The Joys of Traveling Solo

woman with suitcase
Rob, Flickr

As travel writers, taking solo trips goes with the territory, so to speak. Sometimes, we’re able to take along significant others or friends, but that’s the exception. For my part, I prefer to travel alone, be it work or pleasure (which, given my occupation, generally turns into work in some form).

I just returned from a two-week-long solo assignment in Hawaii; it was my 15th visit, 14 of which have been made solo. In the early and mid-90s, I lived on Maui, and those experiences are what really cemented my love of traveling by myself, even in a place marketed to, and dominated by, couples. Sure, it can be lonely or a bit depressing at times to be a lone nomad, but I prefer to focus on the numerous advantages:

  • You generally get more of a cultural immersion when you’re by yourself. Depending upon where you are, locals may either pity you or find you an object of curiosity. This results in invites to dinner in private homes or to local events, and other experiences not easily had when you’re a twosome or in a group.
  • There’s no one to get pissed off at you when you inevitably get lost.

Salar de Uyuni
Laurel Miller, Gadling
  • You’ll likely get more out of your trip, because you can focus on your interests.
  • Even without someone to watch your luggage while you purchase train tickets or run to the bathroom, it’s usually less stressful to travel alone. Bickering is inevitable, no matter how great your relationship, be it romantic or platonic.
  • Locals are usually happy to show you the sights. Again, this depends upon where you are, but by way of example, on a recent trip to Paraguay, I encountered palpable national pride among every single person I met. Everyone was eager to show me why their country is incredible (and it is).
  • Per the above, you’ll see things “tourists” don’t, like hidden waterfalls, swimming holes, sacred sites, rituals, festivals, etc. As with accepting an invitation to someone’s home, you need to use good judgment so you don’t compromise your safety, but without question, my best travel experiences have come about in this manner.
  • Watching a sunset alone on a deserted beach is highly underrated.
  • You may save money; single rooms can be less expensive and cover charges are often waived for women.
  • While I don’t often go out alone at home, I usually love to grab a drink at a dive bar when I travel. It’s a great way to meet locals as well as like-minded fellow travelers (who are always happy to share tips).
  • I find I push yourself more when I travel by myself. My friends aren’t as adventurous or outdoorsy as I am (they might use the term “dirtbaggy“), so hostels, janky buses and ferries, extreme sports, weird street foods and backpacking are out. I happily partake in these activities on my own, which has also been a big confidence-builder.

How Can Airline Websites Improve?

I recently visited the mobile website for midwest-based Sun Country Airlines, where I could check a flight status, view schedules or check my itinerary. Basically everything except what I came to do: book a flight. The confusing, unattractive, user-unfriendly design of airline websites is a common complaint of travelers, and a problem that the designers at Fi (Fantasy Interactive) have attempted to solve.

Their mock website and accompanying video highlights high-quality images, visual details such as weather temperatures, street maps and city sights, and a seamless, all-in-one-screen experience from flight booking to seat selection to flight status. Their design makes the airline more than a transportation company. It makes them a travel authority, tour guide and most importantly, a source of inspiration.

This wasn’t the first attempt at an airline website overhaul. In 2009, user interface designer Dustin Curtis published an open letter to American Airlines on his website, along with his idea of a website redesign. This was followed up by an anonymous response from one of AA’s designers, who was then fired for his message to Mr. Curtis. Funny enough, his vision of a new AA.com is pretty similar to what the airline unveiled this year with their new logo, with large images, links to deals and news and an overall streamlined look.

For something completely different, check out Anna Kovecses’ minimalist and vaguely retro design for American, along with a user-generated blog community where you might leave travel tips for frequent flyer miles.Delta relaunched its site last year with features including a travel “wallet” to store receipts to make their site more “customized” to travelers. Swedish designer Erik Linden’s gorgeous layout for a new Lufthansa site can be found online, but a visit to the German airline’s official site shows the same old crowded page. JetBlue.com has been consistently appealing and easy to use, touting the “jetting” experience rather than just a seat. Travel industry news site Skift has a nifty slideshow comparing booking sites now and from their early days. (The major innovation seems to be images over hyperlinks and text.)

One thing many of these designs have in common is suggestion and inspiration. Airlines seem to assume that most of us go to their website with a firm destination in mind, burying their route map deep in a sub-menu for us to hunt down. Yet if we are to be loyal to one brand or try to use frequent flyer miles, a map of their flights is the first destination. My husband is trying to make “million miler” status with American, and tries to book with them as much as possible, maximizing the distance and number of miles. While I can search for destinations from JFK, and even sort my number of miles, it’s harder to figure out what international destinations (such as Seoul) are served from another departure city. Shouldn’t the goal be for the airline to be one you want to return to, rather than a site you quit using out of frustration?

What matters to you in using an airline’s booking site?

Egypt’s Ancient Heritage In Peril As Turmoil Continues

Egypt
Mallawi Museum One of the stolen artifacts.

The political instability in Egypt is taking a heavy toll on the country’s ancient heritage.

Thieves have taken advantage of the chaotic situation to steal artifacts to sell on the illegal antiquities market, while vandals have been satisfied with simply destroying them.

