It’s always hard to say goodbye, and I found this to be especially true as my time in Asia drew to an end. I won’t miss the heat or the crazy motorbikes almost mowing me down each time I walk down the street, but everything else I will definitely miss! Even after 3 weeks, I was not yet tired of the food, the culture, the history, and the friends I had made. On our last night in Vietnam, our group had a farewell dinner at Cau Go in Hanoi, which turned out to be quite the posh spot (posh is another word I’ve adopted from my British friends!) I spent the next day packing, saying goodbyes, doing a bit of last minute shopping around Hanoi, and sitting by Hoan Kiem lake one last time.
By a fortunate twist of fate, my closest friend from my Asia trip, Nat, was on the same flight as me from Hanoi to Doha, Qatar. It was so great to have a friend on this flight! 🙂 We said our “see you laters” in Doha around 11pm, as he was continuing back to London that evening. I was so happy to learn that Qatar Airways would provide me with free 5 star accommodations for the night before my 8am connection to Dallas. This was by far the “poshest” accommodation I’ve had yet on the journey! Thank you Qatar Airways! While I had initially been nervous to spend the night alone here, everyone in Qatar was extremely hospitable, helpful, and nice. I highly recommend Qatar Airways! After showering and catching a few hours of sleep in a big, fluffy, clean bed, I returned to the airport for my 16 hour flight to Dallas.
Despite some turbulence over Iran and Russia (which I of course freaked out a bit over…hyperactive imagination?!), the flight went very smoothly. I watched several movies and listened to some Bob Dylan on their entertainment system (so on point!), then touched down in Dallas. I had not anticipated how good it would be to be back in the USA even for a few hours!! I even found a special soundtrack for landing 🙂
Once in Dallas, I walked around the airport for a couple of hours to stretch my legs and made calls to family and friends. I also realized how completely exhausted I felt, so I stocked up on Airborne tablets and Tylenol. I boarded my flight to Lima at 10:20pm, but we didn’t take off until around 11pm (typical for my experience with American Airlines! Why can’t all airlines be like Qatar?!) The plane did not even have a TV/entertainment system, but it was ok as I finally caught a few hours of sleep. After about 7 hours, I was in Lima, and the sunrise was beautiful from the window.
I was so happy to find my checked backpack had made it all the way to Lima from Hanoi, as I had my doubts about all the crazy connections. I made my way through customs and quickly found my driver I had booked transport in advance through my hostel). My driver did not speak English, so I spoke with him the entire drive in Spanish. I was relieved to see how quickly it came back to me (gracias to Senora Sephore from high school and Senora Botero from Vandy!), and I am excited to see how much I will improve over the next 3 weeks. I arrived at my hostel and checked in, and am now enjoying some coffee on the porch with my new friend Pisco. Sarah arrives at 11pm tonight, and I absolutely cannot wait to see her!! She and I will be traveling together for the next 3 weeks here, and our friend Rachele (also from NYC) will be joining us about halfway. I am so happy to be in South America! Encantada!!
My visit to Saigon was a whirlwind. With 10 million people, it is larger than NYC in population (8 million). The first thing I noticed in Saigon is it seems almost everyone drives a motorbike, and there are almost no traffic rules, which can make crossing the road a life-or-death experience! The motorbikes actually turned out to be a very important factor for me during my time here (more on this later).
The first thing we did in Saigon was eat at Pho 2000, which apparently is a place Bill Clinton ate at during his visit to the city a few years back! Then, I and a few trip friends checked out the War Remnants Museum, which documents the “American war.” I was definitely prepared to read about the war from the communist Vietnamese perspective, but as an American it was still really hard to see and learn more about the atrocities committed during the U.S.-Vietnam War. In particular, I learned about how the use of Agent Orange is still affecting many Vietnamese today. It really struck me to see a picture of a girl my age who was born with several birth defects because of her parent’s exposure to the chemical weapons, yet who maintains a positive outlook on life. I had learned about this in high school, but not in this level of detail.
