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Friday, February 12, 2010

My first interview transcript!


Where do you currently live: Tacoma, WA
How old were you when you took your first trip solo? That depends on how you define first trip. I suppose I didn't really start stepping out on that limb until I took off for Italy alone in July 2008 where I wandered aimlessly around Rome for 3 days - I was 43 at the time.
Why was it that you decided to travel alone? Well - my sons were grown, my parents had just died, my job expired, I didn't have a significant other, and my sister suggested a trip to Europe. After that I was hooked and I always seem to have my suitcase half packed.
Where and when have you traveled solo? Rome: almost too many times to mention since 2008. Fiji: October, 2008. Road trip to AZ through the Redwoods: January, 2009 (I delivered my oldest son's car to him at his new military base in Tucson). Road trip to AZ, TX, NV then home to WA via the Grand Canyon, Laughlin, NV, and the Mojave desert. London: May, 2009. (Italy, Italy, and Italy in between.) Verona, Italy: November 2009 - on this trip, I rented a car in Milan and drove over to Verona where I met Angelo for the biggest annual horse show in all of Europe.

In June, 2009, I rented a house on the beach in Lido Sangineto, Italy and invited about 15 friends and family to stop in for a visit. One of my girlfriends got her passport just so she could come. It was her first time traveling out of the country alone. Another of my girlfriends didn't follow my directions and ended up at a train station where nobody spoke English. (Lots of funny stuff happened, but I don't know how much of that material you could use.)

Next up? I'm thinking about Egypt and Morocco. Oh, and Costa Rica.
Of these places, which was cheapest? (Examples of how much accommodations and a meal were -- would be fabulous!) As you know, cheap is always relevant to the current exchange rate of the dollar. I'd need to refer to my records to tell you exact prices, but I would say that Fiji was pretty cheap once I got away from the hotel. (I'll have to get back to you on exact figures.) Also the house in Italy wasn't bad: a 4 bedroom, 3 bath for the month was 1500 Euros which came out to about 50 Euros a night with a boat load of people pitching in for their share of the stay. With a kitchen, we were able to prepare a lot of our own meals.
Of these places, which was the most expensive? (Examples of how much accommodations and a meal were -- would be fabulous!) Accommodations in Rome during the summer can vary from 25 euros a night for a hostel to whatever you want to spend. I think the most expensive hotel I've stayed at there was about 200 Euros a night at a 4 star (Although there's one on the Piazza di Republicca that I really want to spend the night at, but it runs about 400-600 Euros a night and I think I'll save that for when Angelo and I are together in Rome.) 

I'm most familiar with food prices in Italy because of the amount of time I spend there. The least expensive meals are usually a panino (sandwich) for 3-5 Euros. The most expensive meal I've had was at a friends restaurant in Vibo Valentia - http://www.rossobarique.eu - but we had a ton of wine and the full meal deal - our tab was about 100 Euros per person.

You can always go on the cheap there by visiting the local market. Food prices are pretty comparable to the US, but you can get a decent bottle of red wine for 1.80-2.80.

If you would like actual information and pricing of the lodgings I've stayed in anywhere, I'd gladly share them.

Side note: The road trips around the US have been pretty cheap because you can usually find decent hotels near truck stops for $25-$35 and meals for under $10 (in a restaurant). 
Of these places, which do you feel was the most safe? All of them.
The most dangerous? Napoli can be a little intimidating by yourself. It's the pick-pocket capital of Italy and I tease Angelo every time we drive through there by telling him that it's a lot like some of the rougher places in Mexico.

Which was the easiest to travel in? London and Fiji.
What would you say were the top five or so most memorable experiences you had? Alone in Fiji: The river trip with that German tour group. I knew something was up when the bus driver picked me up at the hotel at 7 am and told me to get in the front seat. I ended up swimming in a waterfall alone with one tour guide and the boat driver. Then I floated a bamboo raft part of the way down the river while the rest of the group left (it was raining and they didn't want to get wet even though it was at least 75 degrees at the time).

Fiji #2: Taking a boat out to a coral island to snorkel for the day.

Alone in Rome: Driving a rental car out to the beach at Lido di Ostia and getting lost on the way back. It was my first time in Italy and I spoke all of about 12 words of Italian at the time.

The road trip through the Redwoods was amazing. I could go back there and just spend hours standing under those towering trees.
Then there's the Grand Canyon, and the Mojave. 

Is there anywhere you would not recommend to a traveler or a woman traveling alone? Obviously, I haven't been to many hazardous places yet, so we'll see about this. North Africa could be interesting.
What do you think about the comment -- "traveling alone as a woman is dangerous"? I don't really buy that. No matter where you are in the world, if you maintain a sense of awareness about your surrounding, exude confidence, and make friends along the way, people will almost always go out of their way to help you.
What scares or scared you the most about traveling solo? Hmm...ordering the wrong meal and getting lutefisk instead of grilled fish?
What precautions would you recommend another solo female traveler to take? Share your itinerary with family and friends complete with contact info. Upgrade your cell phone to the international calling plan (with AT & T it only costs about $4 a month and you can terminate it when you get home) even if you never use it. There's nothing more frustrating that not being able to make a call when you need to. I've done the other sim card/unlocked phone in Europe and always needed my American phone to check in at home. Even if you spend $10 or $20 on calls, it's well worth the peace of mind. 

