Solo Travel for the Medicare Generation

Before I departed on my one-woman tour of Europe in 2016 I read many blog posts, books and articles by women who enjoy traveling alone.  I don’t think I’ve ever found one that tells the negative side of solo travel for older women so I think it’s time for an honest report.

I am not a novice traveler.  My husband and I traveled for a nearly year throughout Europe. By car, train and cruise ship we went everywhere west of Budapest. Four years later we returned for five months in Ireland, France and Italy. Since then I’ve traveled alone quite often. I am a retired travel agent and I’ve often created tours and led as many as 30 people in places such as Athens and the Channel Islands. So I know how to travel!  (Or so I thought!)

In the year following my husband’s death I began planning an extended journey around Europe. I included in my itinerary some places I’d visited before and loved and some places I’d never been to but wanted to visit.  My journey lasted nearly five months and took me from Malta to Ireland. Here are some lessons learned about traveling alone from someone then approaching 70 years of age.

There are, to be sure, advantages to traveling alone. The most obvious for many people is that it’s better than not traveling at all.  When there’s no one to go with and staying home is not preferred, a carefully planned trip may be the best option. Taking a cruise, joining a tour group, becoming part of a ready-made collection of people is a good choice. Single travelers often have to pay as much as 100% more for a cruise or tour because the travel company had counted on two people in that room, not one.

For those who want a personalized itinerary — returning to Paris or finding a grandparent’s home town or seeing that not-yet-visited special place — going alone may be the only option. There are advantages to traveling alone. Desk clerks, rental car agents, and waiters were nicer to me than when I traveled with others. People offer assistance more readily. Perhaps my wrinkles help? Gentlemen helped me find a train station, told me the history of their towns, and forwarded mail to me after I’d moved on.

I spent much less on food because I prefer staying in vacation rentals with kitchens (called “self-catering” in the UK and Ireland). When I did go to restaurants I was paying for only one meal.  On the other hand, hotel rooms and rental cars generally cost the same whether one person or two will be using them.

Younger solo travelers often say it’s easier to meet people when you travel alone. I’m sure for them it’s true but I found it to be the opposite. I am not a woman who commands attention.  Little more than five feet tall, plain in appearance, dressed for comfort not style, I pass through the streets of large cities and small towns unnoticed. Although I’m quicker to strike up a conversation or to make a joke than I was when my husband with me, only once in my five months of travel was I invited to join others at dinner or for a walk or a drink.

As author Virginia Baily wrote in her novel Early One Morning, “Invisibility creeps up on you [as you age]. It is impossible to pinpoint the moment of its onset. Older than you might imagine when you’re young. A forty-year-old woman, for example, has a pull.  Perhaps around the age of fifty it begins … recently there had been a fading.”*

To be continued …

Libbie

* From Early One Morning by Virginia Baily: (p. 149)

The photo shows an Australian solo traveler with the hostess of a lovely B&B in Provins, France

My New Favorite Apps

In planning a very long trip at the lowest possible cost I’ve discovered three new apps that (along with an old favorite) are making my journey possible. Try them for planning your next trip, long or short, far away or close to home. I use them on my laptop but all have good, free apps for your smartphone.

Culture Trip       I discovered this app recently and I’m fascinated by it. Open the app, type in the name of any place you’d like to know more about and instantly a selection of articles with great photos pops up on your screen. I follow from one to the next, and after each a different array of options pops up. Culture Trip is like the world’s best travel magazine, with an endless supply of information and images, and it’s free! I’ve been using it to wander around Romania lately! It will take you anywhere!

Rome to Rio       Want to know how to travel from one place to the next anywhere in the world? Here’s the perfect way to discover all the available options. Rome to Rio has been created by a pair of Australians who were frustrated by the difficulty of planning transportation while traveling. Enter two place names and instantly you’re provided with all the ways of going from one to the other: flights, trains, buses, driving and if available, ferries. Instantly a map pops up along with a list of travel options. As you click one of those options the map shows you the route, the app tells you the cost, and then (in some cases) it offers  to arrange your ticket.

