How to Travel Solo and Fall in Love With It

RIshikesh, India, Parmarth Ashram,
Rishikesh, India, Parmarth Ashram,

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.


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.


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,
Cambodia, Ou Malay Guesthouse, Siem Reap,

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,
Burma, Shwe Dagon Pagoda, Yangon,


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.


Burma, One Woman’s Love Affair

One of the best countries to travel solo is Burma, AKA Myanmar.

I spent 31 days boating and bussing across this incredible, new to the Western world, country and I was amazed.

Warning: Don’t listen to any media news about this isolated and remarkable country. Ask a person who has actually visited Burma.

What did I love?

The non-stop devotional people who are kind caring and told me where to get off the city bus in Yangon before I asked.

This is the mark of a compassionate culture.

I didn’t want to leave, everywhere you looked, more lovely souls.

Example. My passport fell out of my camera bag in the taxi from the airport and I didn’t know it until I was checking in at my guesthouse and noticed I didn’t have it.

The smiling taxi driver returned it within the hour, without being asked to.


The Hidden Places

I’d never heard of Pyinoolwin before arriving in Burma, but this place soothed my soul, the orchids and flowers in the botanical garden got me awake and strolling at 8AM in the morning.

I met kind women gardening who painted me up to look like them.

Yangon and Bagan are filled with little known temples, markets, and beckoning Buddhism that doesn’t make you feel like you have to be Buddhist. It’s serenity on tap, a simpler life than what most people are used to. It’s in the air and the soil.

Maybe even in the water but I didn’t drink any. I buy bottled when in Asia.

Burma has everything, kind people, holy places, simple tea shops selling noodles, and markets where the farmers will talk with you as they slice their fish, put out their wares, and haggle over price.

I didn’t feel unsafe at all. Yes I know what happened to Aung San Suu Kyi, but she’s off house arrest and things are beginning to change in this amazing country. Political prisoners are starting to be released and Burma is waking up to the fact that tourism can be good.

Don’t wait. Go now. You will never regret it. 



Want to see more of Burma and discover the highlights of my 31 days exploring this mystical country?

Check out my Myanmar issue of Vagabond Travel Mag in the itunes store. It’s for iphones and ipads.

Everything you ever wanted to know about Burma but didn’t know anyone who had the answers.

Here is the link.

Vagabond Travel Mag

See my gallery of photography from Burma here

Mary Bartnikowski is an award-winning photographer, author, educator, retreat leader, and lover of world travel. She has led programs at Apple, Intel, Stanford University, and globally. Come say hello at and get a free ebook, Secrets of Stunning Photographs.

Plans Are Being Made


I ♥ travel planning! The challenge of scoring a good airfare or getting a great hotel room at a fabulous price or arranging ground transportation and activities – all the necessary pieces to creating a solid foundation for a fantastic trip – is immensely fun for me.

So, with WenYu heading off to college in Massachusetts in just four months, I am heading  once again into the throes of travel planning because, besides making sure WenYu is safely settled in with all her stuff, I’ve been encouraged to add a couple of extras to the itinerary.

One of my dearest friends from our navy days lives in Bath, Maine, and given that I will be so close I am hoping to head up her way for two or three days for a visit (another dearest friend from our navy days used to live in Maine and I so, so wish she were still there to visit too). If we can work out our schedules, I will most likely take the train up to Portland from Boston – it’s very affordable.

After my time in New England, I will head west to Denver to spend three to four days visiting my mom before flying back to Hawai’i.

So, here’s what I have to figure out and arrange (for now):

  1. One-way airfare from Lihue to Boston for WenYu and I
  2. Ground transportation from Boston to Natick, MA
  3. Hotel in Natick
  4. Rental car in Natick (I am NOT driving in Boston)
  5. Transport from Natick to North Station in Boston (maybe)
  6. Round-trip train travel from North Station to Portland, ME (maybe)
  7. Transport from North Station to Logan airport (maybe) with a . . .
  8. Possible overnight hotel stay in Boston
  9. One-way airfare from Boston to Denver
  10. Rental car at Denver airport
  11. Hotel in Loveland, CO
  12. One-way airfare from Denver to Lihue

It all seems like a lot, and I’m sure there’s something that I’ve forgotten or that will pop up, but I know it will all come together. Let the planning begin!

Mystery Revealed!

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

Without further ado, we are headed to . . .


. . . 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:

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.


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.


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!


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!

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.

Where In the World Should We Go?

b87e7c8a226a650e02b516282128c80cWhen it comes to where we want to travel in the future, Brett and I are still partially in the “dream” phase. I say partially because we know we want to spend more than half the year here on Kaua’i, and we know we want to spend three months in Japan every year. It’s those remaining two or so months out of every year that we’re still dreaming about.

We would like to spend up to two months every fall traveling and living in another area of the world. We would ideally stay in one place for a month, and then move to a second city or area for a second month. Four weeks in one place would give us opportunities to more fully explore our surroundings and allow us to experience the culture a bit more deeply.

Staying in one place for month will also be more affordable. The nightly cost for an Airbnb or VRBO rental drops considerably when booked for a month versus renting for just a few days or a week. And, staying longer will mean less eating out and will help curb other expenses such as more frequent travel between locations. But, we are open to travel that might have shorter stays or require some driving.

So, where in the world should we go?

This is the list we have come up with so far, in no particular order.

  • Rome/Florence/Cinque Terre
  • New Zealand (one month on the north island, one month in the south)
  • Barcelona/Lisbon
  • Prague/Vienna
  • Athens/Istanbul
  • Nostalgic west coast (one month in Seattle, visit Portland, then drive down to California – Yosemite NP and San Francisco – and finally back up to Seattle via the Oregon Coast)
  • Buenos Aires/Montevideo
  • Bath, England/County Cork, Ireland
  • Amsterdam/Copenhagen or Stockholm

Also, there are two other places I would love to see, but Brett is not as excited about them as I am:

  • India (We would definitely do a tour for this)
  • Botswana (same as above)

What do you think? Any other suggestions? Where do you think we should go first? Second? Third?

We need to eventually decide on three to start planning. If we get through three years of traveling, we will reevaluate our health and finances and go from there.

Where in the world do you think we should go?




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!