If you can do it, get your currency in advance at one of those airport ATM's. In my experience, it's been easier and more cost effective than screwing around at the bank. Then I usually order a cocktail or something I have to pay for on the flight so I have small bills when I land.

I'm not into that money belt thing, but I do carry my handbag close to the front and always zip it up. In my opinion, the less you look like a tourist, the better off you are. Backpacks are fun, but they're a dead give-away. Tennis shoes might seem sensible, but shoes say a lot about who you are. I bought some really stylish Nike Air flip-flops with a Cole Haan upper at Nordstroms for $60 and they're still in service after hiking the Cinque Terre, traveling to Fiji and everywhere else I've gone in the past 1 1/2 years. Leave expensive jewelry at home. Do a little research about the place you're going and match your clothing to what's acceptable in that culture. Pack light and throw in a couple of scarves.

What would you say is the most challenging thing about traveling alone? The wow factor - not having someone to say "Wow, did you see that" to.
What is the most rewarding thing about traveling alone? Traveling alone should be viewed as an opportunity to experience new cultures and make friends outside of your usual comfort zone. I now have a ton of friends in Italy, a couple in London, and a girlfriend in Brisbaine. We can pop in and visit each other any time.
Have your experiences traveling alone changed how you look at yourself? Absolutely! I've always been pretty independent, but now the world seems like such a small place. The other thing is, I KNOW that I can adapt in almost any situation.
Have you ever been in a situation which was dangerous, scary or you felt unsafe? What did you? Haha! How about getting my sister and I out of Paolo's apartment? Granted, I wasn't alone, but it was a bit weird.

Or that train ride to Napoli when I wasn't sure if anyone would even be there to meet me?

Other than that, no.
When planning a trip what aspect of planning do you find the most difficult? Remembering to have my mail and newspaper delivery held.
Do you have a website or blog where people could learn more about you and your travels? Websites: http://www.michellemerritt.com http://www.nightinrome.com (blog is linked to the latter) http://michellesitaly.blogspot.com/ I'm also on Facebook http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?ref=profile&id=599096671/ and you tube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gDhWoPlxjNI/ I'm on a few other social networking sites, but managing them all is a very time-consuming process. Lately, I've been contributing answers Yahoo Ask - travel - Italy.
Are you in a relationship? If so, what did your partner think of you traveling alone? I am in a relationship with my dear Angelo in Italy. Sometimes he says that I'm crazy for traveling alone, but he knows that I'm perfectly capable. Whenever he's worried, he'll say, "stai attenda," meaning he wants me to keep my eyes open or pay attention.

Any tips or tricks you have learned along the way to help other solo female travelers? Where do I start? Don't over-pack: nobody will notice if you wear the same thing two or three times in a week. Leave the blow-dryer at home. Be nice to people on over-booked flights (one time, my seat was double booked and I told the flight attendant that she could seat me anywhere - instead of putting me back by the toilet, she moved me to first class). In Italy, if you have a question about anything health related, GO TO THE PHARMACY...you can ask those people ANYTHING (I don't want to give TMI, but that's where you'll find everything from bandaids to condoms to laxatives, etc.). Oh, and one other woman-only note that nobody ever talks about: feminine hygiene products - pack your own if you have a preference because even if you find something at the market that resembles what you buy in the states, it probably won't be as effective (I've experienced this in Italy and Mexico). Many other countries don't have wash cloths, so if you use one at home, take one or two with you.
What websites, books or other resources do you use to plan your trips? I shop around for airfare, but usually find the best deals on Expedia. As I've gotten better at working my airline miles, I sometimes play the airline sites against expedia for both air and hotel bookings to maximize my accumulated miles. For inter-europe travel, I usually bag expedia for airfare and go straight towegolo.com for the cheap tickets. Eurail passes would take a whole chapter to write about.

As far as planning, I do the usual google searches in advance. I use google maps a lot so that I can get a feel for the streets beforehand. As far as books go, Rick Steves' phrasebooks are handy for getting by on any language and they aren't too bulky for carry-on. I love Eyewitness travel guides, but they're always too big and heavy to take along.

I almost forgot - I carry my iphone and I've downloaded translation apps that don't require internet connectivity.
Any other recommendations on tour operators, transportation options, hotels, food, things to do, things not to do, anything else you would like to add? If and when you make a hotel reservation, always ask the concierge if they have a free airport shuttle. If they don't, ask how much you should expect to pay for a cab or if a bus to get you to the hotel. Make friends with the bartenders wherever you go - they'll usually give you good local tips (especially if they're employed by the hotel where you're staying). I don't usually do organized tours, but I'll sometimes indulge in one of those open-top bus tours to get a quick lay of the land. Almost every city seems to have those hop-on hop-off buses where the ticket is good for 24 hours, but you need to make sure that you take one that has CLEARLY MARKED stops on their route. And if you take a red bus, remember which tour group was operating that particular red bus. Don't be afraid to dicker over the price either.

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