Kiwi.com            I may be the last to discover really-low-price air travel sites on the web. Now that I’ve done that I know how to fly to Europe for very little money. Yes, often it takes longer with lengthy delays to connecting flights. Today’s lowest price for my December flight to Paris, beginning at Newark airport in New Jersey, is $162 one way. That’s for a non-stop to Orly (the easier airport serving Paris). Yes, there will probably be some added costs. I just checked today’s price on American Airline’s site for this flight on a December weekday and it’s $3647.

AirBnB             Here’s my old favorite! Without AirBnB I couldn’t dream of making the journey I’m planning. Using it, I’ve found a very small apartment in the center of Venice for Christmas week for $58 a night. I’ve booked several apartments for much less than $50 a night – sometimes they are under $25 a night. Last week I cancelled my reservation for a hotel room in a French city for two nights. I replaced it with a large, well recommended room with a private bath in a lovely home and saved $110 over the cost of the hotel.

There’s an interesting story in the travel section of this weekend’s New York Times about Debbie and Michael Campbell who have been seeing the world non-stop for the past five years using AirBnB rentals. You can read it here.

Go see the world!  It can be done for much less than you think!
Libbie

The photo at the top of this post shows the rail station in Porto, Portugal.

Making Plans

I really like planning my journeys.  I like spending many hours googling places I’ve never visited. I like looking for good places to stay – affordable places – on AirBnB. I like finding bargains such as very low cost flights to Europe. I like studying maps, learning the most logical way to move from one place to the next and finding interesting places I’ve never visited near by.  I like thinking about going back to some of my favorite places – England is high on my list this year, despite being very expensive. I like finding great websites that I can share with you!

I plan to fly to Europe in early December. I’ll go to two places I haven’t seen before: the Alsace-Lorraine region of eastern France and the one major country in western Europe that I’ve never been to: Switzerland. Then I’m going to return to one of my most favorite cities, Venice, for Christmas.

In January I’m going to volunteer at a job-training program for women and girls in Morocco. Soon I’ll be writing about how to find a worthwhile and trustworthy volunteer placement agency. There are a lot of phony “voluntourism” companies on the web.

And that’s just the beginning!  I hope to travel for all of 2019. I’ll be 71 years old then and this will be my “bucket list” tour (a phrase I hate but I think it tells you succinctly why I’m taking a very long journey).

I plan to spend much of my travel time in eastern Europe, in the countries that once were behind the Iron Curtain. As a guide in Montenegro once told me, “Madame, we have no McDonalds in our entire country.” No American hotels, no Starbucks either. Under the Soviet Union many beautiful old buildings survived simply because it was cheaper to use them than to replace them. Since those countries have become independent governments they have made it a point to preserve their architectural heritage and improve upon it. Many beautiful old cities are tucked away in those small countries. And I do like cities.

So I hope you’ll come back to my blog, to learn some new ways for planning travel.

Libbie

The photo at the top is Perast, Montenegro, where they have no McDonalds!

Think you can’t afford to go to Europe? Think again!

When I go to Europe I usually stay for months. I’ve learned some ways to make my travels affordable. There are some basics like “go off-season” that everyone knows and I use those ideas. Here are a few updated tips for your next trip that can make it more affordable.