On the second day, I visited the Cu Chi tunnels and learned about the fighting tactics of the Vietcong during the war. I even crawled 50 meters through a tunnel…not for the claustrophobic! That afternoon, I got lunch at the Ben Thanh market and then met up with my good friends Chau and Will, who happened to be in Saigon from NYC! It was so great to see familiar faces from home in Vietnam. 🙂 We visited the Independence Palace, which was like the Vietnamese version of the White House during the war. Then, we went for a swim on their hotel rooftop. President Obama happened to be visiting Saigon that day, and we could see his motorcade and hear cheering of people lined up along the street from the rooftop. It was a very interesting experience to be this close to the U.S. President on the other side of the world!
Then, I almost got stranded…
My traveling group planned to leave the hotel that evening at 6:30pm to catch an 8 hour night train to Nha Trang. I left Chau and Will’s hotel at 5:30, giving myself an hour to get back to the hotel and meet my group to leave the city. However, the traffic in Saigon (which is already insane) was even crazier than usual due to President Obama’s visit. After 15 minutes, I finally hailed an empty taxi that could take me to the hotel (as printed on a map on a business card from the hotel’s front desk I was carrying). My taxi driver spoke no English, and after sitting in traffic gridlock for 15 more minutes, I knew my chances of making it back to meet my group by 6:30 were growing slimmer. As we sat still in traffic, I kept noticing motorbikes weaving in and out and around traffic, and even over pedestrian sidewalks! I knew this was how I could get back in time. I paid the taxi driver, then hopped out to ask a random (but friendly-looking) Vietnamese lady if she could give me a ride on her motorbike to the hotel. I handed her the printed card, and she motioned for me to hop on. I couldn’t believe I was sitting on the back of a random motorbike, in the rain, weaving in and out of crazy traffic with a woman who didn’t speak English, in a huge city where I was completely lost on the other side of the world.
Despite weaving around cars and over sidewalks, traffic was so congested that we had barely made progress in 20 minutes’ time. My phone now read 6:20…my group would be leaving Saigon soon. I realized I would have to find a hotel and book a train for tomorrow by myself if I did not make it to the train on time. We were moving along so slowly on the motorbike at this point. I recognized the road we were traveling on was the road that would take me back to Ben Thanh market. From there, I felt confident I could find my hotel. I thanked the lady, offered to pay her 50,000 dong (she refused), and hopped off the bike to start running down Le Thanh Ton Road. At this moment, my long distance running skills really came in handy!
After running about ¾ mile in the direction of the market (dodging motorbikes all the while), a kind Vietnamese man on a motorbike flagged me down and offered me a ride. I had a good intuition about him, so I handed him the card and off we went. About 5 minutes later, we were in front of my hotel. I thanked him profusely and also offered 50,000 dong (he also refused) and rushed in to find my group had already left. I frantically grabbed my items, caught a taxi, and took off for the train station, praying I would make it in time. Fortunately, traffic had cleared up and I made it on the train with a few minutes to spare.
I learned a few key lessons from this incident: 1- Never underestimate Saigon traffic. 2- Motorbikes are handy. 3- Despite our best planning, we sometimes find ourselves vulnerable. The humanity of helping someone else who is lost and desperate crosses all language and cultural barriers. I will forever be grateful for the woman and man who gave me rides on their motorbikes that evening. Without them, I could have been stranded by myself and had to pay a good bit more out-of-pocket to meet back with my group. I really feel like they were guardian angels to me! I am taking away so many great memories and lessons from Saigon. I love the energy of this city, and as I find myself saying a lot these days I hope to return someday.
I’ve finally arrived to my first overseas destination in Northern Thailand! I will be spending a few days here solo before heading to Bangkok on Sunday to meet up with a group. I arrived after layovers in Chicago, Vancouver, and Shanghai, for a total of 35 hours of travel time. Yes, Memphis → Chicago→ Vancouver→ Shanghai→ Chiang Mai. Crazy, but I did it!
