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When Things Go Wrong, and I'm Alone

I get asked about this all the time:

What if something terrible happens to you?

Are you ever really scared?

How do you handle weird situations when you’re alone?

Finally I decided to write about it, mainly for those who don’t travel alone and are curious. I’ll tell you now, I’ve heard just about every travel horror story and have been warned many times by friends, family, and acquaintance to ‘be very careful.’ And I am. But I also have faith in myself.

 Despite the trials and mishaps, I love exploring alone. 

Despite the trials and mishaps, I love exploring alone. 

I’ve had weird and unnerving experiences abroad, especially traveling alone. Yet every time, I am able to figure my way out of the situation, usually in one piece. Take for example, my arrival in the south of France during my gap year. I took the TGV train from Paris to the south of France and from there I hopped on a local bus. The bus driver helped me figure out where to get off, a tiny town with one small grocery store, a bakery, and a bank. From there I did my best to follow the directions my hosts had provided, thanking my foresight to look up the bed and breakfast on the walkthrough version of Google maps. Still I was confused when I got there. There were two gates onto the property, both of them locked. One was obviously for the bed and breakfast, and the other was down the hill and around the side of the property and looked to be for staff. I couldn’t see anyone and tried calling out to no avail. I checked my last email with my hosts, where I told them when I would arrive. I sat on my suitcase for a while, until a woman passed walking her dog. She knew of the people who owned the B&B, but didn’t have their phone number. I saw a group of people pull up and unlock the front gate, and quickly hurried that way. Chatting with them, they had no clue about the owners and had just been hired for the night. They suggested I go to the other gate. Now, a few hours after being dropped off, I was really wondering what I had  signed myself up for. Finally, as I was trying to figure out where to go for the night, I saw a figure walking down the road toward the back gate. I jumped off my suitcase, waving a little frantically.

It was another volunteer, and he told me that I was expected tomorrow due to an email mixup. He had been heading to the beach for a swim when he saw me. My hosts were visiting Morocco at the time so the B&B was pretty quiet. He helped me get settled in my small, sparse room before showing me around. Throughout that afternoon and laying in bed that night, I was anxious about my choices and situation. I took some basic precautions--I used my doorstop on my room door that night and my family knew where I was going. But I stuck it out, trusting my instincts. As I settled in, I made amazing friends, learned a lot about gardening and running a B&B, and enjoyed living between the beach and the mountains. This first workaway experience was unforgettable and changed my outlook on life. And I wouldn’t have gotten there if I wasn’t willing to take a few risks.

To be okay through almost any situation abroad, here is what you need:

  1. Travel Insurance - I recommend World Nomads, an affordable insurance that varies by length of stay and region of travel but always offers two levels of insurance. They have helped me find reliable emergency clinics in Bangkok when I had a staph infection and then covered the cost of the visit. They also will cover some electronics and personal items, helping me pay for a new iPhone when mine got wet while traveling. A dependable travel insurance that is easy to contact will help you know that you have someone to help if you get sick or your plans are ruined.

  2. Emergency money and medications - It is super important to carry some backup cash (this can be U.S. dollars or any currency) just in case ATMs are not accessible or your cards are not working. I usually keep $50-100 dollars stashed in a few places in my luggage.Also traveling with some basic medications is smart. This means Advil, Imodium, and any prescription medications you use regularly. It’s very possible to get medications abroad, but it’s easiest to carry some with you.

  3. Your instincts - There have been moments where I have switched metro cars or taken a better-lit street even if it was a longer route. Once I was waiting for a bus in Thailand, at a stop next to a police station. A policeman came out of the building and a driver pulled over. They obviously knew each other and chatted for a few moments. Then the policeman came over to me and told me the man in the car could give me a ride back to the city. I declined, saying I would wait. The policeman asked again and told me it was okay to go in the car. Reluctantly, I hopped in. We made light conversation and the driver was very polite. However, the second we got into the city and I knew the area, I thanked him and hopped out. Maybe he was fine, but I prefered to take the reins and control the situation.

