographing it. Often the most amazing sights make the worst pictures – they're frequently too big to take in one go, or the light isn't good enough, or it can just be that it's the whole package of sights, sounds, smells and even tastes that makes the memory, not just the picture.

Another defence mechanism that's worked for me in the past has been my iPod. It can be great for creating a bubble around you of 'safe space' that means you don't have interact with anyone, yet can be entertained at the same time. A word of warning, however, don't use this option in an area where you need to be alert to your surroundings - busy roads, dark streets, etc. 

Equally, I tend to book my travel and accommodation in advance at the moment. I'm not quite confident enough when travelling solo to go completely with the flow. Perhaps that's my next travel challenge? But whatever your safety net, don't feel bad about having one. Holidays may be adventures, but they're also meant to be enjoyed – so whatever it takes...

And if you do decide to take on the independent travel challenge, be sure and let me know about it and how you get on!

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