Surprisingly, the Memphis airport was the busiest I have ever seen it on Tuesday afternoon. It usually takes less than 15 minutes to check in and get through security. It took about 45 minutes on Tuesday. Fortunately, I made it to my gate just fine with about 10 minutes to spare. My dad saw me off at the airport. I am so glad I was able to spend time with him this week, as well as with my mom, other family members, and friends over the last few weeks before the leaving the U.S.–it meant so much to me!
Once I arrived in Vancouver, I realized quickly that the Canadian version of TSA is so strict! Even though all of my shampoos and conditioners were in small bottles, they said I had too many bottles, so I had to throw some away. I didn’t want to be “that girl,” but I really wanted to explain to him how picky I am about my hair products, and I needed to take all of these with me to last for 3 months! However, I kept my mouth shut and sadly threw several away in order to be in compliance. I was annoyed then, but now I realize it’s pretty hilarious I had so many tiny bottles in my backpack. Also, my backpack is a little lighter now!
In Vancouver, I boarded a 12 hour flight with China Eastern to Shanghai. Unfortunately, I had looked up China Eastern on Yelp the night before, and was thoroughly freaked out by what I read. It seemed all of the reviews talked about how horrible the airline was, regarding everything from the manners of the crew to leg space to food to safety. One reviewer even talked about how his flight had been in freefall multiple times, and he thought he was going to die as he and the other passengers screamed the whole flight! Needless to say, this made me even more nervous.
However, the flight could not have been smoother. We flew over Alaska, the Bering Strait, and Russia, barely crossing the Pacific (This was important to me, as I get nervous about flying over large bodies of water. If you have to emergency land, where do you go?!) We even flew around the edge of North Korea (!) and landed in Shanghai ahead of schedule. The layover in Shanghai airport was very relaxing, as I accessed the free wifi to text and FaceTime with friends and family and found a Starbucks for a “just like home” coffee fix! The only downside is that I was unable to check both my Gmail and Facebook, as the Chinese government has blocked both. I also wasn’t able to use Google for the same reason. I’ll never take these sites for granted again!
Once I finally arrived in Chiang Mai, I hired a tuk-tuk (basically a motorcycle taxi) outside of the airport to take me to my hostel. I was able to bargain with him to reduce the price from 200 baht to 160 baht! He swore he knew where my hostel was, but it was only after 45 minutes of riding around and stopping to ask 6 people that we ultimately found it. I am not complaining though…the ride was fun and I was able to get a good first look around Chiang Mai! The first night in Thailand was a complete whirlwind, mostly due to extreme tiredness and adrenaline. I made friends with a group of Canadians at my hostel, and we went to dinner and then to a “disco” (just a bar really…but it’s fun to call it a disco!) I’m excited to see what the next few days in Chiang Mai hold!!
In the last month, I’ve discovered just how complicated packing a backpack can be. My 55 liter Osprey will have to fit all the belongings I need for the next 3 months. To make things even more complicated, I will be traveling to the hot and sticky climate of Southeast Asia, then to the cold and dry high altitudes of the South American Andes, and then to the hot and sticky (although considerably less hot and sticky than SEA) climate of Europe this summer. I will be doing very different activities in each place–everything from snorkeling and hiking to visiting museums and restaurants that run the gamut from casual to dressy. How do I fit enough outfits to cover my very different activities on 3 very different continents this summer? What can I absolutely not live without for the next 3 months? How do I fit it all into “Oscar” (my name for my backpack…silly I know)?!
After several iterations of folding, rolling, packing, unpacking, removing, refolding, rerolling, and repacking, I have found what I finally believe to be the perfect equilibrium of clothing and supplies for my trip. The very last packing revision happened when I was leaving my apartment to head over to stay at my friends’ place the night before I moved out of my apartment. As I put the backpack on, I very much felt like Reese Witherspoon’s portrayal of Cheryl Strayed in Wild–I almost fell over from the weight of the pack!
Fortunately, my short trek from Hell’s Kitchen to Park Avenue left me with enough flexibility to remove a few last minute items from the pack and put them into my NYC storage unit. I’ve included a comprehensive and notated list of final items that made the cut below!
