How to Travel Solo and Fall in Love With It

RIshikesh, India, Parmarth Ashram, www.bartnikowski.com
Rishikesh, India, Parmarth Ashram, http://www.bartnikowski.com

Myth: it costs a lot to travel.

Yes it does if you stay in $400 a night hotels like I used to do.

It was fun.

The truth is I love to travel solo.

I don’t have to wait for a friend to break up with her lover, leave their job, or save enough money to go with me.

When I want to go to Nepal, Colombia, or Sardinia I put on my Van sneakers and go!

I can sit in a fancy pants bar/restaurant like I am now and write. And enjoy a superb glass of red wine and be at ease and comfortable.

You never have to negotiate where to go based on money.

I was backpacking in the Himalayas solo in 2009 in Sikkim, India and realized I was spending less money per month than I received for renting out my apartment in Palo Alto, California.

I was spending less than $300 per month to stay in guesthouses eating home made Tibetan soup and momos, traveling by share jeep in the Himalayas, and having a blast.

I came home from that 10-month trip with money in the bank.

Advice.

Don’t go over your budget on lodging. Yes you can splash out for a few days. But you can also get budget accommodation and live it up at the upper crust lounge/restaurant like I am now.

Secret: you can often work/write in 5-star surroundings enjoying the incredible views and then go back to your Airbnb room, campsite, or rented home.

You’ll discover that having a set amount to spend on lodging will keep you kosher.

I often times suggest a lower price on a room when the price suggested is too high.

It’s called rich foreigner tax. Many countries, like India, have no set prices on their rooms, the price is whatever they can get.

So haggle wisely, you’re still most likely paying too much.

Freedom!

One of the best things I ever did was travel twice around the world with no itinerary buying one-way plane tickets along the way.

If I felt like staying in Bali another month I could, no discussion.

If I wanted to explore Burma for a month, I went.

First time I went round the world I spent $2900 on plane tickets, the 2nd time I spent $1800. No I didn’t buy a RTW ticket, it doesn’t give you freedom on your journey.

For example I decided to stay in Cambodia for 4 weeks when I couldn’t stomach the thought of leaving.

I was falling in love with Siem Reap, where Angkor Wat is located and so I stayed.

No heated arguments. I found an incredible local guesthouse: Rosie’s guesthouse. And another one, Ou Malay where the Cambodian owners and I had a love fest of laughing and daily camaraderie.

It was $7 a night, no wifi but so what?! We loved each other!

Cambodia, Ou Malay Guesthouse Siem Reap, www.bartnikowski.com
Cambodia, Ou Malay Guesthouse, Siem Reap, http://www.bartnikowski.com

You meet so many people!

When you’re solo, there’s no one to listen or talk to. You can be alone with your own thoughts and then Bam! you meet someone seriously interesting who lights up your world and you wonder how you ever would have met them if you were with someone.

This has happened to me more times than I can count. And I’m still in touch with many friends I met traveling from Spain, Korea, Australia, Nepal, India, Germany, and Argentina.

They shook up my world and invited me into a new portal of love and friendship. I never would have met them if I wasn’t solo.

Being solo you have to reach out. It can be intoxicating.

Traveling solo, I mention my thoughts to whoever is standing by, I don’t take offense if they don’t respond, I’m simply radiating aloha which means, I’m spreading good will and happiness which is what the Dalai Lama advises but I didn’t realize until living in Hawaii that this means Aloha.

Pay attention. You might meet your soulmate, best friend ever, or meditation master around the next corner.

Suddenly you’ll be in a new world that you had no idea even existed.

Burma, Shwe Dagon Pagoda, Yangon, www.bartnikowski.com
Burma, Shwe Dagon Pagoda, Yangon, http://www.bartnikowski.com

Safety.

Yes you can be safe but you have to trust your gut. Don’t negotiate with the red alert warnings your instincts tell you. Pay attention.

Your body knows before your mind. Listen.

And while you are at it: don’t tell people you’re traveling solo. Don’t advertise your solo status by flagrantly drinking and carousing. Really.

Do make friends with families and women. Volunteer with humanitarian foundations that are educating and changing lives. Don’t be afraid to talk to people and smile.

A smile is universal. Yes it works in every country. Try it. It works.

Change Your Life, join Mary on Kauai July to December for a 3-day luxury private retreat, learn yoga and photography on the best island in the world.

