How To Survive Bus Tours When Traveling Alone

11949851611473942866bus1_bw_jarno_vasamaa_01.svg.medTraveling solo on a packaged bus tour with a group you have never met can be a pleasurable adventure, if you …

1. Do Your Homework.
Don’t depend on the tour guide to fill in all the spaces or to know the answers to all your questions. Usually they do know where the best bathrooms are located, but most are not experts in the local culture or literature. They know enough to impress you with their knowledge, but a good grounding in travel sites – Fodor, Frommer, Rick Steves, and, of course, tripadvisor, may lead you to places you’ll enjoy and can supplement the tour.

I could never understand why tourists would arrive at a new place without preparing first. On a recent tour of England, a fellow traveler astonishingly had never heard of the Lake District and was amazed to discover that a childhood favorite was written by the local poet – Wordsworth. Later, in Bath, a dentist asked the tour guide to explain who Jane Austen is.

Exploring brings welcome surprises, but knowing a little about the area can go a long way to better enjoying the short time spent there. Download a few local maps, or ask the hotel for one of the area – those are usually better than most in the guidebooks. Make friends with the concierge. Checkout the New York Times column –  36 hours in …wherever you are.

2. Observe Your Fellow Tourists
These same people will be with you for a while – sometimes up to 3 weeks. Take your time getting to know them before you strut your stuff. It’s fun to stay incognito at first; eventually, you will know everyone’s deep secrets but better not to reveal yours. Unlike the person sitting next to you on the plane, the sad widow or haughty office clerk who despises anyone with an advanced degree will be still there after breakfast. Listen judiciously; try not to empathize; and mentally note the needy you should avoid so your trip does not become a confessional. After 10 days, everyone will be tired of each other anyway, and it will be fun to watch the dynamics of couples, while you make character notes for your next novel.

3. Find Your Grail
Whatever makes your heart sing, be it medieval castles, cathedrals full of Renaissance art, old bookstores, Shakespearean productions, bespoke clothing, or the best local food you can eat (fish and chips, ice cream cones with a Flake), plan time on your own to find it. Don’t expect your fellow travelers to emulate your pleasure; sometimes a hidden discovered treasure is best kept to yourself to savor. Some travelers worry about missing something on tour when left to their own devices, and, like kindergarteners, will try to outshout others in their determination to outdo others. Don’t fall prey to the game; quiet satisfaction is its own reward.

4. Always Have a Book
Although my iPad was crammed with best sellers and books I had saved to read, I never turned it on. New bookstores always offered a tome or two that I read along the way, and passed on to another. After a discussion of common reading interests, the helpful concierge at one hotel was a happy receiver of a bestseller I had finished and did not want to pack.

5. Enjoy Spending a Time With Yourself

No matter what waits for you on your return, traveling alone offers an opportunity to explore, think, read, eat – whatever and whenever you like – with no negotiations. Meeting new people and exploring new places is part of the fun of traveling alone, but getting to know – and enjoy – yourself, is a unique pleasure.tourist

“The man (or woman) who goes alone can start today, but he who travels with another must wait till that other is ready.” – Henry David Thoreau

How about you, fellow travelers, any tips to pass on?

Travel Through Children’s Books

Tours that follow an author can be inviting. Literature tours in England follow Austen and Bronte;  New England in the United States attracts followers of Emily Dickinson, Louisa May Alcott, Henry David Thoreau, and Ralph Waldo Emerson.  A friend gave me an article from the Wall Street Journal – Going By the Children’s Book – with Liam Callahan’s suggestions for touring Paris through children’s book authors.   Although I have often dreamed of following Julia Child through France, his itinerary also has appeal:

  • Bemelmans’ Madeleine captures Paris from Sacre Coeur to the Jardin des Tuileries;
  • Albert Lamorisse’s The Red Balloon (a film before it became a book) floats through Montmartre;
  • Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret looks back at the famous train station and local streets.

Callahan provides a map with tangential adventures, the possibility of buying a book store, and additional books to inspire your literary trip:

  • Adele and Simon by Barbara McClintock
  • Paris in the Spring with Picasso by Yolleck and Prideman

My favorite is Rupert Kingfisher’s  Madame Pamplemousse and Her Incredible Edibles – “selling all kinds of rare and exotic delicacies” – a culinary adventure – but Julia Child would wonder over the cobra brains in black butter.

The Joy of Quiet

When was the last time you sat quietly – with no computer, cell phone, television – to distract you?  Pico Iyer, author of The Man Within My Head, suggests that “distractions console us and yet makes us miserable.”

In his essay for the New York Times – The Joy of Quiet – Pico Iyer notes that we are missing the opportunity to think and enjoy peace when we are always “doing.”  Someone once described me as someone “who gets it done” – meant as a compliment to efficiency and focus – so doing nothing seems wasteful and complacent to me.  Yet, whenever I can be by myself in a quiet alcove with nothing in particular to achieve, I think more clearly.

“{In a research study, Iyer cites} that after spending time in quiet rural settings, subjects exhibit greater attentiveness, stronger memory and generally improved cognition.  Their brains become both calmer and sharper.”

Those places are harder to find, and Iyer describes costly vacations that offer a respite from maniacal reverence to the electronic gods that most find difficult to leave behind.  If you can’t afford a cliff-top room at the posh Post Ranch Inn for $2,285 a night “for the privilege of not having a television,” or are reluctant to book a room at Benedictine Hermitage as Iyer does, he suggests a few easy ways to find peace.

  • Go for a walk by yourself, but “forget” to take your cell phone.
  • Declare a weekend moratorium on the computer; leave emails for Monday.
  • Find a quiet place to stare at the ocean, mountain, green field, painting…
  • Get lost in a book (not electronic)  or good piece of music.

I may try them – but not all at once – don’t want to risk going into withdrawal.

Related Post:  Could You Please Keep It Down

The Power of a Poem

Where do you go to escape? to revitalize your brain?  Has something you read ever inspired you to find a place described in the lines?

In his article for the New York Times –  ‘Intimate Exile,’ From Stanza to Stone – Jeff Gordinier writes about traveling to Luing (pronounced “ling”) – an obscure Scottish island in the Hebrides that he found in a poem.   The poet, Don Paterson, promises that Luing is a place to be renewed; the island’s welcome sign greets with “a place to think…a place to be.”  Luing is isolated and beautiful – unknown to tourists, and without the amenities that travelers may expect in a more popular retreat; not many places like that still exist, and those that do, demur from being written about – to escape discovery.

The search for peace within the solitude of nature is not new.  Thoreau’s Walden Pond promised renewal.  Inspired by those words, I once hiked in the woods alone, at first fearing that I would not find my way out, until I slid into the comfort of knowing that no one could find me for the moment. Reading tales of Guernsey (The Soldier’s Wife; The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society) have piqued my interest in visiting those hills and coasts.

What have you read that’s led you to points unknown – or, at least, lured you into thinking about going?

Read Dan Paterson’s poem “Luing” – here