-1 55 liter Osprey backpack (Oscar) – As alluded to above, Oscar and I really bonded in Africa last December. He is super reliable and even has a detachable day-pack that is very handy for hiking and squeezing into tight overhead compartments on airplanes!
-1 carry-on crossbody purse – I have read a lot online about the PacSafe for traveling. Apparently, it is slash-proof and RFID protected. However, once I googled this magic travel bag, I immediately thought it was super ugly. I don’t care how “safe” it is, I did not want to pay $80 for what I consider to be an ugly bag. So, I found a bag for $30 at TJ Maxx that I think will work just fine! I will not be heartbroken if it gets lost, destroyed, or stolen, and it’s a lot cuter than the PacSafe.
-1 small crossbody purse – This is for going out; squished and packed in Oscar.
-1 wallet – I am just taking my regular, everyday wallet.
-4 packing cubes – 1 large for clothing, 1 large for accessories and outerwear, 1 small for underthings, 1 small for dirty clothes; a set of 2 are $30 at REI
-1 pair North Face hiking “boots” – they look more like sneakers, but have added support and Goretex (which makes it waterproof and breathable) for hiking
-1 pair Haviana flip flops – to wear in the shower or casually out. I chose a pair that look a little dressier than standard flip flops but are made out of the same material for only $15 at the Bloomingdale’s outlet in the UWS.
-1 pair dressier sandals – I made sure they were comfortable for walking.
*3 pairs of shoes…yes, that’s all!! Will I make it? We will see in August…
-4 tank tops, 1 dressy blouse, 1 t-shirt (Vandy, of course!), 1 long sleeve t-shirt, 1 sweater
-1 romper, 2 sundresses
-1 zip-up sweatshirt/cardigan
-1 Ultra Light Down Jacket from Uniqlo- I am very excited about this purchase! This jacket squishes down into a small ball and weighs less than a pound, and is also super warm and water-resistant. I will be wearing this a lot in South America, but it is also easy to carry/pack in a purse for a chilly evening in Europe as well.
-1 straw brim hat – Another exciting purchase! This hat is also “squishable” and can be crushed into a bag without ultimately losing its shape. It also offers SPF 50 protection.
-1 baseball cap (Alabama, of course!)
-1 Buff – you can read about how much I love the Buff here.
-4 bras – 1 sport, 1 strapless, 2 regular
-A week’s worth of undies
-5 pairs of socks
-eyeglasses and case
-small bag of assorted, non-valuable necklaces, earrings, and bracelets
-hair ties and hair clip
-2 mini-bottles shampoo, 4 mini-bottles conditioner, 1 mini-bottle facewash (I am pretty particular about my shampoo, conditioner and facewash, so I filled some empty travel size bottles to last me as long as possible before I need to buy refills on the road.)
-2 razors, toothbrush and toothpaste, dry shampoo, baby powder, deodorant , retainer (lol!), contact case and solution, extra contacts
–stomach sickness medicines, vitamins, malaria tablets, Melatonin (to combat jetlag and to help with getting some rest on long flights)
-cosmetics (bronzer, mascara, lipstick, chapstick, travel-size brush, tweezers, nail file), small hairbrush, small perfume
-headlamp flashlight – this proved to be so useful in Africa! I literally did not go anywhere at night without it. I may not use it as frequently this summer, but I know it will come in handy at some point.
-DEET mosquito spray – Mosquitoes don’t play, and I don’t have time to get a tropical disease!
-reusable water bottle, reusable plastic chopsticks
–quick-dry travel towel – this towel has a strange texture, but can hold 2x its weight in water and dries overnight. Needless to say it is also very compact!
–travel laundry detergent – I anticipate I will be doing a lot of handwashing of clothes on the road. This travel detergent looks like a packet of Listerine strips, yet each “strip” becomes detergent for 1 load of laundry! The packet contains 50 strips/loads.
-guidebooks for Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe, “This Please!” pointbook, 1 book for pleasure reading (I could have packed my Kindle, but decided against it for the simple reason that I want to use the hostel book exchanges. I think the idea of trading real books with paper pages with other traveling strangers is romantic and old-fashioned in the best of ways, and I want to count this as part of my adventure!)