 

Mystery Vacation Debrief

Grand Canyon view from the front of the El Tovar hotel
Grand Canyon view from the front of the El Tovar hotel

We’re home again! We arrived on our beautiful island safe and sound but exhausted yesterday afternoon, and closed the books on a wonderful family vacation. It will take a couple of days to finish unpacking and such, but it’s good to be home.

Hopi House, designed my architect Mary Coulter.
Hopi House, designed by architect Mary Coulter.

Only two things happened to mar an otherwise perfect time. WenYu got sick the day after we arrived at the Grand Canyon, and after initially thinking her malaise was due to the altitude (the South Rim of the canyon is 7000 ft. above sea level) and dehydration, it turned out to be a mild case of food poisoning. We have no idea where it came from since she and I shared dishes Thursday evening and Friday morning and I didn’t get sick, so our best guess is that it was caused by one of the pieces of fruit she ate at breakfast Friday morning. Whatever it came from, she was very sick on Friday evening and was not feeling herself again for a few days.

WenYu (feeling better) and YaYu on a Rim Trail hike
WenYu (feeling better) and YaYu on a Rim Trail hike at the Canyon

One other small thing was more of an annoyance: We heard from one of our waiters at the El Tovar that if we had time we should check out the meteor crater just east of Flagstaff on our way to Sedona. We checked in with the concierge to get any information he could share and get directions. I had visited the crater when I was young (and it is impressive), and since we had some time we decided to drive out to see it only to find out that the site is privately owned, and the admission to enter would be $59 for our family. No way were we going to pay that to look at a big hole in the ground! We were annoyed that the concierge did not think to inform us of the charge to see it before sending us all the way out there, when that’s part of his job!

Sunset
Sunset approaches

Otherwise the trip went perfectly:

  • Flights: I never saw a lower price for flights in and out of Phoenix than what I paid, so was very happy I bought them when I did. All our flights left and arrived on time, and Hawaiian Airlines is the only U.S. based airline that still provides complementary food service!
  • Rental car: We got a terrific rate through Costco and had a brand new Mitsubishi Outlander for the week for just $362. It was very roomy and comfortable, got great mileage and Brett said it was fun to drive.

    Looking back at the El Tovar from Bright Angel.
    Looking back at the El Tovar from Bright Angel.
  • Hotels: We stayed at the Comfort Suites Phoenix Airport the night of our arrival on the mainland and the night before our departure. Nothing fancy, but the hotel was clean, comfortable and convenient, and they had a nice free breakfast. The El Tovar Hotel at the Grand Canyon was worth every penny we spent for the service, comfort and location, location, location. In Sedona we stayed at the Best Western Plus hotel on the west side of town. We got a terrific rate through Travelocity (better than the Phoenix hotel!), and our room was lovely. The views from the hotel patios were nothing short of breathtaking. This hotel also offered a great free breakfast, and we were in walking distance of restaurants and a Whole Foods market. I would stay at all three hotels again (Note: If you want to stay at the Grand Canyon be prepared to book a full year in advance to get a room at any of the in-park lodgings). One surprise for me was seeing that the little rustic cabins at Bright Angel Lodge are still being used – my family stayed in one 52 years ago when we visited the Grand Canyon, and they were “rustic” then!

    A happy YaYu and her happy mule, Willow, at the end of our ride
    YaYu and her mule, Willow, both had a great ride
  • Activities: Two activities were ones I pre-booked for the trip: a 2-hour mule ride along the Grand Canyon rim, and the Pink Jeep Broken Arrow tour in Sedona. Both activities were a BIG hit with all of us – they were fun, but educational and gave us views of the area we wouldn’t have seen otherwise. The guides for both really knew their stuff too. The mule ride is another thing that has to be booked early (like almost a year in advance) as spaces fill up fast. It was sad seeing so many people lined up at the desk each day asking if there were any cancellations (which rarely happen). I also booked our Pink Jeep tour several months in advance. They had five jeeps go out for just the 5:00 tour the day we went (tours go out every half hour), and the woman we spoke to when we checked in said they had been turning people away all day. We also enjoyed a Native American dance, music and storytelling performance held outside the Hopi House last Sunday afternoon – the music and dances were beautiful, and the hoop dance was nothing short of incredible. The dances are done by local Native American college students as a way to help pay for their education (there is no charge to watch, but most everyone leaves a small monetary gift), and we were there for their first performances of the year.

