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An Independent Traveler, Not a Tourist

I’ve been traveling for more than 50 years and have been to 60 countries.  Obviously, I’m no stranger to travel and have pursued it with a passion! I have arranged trips and traveled by myself (solo) and with my late husband, and less often I’ve traveled with tour groups by myself as well as with friends.  I’ve also lived abroad, both for work and pleasure, in four other countries.  And still my favorite way to travel is solo, planning my trips to my liking without relying on a tour company. I want to do what I want to do, when I want to do it, and I want as often as possible to connect with locals.  I’m not as interested in seeing the “sights” as I am in learning about the cultures.

I have four traveling philosophies:  1) You have to be somewhere in 15 hours, so if you can afford it, you might as well be there; 2) If locals are still there, go; if they’re fleeing, don’t; 3) always talk to strangers; and 4) always talk about sex (well, relationships), religion and politics – that’s all people really care about, and those conversations have offered some of my richest experiences.

I use lunch as my main meal so I can feel comfortable taking a book, and then I talk to others in the restaurant (assuming they’re not clearly signaling they’re not interested). I’ve found that locals and other travelers are more often than not just as eager to connect, and I’ve made some great friends that way.

But if you’re up for going solo independently (planning your own trip and traveling by yourself) – which I obviously encourage – here are some recommendations:

Start with a short trip – a week to 10 days — to somewhere where language isn’t an issue.

Have a plan:  at the very least, book your lodging ahead of time and know how you’re going to get from your arrival airport to where you’re saying.  Take some U.S. dollars (ones) for tipping, but you can get local currency at ATMs in every major airport and city.

Choose where you stay for comfort and accessibility.  I always go for three stars.  I don’t need the accoutrements of an upscale hotel; I want certain amenities, but I’m not going to be spending much time in the marble lobby with the fountain.

Do your research ahead of time, and not just a travel guide. Know something about the history and culture of the people who live there. Understand that their country is as dear to them as yours is to you. What’s “normal” for you isn’t necessarily “normal” for them.

Learn a few key phrases if you’re in a country whose main language is foreign to you. Showing you’ve taken the time and made the effort will endear you to the locals.  That includes English-speaking countries:  the English, Irish, Scottish, Australians, New Zealanders and anglophone Africans all have accents and expressions that will sound foreign to you.

Walk — get lost!  (Always carry the address of where you’re staying, just in case).  By the way, I never carry my passport with me.  I carry a copy and hide the original in my room.

Alternatively…use public transportation:  buses for seeing the sights, metro for getting somewhere faster.  I know this sounds “touristy”, but those hop-on/hop-off city tour buses: I love them!  They’re a great way to get an overview of a city and help you decide where you might want to return and spend more time.

Ask locals for recommendations for places to eat, relax, to see. What do they do on their free days?

Be impulsive – say “yes”, but also use common sense.  Your life experience will tell you when something doesn’t feel right.  You have an “inner voice”; pay attention to it.

So…to sum up – go!  Be a traveler, not a tourist. Come back with lots of stories and become part of this incredible globe of billions of humans.  We travelers know this secret: we’re all much more alike, than we are different.  As for language, a smile is really the only language you’ll need.  Well, that and – “Where’s the bathroom, please?”

Paulette Lee is a former award-winning broadcast journalist and retired nonprofit and international development communications consultant. She lives in Hagerstown, MD and is host of the audio podcast, “Woman Worthy: Real Talk About Real Issues for Women Over 60”, named by AARP as one of “The Five Best Podcasts for Older Women”, online at womanworthy.podbean.com, or on most podcast apps.***

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