  4. The ability to ask for help - I can’t even count the number of times I’ve stopped someone to ask for help. This can be directions, a translation, or to use their phone. At a small restaurant in Bangkok the businessman at the table next to me translated the menu for me and conveyed to the waitress that I was vegetarian. Asking for help is something that comes naturally to me now and I understand that often, people can be trusted. I believe the American viewpoint is often distrustful of others abroad, but so many people have been willing to help me that I now I have a different viewpoint.

  5. The knowledge that you’ll get through it - This may not sound like a lot, but often the simple understanding that I’ll come out on the other side of a situation keeps me calm and allows me to get through it. This stems from my past experiences that have tested my reflexes and emotions, giving me a confidence in myself and my coping abilities.

I hope you found these tips and stories helpful. Also I have a post specifically about safety and the questions I often receive about staying safe abroad.

If you think hostels aren't for you, think again

Hostelling International Boston was the only place to stay in Boston affordably and comfortably, as I quickly found. Also known as HI Boston, it is actually a chain of hostels available in the U.S. and Europe. Because there are so few hostels in America, often Hostelling International is one of the only brands available and now I know that the quality of their brand and service makes them one of the best choices. 

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When I first arrived in Boston, I had a different hostel booked for the first night, because while it was not as well rated as HI, it was decently rated and a few dollars cheaper. But after one night, I found that the hostel I was staying at was not worth the money—customer service was nonexistent, the bathrooms were dirty, the dorms crowded and dark. So I called HI Boston, crossing my fingers that I would get a bed over the holiday weekend. Soon I was dragging my luggage down the stairs of the T (the metro in Boston) on my way to Chinatown. 

My first impression of the hostel was that it was beautiful, clean, and big. The entrance and lobby serve as both a hangout and a waiting area, with big comfy couches and a fireplace. You can buy some basic snacks and drinks or hang out in the community room that has a projector for showing films and sports matches. There is an industrial kitchen upstairs, where free breakfast (coffee, juice, yogurt, toast, bagels, and cereal) is served every morning and sometimes a free community dinner. But guests are free to use the appliances to make their own food, or grab a cup of tea or coffee anytime throughout the day. On the second floor is a laundry room, a book exchange, a pool table, and lots of places to relax and meet new friends. Then there is the community events board. This is the magical board that is always full to the brim of cool activities, meet-ups, and free outings. That’s the best part about Hostelling International, they always have things to do and make it easy to meet other travelers. 

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The rooms themselves are spacious and the bunks are nice. If you’ve never stayed in a hostel before, I can assure you that this is the best possible set up. Each bunk has a large locker next to it, that acts as a caddy for all your bags and valuables. Tip: Hostels don’t usually provide locks, either use a luggage lock or travel with a combination lock. By the head of each bed is a hollow part in the locker that has multiple outlets and a reading light. I used this as my bedside table, charging my phone and keeping my glasses and a book. This feature is great on the top bunk, so you don’t have to climb in and out of bed or store things on the side of the mattress where they could get lost. The bathrooms were awesome, because instead of large communal bathrooms, like in a gym, there were lots of individual bathrooms, each with a shower. As always in a hostel, the state of the bathrooms relies heavily on the other hostel inhabitants. While the cleaning staff did a great job, some bathrooms get untidy when travelers don’t clean up after themselves. It should be noted that while not all hostels provide towels (some charge you to rent them) they are included in the price at HI and it’s easy to switch out your towel for a clean one.

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HI Boston is a beautiful and affordable place to stay, whether you are a lone traveler, a couple, a family, or group of friends. It’s the first hostel I stayed at where there were so many different ages and groups of people. There are many dorm rooms (which are usually smaller so people aren’t constantly coming and going) as well as private rooms. HI has a great setup with lots of amenities so that you can be comfortable and meet other travelers. While I initially balked at the cost, with breakfast and so many other extras included with amazing service you won’t find another hotel or hostel in an American city that is so worth the value. When traveling in the U.S., Hostelling International would be the first place I would look.

Prices:

Dorms come in mixed gender, female, and male and vary in size. Large rooms (8 beds) are cheap than smaller (4 bed) dorms. For one bed in a 6 bed dorm it is $44.49 Sunday through Thursday, and then $59.49 on Friday and Saturday. There is also a $3 charge per night if you are not a member; membership is $28 a year. 

Private rooms can vary in price depending on the day of the week and the season, but on average in June a double room is about $220 per night. 