    Native American dancer
    Native American dancer
  • Meals: We discovered our first evening at the Grand Canyon that portion sizes for meals were HUGE. We’d eat a big breakfast every morning, and then not need to eat again until dinner, except for maybe a small snack in the afternoon. Even when we split a meal we left the restaurants feeling very full. The food was good and well-prepared, so how WenYu got sick remains a mystery. Our favorite breakfast spot was the El Tovar dining room – very classy – and although we tried both the Bright Angel Lodge and the Arizona Room for dinner, the Maswik Lodge food court and pizza pub turned out to be our favorite – they had a big selection of good food at lower prices than the restaurants, and we had a nice hike over and back from the El Tovar. In Sedona we had delicious Chinese food the first night – we walked to the restaurant, Szechuan, from our hotel – and the second day we ate twice at the Wildflower Cafe in town. They had very reasonably priced sandwiches and soup for lunch, and we had pasta dishes for dinner. Before heading out of town on Wednesday, we had breakfast at the famous Coffee Pot Restaurant (“101 Omelettes”) – delicious! I think the most we ever spent in one day for food was $110 for the four of us. By the way, it was somewhat difficult to stick to vegan eating on the trip, although I tried. It seemed someone was always garnishing my dishes with sour cream or some other dairy product even though it was not listed on the menu. I did eat eggs for breakfast a couple of times, and also had some smoked salmon, but otherwise was able to find vegan dishes.

    The Watchtower at Desert View, also designed by Mary Coulter
    The Watchtower at Desert View, also designed by Mary Coulter
  • Souvenirs/Miscellaneous Expenses: I budgeted $200/day for food, souvenirs, and other expenses and we came in under budget every day. Brett bought himself a couple of t-shirts and a ball cap; I bought some silver & turquoise earrings and a book, Over the Edge, about all the known deaths that have occurred in the Grand Canyon (or, as one woman told me, all the stupid things people have done over the years). We heard rave reviews about the book everywhere we went, so I finally broke down and bought it. Brett and I also bought a Native American-made ornament for our Christmas tree, and we bought Meiling a necklace and pair of earrings. Miscellaneous expenses included gas for the car, a gift for the dancers, and admission to Slide Rock State Park outside of Sedona. The girls had their own money to spend, and bought lovely (and useful) items.
Colorado River view from the Watchtower
Colorado River view from the Watchtower

It truly was a wonderful vacation. I loved being able to get together with my childhood friend in Williams, before we headed to the Grand Canyon, and having dinner with friends Lori and Todd in Phoenix the evening before we departed. I loved the time I got to spend with Brett and the girls. We even got to stop at a Trader Joe’s in Phoenix for a few things! We also received a couple of pieces of good news while we were away, which I will be sharing with you shortly.

Rock crawling in Sedona
Rock crawling in Sedona
Slide Rock State Park - the water was cold, but a few brave souls were giving the slide a go.
Slide Rock State Park just outside Sedona – the water was cold, but a few brave souls were still giving the slide a try.

The family said they are up for another mystery vacation as long as I don’t wait quite so long to reveal the destination. I’m thinking Christmas 2017, but I’ve got to unpack from this one first!

Sunrise on our last morning at the canyon
Sunrise on our last morning at the canyon

Mystery Revealed!

We leave early tomorrow on our long-awaited and much-anticipated Mystery Vacation™!

Without further ado, we are headed to . . .

grandcanyon1

. . . the Grand Canyon and beautiful Sedona, Arizona!

Brett has talked about going for as long as I’ve known him, and the girls are also very, very excited about visiting this awe-inspiring natural wonder. I haven’t been to the Grand Canyon in almost 50 years, but every visit I’ve made in the past was nothing short of amazing, so I’m very excited as well about returning and experiencing it all again.

