Sunday, 27 January 2013

Your First Time!

MikeW in awe at the Orsay!  One of the best art galleries in Paris!

A newly single friend of mine asked me the other week for ideas for a trip she could take by herself; the first one abroad since her break up.  It got me thinking...where and what makes a good destination for first time solo travel.  I know this topic has been covered umpteen times on travel forums and I am not here to reinvent the wheel, but I feel that there are certain things that can make your trip as brilliant as you might hope and without any of the fears you might think such a trip will bring.

Now, my friend has travelled solo before, but not for a few, for her a few reminders and for any solo travel virgins here are my top tips for that first time:

1. Destination...
Choosing the right place to visit can make or break your trip.  I probably, should say 'appropriate place to visit' as the key element of a successful solo trip is keeping myself occupied.  Opting to visit rural Italy, although lovely, may leave you feeling rather lonely and a bit bored.  I would say start off with a city.

(I am going to stick to Europe for this post - even though I have readers from all over the world, but the same principles apply wherever you are on Earth!)

Cities offer the solo traveller with a whole host of sights and different activities that will easily fill their time there.  For example, Paris, Amsterdam, Lisbon, Rome and Berlin are cities filled with world class museums, art galleries, historical sights, superb parks, great food, a brilliant and varied nightlife as well as a really distinctive metropolis feel that you just cannot help but get swallowed up by.  You will not be bored by these places!

On top of this, certain cities offer options for great day trips too.  Paris, for example, could see you catching the RER train and head out to the magnificent Palace of Versailles, the chateaux of the Loire Valley or to Giverny, the home of impressionist painter Monet.

2. Stay in a hostel...
You might not like the thought of a hostel for your stay, but I feel the hostel offers the solo travel one of the best ways to meet fellow travellers and find yourself someone to share some of your first solo trip with.  The hostel is a multicultural melting pot of different nationalities - though, you can ALWAYS guarantee at least an Aussie, a Yank and two Irish friends being there!  Choose your hostel carefully (following the ratings is often your best bet on and and you could end up in somewhere pretty swish.  When I travelled to Lisbon, I had a choice of top quality hostels to choose from and was thrilled with my decision to stay here...  The beautiful communal 8 Euro meal, laid back nature of the place and fun activities the hostel laid on for its guests, both during the day and at night, made this a perfect place to stay for the solo traveller.

3. Take the free tour...
I have said it before - (The Glorious Free Tour) get on the free tour!  I ALWAYS do the free a way to get my bearings and as a way to meet potential travel friends.  You are likely to be trudging round with many people in a similar boat to you and human nature dictates you are going to be drawn to the people who find the tour guide's crazy fashion sense, poor jokes or frighteningly in depth knowledge of the Ottoman Invasion of the city you are visiting strangely amusing.  The tour will also give you a chance to get to know a local who will be keen to show off their city at its best, so you can ask them about where is best to visit during the day and in the evening.

The Solo Traveller Toolkit:
- A good book for those down time moments or for when you are sitting in a cafe soaking in the atmosphere and hubbub of the city over a gloopy Continental coffee.
- An iPod/MP3 player.  It is just nice to hear a familiar voice from time to time and what better than a favourite song or energising tune to get you marching to that next tourist attraction.
- A Moleskine notebook.  Any notebook will do, but I like the Moleskine range as they are so luxuriously lovely!  I write down things I have seen that I do not want to forget, my thoughts, doodles, ideas for future art projects and for things I would like to do in the future.  Travelling to places away from home, is a privilege and I love being inspired by and learning from the places that I see often triggers ideas in my head for future experiences I want to enjoy.

Finally, be bold!  It is your first trip alone...just get out there and enjoy it.  There is no point wallowing in self pity or thinking 'I wish someone was here with me'.  Make the most of your trip, stride out there with confidence and savour what your destination has to offer you.  You won't regret it!  Oh...and if all of this advice has done nothing to inspire and you need someone to join know where I live!

Monday, 21 January 2013

The Stockholm Syndrome

Swedish meatballs! (Source: 

Later this year, I am taking a trip with friends.  Travelling with friends is always great fun.  I have done it several times in the past and, on many occasions, with the very same friends I am taking this trip with too.  We are heading to Stockholm, capital city of the sickeningly beautiful Swedes!  It was my idea; having read a bit about the Scandinavian city recently and further fuelled by the availability of some reasonably priced flights from my local airport.  So, how could I pass this great travel opportunity up?!

The thing is...I am worried that I am going to find this trip difficult.  Pretty much all of my trips since the summer of 2010 have been solo affairs.  I have gotten used to a certain way of travelling.  It has become habit for me to follow my own whim, eat what I want, when I want, where I want and at the price I want to pay too.  I see the attractions and sights I want to see, at my own pace, in my own gloriously selfish way.  And, there is the, me, me!  All my recent trips have been about me.  In Stockholm, I will have to defer to the group and what they want to do.  As I see it, I am bound by another way of deciding how I should enjoy Stockholm; the majority vote, common sense or the will of a raving madman is likely determine how I experience the home of ABBA!  Or will the trauma induced from having let the reins pass to other people, lead me to empathise with my travel 'captors' and thank them for showing me a side to travel I am not that used to; endearing me to my captors just like the psychological phenomenon named after this fair city.  I'll let you know sometime around the end of April!  I have a feeling it will be all 'bra'!

Adjö och säkra resor!

Thursday, 3 January 2013

Travel - One of Life's Great Teachers...

