A Trip Of One's Own
The pleasures of solo travel, be it a Vibes Trip or a Sights Trip
Happy Friday to us all, Dames Nation! This week, Margaret carries on with her triumphant return and she and Karen collaborate for the first time and discuss a subject dear to them both — solo travel! Also: our subscription sale continues! Get The Hulahoop Special and become a paying subscriber now at 20% off the usual rate! Wheeeee! As always, thanks for reading and subscribing AT ALL!
Dame Margaret: HELLO, Dame Karen! This is very exciting, this is our first time writing together. It’s like if Fleetwood Mac were like “You know what, Neil Finn and Lindsey Buckingham? There’s enough guitar in here for the both of you, let’s all have fun!” THANK YOU for stepping in for a year and giving my still-melted brain a chance to at least partially reform. Right now it’s about the consistency of Jello that probably should have stayed in the fridge another hour– it won’t look pretty, but it just about does the job it needs to.
K: It was my pleasure, although to keep the Fleetwood Mac references going, I very much felt like readers might feel the disappointment audience members surely felt on the tour during which Bekka Bramlett replaced Stevie Nicks, but Bekka Bramlett never actually joined Fleetwood Mac alongside Stevie, although she is apparently responsible for the Warrant song “I Saw Red,” as she cheated on Jani Lane with Richie Sambora and that song was Lane’s response, so that’s not nothing.
M: Karen, how DARE you. If either of us can lay claim to Stevie Nicks energy, it’s certainly you. Although I think you’re more of a Christine McVie (may her memory be a blessing).
K: Christine PERFECT McVie indeed, RIP. And thank you, that’s a beautiful, two-part compliment! Also. How has this happened already? We’ve been writing together for five minutes and I’ve already tried to derail things with a Warrant reference?!
M: You can’t make skin-tight leopard print jeans appropriate to a hair metal band change their spots– I’m pretty sure that’s the saying we’re all accustomed to.
Preambles aside, you and I have come here today to discuss a particular subject: solo travel, an activity very new to me and long beloved of you.
K: YES, when you mentioned that you’d done a bit of solo travel during your time away, I was so excited to discuss, because solo vacations are indeed one of my favorite activities. I, however, have never done solo INTERNATIONAL travel, and you started with that right out of the gate! Amazing! How did this come to be?
M: Well, I’ve done some solo travel in the states– nothing huge– more like self-imposed writers retreats than anything else.
For example during the pandemic, I took a few solo trips to bed and breakfasts on the North Shore, usually in tandem with work I’ve been doing for the organization I joined full-time this fall. When I’ve led virtual classes and pilgrimages with them, I’ve taken myself somewhere nice to collect myself before the launch and relax after the climax, and that’s been amazing — but feels a little different than a true vacation alone.
And I’ve OFTEN gone to visit cities where my friends live and spent a solid amount of time just out in the world, entertaining myself while other people work. But this summer is the first time I traveled to a place I wanted to experience like a tourist but without anyone else’s company– I wasn’t tacking on extra days in San Francisco to see friends because I’d come to California for a wedding, or renting a house in Gloucester to give myself a little break from the daily grind. I went to Budapest and Vienna just because I wanted to see what Budapest and Vienna were like.
K: Gotcha. I think that’s one of the best ways to get into traveling solo. Take a place you’ve wanted to see and give it the attention that can maybe only come when a traveler is planning the entire trip around their own wants, needs, and schedule. No one else has any say in what you’re going to do and that’s a wonderful, rare opportunity to plan something BESPOKE.
