"Free and Travelling" AnnS's Profile
Having been a complete workaholic all my life, travelling had been restricted to when I could take some time off. I had some wonderful holidays but not enough of them. However, in 2001, I was struck down with an illness that resembled complete burn-out and remained a mystery to both me and the medical profession for the next six years. It manifested itself in extreme fatigue, pain all over my body, flu-like symptoms and worst of all… severe clinical depression. In the absence of a diagnosis, I was referred for counselling and after many, many hours of talking, my psychologist said he thought I was completely emotionally healthy and he suspected something physical was to blame. But still no diagnosis… until I had what appeared to be a series of TIAs (mini strokes) but were subsequently thought to be particularly weird migraines. Whatever they were, they focused the doctors, and after exhaustive tests, I was finally diagnosed as having autoimmune diseases – not one but three. I have Connective Tissue Disease (a Lupus-like condition), Sjögren’s Syndrome and Antiphospholipid Syndrome… a particularly sinister ailment which causes sticky blood with a tendency to clot. (My doctor says I’ll have to give myself Heparin injections before each long flight so I think I’ll stick to Europe until I can pluck up enough courage to do that.)
So having been faced with fairly disabling and potentially life-threatening illnesses, and having lost my career and my energetic lifestyle, I had two choices. I could either sit indoors, watching mind-numbing daytime TV and feeling sorry for myself, or I could find some new interests and try as much as possible to ‘act normal’. My psychologist told me to embrace the freedom and think of something I’d always wanted to do but had never had the time. That something was, of course, travel so I set off on some virtual trips on my PC, identifying places I’d always wanted to visit.
In the past, I’ve accompanied my partner on business trips to various cities and spent time on my own in them while he was working but I didn’t know whether Id be able to manage trips completely on my own and without a Sherpa to help carry my luggage. But I found that provided I got well organised, and picked places where transport was relatively easy, I managed very well. And with the tremendous amount of information available on the Internet, it’s possible to identify potential problems before you go and thus avoid them.
At times I'm obviously regarded as somewhat 'unusual', in so far as I don't meet many middle-aged women travelling alone, but hopefully I can spread the word to others in a similar position that it's easy... just as long as you plan carefully. It's totally liberating and it's true what they say... travel definitely broadens the mind.
I tend to spend a long, long time planning. To me, that’s part of the fun but meticulous planning also pays dividends in ensuring a comfortable and trouble-free trip.
I have a list of places I’m interested in visiting but after that, my destinations are pretty much determined by good flight deals available from Gatwick Airport. I live close to Gatwick, it’s easy for me to get there and I don’t have the energy or the desire to battle with British public transport to get to other airports. Sometimes I fly to a place, then use the terrific European trains to get to my final destination.
I have set up lots of e-mail alerts with airlines and online travel agents so that I can seize cheap deals as soon as they become available. However, there is a major snag with tour operators, and one that constantly irritates me. It’s the fact that most charge single supplements, and often hefty ones, for people travelling alone. Many times, I’ve seen a cheap deal, gone to all the trouble of filling in booking details, only to find the price leaps up at the end when I enter the number of travellers as “1”. Lastminute.com is particularly irritating because it advertises wonderful deals, then hidden in the depth of the detail it says “not available for single travellers”.
I have challenged a number of tour operators and travel agents about this and the answer is always the same. They say hotels charge more for single occupancy… but that’s simply not true. It’s a practice that certainly applies to British hotels but I’ve never found a European hotel that doesn’t charge less for single occupancy of a double room, unless they have single rooms available too. We are told that more and more people are living and travelling alone these days so surely all these companies are losing valuable business.
So, because of this, I almost always travel ‘unpackaged’… booking all the components separately. The one exception that warrants a mention is Expedia, who should be congratulated for offering a very wide variety of trips without penalising the single traveller. On two occasions, I’ve been unable to beat their prices and have been very satisfied with their service.
If I am organising everything myself, I choose a flight first. However, I don’t actually book it until I’ve done a quick survey of hotels to make sure there are rooms available within my budget. Having done this, I book the flight quickly, before the price rises, then set about a thorough investigation into available accommodation. It’s very time-consuming and often takes several days but I’ve found it to be well worth the effort. I always check hotel booking agents but can normally secure the best deals direct with the hotels. My criteria for hotel selection are growing, as I become less agile. It has to have good transport links, either on an airport shuttle bus route or near the mainline railway station (which must have a lift). Airport and transport websites have improved greatly and tend to now be very good at providing information for the less able… which is actually very useful for able-bodied people too. The hotel also has to have a restaurant because these days, I’m often too tired to go out again in the evening in search of dinner. And it has to have Internet connections in the rooms as my PC is my travelling companion.
