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?

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.

Best Ways to Use Airline Miles

Flickr user dasnake

Few things are as frustrating to travelers as a huge bank of frequent-flier points and not being able to use them. With fewer seats and routes available, airlines are making it more difficult to trade miles for free flights, knowing they can sell more tickets at a premium price. They’re gambling that customers with large banks of points will stay continue to stay loyal for fear of losing the miles they’ve worked so hard to accumulate.

So if you can’t cash in your points for flights, what can you do with them?

Donate Them
At a former job years ago, a colleague needed to fly home for a family emergency but didn’t have the money. A few employees quickly pooled frequent-flier points that allowed him to make the trip. Another time, some extended family members used their combined miles to send a cousin and her new husband on a honeymoon.

If you don’t have a needy co-worker or family member, you can always give them to an organization that will use them to help others. The Fisher House Foundation’s “Hero Miles” program has provided more than 40,000 tickets to wounded, injured and ill service members and their families over the years, while Mercy Medical Airlift provided almost 10,000 free airline tickets to patients in need, thanks to generous mileage donations. The Make-A-Wish Foundation has need of more than 2.5 billion miles in order to send kids and their families to their desired destinations around the world.

Trade Them
On Points.com, you can either trade your miles from one airline for another carrier’s points or even exchange them all together for various products or gift cards from retailers like Amazon or Starbucks. But the exchange rates for miles are fairly high in many cases, and should only be used if you have a large block of miles that are going to expire soon. My friend Tim Wozniak exchanges expiring miles for magazine and newspaper subscriptions.

Use Them For Other Travel Needs
The Wall Street Journal’s Scott McCartney posted an excellent piece this week on redeeming airline miles for hotel rooms, rental cars and more. Not surprisingly, the elite-level traveler is going to score much better deals than your average flier — the amount of American Airlines miles needed for hotel stays and car rentals is 40 percent less for platinum-level frequent fliers than the rank-and-file. A penny per mile is the typical exchange for domestic flights, car rentals and hotels for most higher-level loyalty programs. One travel expert McCartney spoke to believes mileage programs will eventually evolve into package deals, encompassing flights, hotels, cars and travel insurance.

How Does Music Affect Your Hotel Decisions?

music
Library of Congress

Music is becoming common on hotel websites, but does it really make us want to book a room?

A scientific study has come up with the answer: yeah, kinda. The journal Psychology of Music has published an article titled, “Congruency between instrumental background music and behavior on a website.”

As the author states in the abstract:

“Instrumental music (jazz and djembe) was played or not [played] while participants browsed the website of a well-known seaside resort and participants were instructed to select a type of accommodation. It was found that djembe music was associated more with a choice of outdoor accommodation while jazz music was associated with greater interest for hotel accommodation. Both music conditions showed a significant difference from the no music control condition. The ability of instrumental music to prime different memories and feelings is used to explain these results.”

So basically when we hear jazz we think of sipping bourbon in smoky interiors, while djembe makes us want to dance the night away in the moonlight. Um, OK.

Reading the article further, it turns out there’s a whole field of study devoted to figuring out what background music will do to our buying habits. Classical music makes us buy more expensive wines, for example, and playing French music will make us more likely to buy French wines. And here I thought the major determining factor was the physical attributes of my date.

The results of this study are pretty impressive. Eighty percent of the participants in this experiment picked a hotel room when they heard jazz, while 62.5% of the djembe listeners picked camping. For those who didn’t hear any music, 27.5% picked the hotel and 30% picked camping. It appears that mood music is aptly named.

Of course, hotel websites looking to get our money have to pick the right music. More often than not it’s some cheesy tune that makes us turn off the volume, or even worse for the hotel, click on another website. The annoyance factor is even higher if the music is clogging your slow connection or starts ringing out across your office, announcing to everyone that you’re slacking off.

So instead of spending money on music for their websites, perhaps hotels should spend more on music in their rooms. While Blind Willie McTell isn’t around anymore to play his 12-string guitar while you scarf down all the pillow mints, there are plenty of out-of-work musicians who would be happy to serenade you for a small fee.