Solo Travel.  All About the Choices  


Traveling on my own, I rediscovered choice.  Or maybe I understood it with a fresh point of view. Traveling with others, I made lists and agendas for the day. These were good-looking, comprehensive docs with travel times, alternate bus schedules, business hours, and restaurant options.  Yes, I have a bias toward planning but it was start.  A list provocateur. It dismissed the blank slate sorting of everyone’s preference every morning…usually resulting in sub-optimal plans and lost time.   (Did I mention that bias?)

On my first trip alone, I made that list for every day.  Standing in the middle of a sidewalk in Paris, on the first morning, on Ile Saint Louis, I had a breakthrough.  I realized I was being driven by what the “me” of weeks ago planned, before I arrived, before I experienced what Paris was like on this day, at this time, with the very present me.

Without the need to help a group decide, choice was much different.  What did I want to do today? Not what I thought I’d do or what was expected of a week in Paris – but what did I want to do? No one was watching or evaluating. I changed everything on that page.  I had seen the top 10 sights in previous trips. With no one to bargain with, I admitted that I wanted to roam the food markets, brave the good cheese shops, and just BE in Paris.

Knowing what you most want to do isn’t as easy as it sounds in travel or anywhere else. You are presented constantly with new opportunities, with decisions on the fly. These are exciting. You also have the story and purpose of this particular trip that was your hope and vision through the planning.

It is hard for me to completely throw away a plan.  It feels risky.  My mantra now is a question.  What is the best and the worst about this new possibility? I can’t control what will happen with every choice but I can jump ahead in time and think about how I will feel on the way home. What will I regret if I do not take this new opportunity? What will I lose if I give up another activity? How could this story become part of my trip story?  Having a sense of purpose for each trip (even the purpose is not having one) is important to me.  I let that sense of purpose and story for my trip guide my choices.

This sounds a little over analytical but here is an example where this idea kicked in.  A couple of years ago, I was in the Highlands on a driving trip. On my one and only full day on Mull, I would set off from my B&B, have a gorgeous drive along the coast and take the ferry to island of Iona, famous as the cradle of Christianity for Scotland with fascinating abbeys, cemeteries and ruins.  And hairy cows. It was my only opportunity to see that amazing place on the trip.

It was an obvious plan. Then I saw a newsletter in my room at the B&B. One of my favorite authors, Alexander McCall Smith, was signing his new book, set in Tobermory, at the local bookshop. These things are never on the day you are actually in town – always a tease – but this event was the next day.

Here’s the thing about choice when you are on your own. I could do anything. I could ditch the Iona trip and chance a good experience with this beloved author or I could follow my plan.  I thought about what I’d regret if I went to Iona and what I’d regret if I changed my plans. In the end, I stuck with my excursion. I didn’t want to go home having given up that part of my trip story.  

On that day, I made the right choice and it actually led to another opportunity.  On the way home, I stopped at that bookshop, Tackle and Books (which is right on the water and worth a visit).  He was gone of course with just a small, sad stack of books left.  But I was there. And while I was at the counter, someone cancelled their spot at the special dinner with the author in a couple of hours. They wanted to find someone to fill the seat and offered it to me.

In the end, I had the Iona trip and a leisurely, single-malt-in-hand chat with the author. The ending is a vote for never quite giving up on having it all. The experience helped me think more clearly about opportunity, commitment, and pattern of listening to what I wanted most to do.

Three Things I Learned

You are different from me or anyone else. You may not need a list or feel driven by a purpose for your trip. The important thing is to assess in every moment what you most want to do and do it.

Don’t let your choices be driven by fear or discomfort. When you try a new thing on the road, talk to people, admit you need help, and be yourself….and give it a go. (An important note about fear. If physical danger is involved, listen to all the signals and be smart. I’m thinking more about trying to speak French with a cheesemonger.)

It is still good to know the facts that affect your whimsy… like when the museum is open, shop hours, or special events but that’s just information.

Travel Tips: The First Day of the Rest of Your Trip

Are you a citizen of the world or a cranky American?

It’s Saturday, May 4, arrival day. For so many weeks, this is the first day on the itinerary…you leave on the 3rd and arrive on the 4th.  Beside May 4th, on the itinerary I write “PARIS” but no plans. I know not to fill this day with arduous sightseeing – it’s a blank slate.

On the first day of my very first trip abroad, one of my favorite professors, Tom Howell, led our group on a boat cruise down the Thames. There it was – a kid from Pineville, Louisiana, was introduced to London on the river of the Romans, Shakespeare, Monet and Churchill. Standing at the rail, London rolled out before us: Parliament, St. Paul’s, The Tower. This first adventure didn’t require physical or mental acuity – just awe. It was the right beginning to that trip and to a life of travel.

When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford. Samuel Johnson

One Thing. This set the plan for me. On your first day, do one truly wonderful thing – see the famous corner where (fill in the blank), walk a boulevard, find a site from your favorite novel, have your first soufflé.

Why is this important? It’s the first day of the trip you’ve planned so carefully. This day can set the tone for the rest. Are you a successful citizen of the world gliding through international capitals or a cranky American who can’t figure out the subway ticket machine?

So on my first day in Paris, I found a restaurant recommended by a friend, Julie, who knows a great deal about Paris. It’s Le Souffle and they can serve a multiple course meals comprised solely of soufflés. This I had to see. To get there, I sorted out the map, bought a carnet of metro tickets, navigated my way to Le Madeleine and then enjoyed a very Parisian walk down Rue Royale. A quick turn on Mont Thabor and there it was…Le Souffle. (Small victory – I am a successful traveler and will be given lunch).

After a celebratory cheese soufflé,  I could let the rest of the day unfold with a lazy walk down Rue Rivoli, then across the Seine and back to my hotel for the inevitable surrender to sleep before the sun set!

 What I Learned

The first day is great for running errands, maybe validating your Rail Pass and making train reservations. A couple of necessities are crossed off your list but also you learn or relearn how to use public transportation and find ATMs. Bank a success.

Everything seems complicated the first day…and then on the second day, you’re experienced.

Bonus tip.  Boiled eggs.  Many breakfast buffets have a basket of boiled eggs. If this basket is adjacent to a vat of hot water, they may not be boiled…yet.