Something I learnt travelling...Slovenia is beautiful!  The sun setting over the gorgeous Lake Bohinj.

Travelling as an activity is a hugely satisfying leisure pursuit that can result in you seeing, tasting and experiencing much of what the World has to offer.  What has surprised me the most about travel, is how much I have got out of the act of travelling.

There is a danger this is going to sound like a CV or job application, but the things I have been lucky enough to learn on my travels have proved very useful in interviews for academic courses and in the hunt for jobs.  Presenting yourself at an interview to strangers, is no different to presenting yourself to the strangers you meet when you travel.  The only difference is you are probably wearing flip flops and a massive grin on your face during the latter scenario!  Travel, and especially solo travel, requires you to be confident enough to talk to complete strangers about yourself in an interesting way without being overbearing or intensely annoying.  Closely linked to this is the ability to listen to other people.  The number of times I have been involved in conversations where people are happy to talk about themselves for hours on end without taking much (if any) interest in your thoughts or background infuriates me.  And, to be honest, travel has taught me that these are the kind of people to avoid in all aspects of life.  However, do not let this stop you from reaching out...striking up a conversation with a random person can be a useful tool, in the right circumstances.  In work situations, I have successfully applied this principle, and have found myself talking to people who some of my colleagues were too afraid to engage with for fear of their status in the organisation, for example.  The trick is to listen.  I may make the mistake of assuming that life and work is like the rather flat/equal structure that exists amongst travellers, but I enjoy it and feel like I have gained a lot from it.

Travel has helped me realise I can enjoy my own company and get a lot done.  The time I get to be alone to think (often in a beautiful location) is a real luxury these days.  Without the distraction of other people, travelling solo (in particular) can allow you to really appreciate your destination; watching the people come and go, take in other cultures and also take pleasure in the scenery that lay before you as you look across the horizon.

Trust that intuition!  It is usually right.  Having put myself and having been put into a number of exciting and hair-raising situations, always go with your intuition.  Travel has acted as a useful training ground for my intuition, allowing me to make some great friends, avoid some not so great people, get involved in some great activities and stay away from some not so great travel diversions.  Judging the quality of a hostel at 20 paces or the best place to eat in the backstreets of Vilnius has proved so useful in everyday life.  The idea that I can use my experiences to forge a positive future, based on my judgement was a fantastic revelation.  I know...obvious for most people, but for me, knowing that I could decide what I wanted to do based on a number of factors was an eye-opener. 

Big deal!  So what!  Who cares?!  Having seen many different places, cultures and experiencing a fair few things during my travels, my sense of perspective has improved massively.  When things get stressful at work, I sometimes have to remind myself that I do have a sense of perspective, but it is the things that I have seen on my travels that helps me remember that in the grand scheme of things nothing really matters.  That deadline...yes, it is important, but so what?!  If it is a day late, it is inconvenient, but ultimately no-one died and there are far more important things to worry about in life.  Having seen the way that people live, work and what they have experienced, I am always mindful to count my blessings.  My first trip turned me into a right hippy.  I backpacked without any desire for all the possessions I owned back in the UK.  After about two weeks of travelling, I could have easily given them up for my backpack full of clothes and a couple of good paperbacks.  Stupidly idealistic and probably quite impractical, but what I took from that was the realisation that the 'stuff' we work so stupidly hard to accumulate to fill our homes is pretty worthless - 'mo money, mo problems' and all that!  What I did miss were my family and friends.  So, travel changed my perspective regarding where my priorities lie.  Before that first big trip, the accumulation of financial wealth and belongings was my main objective in life.  And, after that trip, I know that the only things that really matter are not fulfilling someone else's targets at work or generating cash for me to spend on a huge state-of-the-art flat screen TV or on the repayments for a new BMW, but family and the people around you.  Success, for me, is not measured in material wealth, but by the relationships you cultivate and maintain with the people around you.  Maybe this came to the fore during my trips, as travelling is a very people-centric activity that really helps you understand your fellow man.  Ultimately though, this aspect of discovery I have made on my travels is of greatest importance to me.

So, travel...the great educator!  You don't believe me?!  Well, all I can say is go find out for yourself, you may be surprised what you learn.

Please feel free to comment below on any things that travel has taught you.  I would love to hear your views on this!

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Get Rich...Quick!

A great travel 'investment' - bathing elephants in Thailand!

Erin, an amazing Australian friend of mine (whom I met in a hostel in Dubrovnik a couple of years back), once told me a brilliant quotation that has stuck with me.  It goes, "travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer".  If you are here, reading my blog about travel, you will have probably heard it before.  If not; well, here you go.  Take it in, savour it, because it is true.  Every penny I have spent on my travels has been worth it for a number of reasons.  The people travel has enabled me to meet, the different cultures I have been lucky enough to see, the food I have been able to taste and the experiences I have had on my travels have been a superb investment.  I have these imprinted as memories for the rest of my life.  I know if I had stuffed the money I have spent on travelling in a bank account and had stayed at home, I would not be the person I am today.  I know I would certainly be poorer for it - emotionally and spiritually.  Travel has opened my eyes to a number of things about myself and others and has taught me a host of skills that I could have probably have learned elsewhere, but I am sure I had more fun learning them in the humidity of a Bangkok night market or on the back of a yacht (Tooheys in hand) in the Whitsunday Islands in Australia.  So, open your purse and wallets, splash the cash (within your means, of course) and I can guarantee your travel will pay you back tenfold.