–Chromebook and charger- I had originally decided to bring my regular laptop along on the trip. However, I realized that even though it was designed to be light and sleek, it was still a little too big. I purchased a Chromebook for a reasonable price that weighs 2.5 pounds and is a perfect size for travel. Plus, if it gets lost, stolen, or damaged, I won’t be devastated.
-phone and charger
-portable battery charger – This item is a lifesaver, and I already keep it in my purse for long days in NYC when my phone battery gets drained.
-power outlet adapter – I made sure to buy a 1-piece adapter that works on all 3 continents.
-camera – I’m bringing a simple point-and-click Nikon digital camera.
-extra batteries for camera and flashlights, extra camera memory card
-memory card USB reader
-yellow fever certificate
-credit and debit cards, cash, and currencies
-small moleskine notebook and pen
-printed copies of reservations for flights, hostels, transportation, etc; photocopies of passport and yellow fever certificate Did I leave anything important out? Am I packing too much? I guess I will find out once I leave the U.S. tomorrow!
I leave NYC for 3.5 months in just 5 days, and it’s starting to feel real y’all. The nerves are setting in. Am I prepared to leave my life behind for 3.5 months? Have I remembered everything I need to do beforehand? Am I packing too much? Am I packing enough? Although I‘ve been planning for a few months, I’m starting to feel pretty jittery.
I had a phone conversation with a good friend earlier this morning about everything, and it made me feel so much better about this entire process. The truth is, traveling and moving involves a good deal of planning and organization that feels unnatural for my spontaneous, “ENFP” self. The chat made me realize that it’s good to discuss the details, and embrace each step in the preparation process. So, below are a few “last minute” things I am taking care of before I leave for Mississippi this Friday, then for Asia on May 10.
–A last minute visit to the Bolivian consulate in NYC. I am really kicking myself about this one! Based on prior research, I thought I could get my visa at the border. However, some last minute research and digging while I was out of town this past weekend revealed it is preferable to get your visa in advance. I went to the NYC consulate first thing this morning (Monday) with all of my many required documents that I collected as soon as I got back to NYC yesterday. Fortunately, the staff was extremely helpful and accommodating, and said my visa will be ready Friday after 12 noon, as it takes 5 business days to process. I will pick up my passport on the way to the airport to leave town Friday afternoon…talk about cutting it close!
–Vaccinations. I had received most of the vaccines I would need before my trip to Africa in December, but I still needed my third and final Hepatitis A&B shot. I was able to find a clinic that does the shot for $100 cheaper than my prior research revealed, mainly because they don’t charge as much for the “office visit.” Timing-wise, I am supposed to get this final shot at the end of May, but I will be in Asia then. So, I took the calculated risk of getting the shot early, as opposed to trying to find a clinic in Vietnam.
I also decided to not get the Japanese Encephalitis shot. The doctor told me that, while there is no absolute guarantee I will not be at risk or contracting JE, most people contract it after spending more than a month in rice fields. As I may spend 1-2 days tops near a rice field, I opted to save the $300 and not get this shot. Another calculated risk, in my opinion.
–Pick up malaria tablets. This is one disease not worth the risk to me!
–Mail in seat deposit for law school by deadline. I CANNOT forget to do this!!
–Final stages of packing and moving. I also picked up a few more (free!!) cardboard boxes this morning, and will finalize all my packing by Wednesday. I also need to visit my storage unit to pick up the keys, and confirm with my movers that I will still see them Thursday morning!
–Cancel gym membership, internet service, and electricity in apartment. Return apartment keys to landlord. Super boring, but I can’t forget to do this…
–Set travel notices with my banks. Having accounts frozen while traveling is very annoying.
–Purchase data plan for cell phone. I may wait to do this once I am home next week, but still an important to-do item on my list.
–Final salon visit for next 3.5 months on Wednesday! I’ll be getting the keratin treatment so my hair is easy to manage while on the road.