Both groups recently struck at a museum in Mallawi, about 190 miles south of Cairo. When supporters of deposed president Mohamed Morsi held a protest in the museum’s garden, thieves took advantage of the police being distracted to break in and steal more than a thousand artifacts. When vandals saw the museum was open and unguarded, they rushed in and smashed up the place.

National Geographic has published some sobering pictures of the destruction. The museum has put up a Facebook page detailing what has been stolen in the hope that it will make it harder for the thieves to sell the artifacts.

Looting has been reported at numerous museums and archaeological sites around the country. Instability and lack of income from tourism also means many archaeological sites are suffering from neglect. There may be a political motivation for some of the thefts. Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram quotes Mokhtar Al-Kasabani, professor of Islamic Archaeology at Cairo University, as saying the thefts are to raise money for the Muslim Brotherhood and Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya. The Muslim Brotherhood is Morsi’s party, and Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya (Islamic Group) was allied with him when he was in power.

Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiya claimed responsibility for a 1997 terrorist attack in Luxor that killed 62 people, mostly tourists. So it appears fundamentalists are destroying Egypt’s past in order to raise money to endanger its future.

5 Prisons for Law-Abiding Citizens

visit prison - Eastern State Penitentiary
Flickr, Celine Aussourd

In this lull between fun summer TV like “True Blood” and the fall premieres of network television shows, many people have been binge watching the Netflix comedy, “Orange is the New Black.” Set at a women’s prison in Rockland County, New York, the series has generated new interest in jail. (From the outside, at least.) Here are five notable prison museums around the world with flexible visiting hours for an easy escape.

Alcatraz, San Francisco, CA
Built as an “inescapable” prison on an island off San Francisco, Alcatraz has had quite a few famous inmates, including Al Capone. The federal prison was closed in 1963 and has been a museum for several decades. In addition to the prison museum, it also has the country’s oldest lighthouse and a permanent exhibition on the historic Native American occupation. Tickets are a steep $30 and up per adult, but they include transportation, since you can’t make it off “the Rock” alive.Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia, PA
Another stop on Al Capone’s “jail tour,” this Center City Philadelphia jail has been the set for several films including “Twelve Monkeys” and the Transformers sequel, and many TV shows about ghosts and jails. The self-guided audio tour (narrated by Steve Buscemi!) details the history of the prison, active from 1829 to 1969. Regular tickets are $14, and look out for special events; the Halloween Haunted House is especially popular.

Gestapo Headquarters and Pawiak Prison, Warsaw, Poland
Telling another part of the Holocaust, these two related historical sites in Warsaw show what it was like to be interrogated and imprisoned in the gruesome Nazi occupation. Part of the Polish city’s excellent collection of museums, they are free to visit and well-maintained, though very somber.

Robben Island, Cape Town, South Africa
The isolation of the small island near Cape Town made it a fitting site for a leper colony, a military training station and a place for political prisoners. Nelson Mandela was the most famous of former inmates for 18 years; he was one of dozens imprisoned during apartheid. Tickets are about $22, including ferry transportation to and from the mainland, a bus tour of the island and “interaction” with a former prisoner. President Obama visited the island and museum this summer, and was “deeply humbled” by the experience.

Tuel Sleng, Phnom Penh, Cambodia
The secret prison of Pol Pot, dictator of Cambodia in the 1970s and leader of the Khmer Rouge, Tuel Sleng is now a museum cataloging the genocide perpetrated there. The museum contains the 6,000 detailed photographs and records of inmates left by prison staff, though as many as 30,000 were said to have been detained, tortured and murdered there. The museum is preserved as it was found in 1979, and is an important site, along with the “Killing Fields,” documenting and memorializing the victims of this dark regime.

Would you visit a prison?

How to Win Free Travel (Hint: You’ll Have to Get Creative)

Like free travel? Of course you do. There are a few contests you should enter, especially if you are a seasoned business traveler or a bubbly sociable traveler. Like most online contests, they will require social media savvy and some old-fashioned popularity contest-winning charm, but hey, you could win free travel!

-Jauntaroo’s Best Job Around the World: The vacation matchmaker site is looking for a “Chief World Explorer” to travel the world for one year (or at least a few exciting destinations like Berlin and the Maldives), with all expenses paid. You’ll be representing Jauntaroo and creating social content, and earning a $100k salary for your trouble. There’s also a “voluntourism” component, promoting the site’s partner charities and “travel with a cause” motto. To enter, upload a 60-second video detailing why you should win by September 15 and get your friends to like it, as only the final five will make it to the interview.

-”American Way” Road Warrior: Already been around the world, with an expertly-packed carry-on and the efficiency of George Clooney in “Up in the Air”? If you’re a true “road warrior” you know that “American Way” is the in-flight magazine of American Airlines, and they have an annual contest to award the ultimate business traveler. The grand prize includes a half million AAdvantage miles and a trip to Curacao, plus a slew of other prizes befitting a frequent flier, such as noise-canceling headphones. Fill out the application (sample question: what makes you a true road warrior?) by August 31, and the five finalists will be posted online for the public to vote on the top three winners.

Like a more honest day’s travel work? Check out a few unusual travel jobs.