Disclaimer: This post was written in partnership with HI Boston. As always, the opinions expressed here are completely my own. 

19 Things You Must Do in Boston

Recently I took my first trip to Boston, even though the flight only took me an hour from Baltimore. Why there, you ask? I've always wanted to visit (that's probably the history nerd in me) plus I had credit from a flight that I had cancelled. And yes, I was traveling alone, per usual, because no one could come with me, but I wasn't going to let that stop me. Here are all of the best things I did, the good food I ate and the interesting places I saw. 

1. Stroll through Boston Public Garden

I don't know if it's just me, but I love to hang out in parks when I'm in a new city. There's always a ton of people watching, mostly of locals, and it can be an escape from the smell and containment of a big city. Lucky for me, the weather is finally starting to feel like summer on the East Coast, so I could simply find a sunny spot and settle down. Everyone of course knows of the Boston Common, but across the street from it is the Public Garden, which is honestly so much prettier. Here are the famous swan boats, surrounded by weeping willows and fountains. Perfect for reading, sketching, a good conversation, or capturing the cuteness of some goslings. 

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  I found a one man band! 

 I found a one man band! 

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2. Visit the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum (and if you have any artistic tendencies, bring a sketchbook and pencil)

This place was recommended to me by everyone I know who lives in the city. It is the house-turned-museum of an art lover and collector. But it is much more than that. There is a greenhouse, antiques and pieces of other countries, and the most beautiful courtyard you will ever set eyes on. Seriously, I could have spent all day just overlooking the courtyard. I took a free tour while I was there that consisted of a staff member choosing a couple of paintings and having us analyze them. I would definitely recommend to anyone who visits to go on such a tour, as it helps those who don't have a career in art understand and appreciate what they are looking at. There is a wide variety in the art, from Renaissance Italian oil paintings to contemporary pen studies. If you are artistic, take your camera or sketchbook, but know that they will only let you use pencil. This is one museum that is worth every penny of the cost, which is $15 for adults, $5 for students, free for anyone under 18 or those named Isabella. 

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  Portrait of Isabella Stewart Gardner herself, painted by her friend John Singer Sargent

 Portrait of Isabella Stewart Gardner herself, painted by her friend John Singer Sargent

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3. Pick up a cookie from Cafe Madeleine and devour it

Soon after my purse strap broke and I was carrying all of my daily supplies under an arm, I came across a little French bakery, that bore the French version of my name. Well of course I had to go in, where I was dismayed to find the cases were cleared out. But there were a few tarts and cookies left, and the man behind the counter told me to go for the chocolate chip. I thought that I had had lots of good chocolate chip in my lifetime, but took his suggestion anyhow. Hands down the best cookie I have ever had. Large, with crispy golden edges, a slightly under-baked center and gooey, melted chocolate overwhelmed me. I actually wrapped up the last third to eat later because I was afraid that I was not savoring it enough. I would love to go back to this place and test out more confections, or watch the pastry chefs making their masterpieces through the large glass window in the back. 

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4. Soak up some sun on the Esplanade

Another park (Why do I visit so many? Well they are free, pretty, a taste of local culture, so why not?) but this one stretches long against the Charles River. It is a great place to sunbathe, as many Bostonians do, or watch the sailboats go by. 

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5. Explore the Boston Public Library

The Boston Public Library is like a castle. I couldn't believe how gorgeous it was: the domed ceilings, tile work, and columns make it look like a piece of a fairy tale. They have tours during the week at certain times, however you can go exploring on your own and for free. Take time to look at the architecture and appreciate the gardens behind the library.

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6. Grab a snack or casual dinner at Saus

Saus that cute little place where you can grab their famous fries also known as poutine, a Canadian dish with french fries covered in cheese curds and other toppings. It's called Saus because of the many dipping sauces. It's super casual and not too expensive, but absolutely yummy. I grabbed veggie croquettes in a pita for a light dinner, which had this amazing spicy 'Samurai' sauce on it. Also, they have many specialty drinks and beers.

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7. Spend a moment at the Holocaust Memorial

The Holocaust Memorial is right by Saus which is how I found it. The memorial is simply a walkway with different towers of glass that extend into the sky. At each tower, there is smoke coming from the floor and a quote or story written on the wall. This was very beautiful and well thought-out, making it the perfect place to reflect for a while.