–Last dinners and drinks with friends (for a while). This is where I feel guilty…I am running out of time in the city and I know I am not going to be able to meet up with as many people to say “bye” to as I had hoped or planned. I started this process last weekend, but the truth is there are only so many nights before I leave. I am definitely trying to see as many friends as possible before I head out of the city. As I’ve told everyone already, I don’t want anyone to forget me over the summer! 🙂 I am really going to miss my NYC friends and all the fun stuff that happens over the summer months. I will also miss my friends and family from home..although we are already separated by many miles, being on the other side of the world is going to make it feel like I’m that much further away.
–Go for a few more runs in Central Park. I’ve decided to take a break from running over the summer, so I want to get a few last runs in CP before I leave. I know these will be my last ones until August, and the weather is so perfect in NYC now, so I want to make them long and good!
–Set mail forwarding address with USPS. I know I will feel much less anxious once I am in Mississippi this weekend. I will have my backpack ready and the rest of my apartment secure in storage. All I plan to do then is visit family and friends, go for some long runs, eat some good southern cooking, and fish! It’s going to be great. Until then, I am living the hectic NYC life for a few more days while checking items off of my to-do list.
As I have planned and prepared for my trip over the last few months, I have gotten some concerned comments from family and friends. Is it really safe to travel now, with all that is going on in our world? Is it safe to travel alone as a woman, given there is so much more we have to look out for to stay safe as women? All of these concerns are valid. Yet, my experiences traveling solo before have led me to the realization that common sense goes a long way, whether at home or abroad. Honestly, I am more worried about being a victim of gun violence in the U.S. than I am of dangers abroad. That being said, language barriers, unfamiliarity with new surroundings, and the unique set of issues women face mean that traveling abroad solo as a female is a special situation that requires careful action and forethought. I’ve outlined my tips below.
Trust your female intuition. I am a firm believer in the strength of a woman’s intuition. If a situation doesn’t “feel” right, remove yourself. Always listen to your gut instincts.
Make friends with other female travelers. Other women who are traveling (whether solo or in a group) are in the same boat as you. Why not make new friends who can watch your back, and you can watch their backs in return? Plus, it’s always fun to add to your #squad, international-style!
Be friendly. While your intuition should always take precedent, don’t automatically distrust everyone you meet. Traveling solo is a great way to get out of your comfort zone and make new friends from different cultures who often have a lot to share in terms of practical advice and helpful insights that can keep you safe and make your trip more enjoyable. A smile goes a long way! That being said, always yield to advice #1.
Be smart about your money and valuables. I’ve read advice about keeping a “throwaway” wallet with just a few bills and a cancelled credit card or two. That way if someone tries to mug you, you can throw the wallet away and run in the opposite direction. I find this advice to be well-intentioned, but a bit cumbersome. I find it more workable to keep your money and credit cards split among a few different places on your person and in your bags. Even if the unthinkable happens, chances are you will still have some access to your money.
Be aware of your surroundings. Hang out in public places with large groups of people at night. Keep your hostel/hotel address written on paper and with you. If you’re going out alone during the day, let your hostel/hotel know where you plan to be. Take time to study maps as you go, so even if you get “lost” (which is fun!) you have a general sense of how to get back to your home base, wherever that is. Study maps before you leave, or in a restaurant or shop, but never out in public…you don’t want to appear lost and alone!
Watch what you drink. This advice goes for being at home in the U.S. too. Never turn your back on an open drink, or let someone you don’t know hand you an open drink. Also, don’t drink so much that you’re not always in control of your situation. If it suits you, don’t drink at all.
Share your itinerary with family and friends at home before you leave. Even if it’s a rough outline, it will give peace of mind to your family and friends, and it will make it easier for them to get in touch with you if needed. Always check in via email/iMessage/WhatsApp once you arrive! I try to check in with family every 1-2 days while abroad, and with friends just as frequently if possible.
Research how much cab/tuk tuk/etc rides should cost in advance. Look it up on Google, or ask the folks who run your hotel/hostel. This will make you more confident when bargaining over prices with the driver, and will help to prevent you from being ripped off.