M: Can I admit that I actually found referencing no one’s wishes but my own incredibly difficult? I’m much more used to being Vacation Captain for a group of happy co-travelers– I find the stuff to do, but then we all narrow it down based on mutual interest and energy level and what’s near which things, etc. What ended up being bizarrely hard for me was accepting that my interest (or lack thereof) or energy (or lack thereof) was sufficient justification for… anything. If a friend were like “You know, I like museums okay, but I think I’d rather spend the afternoon visiting a huge public park and browsing this random alley of print shops I’ve stumbled across,” I’d be like “Oh wow, that sounds great.” But when I want to do that, I’m like “Um, doesn’t every city have parks, Margaret? Is that really the best use of your One Wild and Precious Wednesday in Budapest?”
K: I get that; it’s a very different kind of energy and planning, and exactly, I, too, have a tendency to want to make sure I’m Doing It Right when I travel. When someone else weighs in on, say, a park and shops option, there’s the permission to do that, for some reason; giving inherent permission to do what *I* want with my own time, money, and energy has taken practice! I always have to remind myself no one’s going to be judging or grading the trip and no one is going to listen to your tale of travel and silently suppress shock that you missed THE museum. If they do, they are the weirdo.
M: I would love to know a bit more about when you started to solo travel and how you approach the process of taking a trip on your own– like, I know no one is going to be grading me, but it turns out that it can be hard to stop me from grading me long enough to figure out what I’m even going to like. How did you learn the trick of that, or did it always come easily to you?
K: When I first started taking solo vacations, my life looked very different than it does now. I first started doing it in the ways you mentioned above -- tacking extra time onto a work trip or a visit to friends. I’ve had a few jobs where I had to travel a lot and at the time, I didn’t have a lot of money to spend on travel (or much else) so it became a cheaper way to get in a few vacation days. I traveled to Portland, Oregon regularly and started staying on for a weekend to go to bookstores, drink West Coast beer, just look around at the new-to-me flora and fauna, simple little things that were easy and fun to do on my own.
M: Yeah! That was part of what motivated this trip– Common Ground Pilgrimages had covered my travel to and from England, where I was leading a Pride & Prejudice Pilgrimag. And I was like “Well since I’m in Europe, why don’t I actually take advantage of it?” It’s such a good approach to take if your budget isn’t really built to accommodate luxurious travel for for its own sake.
K: Yes! My first solo trip on its own was to Ojai, California. I’d always wanted to go there for vague, singing Californiaaaaaaa in the manner of the theme song to The OC reasons and was also feeling like I needed a COMPLETE break. My job was driving me crazy, I don’t think my partner was driving me crazy, but maybe, and the New England weather was certainly driving me crazy. It was March and I was just really craving some alone time in a sunny place I didn’t know and Ojai seemed perfect. I actually didn’t really make any plans at all, which was an entirely new approach for me! I got myself a nice Air B&B with a pool and access to a bunch of hiking trails. I arrived and went to a local tiny, expensive grocery store and got myself a massive amount of fancy cheese, snacks, and drinks and just lived on that for the five days I was there--I went out for breakfast a few times, but that was it.
M: Ah, the luxury of a Solo Gourmet Snack Shop. This is how I discovered what I like to call “grown-up Dunkaroos”, which is when I buy a sleeve of Biscoff cookies and a container of pre-made frosting and dip the former into the latter, as God intended.
K: You beautiful genius. So yeah, that’s actually how most of my solo vacations went. I did another one in Laguna Beach and another one in Carmel-By-The-Sea. Since that time, I have stopped living with my partner (we live two hours away from each other and have for nine years now! Maybe that’s another story for another time) and stopped having a day job, so I joke that my LIFE is a solo vacation. That isn’t really the case, but when I go on vacation now I tend to go with Dave or a friend BECAUSE I’m by myself so much. I think I realized how much I treasure my space and my time alone THROUGH these solo vacations which unlike other vacations, came to be through very little planning and just a sense of wanting to breathe new air and relax and be as lazy or as slow as I wanted to be.
M: YES. I feel like travel has kind of two modes: vibes travel and sights travel.
K: Oh, I love that. Yes, I think I can say all of my solo vacations have been VIBES TRAVEL, in part because one of the relaxing aspects of the trips was not making a slew of plans, which is part and parcel of SIGHTS TRAVEL.