Guide leading mule riders up a steep portion of the Bright Angel Trail known as Heartbreak Hill. The Battleship formation is in the background, and Cheops Pyramid beyond that. (on the other side of the Colorado River) NPS photo by Michael Quinn. Mule trips into the canyon - as well as rides through the park's woodlands to scenic canyon overlooks - are offered on both the the North and South Rims of the park. Learn more here: http://www.nps.gov/grca/planyourvisit/mule_trips.htm

We’ll be flying in to Phoenix, arriving fairly late in the evening so will stay overnight near the airport after we pick up our rental car. Next morning, after our free breakfast at the hotel, we’ll hit the road and drive up to Williams, where we’ll meet for lunch and a reunion with a high school friend of mine and her husband. Both worked at the Grand Canyon for many years following their early retirement from the business world. They are bringing maps, etc. and will help us figure out what to see and do while we’re there.

ET_image_template_663X236-overview

While we’re at the Grand Canyon we’ll be staying at the historic and elegant El Tovar Hotel. The El Tovar, which opened in 1905, sits right on the rim, and is centrally located to most everything in the Grand Canyon Village. Reservations for the El Tovar sell out in just a few hours; I had to get up very early here to make ours a year ago! The only scheduled activity we have so far is a mule ride along the rim (which was also reserved early because it sells out quickly), but we are thinking about renting bikes one day for some touring. Or, we may drive up to Page and tour the slot canyons in Antelope Valley. We’ll just wait and see what we feel like doing. The wild card will of course be weather. It’s forecast to be mostly sunny but cold while we’re there (below freezing at night). There were rumors of snow one day, but that doesn’t seem to be happening any more, thank goodness.

SedonaAZ-4

After our time at the Grand Canyon we’ll drive over to beautiful Sedona to take in and explore the incredible vistas and red rock formations. We have reservations at sunset one day for a Pink Jeep Broken Arrow tour, where we’ll get up close and personal to the rocks and do some rock crawling. It’s supposed to be very, very fun (and thrilling) – can’t wait!

Pink-Jeep-Tour-Sedona

Then we’ll head back to Phoenix to spend the night – our flight home to Hawai’i leaves early in the morning.

Ever since they learned our destination last week, the girls and Brett have been eagerly researching all they can about the Grand Canyon and what we can see and do there. We’re all excited about the restaurants and food choices there and in Sedona – Navajo tacos, anyone? I’m just happy that it all came together, that everyone is happy with our destination, and that after more than a year of planning we’ll finally be on our way!

I’ll try to check in while we’re gone, but the WiFi at the Canyon is not supposed to be very good, so there might not be anything until we get to Sedona. But, I’ll be back with a full report next week! Arizona, here we come!

The Mystery Vacation: Changes Have Been Made

No, we're not going to New York
No, we’re not going to New York City

We are still going on the Mystery Vacation™ – that hasn’t changed. It’s still all paid for, non-refundable airline tickets purchased, etc.

But, a little over a week ago WenYu was awarded free airfare to attend one of the open houses for admitted students at Colorado College. She very much wants to go and check out the college before making a final decision, but she also doesn’t want to make such a big journey to an unknown place on her own. However, a trip for two to Colorado Springs, even a short one and with one airline ticket paid for, was not in this year’s family travel budget.

I could have taken money out of our savings to cover the cost of the trip, or used a credit card, but that’s not how I like or want to fund our travels. Trips are paid for out of funds saved from our regular income, after all bills and household expenses are covered. And, with a trip to Oahu planned for June and another trip to accompany WenYu to college coming up in the fall, this year’s travel budget was already maxed out.

All was not lost though. I realized there was some wiggle room in the Mystery Vacation™ budget because when I made hotel reservations, I booked two rooms for our stay so that Brett and I, and the girls, could each have our own rooms. I had also budgeted a generous daily amount to cover meals and other expenditures.

After crunching some numbers I found that if we all stayed in one room, and cut back our daily expenses by $50, we would have enough to cover costs for an extra trip to Colorado Springs. So, I asked the girls if they would mind sharing a room with their dad and me, and their answer was “No problem. How much time do we ever spend in the room anyway?” And, even with our daily budget cut by $50, we still will have more than enough to eat well, buy a few souvenirs if we want, and cover other miscellaneous expenses. All planned activities have already been paid for.

I made a quick phone call last Friday and changes were made to our reservation. We now have a large refund coming our way, and several hundred dollars have also been freed up in our travel savings. We may be a little more squeezed space-wise on the Mystery Vacation™, but it’s still all going to be very top quality, and a good time will be had by all.

Best of all (in my book, anyway), the destination remains a mystery – Brett and the girls still don’t know where we’re going!

I’ll be making reservations today for an April trip to Colorado Springs!

