Solo Traveler Q&A

QUESTION: I am a bit of a loner and have no family nearby. While I am not able to travel a lot, I do enjoy my trips, which are usually solo. The December ’04 tsunami disaster made me think, however. If something happened to me, I wonder how long it would take for my family to find out?

I would like to plan a trip to Peru, which seems safe, but can you suggest something I can do to ensure I would be missed soon, without having to start checking in with my family (as I am much too old for that) or without seeming like I am being paranoid? — Tom K., Syracuse, NY

ANSWER: First, please don’t feel that your concern is paranoia. I would say it is very responsible, even if the country you will be visiting seems to be very low risk. We all thought that was true of Thailand and the other areas hit by the tsunami. It is both responsible and realistic to accept the fact that none of us is invincible. No matter what our age, any one of us could have health problems or be involved in an accident. It does not take a disaster of the magnitude of a tsunami to either delay or prevent our returning home. So it is responsible to do what we can to reduce our risk, then plan for any possibility. . . and leave town with peace of mind.

It is a good idea to have someone who knows your basic plans and who will expect you to call when you return home. This does not need to be your family; it could be a friend, neighbor or travel agent. Let this person know whom to contact in the advent of an emergency, then make it a point to call him or her when you return.

I also always let at least one neighbor know when I am leaving and returning home so that there’s someone keeping an eye on my home. (Even if you live in an apartment, this is a good idea.)

This is in addition to the person who feeds my pets. I also always call to tell this person I am home on time and she does not need to do an extra feeding. The intent is for her to assume I have not returned until she hears from me.

Unlike your neighbors and friends, however, your travel agent will routinely get travel advisories and updates. On a trip to Laos, I was met at the airport by a representative from a local travel agency who was sent by my travel agent back home to meet me. He advised me that despite the travel advisory resulting from a recent kidnapping of tourists (of which I had not yet heard), the itinerary I had selected was still safe to travel. He also advised me of the areas that I should avoid visiting, as my travel agent also knew I often make last-minute detours. I did not do so on this trip.

Because of their knowledge about travel destinations, I would suggest you establish a relationship with a good travel agent. A travel agent will have more familiarity with the good “deals” on destinations and accommodations and have more experience at balancing price with location and safety issues. Don’t choose your destination or accommodations for price alone. Planning safety into your trip will reduce your risk and can significantly increase your relaxation.

I will never forget taking the airport van to my hotel in one of my favorite large cities. The woman sitting next to me was excited about the great bed-and-breakfast she had found — and prepaid for on the Internet. It sounded great, the price was fantastic and the picture they had included looked appealing. It was also close to the downtown area where I was staying at a somewhat higher price.

We got off the main highway just one exit before town, went through a very questionable part of town, then turned, came back under the freeway. . . and stopped in front of her bed-and-breakfast. Both of our faces dropped. While it certainly looked like the picture, the freeway above it and the shanties nearby told another story.

I consider myself adventuresome, but I do not believe I would have stayed, even if I had prepaid. While the people and the accommodations could have been charming, it was not a part of town I would consider to be safe to walk through, and there was clearly no direct route other than the freeway. The cost of cabs alone likely made her trip more expensive than mine.

With the exception of the fee to book your airline tickets, working with a travel agent does not cost you money, and if the agent is good, he or she may save you both money and bad experiences with less-than-favorable accommodations. This can clearly be a safety issue as well.

After many years of our planning trips together, my travel agent knows the types of hotels I prefer and the destinations still high on my list to visit. As a result, even when we are not in touch she keeps me aware of bargains. While the Internet is a great way to find deals, with very few exceptions I have found my travel agent can do as well. . . and with much less effort on my part.