  1. Pick your destination(s) carefully. For example, if you’ve been to London or Paris or Rome in the past choose smaller cities this time, or (even better) explore the countryside. Rental cars can enable you to visit beautiful places where you’ll not only pay less for your accommodations but also have better opportunities to meet local people. Renting a car may be less that a rail pass or multiple train tickets. (I always use AutoEurope, an American company that guarantees the lowest price.)
  2. Go there on one of the new airlines that are hundreds of dollars less expensive than the legacy carriers. Check Kayak.com for discounted fares by the new Icelandic airlines such as WOWair. Or fly to Dublin on AerLingus then continue on to your destination on Ryan Air or another AerLingus flight. I’ve also learned that it is much less expensive for me to depart from one of the major east coast US cities than from North Carolina.
  3. Decide in advance how much money you can spend on restaurants, museums, tours, etc. Upon arriving in Europe consider taking that entire amount of money out of an ATM so you’ll spend only cash. Wearing a money belt would be a good way to protect your money. If you wear one, put the amount you plan to spend that day into your pants pocket first thing in the morning. Don’t let anyone see you take money from your money belt.Alternatively, keep a running list of what you’ve spent and how much is left in your budget. Use debit cards rather than credit cards and check your bank balance occasionally. Some people open separate bank accounts just for travel expenditures.
  4. Do your homework before going! The Internet is a gift to travelers. Read message boards such as the one at Fodors.com for information about the places you plan to visit. Read books that are for budget travelers such as Rick Steves’ or Lonely Planet guides. Google “budget traveler” and find many blogs and articles to explore.
  5. Nearly every large European city offers discount cards for tourists that lower the costs of museum entry and transit fares. Make a point of discovering these before you leave home. Before leaving home compare the cost of the card with that of visiting only the museums that interest you. Know exactly where to find them and what’s required to purchase them. For example, if you plan to be in Paris for a month and want to buy a monthly Metro pass, you must provide a passport-size photo for the permit that is required to purchase the card.
  6. Of course, there’s always this “nag” from me: stay in an apartment or an AirBnB-arranged room in someone’s home instead of staying in a hotel. The ability to cook some meals is the best money-saver of all. Visit the neighborhood bakery for breakfast goodies and make your own coffee or tea. Visit a market or take-away food emporium for lunch supplies or pack your lunch before leaving your accommodations in the morning. (Yes! You can find peanut butter in most European food stores.)

Libbie

I don’t know where the young man pictured at the top of this post slept the night before but I thought he was very clever to shave in a fountain in Florence.

I don’t receive anything from any company for mentioning them in my blog posts.

What’s your best idea for saving money while traveling? Please use the “comments” section below to share it with us.

Slowly Exploring Italy

“Slow travel” means taking time to explore the places you visit. It’s a “hub and spoke” way to travel.  Staying in one cottage or apartment for a week or longer and taking day trips to surrounding places is an ideal way to discover more than just the touristy centers of major cities. Italy, for example, offers many opportunities for exploration of historic, artistic cities and beautiful agricultural areas.

The early spring view from “our” kitchen window in Montaione.

On our first trip to Italy my husband and I stayed for three weeks in Montaione, a village in Tuscany. We caught the train from a nearby town for day trips to Florence several times. We explored Siena twice —  one of those days was Easter Sunday. We spent days in San Gimignano, Pisa, Cortona, Assisi and Volterra. We explored the Chianti region. We enjoyed just roaming the countryside, poking around in small ancient villages, going inside very old churches. (Here is a link to the place where we stayed in Montaione.)

The villa called Castel Marinoni in Barbarano, Italy.

Another time we spent ten days in the Veneto, the region in northeastern Italy that includes Venice. We stayed in a very Italian apartment (that means a kitchen and a bedroom – no living room) in a village named Barbarano near Vicenza. (Here’s a link to gorgeous pictures of the property where we stayed and the surrounding area.) We made three train-trips into Venice, several drives to Vicenza, went twice to Padua and to Verona. We were there in the off-season when the rent was very low. That trip was really our introduction to Italy and we couldn’t have chosen a better place to begin.

The village children of Cetona after their performance, dressed as winter, summer and autumn.

On our third trip to Italy we stayed in a small village named Cetona on the line dividing Tuscany and Umbria. Although we were tourists who visited Orvieto and other small cities, what I remember best was the experience of “living” in a small Italian village for a week. We were there in May when the school year was ending. One evening all the children in the village put on a performance with all the village in attendance. Children dressed in homemade costumes representing summer, autumn and snow danced in the village center. Although we didn’t understand a word, we loved the experience of temporarily being part of life in a small Italian town. (The place we rented on that trip seems to no longer be advertised on the internet. Prices of rentals in that area have sky rocketed but some good deals are still available on AirBnB.)

I plan to share with you in my next few posts some of the beautiful but less well-known places we have visited in Italy. I hope you’ll discover that renting a small place and exploring the Italian countryside can be very affordable and very interesting, and that you’ll plan your own trip there soon!

Libbie

The photo at the top of this post is of the doorway of our apartment in Cetona.

