Things to remember when you're traveling alone

By John Pancake
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, January 7, 2011; 2:25 PM

Maybe it's because I'm an only child, but I like traveling alone.

You can have great adventures when you take a trip with friends. But traveling alone makes you think about who you are and why you're here. There's a special sweetness to solitude. It's less complicated. There's nobody to blame if things go wrong, nobody to accommodate, no schedule to stick to but your own. If you want to hike to the top of a bluff and drink a beer while the sun sets over the Danube, there's nobody to remind you of that dinner reservation at the little bistro that Madge and Allen raved about.

When I travel by myself, the three things I always take are a black wool shirt, a journal and a scrap of advice from G.K. Chesterton, who was famous for missing trains: "An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered."

Just about everything else is optional. On my way home from Zagreb once, I jotted down some things to remember about solitary traveling. I admit, it's an eccentric list.

Live out of a small suitcase. Being alone is about being free. Lighter is freer.

You don't have to have a plan. And if you do have one, why not change it on a whim? Just because.

Visiting a friend in an out-of-the-way village is going to yield more discoveries than checking in at one of the "1,000 places to visit before you die." Life is better with fewer checklists.

If you have a choice, walk, don't ride. Traveling alone is about moving through places, not about getting to them.

Trains are better than planes. Sit by the window. Talk to the person next to you.

Travel rivers when you can. I like short rides on cheap boats.

Drink less, think more.

Ever heard anybody say: I wish I hadn't spent so much time in Key West, the Galapagos, on Smith Island, Mackinac, South Caicos, Crete, Santa Catalina, Nantucket . . .? Me neither. Leave extra time to visit islands.

Traveling alone is partly about losing yourself, and music is a good way to do that. Listen to what's local. Could be Mozart in Vienna or Used To Be Cyrus in Gaborone. You won't regret it. And be generous when you pass a street musician. What are you going to do with all those coins when you get home, anyway? Toss 'em at the feet of that violinist on the corner.

You don't need to take the computer. Really.

Never miss a chance to meet a writer or an artist.

Since you don't have friends along, you'll be taking pictures of strangers. Ask before you shoot.

Notice little things. Windowsills, doorknobs, sleeping cats.

Everybody in the world seems to walk around with a backpack. You know what? They're uncomfortable. Be different. Slip a notebook into your pocket, clip a camera to your belt and go.

You know a lot less history than you think. Set aside a quiet evening now and then to read a little.

Traveling alone will remind you how much you miss your parents. Mine traveled very little, but when I see something that would have caught their eye or made them smile, it doesn't seem as though it has been two decades since they died.

If you visit a church, why not light a candle and absorb the stillness?

Now and then, you'll come across a jerk - a nasty clerk, a spoiled child, a surly seatmate. Think of it as God reminding you to be kind to strangers.

Okay, so you don't have anybody to go to dinner with. Even so, don't eat in the hotel dining room. Yes, there are hotels that serve great food, but if you're feeling that lucky, play Powerball when you get home.

One pair of shoes.

Follow your hunches and keep an eye out for weird attractions. I've detoured for a spider museum, a toilet museum, a medieval apothecary museum and, my all-time favorite, the bat tower in the Florida Keys. Eccentricity carries itself with special grandeur.

Take along a good paperback, and after you've read it, give it to someone you meet.

People are always happy to talk to you about the local wine. Try some.

If you are alone, avoid zoos. Sad, sad places.

Pancake is a former Washington Post editor.

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