What about the monthly visitor?! In an effort to combat the stigma around women’s health issues, I’ve decided to address this issue directly on my blog. The truth is, you will be able to find feminine supplies wherever you are (yes, even in Africa!) These products may not look like what you’re used to, and may be somewhat expensive, so it’s a good idea to pack some before you leave. But, rest assured you will not be stranded. One tool that has become popular among female travelers is the DivaCup. It minimizes the amount of paper/plastic waste you have to deal with (especially if camping) so it’s practical and environmentally friendly. Or, you can consider getting an IUD. With this form of birth control, you will not get a period at all for 5 years (after the first month or two), which is extremely convenient for the long-term traveler. Check with your health care and insurance providers to see if it’s the right option for you.
Fake it until you make it! If you feel lost and alone, don’t freak out. Try your best to look like a local and like you know where you’re going. Appearing lost and alone can make you easy prey…and ain’t nobody got time for that, especially when you’re on an amazing adventure!
The bottom line is that women have every right to travel alone and explore all the amazing things this world has to offer, but we do face a special set of challenges. The key is to remain aware, practice good judgment, and stay in tune with your feminine instincts!
Going abroad for the first time can be a daunting experience, especially when you’re traveling solo. However, if you have no one else who can travel with you at that time, it may be the only option you have. I have traveled alone on both trips to Italy and Africa. When I left the comfort and familiarity of NYC to board the flight to Italy alone almost 2 years ago, I was practically shaking with anxiety. However, as soon as I arrived in Rome, it took almost no time to realize that living independently in NYC for nearly 1 year had more than prepared me for the streets of Italy’s most fantastic cities!
If you are traveling abroad for the first time solo, meeting with a tour group may help alleviate some nervousness. However, depending on your destination, you may be able to self-plan your trip to cut costs and fit in more of what you want to see and do without having to cooperate with a strict group schedule.
For my first trip abroad to Italy, I was scheduled to meet up with a good friend I had taught high school with in Memphis, as well as one of her friends from college. My friend had arranged for the 3 of us to travel with EF Tours, with the majority of our group being from the Memphis area. I would fly solo from NYC to Rome to meet my friend and the group there. Given my lack of experience in foreign travel, I willingly agreed to this plan…at that time, I did not know the first thing about planning a trip in Italy! However, my friend had to drop out of the trip just a few days before our departure due to family circumstances, and I found myself traveling across Italy with a group of relative strangers. I grew to enjoy the company of the group, but often found myself splitting off to see more sights at my own pace.
There were both pros and cons to using an organized tour company for my first solo trip:
I knew I had a group waiting on me in Rome and expecting my arrival. This was reassuring, just in case the unforeseen happened!
Pre-arranged transport and accommodations between all the major cities on our agenda (Rome, Florence, Venice) as well as some less-visited towns (Assisi, Spoleto, Bologna) proved extremely convenient.
Several accommodations were outside of the main cities, meaning I was able to see a different side of Italy that was less touristy. For example, dancing with these nuns we stayed with outside of Venice was definitely a highlight of the trip! They also served very good wine. You can visit their website here.
These nuns were so fun!
Several accommodations were outside of the main cities, so I felt like I had less time than I desired in places like Rome and Florence.
The tour ran on a very strict schedule! There was little time for wandering on my own (although, I sometimes created this for myself by splitting off from the group when I knew there was something else I wanted to see or do).
Once I got the hang of being in a foreign country after the first few days, I realized I could have planned the entire trip on my own, cut down on costs by staying in hostels and traveling by train, and seen more of the sights I wanted to see!
Most of the meals were pre-arranged, which was a real bummer. Although it was included in the tour price (wine was always extra though), this did not allow me the opportunity or freedom to explore as many restaurants as I wanted. I feel like I need to go back to Italy to experience more authentic dining!