 

Europe? Go Now!

perfect-frenchman

If you have ever wanted to go to – or return to – Europe, this is the year to go! It’s not just that the cost of going there is lower than it’s been in years. New airlines and lower numbers of tourists means better offers than we’ve seen for 15 years or more. Here are some of the reasons to go soon:

The dollar has gained value against both the British pound and the euro. Today exchange rates are reflecting the run up of the American stock markets. The euro is trading around US$1.05 today down from rates in the high US$1.40’s during the recession years. The British pound has fallen from a high of about US$2.00 in 2009 to around $1.22 recently.

New low-cost airlines are causing “legacy” carriers to lower the cost of their flights drastically. Norwegian Airlines and a new airline called “WOW” are the latest entries in this price war. My personal example: this week I purchased a round trip ticket from Boston to Dublin departing June 3 and returning September 1 from Aer Lingus for $555. Today American Airlines has a fare as low as $706 for the same flight. A tip for people flying outside Europe: Ryan Air is a low-cost Irish airline that flies from Dublin to every major destination in Europe (and many smaller cities). When planning your trip consider flying to Dublin and continuing to your final destination via Ryan Air.

Some destinations in Europe – Paris especially – are experiencing sharp declines in the numbers of tourists. The number of foreign visitors to Paris dropped by 1.6 million in 2016 due to acts of terrorism. London and the UK seemed to pick up some of those visitors; tourism there rose to an all-time high, up 3% in 2016. Of course, there’s a great deal more to Europe than Paris and London! The euro-zone includes all of western Europe except Norway, Sweden and Switzerland. Personally I don’t let terrorists change my life – the chances of that happening anywhere are miniscule. But if that worries you, explore smaller cities and the countryside in Europe. You’ll discover life as it’s truly lived.

Declining tourist numbers are causing the cost of hotels to be lowered. Hostels welcome guests of all ages and many new and much more luxurious hostels are popping up everywhere. AirBnB and similar companies allow you to cut the cost of overnight accommodations to a fraction of the cost of a hotel. Or to enjoy an entire apartment or house for the price of a hotel room and live like a native! (The price of hotels in London is astronomical; here’s a link to an article in today’s news listing several hotels with rooms under £125 night – some are much less.)

One last good reason to go this year: the European Union is considering a change that will require Americans to purchase a visa to enter Europe. Now you can go everywhere except Russia without one and stay up to 90 days (180 days in the U.K.) Read about the EU’s recent action here.

Nothing I have ever experienced has been more enjoyable or more rewarding than traveling around Europe. It is the place where our culture was born. For several millennia extraordinary artifacts have been created and preserved. Most North Americans descend from thousands of European people. Go find your heritage! You’ll love it!

Libbie

So I have this can of cinnamon…

hvar-croatia

I bought a can of cinnamon at Trader Joe’s a year or two ago. The brand name is Szedeg and there’s a small drawing of an ancient church on the can. That’s the only clue of where or what Szedeg is. Where in the world is Szedeg?

Googling led me to a travel website on which I could lose an entire day. Although I don’t have time to write posts and edit photos now (11 days until this election is history!) I wanted to take time to share this with you.

The site is Lonely Planet’s “Best in Travel for 2017.” http://www.lonelyplanet.com/best-in-travel. It turns out that Szedeg is the third largest city in Hungary and that Lonely Planet recommends it as a “best place to visit.” I’m game!

Lonely Planet publishes excellent travel guides covering the world. Their website is deep and deeply helpful. The British version of Lonely Planet Magazine is my favorite travel mag. Recently LP began a new American version of that magazine that costs less in North America than the British version. It may be more focused on places of interest to us. You can find both of these at Books-a-Million and at many other bookstores. Or just read about these lovely places online and dream!

Did you vote yet?

Libbie

The photo at the top of this post is of the harbor at Hvar, Croatia, a place listed in the list of Best in Travel for 2017.