All that done, I then prepare my own travel guide, using information gathered from all over the Web. I do take guide books with me but I also like to make my own, personalised to include detailed information about the things I particularly like to do, e.g. manageable walks and places to visit in the wider region.
If I can, I choose flights that leave later in the day when the airports are quieter and flights are often less full. This means that I tend to arrive at my destination late at night so it’s been imperative to know the route to my hotel as it’s not advisable to be lost in the dark with lots of luggage (I don’t ever travel light). Having checked in, provided it’s not too late, I usually have a quick wander round the local neighbourhood to get my bearings, before returning for a good night’s sleep. I’m not a morning person so getting up in time for breakfast is the first challenge but I try to do it, particularly if breakfast is included in the price, as it sets me up for the day.
My first stop is always the Tourist Office which is normally a wealth of information and helps me tune the fine details of my itinerary. In many places you can buy tourist cards there too, which enable you to use public transport without buying individual tickets for each journey and if there’s a ‘hop on hop off’ bus… even better. I like to walk as much as possible but I need a contingency in case I get too tired.
I enjoy the days sightseeing on my own. While I’d choose good company, being alone does mean you absorb more of your surroundings because there are no distractions. It also means you can go where you like, when you like, without having to consider anyone else and it gives you a great sense of freedom and achievement.
However, evenings can be a real pain. Although I’ve got used to eating alone in restaurants, I never enjoy it and always feel a bit conspicuous and uncomfortable. That’s why I often eat in my hotel’s restaurant because there are usually other people alone in hotels and I don’t feel quite such a freak. Then, for lack of anything else to do, I usually retire to my room and that’s where my laptop becomes invaluable. I investigate things I’ve seen during the day and use instant messaging to talk to my friends back home. And if all else fails, I have a couple of games on my PC to save me from the horror of rotating CNN TV news.
But that brings me to my other beef. Why do so many hotels think it’s ok to charge ridiculously high prices for WiFi connection? I know it’s intended to catch business travellers who can claim it back on expenses but how unfair it is for leisure travellers. I don’t feel safe on my own carrying a laptop to and from Internet cafés at night so I get very annoyed when hotel prices are prohibitive.
Anyway... on day two or three, I usually take a trip by bus, train or boat, out of my base city to explore more of the surrounding countryside. This has often provided the highlights of the trips because places that are off the beaten tourist tracks are usually the nicest.
Then, if my flight home is in the evening, I have the final day left to see the things I've missed and perhaps do a spot of shopping.
I've found that three or four days is ideal for seeing most cities... and I can always return to those that are packed full of too many treasures to see in that time.
Now that I'm not working, I find it difficult to maintain any kind of discipline with my time... especially as the Internet is always beckoning and it's just WAY too easy to let days and nights blend into one another while I surf the world.
I do occasionally break out and do normal things... like see my friends, go shopping, go for a walk etc... but my main passions are planning and organising my travels, photography, politics and current affairs, all of which involve computer use. I'm also planning to add blogging to that list if I can just decide how to do it successfully.
The only non-tech thing I enjoy doing is growing orchids. I live in a flat but I'm fortunate that all my windows face south and orchids seem to love it here. I started out with just a couple but now I regularly visit orchid shows and there's hardly an inch of space left for any more plants.
Just when I’d regained some confidence and was enjoying my travels, life dealt me the cruellest blow of all. In October 2008, my partner of 25 years was diagnosed with lung cancer. He’d only retired just weeks before and we were looking forward to doing a lot more travelling together. We got married immediately and dedicated the next three years to keeping him alive. We did manage a beautiful week’s holiday in Austria while he was between treatments and I’m so glad we did that.
The last three years have been indescribably awful. I’ve forgotten what it feels like to not be terrified and watching someone you love slowly dying is the hardest thing in the world. Sadly, my husband lost his fight at the end of January 2012 and now I’m surveying the wreckage of my life and trying to get it back in some kind of order.
I definitely need to start travelling again but it’s going to be harder now. I might have got good at travelling alone, and we’d led very independent lives, but I always spoke to my husband several times a day on the phone and I knew that he’d fly to wherever I was, should I get into any trouble. Now I’m completely alone so it’s going to be very scary.
But… I know I will get going again. I believe life is too precious to waste and now I’m only too aware of how short it can be so I owe it to myself to make the most of what’s left of mine. I love the VT community and am hoping that I can start attending some VT meetings and make some new friends.
So I hope this explains why my contributions to VT suddenly stopped. I am going to add pages for our last holiday in Austria, then start reading everyone else’s wonderful pages to get some renewed inspiration.
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