All things considered, I still booked my trip to Africa last winter through a tour company. This time, I used G Adventures, based on a friend’s recommendation (thanks DJ!). Even though I was much more comfortable with the idea of solo travel at this point, G Adventures (contracted through Indaba Explorations) provided the overland vehicle for transport, camping equipment, and meals cooked over the campfire each night, making it a sensible decision. This time around, I actually thoroughly enjoyed being in a tour group—everyone was in the 23-35 age range, we had amazing local guides (shout out to Joslin and Francois!), and there was plenty of free time (when we weren’t on an organized safari of course). More on how much I loved my Africa travel group later 🙂
This summer, I will be using G Adventures again as I travel through Southeast Asia. However, I will be backpacking in South America with a good friend from NYC, and taking on Europe completely solo for 7 weeks (I will share more on my itinerary later)!!
Have you ever used a tour group for solo travel? If so, what was your experience like?
Hello, blogosphere! Thanks for taking the time to visit my page. I thought I’d write my inaugural post about my background and why traveling is so important to me at this stage in my life.
I did not leave the United States until I was 24 years old. I used to be so embarrassed of this fact, but I am certainly not anymore. In fact, I hope my story can inspire those of you out there who may be looking to travel abroad for the first time, but are just not sure where to start.
Since I was little, I wanted to be an astronaut. I know every little kid wants to be an astronaut, but I was so serious about it! I read every book I could find about space and space travel, and used my telescope in the backyard on a regular basis. I even begged my parents for family trips to visit the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center and Cape Canaveral (thanks Mom and Dad)! In high school, I began to realize being an astronaut was not the most realistic of careers, and began to focus on other interests. However, I think the deep desire to explore and seek adventure stuck with me.
In my college years, I was surrounded by friends and classmates who were much more well-traveled than I was, and I began to feel ashamed of how little of the world I had seen. I definitely did not have the funds to start traveling then, and I certainly lacked the confidence as well. I thought I could only travel abroad if I had a companion, and the scheduling and funds never really lined up. So, I tabled my travel dreams for another few years.
I moved to NYC in 2013 to start a career in finance. The around-the-clock nature of my work did not leave me with much time to reflect and plan for a trip abroad. Also, I began dating someone soon after moving to the city, which took a lot of my time and focus (in a positive way!). Career, check! Boyfriend, check! Living in a fabulous city, check! Then, New Year’s Eve 2014 changed everything. My purse was stolen at a club in Soho. My driver’s license, along with my phone and credit cards, was gone. Panic ensued, as I was supposed to fly home to Alabama for a friend’s wedding the next week! My then-boyfriend pointed out, “Why don’t you just use your passport to get on the plane?” I broke down sobbing, and confessed, “I don’t own a passport!”
At that moment, my priorities shifted and my lifelong dream of adventure came into sharp relief. I knew it was time to travel abroad, even if it meant going alone and using a big chunk of savings. Within the next few weeks, I had applied for my passport and booked a trip to Italy. My then-boyfriend was in med school and could not go with me. However, I was finally confident enough to pursue my dream alone.
Since Italy, I have traveled in Africa and Mexico, and this summer I will be taking 3 months to travel through Southeast Asia, South America, and Europe. I hope to use this blog as a place to share my ups and downs, funny stories, and observations. I also hope to use it as a place to reflect. Lastly, I want to use this blog to encourage others to travel by sharing how I’ve overcome obstacles in my past to pursue this dream.
Before I leave in May, I’ll be sharing about past trips, both abroad and within the USA. I’ll also share about the planning and packing process. Please feel free to reach out via comments or email!
Hi, I’m Gracie, a 28 year old New Yorker, native Alabamian, law student, and lover of travel. I’m excited to share my journey with you.
I started this blog to encourage and inspire people to travel, no matter their age, background, or prior travel experience. I left the US for the first time just a few years ago, and recently I’ve had the opportunity to travel across 5 different continents–just me and and my trusty backpack! I hope the information and stories I share will help readers travel with confidence and purpose. I also look forward to using this blog to share my thoughts about current events within the US and around the world in an effort to promote dialogue and understanding across the political spectrum.
“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.” – Sylvia Plath