Next Year’s Mystery Vacation: Another Update

Here's someplace we are not going on our Mystery Vacation!
Here’s someplace we’re not going on our Mystery Vacation!

Actually there really isn’t much to update since last time. All the planning is done, almost everything is paid for, our savings are where they should be, and all the reservations have been made except for one. But, there’s no hurry for that so maybe next month, or in December I’ll get it set up.

Otherwise all we need to do is wait, then go and have a good time. Meiling may be able to join us – it will depend on her finals schedule. If she can be done by the day we depart, we will have her meet us at our destination, and it will be easy to fit her in or add her to everything else. Otherwise she plans to spend spring break in Portland with friends.

There’s still plenty happening around here and lots to get done in the meantime before we go next year, so we’ll stay focused on those things for the time being. I’m frankly more excited these days about Meiling’s homecoming and our son & family’s visit in December than I am about next year.

I also have to be very careful though about not giving the surprise destination away – I’ve almost let it slip out a couple of times. As far as I know though, Brett and the girls still have no idea where we’re going – yeah!

Here's somewhere else we're not going.
Here’s somewhere else we’re not going.

Next Year’s Mystery Adventure: An Update

237cd67f07b897d3f14fcc00df30116cNo, I’m still not telling where we are going. Anyway, I couldn’t even if I wanted to because Brett now has access to everything I write here!

Except for one remaining activity, everything is set for our trip next spring! Hotel rooms, activities, tours, car and airline tickets have all been taken care of, and for the most part, paid for. Several of these things will pay back dividends that we can use for future travel. I reserved a car through Hawaiian Airlines (the same car at the same low price we would have paid through Costco Travel), so we will earn additional mileage for that. Two of three hotel reservations were done through Expedia, which means big Swagbucks earnings after we complete the trip (because Swagbucks was awarding four times every dollar when I booked the rooms). We have gotten and will be getting more rewards from our credit card.

I am thrilled that I was able to find our airline tickets at the price I wanted. With airline tickets it’s either buy early or buy late for the best price, and I bought early this time because Hawaiian Airlines had tickets at the price I was looking for. I know the price could go possibly go lower between now and when we leave, but then again, as someone I know who works in the industry always says . . . it might not. His advise is to decide how much you want to pay for tickets, and if you find that price go ahead and get them (and then don’t check prices again).

And, as I wrote in an earlier post we are getting three times the rewards from this ticket purchase: Swagbucks from booking through Expedia, Hawaiian Airlines miles, and rewards back from our credit card.

So, what’s left to do? I need to make reservations for one more activity/tour, but other than that all that we need to do is wait until next spring and in the meantime, save, save, save. So far it’s all coming along well though:

  • Rebates, rewards & gifts: Our travel savings is now $0, but our airline tickets and some hotel reservations for the trip (and Brett’s ticket for this fall) are paid for. We do have a regular savings allotment set up that goes into our account every month that will cover remaining expenses by the time we travel. Our credit card reward balance is up to $255 and some change. I’m thinking though that we won’t need to use it toward this trip, so will keep growing the balance for future travel.
  • $1 bills & change: We have nearly $800 saved so far. I am starting to think that we won’t need to use this bit of money either for the mystery trip, so we will just keep saving our $1 bills and change for Brett and my future travel.
  • Christmas money: We had transferred $900 of this into our savings account so it was used for the airline tickets. We will continue to contribute this to savings.
  • Swagbucks: Between Brett and I we have already earned nearly $900 in both Visa card rewards and Amazon gift cards from Swagbucks. And it’s only the end of June! I think we will be able to give the girls, our son and his family a very nice Christmas this year (Brett and I aren’t going to exchange gifts). Besides using Swagbucks for Christmas, I hope to earn enough in Amazon gift cards to buy a new camera before we travel.
  • Hawaiian Airlines miles: Not sure right now of what all our total miles are combined, but it’s getting up there. Brett’s trip in the fall will add more, as will the trip next spring. Later this year we will sign up for the Hawaiian Airlines mileage credit card which will give us a whole lot more miles (35,000 for signing up). By the time WenYu heads off to college we will have more than enough for at least two and maybe more round-trip tickets for her and Meiling.

Finally, here’s another clue on our mystery destination: it’s in the vicinity of somewhere that can be reached on Hawaiian Airlines!