 

 

Tips for Travelers: Be a Tourist in Your Home Town

Tryon-Palace-New-Bern

Do you explore the place where you live and the towns and countryside, the parks and waterways that surround it? One way to improve your “traveler skills” is by using them at home. Using my small home town — New Bern, North Carolina – as an example, I’ll illustrate a few ideas about touring the place you know best. For many of my readers this won’t be “news” but I hope the suggestions may help you discover something new in New Bern. And for my readers in other places, perhaps I can convince you to drive an hour east of I-95 on your next southern trip to discover this charming town.

  • Wander through your downtown business area. We have many interesting new shops and pubs in New Bern, places that have opened within the past year or two. If you live here, have you been downtown lately? If not, go! I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
  • Try a new restaurant! There are places all over New Bern that have opened within the past couple of years. Have you tried two of my favorite places, Bayleaf (for Indian food) or Thai Thai? Have you heard the music in the bars downtown or on the waterside deck at the Doubletree hotel?
  • Take your camera for a walk! I find that looking for photo ops makes me much more aware of my surroundings. Or, if you have a smart phone, use that camera when something new surprises you.
  • Find a place you’ve never visited that’s within ten miles (or 20 or 50) of your home. Go for a hike! If you don’t have a boat, rent one or take a “tourist cruise.” Look at your town as if it’s new to you – you’ll be surprised at all you’ll see.
  • Buy a ticket to a tour. The Kitchens of New Bern tour to benefit the Food Bank of Eastern North Carolina will be on again the last Saturday in September. New Bern’s Ghostwalk will be happening soon. Each Spring brings the historic homes tour and every Christmas you can see Tryon Palace decorated for the holidays.

If you live here, pretend you’ve never been here before and see our town with new eyes. And if you haven’t been to New Bern, y’all come and see us, hear?

Libbie

The photo at the top is of the ornate gates at the entrance to Tryon Palace, New Bern’s most popular tourist destination.

Tips for Travelers: Getting to Europe for Less

aerial-view-Athens

The cost of flying to Europe and back on the major airlines keeps many would-be travelers home. Here are a few tips for going there less expensively.

Obtain an airline credit card. My round trip flight to Europe earlier this year cost only $50.65. My American Airlines credit card enabled me to use frequent flyer miles to pay for my flights. All major airlines offer 30,000 or more “miles” for new customers. There are a few strings attached and the interest rates and fees are very high but used wisely, these cards can be an excellent bargain. A website called “The Points Guy” is famous for telling how to maximize this option.

Wow! A low cost Icelandic airline named WOW flies from Newark, Boston and Baltimore to Europe at very low rates. Their original $99 offer seems to have disappeared but there are one-way flights from BWI (Baltimore/Washington DC) to Iceland for as little as $199 and to continental Europe for as little as one way $229 (BWI to Paris Charles deGaulle airport). The cost of a return trip may be higher. WOW allows stopovers in Iceland at no extra charge on flights to Europe. Here’s an article from USA Today that provides detailed (but now slightly dated) information about this airline.

Norwegian Air Shuttle is another airline offering even lower cost flights to and from Europe to selected U.S. airports. Check their fares at their website. As with any low-cost carrier, expect additional charges for many necessities. Read the website and ticket information thoroughly before booking any flight.

An Irish Connection: A combination of a trans-Atlantic flight on Aer Lingus, the Irish airline, and Ryan Air, the Irish low-cost carrier serving much of Europe from Dublin, is the best way I know to enjoy a comfortable flight while saving hundreds of dollars. Ryan Air fares can be as low as 29 euro. To keep fares low Ryan Air often lands at secondary airports quite a distance from major cities so include the cost of getting to your final destination when calculating any savings.

Repositioning cruises. Every spring and autumn many very large cruise ships are moved to or from Europe. The trip takes five days or longer — five days or more of good meals, free entertainment, total relaxation. The fares for these cruises are quite low. Choose from Celebrity, Princess, and all the other big-name cruiselines. If you have sailed with one line frequently you may receive a greater discount or other perks. Calling a travel agent to arrange this trip for you costs you nothing and makes the process much easier. Combine your cruise with a discounted flight home from one of the airlines mentioned above for maximum savings.

Here’s a blog entry with several helpful ideas for saving money on flights.

Libbie

The photo at the top was taken just before landing in Athens.

