Traveling alone – no big deal

After the question of "who’s taking care of the baby?" the most common questions I get about travel are all about traveling alone. I usually just shrug and say it’s no big deal – it’s not. But last week my grandma (who’s 91) was asking me lots of questions about my trip to Istanbul. Are you flying by yourself? How do you get to your hotel? Will you know anybody there? Will you be eating alone all the time? She wasn’t worried about me, she was just very curious. Her whole life she’s wanted to go see her "cousins in Holland" and she’s never gone. (I’ve always regretted I didn’t just book tickets and take her. It would be hard to take her now for health reasons.)

So this trip I paid attention to how I do things and I realized I’m always thinking about logistics and safety. For example, here are some of the things I do:

  • Money.
    • Before I clear customs I get cash from an ATM machine. This trip was one of those interesting times – the machine only displayed Turkish. The last screen stumped me for a minute. I was pretty sure one option was something like "do another transaction" and the other was "I’m done." But they were both one word, same color, same number of letters, … I picked the bottom one and my card came back out. (And once again I forgot to check the exchange rate ahead of time so I just guessed at how many Turkish lira I needed. My usual approach is to withdraw the maximum option – only in Norway that turned out to be more than my bank would let me take out in any 24 hour period. Norway turned out to be expensive.)
    • I also always make sure that I have a backup id and a credit card – one in my wallet and another set in my rollaboard. If I lose my briefcase or misplace my wallet I want something to fall back on. I’ve heard too many horror stories of people far from home that suddenly have nothing. I think it’s far more likely I would lose my wallet than I’d get robbed, but either would be a major pain.
  • Transportation.
    • Leaving customs I looked for a guy with a sign with my name on it. The hotel had included my ride. This always makes me (unjustifiably) nervous. What if they take you somewhere else? What if they knocked out the real guy and this is some bad guy holding the sign. Too many movies! The guy holding the sign turned out to be a very polite young man who was a very cautious driver and he didn’t speak any English. So I wasn’t able to do my normal cab ride conversation – my Turkish wasn’t quite up for it. (Usually I do public transportation or a cab.)
    • When I get to the hotel I ask about public transportation to the conference venue. If it’s less than a couple of miles, I usually walk. (Dan Frye from IBM actually gave me that tip – he said he always picks a hotel he can walk from. It’s his exercise in days full of meetings.)
  • Lodging. I found the hotel on Tripadvisor – I searched for cheap, top ranking hotels and then I used Google maps to see how far they were from the conference venue. (Actually, first I checked the conference hotels and then I started looking for other ones.) The hotel must have internet access and positive reviews. I used to look for a gym too – a hotel with a gym is very hard to find in Europe. I also like hotels with restaurants or room service or near lots of restaurants in case I end up eating alone late at night.
  • Eating. The one thing I don’t like about traveling alone is eating out alone all the time so I’ll try to arrange dinner with different folks if I’m in a city or at a conference where I know a lot of people. Eating out alone bothers me less now than it used to but I always remember the Denny’s guy who said "You’re eating alone? How sad!" If I’m eating alone, I usually end up eating with a book or my laptop open. Or I find a good people watching place – I love sitting at an outdoor restaurant watching people.

So as you can see, other than eating, traveling alone is a lot like traveling with friends and family. Just a little more quiet time to read or work on the airplane and in the hotel!