Today, on my second day in London, I reread my 14 Tips for Safe Solo Travel, which I posted last September. I am surprised by how many items on the list I did instinctively as I prepared for this trip. Seven years later, solo travel comes naturally.
Find a friend with similar interests and budget OR join a nonprofit organization with a strong travel program OR select an experienced travel agent who can recommend appropriate tour operators.
Check and double-check. I used a reliable travel club to arrange the London details, and I will meet a friend who shares a love for opera in Prague on Sunday.
Try baby steps at first. Start out by spending a few days alone in a familiar city before or after joining friends or family on vacation.
Check. That is exactly why I am in London for five days, awash in good memories of past trips with Lev and the family, in the same Mayfair neighborhood where we stayed on our first trip in 1974.
Spend more on hotels and transportation if necessary to assure your safety and comfort. It costs less for one to travel than for two.
Check. That’s why I’m at the Connaught. I think I may have finally found my favorite hotel in my (almost) favorite neighborhood in London.
Plan your after-dark activities carefully. Are there restaurants near the hotel? Does the hotel have a restaurant and room service? Are cabs available and safe?
Yes, yes and yes. I walked a half-block to Scott’s, a famous fish restaurant, for dinner this evening.
Check the expiration dates on your credit cards, debit cards and passport. Copy the numbers in case of loss.
Squeaked by on this one. I get home two days before the six-month dead period on my passport.
Sign up for Global Entry, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection program that allows expedited clearance for pre-approved, low-risk travelers upon arrival in the United States.
Yes, and with it comes TSA Pre-Approved, which got me past the long lines at DFW. Global Entry will help even more on my return. With tightened security after the bombings, this is more valuable than ever.
Carry lots of one- and five-dollar bills for tips. As a rule, tip 20 percent in the U.S.
Oops! This doesn’t address travel abroad. I spent more than three hours and £50 dealing with the Bank of England today. Lev, where are you? You are supposed to take care of currency!
Here’s the story: During his final illness, Lev purchased a stack of British pounds by mail, anticipating our planned trip to London in the summer. He neglected to tell me about his order, and I found them outside the front door one day, where the postman had left them. I carried some of them on four previous trips; but with credit cards and ATMs, we don’t need as much cash as we used to have to carry. On trip five, my pounds were no good. The Bank of England had issued new bank notes. I was with a group and I didn’t have free time to deal with it. I came prepared (I thought) this trip.
I was surprised when the man at the hotel front desk told me I had to go to the Bank of England. THE Bank. In the City. That was about like telling me I had to go to the U.S. Mint or Treasury in Washington. Due to rain, traffic and street closures, it took as long to travel a few miles to the Bank as it did from Heathrow yesterday. I walked right in the front door, no identification required by the doorman. Another surprise. Sure enough, there is an office complete with tellers for people exchanging bank notes. However, they wanted two official identification documents—passport and drivers license—and I only had my passport. I also had spent most of my money on the cab ride to the bank. I didn’t have enough to get back to the hotel. I suppose the teller took pity on the ignorant, elderly widow, for she asked for a credit card and sent the paperwork to a supervisor while I waited. And waited. Thirty minutes later, the word came down. I could exchange my pounds.
By now it was 1 p.m. and I was hungry. My cab driver took me back to Piccadilly on the scenic route along the Thames, up Whitehall and Pall Mall, to my favorite British department store, Fortnum & Mason, for lunch. I walked back to the hotel in the rain.
Lesson learned: It doesn’t pay to hoard currency.
Photos, from top to bottom: Roosevelt and Churchill, still solving the world’s problems on Old Bond Street; Connaught Hotel; Scott’s Restaurant; Bank of England; London Eye from the Embankment