Tips for Booking on AirBnB

P1100146

I like AirBnB. It enables people to travel affordably and safely. As promised in my last post, here are some things I’ve learned about finding safe, affordable and comfortable lodging using AirBnB. Some of these suggestions also apply to other web sites that enable you to book directly with the owner of a vacation rental.

Finding an appropriate rental

Begin by going to AirBnB.com. If it’s your first visit you may want to sign in and create an account. Doing so will allow you to bookmark on the site the places that you want to consider. I’ve never received any promotional emails or text messages from AirBnB so I think there’s no reason to avoid giving them my email address and mobile phone number.

At the top of the search screen enter the location where you want to stay and the dates you’ll be there. Many places are available for as short a rental period as one night so any time span can be searched. A new screen will open asking if you want an entire house or apartment, a private room in someone’s home, or a shared room; you can also specify the number of bedrooms and bathrooms you require. You will see a slider that allows you to narrow the options offered by price. It will show you the average price in that area. By moving it left or right you decrease or increase the number of properties to be offered.

A selection of places that meet your criteria will be shown next, with a photo submitted by the host and a thumbnail photo of the host. When you click on a place that interests you a new page will open that shows photographs of that rental and provides more detailed information about the rental. There will also be a moveable map showing the area of the search; clicking on a red balloon opens the property indicated.

Read each property description carefully and give some thought to the issues that are important to you. For example, I really like to have a clothes washer in places I rent so I always look for that. AirBnB provides a great amount of information but it’s likely that you will have questions for the host. On the right side you’ll find a red rectangle to click that provides almost-instant communication with the host. Ask as many questions as you can think of before committing to the booking.

One factor that I consider very carefully is the cancellation policy chosen by the host. Click here to see the various policies. You’ll find the policy in the “About this listing” section pertaining to each property. I always choose a property that allows me to cancel without penalty.

When you’ve found a property you want to rent, click the red “Request to Book” button. That will send a text message and email to the host. Usually you’ll have your reply very quickly. It is required that the rent be paid immediately after the owner accepts your reservation. A small amount for AirBnB’s fee is also charged at that time.

Following your stay you will be asked to give feedback regarding the property and the host. It’s AirBnB’s policy to rank the properties with the best reviews first so that they are the first ones you’ll see in that location. There are many more stacked up behind those on the first screen.

Safety

Fire escapes are rarely found in Europe. Buildings are built of stone and often they are centuries old. One tiny apartment I rented had no windows. Most places have only one stairway. Keep this in mind when considering properties.

If you want to stay in the center of a major city you may wish to consider the safety of the neighborhood, particularly if you plan to be stay out late in the evenings. Google has photographed many streets around the world. When you search for a particular street address on maps.google.com a photograph of the building is likely to appear in the upper left corner of the screen. Clicking that opens a street view that you can use to “tour” the neighborhood. If you know what that neighborhood is called you might also try googling that name in news.google.com.

By clicking on the photo of the host you’ll see all the comments past visitors have written. It’s important to read carefully the reviews of the host before renting. Choose hosts who have lots of good reviews and longer track records. Women traveling alone may want to consider only females or couples as “hosts.” Keep in mind that the host will have keys to the property you occupy.

Calling on AirBnB when things aren’t as they should be.

Here’s a link to the Help Center on the AirBnB website. It is a much better source of information about your safety that what I’ve written here. I particularly like the company’s policy of always being available by phone if something isn’t the way you expect or want it to be. I’ve never had to call them.

This is not a complete list of factors to consider when choosing a rental. It’s just advice based on my own experience. A google search will turn up many articles and blog posts with more information and other points to consider.

Libbie

I have no connection with AirBnB other than as a satisfied user of their service.

Resources:     Michael and Debbie Campbell have become the “poster children” for boomers traveling the world via AirBnB. Read their blog, Senior Nomads, by clicking here.

If you’ve considered renting your empty apartment, cottage or guest room, you may enjoy reading this article which recently ran in the New York Times about the financial benefits for retirees who rent their empty rooms.

The picture at the top shows the scene just around the corner from my Airbnb rental in Quimper, France.