M: And I think for a lot of people, one of the challenging things about vacations– especially ones that take you expensive distances away from wherever you live– is balancing the need for vibes travel with the desire or expectation that they will be doing sights travel. Like, in theory, we want to rest. But if this is your ONE CHANCE to see Barcelona, it can be hard to say “Yes, loafing for an hour in this cute wine bar is the way I would like to spend my evening, even if there might be both more serious things I could do and possibly better, cuter wine bars in which I could loaf.”
K: Yeah, I get that and I’m laughing in recognition. I think one has to accept that there is no One True Wine Bar, as it were, and the fact that you’re in the wine bar in the first place and enjoying it is ENOUGH. I’ve definitely ruined portions of vacations stressing about the One True Wine Bar.
M: You just want to know which one would In the Darkness Bind Them, you know???? So, in Budapest, trying to have the Best Possible Experience definitely curtailed my ability to have A Genuinely Great Experience I Thoroughly Enjoyed a bit– I just spent a lot of time hemming and hawing over which choice was going to be Most Right rather than reveling in the fact that there wasn’t really any wrong choice. In Vienna, I got a bit luckier, and I think I stumbled onto a strategy I would happily use again if planning a Sights and Vibes Trip for myself.
K: Now this is service journalism — what was the strategy?!
M: So, I would never have come up with this on my own– it happened because I accidentally ended up with a travel companion for a couple of my days in Vienna. A friendly acquaintance from college saw via social media that we were going to be in the city at the same time and suggested meeting up. It turns out, he’s a master solo traveler and a dedicated Sights traveler — like “Goes to the opera in Vienna because it’s the only way to see the Vienna opera house praised by Rick Steves even though he’s pretty lukewarm on opera, as an art” level dedicated. And he, per the advice of Rick Steves, had hired a personal tour guide for one of his days there– who he generously shared with me (her name was Adrienn and you can book her by email– email@example.com). And I was like “Oh, THIS is the secret.” Because we spent a morning with her and I learned so much about the city, really got the means to grasp the context that made its vibes so special, and then? When I spent the evening by myself at Vienna’s famous amusement park that, at the end of the day, is not especially different from an amusement park you’d find anywhere, I didn’t feel any FOMO. I’d seen what my options were and I knew that where I wanted to be was at the park with the big wooden wheel wherein Holly Martins learned about the depravity of man in The Third Man, one of my favorite movies of all time.
K: YES! I would never think to hire a personal tour guide, especially not in the past when my solo vacations were basically excuses for as much gluttony and sloth as I could take.
M: Lol, likely because neither of us are extremely well-compensated Search Engine Optimization specialists.
K: Well, no. Thank you to this man. I will absolutely be doing this in the future.
M: As Mr. Steves points out, a private tour guide is often less expensive than you would expect, but if that feels too rich for your blood, I think giving part of your first day to a group tour through a marketplace like Viator could serve the same purpose.
K: That sounds like a good middle ground. Part of me is so used to my Gluttony And Sloth Vibes method I’m like “GROUP TOUR?!?!? WITH OTHER PEOPLE?!?!? THE HELL?!?!?” but there’s more than one way to solo vacation, after all.
M: And sometimes the guides can give you tips on Gluttony and Sloth as well– like our Vienna guide pointed me to the perfect heuriger (which is a fancy way of saying low-key vineyard) where I drank and ate schnitzel with perfect delight. So it really can be a best of both worlds situation. And! Unrelated! I really recommend The New York Times’s 36 Hours In… series. Their column on Budapest gave me incredible guidance, especially on my hotel, despite being 4 years old when I referenced it.
K: I gotta get to Vienna, man.
M: Maybe we can plan carefully-coordinated-to-overlap-by-just-ONE-day solo trips there in the future.
K: Margaret, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful dame-ship.
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