Independent Travel vs. Tours for Solo Travelers
Online Travelers Debate
Take a tour or be your own guide? Both approaches have pros and cons. Here's what some of our customers had to say:
From an online traveler:
I'm thinking about joining an Rick Steves tour, but wonder whether there'll be any other people my age. If I travel solo, though, I'm worried about loneliness and the language barrier. Should I join the tour or travel alone?
From: firstname.lastname@example.org (Rick Steves tour department)
We sign up a lively mix of folks who usually range in age from 20 to 70. If you're looking for one of our younger groups, try our summer tours. But regardless of age, we get young-at-heart, cool travelers who know they'll have to carry their own bags, use a bathroom down the hall, do miles of walking, and climb lots of stairs.
I had the same qualms before taking my first tour, but now I've taken three of Rick Steves' tours. In each of my groups the tour members have been so busy enjoying the culture and sharing new experiences that we really bonded — precluding any sense of isolation, even if one is a congenital loner.
Almost everyone you'll come into contact with here in Europe speaks some English, however limited. But do learn a few key phrases in the language of the country (hello, goodbye, please, thank you, etc.) to begin your conversation — THEN ask (in the local language) if they speak English. Any effort is appreciated. If you don't take a chance, you may never know what experiences you might have missed.
I'm single, female and 40, and traveled solo throughout Italy and Greece for a month, and never had any problems — and I don't speak any languages. I did carry a phrase book, which helped immensely, and I made an effort to approach locals in their own language, but lots of people speak English. I even rented a room in the Cinque Terre from a couple who spoke only Italian. Between writing and sign language, we managed fine — and had a few laughs. And loneliness was not even a factor. Traveling solo forces you to initiate conversations with locals and to meet people you might never had met had you not been alone. I carried a journal to write in when eating alone in restaurants, but half the time I'd wind up talking to someone at the next table instead. Traveling solo gives you total freedom to go anywhere and do anything you want, whenever you want. You can change your plans at the last minute if you desire.
But there are a few drawbacks. It's more expensive. A single room costs more than sharing a double, and if you choose to rent a car, you're forced to bear the full cost yourself. At at times it can be a little lonely.
If you're interested in developing language ability and willing to narrow the scope of your trip a bit, sign up for a two-week language program in an interesting, centrally located city, take half-day classes, and sightsee the rest of the time. Then use another week to practice your language skills in that country. It's a different kind of trip, but it will give you a deeper exposure to one country and more confidence in your ability to communicate on your own. (Check the magazine "Transitions Abroad" for language school listings.)
I 'd like to make a plug for traveling solo and taking trains. That's where I had the best conversations. There was always someone in my car who spoke English and I met the most interesting people that way. Some were following similar itineraries and I'd get together with them for dinner or sightseeing. And I often ended up talking to my neighbors at meals because European cafe tables are so close together!
For my first trip to Europe in my mid-thirties, I took a tour and I learned a few things that I would not have otherwise. The mostly senior citizen travelers were interesting, well traveled and educated. The best thing I got out of the tour, however, was the knowledge that I didn't need the tour and could easily have traveled on my own. Two years later I went to Paris, Biarritz, Provence and the Riviera on my own and loved it. It depends on how independent you are and whether you prefer to be in groups here at home. If you are a "group" person, you probably won't be happy traveleling alone. If not, you will probably find it a wonderful experience.
When someone from Greece meets someone from Germany they speak English — English really has become the international language. As long as you stay away from American slang, you'll be fine traveling on your own. (I read that a traveling preacher said "I am tickled to death to be here," which was translated locally into "Scratch me until I die.") You would probably have a wonderful time on a tour as well, and unless you feel comfortable going solo I would suggest maybe you give the tour a try. Do keep in mind hostels — a great option where you'll meet all sorts of colorful people who are solo just like you. I think traveling alone is great, but I also know it's not for everyone. Some people really need to share their experiences with another person to enjoy them more, and if so, take a friend or a tour, find a travel partner, or look for new European friends online.
When you travel alone you are more open to adventure and spontaneity. Get some good guidebooks and maps and explore. It is much more exciting than sticking with a group and trying to coordinate everyone's different preferences. Trust your judgement...smile...be friendly...let some magic happen.
From my experience, I suggest you buy Rick Steves' guidebooks and a hostel directory, and go it alone! Stay in hostels, and you'll meet many in their 20s through 40s. You'll have many opportunities to buddy up with other hostelers, either for dinner, to the next destination, or for much of your trip. Hostels are also exciting places to share tips with fellow travelers — you'll hear the "ins and outs" of where they've been, and their off-the-beaten-path discoveries. You will not be alone or travel alone unless you choose to do so.
Yes, hosteling is a good way to meet others from all over, but hostels' standards vary widely. I had a clean, safe room in a hostel in Santiago de Compostela for about $17 a night. But my next hostel in Barcelona was a different story. It had paper-thin walls and all-night noise. I agree that you see much more on your own without the rush and numerous hours sitting on a bus, but traveling alone also has its pitfalls.
My mother and I recently took a TWA Getaways tour of France and were impressed by the variety of ages in our group. Approximately half were seniors but the others ranged from 20 to 50. There were several people traveling alone in the group. One woman was in Europe for a month with our 10-day tour "sandwiched" in the middle of her independent trip. She mentioned that she enjoyed some tour time because she got lonesome for English conversation when traveling alone. Personally, I enjoyed the tour because it was less stressful to let the tour guides take care of the hotels, transportation, breakfasts, and several dinners so I could just relax and enjoy the sights.
On a tour there's the danger that you may spend more time on the bus than anywhere else, so check the distances covered. My wife and I have always rented a car in a major city and headed for the country. This is a great way to go for everyone except the driver — me. A few years ago we parked the car in Bruges and traveled around by train. We both loved it. Last summer we bought Eurailpasses and trained through Switzerland, Austria and Germany. It was great! For a change I got to see things too. Train service in Europe is efficient and comparatively cheap. If you plan your itinerary well, the small towns are easy to get to. Depending on your budget, you might try one of the rail/drive passes.
Don't worry about not speaking the language. Most everybody — especially the under-40 set — speaks English. But Lynda and I have gone back to college to learn German anyway. Not knowing what you may get for a meal is the worst part of not knowing the language!
I think it's best to travel on your own — especially if you're solo. The guided tours of museums and sights are important, but, using Rick's guidebooks, I'm committed to doing it my own way. No one can tell you when to go where, and, if you get a railpass, you're free as a bird!