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8. Take in the salty air along the HarborWalk

I went to the HarborWalk on my last day when it was a little bit cloudy. Still it was a great way for me to see the harbor and the North End of Boston. There are many locals who run, walk their dogs, or go with children to the HarborWalk. It is very long and you can start at many different places; however, I suggest starting at North Station and walking down towards the aquarium. I imagine on a sunny day that the pictures would be even more beautiful and more ships would be out on the water.

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9. Visit Boston's secret rose garden

I read about this rose garden on Yelp and nearly couldn't believe it. I decided to try and visit so I picked up some lunch and I headed over to eat there. It was a little hard to find at first as the hedges reach up and hide the garden itself. Inside I was the only one there, accompanied by just a few roses--as it was out of season--and some gorgeous sculptures and landscaping as well as a lot of privacy. I got out of there right in time as a camp group of kids came in and started playing tag, but when I was there alone it was perfect.

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10. Take a lunch break at Render Coffee, and buy a quiche

Render Coffee is where I bought that lunch to have in the rose garden, a goat cheese quiche that was quite large. People say that this is the best coffee in the city which I can’t speak to personally as I did not get a coffee; however, I did get a chai tea latte which was honestly just okay. But that goat cheese quiche was great! It was thick with fluffy egg and spinach topped with big pieces of fresh goat cheese wrapped in phyllo dough. Extremely satisfying and perfect for a picnic at the gardens.

11. Gaze at beautiful American art at the Museum of Fine Art (on a Wednesday evening)

This is more of your typical museum than the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum. That said, it has many beautiful pieces and is quite large. I would recommend a few hours, on a Wednesday after 4pm as this is when admission is by voluntary donation and it is open until 10. The highlights were definitely the American artists, with a whole room devoted to John Singer Sargent, the Monet room, the many Homers, and the contemporary works. The third floor was devoid of visitors when I went, and filled with a beautiful modern exhibit of "The Idea of North" featuring glaciers and arctic landscapes by Lawren Harris. Also, don't be afraid to explore around corners and down hallways, as on the second floor there is an interesting hidden 'behind-the-scenes' exhibit about art collection and preservation. 

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12. Get lost in the brick-line streets of Beacon Hill 

This may seem obvious, but adventuring through the historic Beacon Hill (sans a tour guide or map) was perfect. The buildings speak for themselves, and I found myself gazing down alleys and admiring window boxes. The famous and often pictured image of Beacon Hill is Acorn Street, which is a narrow, cobblestone street lined in townhouses. Louisburg Square is one of the fanciest set of houses in the area, arranged around a small private park. 

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13. Enjoy a fresh sandwich from the deli in Deluca's 

On the go and looking for an inexpensive lunch, I opened the door to Deluca's grocery near Boston Common. While the foreign food on the shelves looked good, albeit a little pricey, I headed towards the deli in the back. I ordered a tomato and pesto sandwich with fresh mozzarella on a ciabatta roll. I was so hungry that I plunked down on the bench outside and ate half. Simple and good. I think my sandwich actually drew jealous glances, as one man passed me and then turned to his family asking if anyone was ready for lunch. 

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14. Tour the historical sites along the Freedom Trail 

Ok, so this one I'll cut short, because you can read an entire post on it here

15. Be adventurous and eat a popsicle from Pressed

Pressed is a healthy juice joint in Beacon Hill. There are salads, sushi, shakes, popsicles (or paletas as they call them), and juices all with awesome ingredients at somewhat steep prices. Because I just wanted a snack (and not a $10 shake), I went for a popsicle (~$4) in watermelon and jalapeno. It was juicy and sweet like biting into a watermelon slice, quickly followed by the heat of the peppers. The other flavors range from cardamom vanilla plum to raspberry hibiscus. Truly a unique experience if you are willing to splurge a little.

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16. Discover Boston's Chinatown

My hostel was right next to Chinatown, so I often walked through it on the way to other places. But there are many little restaurants and funky little shops that are worth a look. I went looking for a cobbler to repair my purse, instead I found a parade of drums and dragons in the streets, which was followed by many Chinese men in business suits and red ties. I can only assume it was for a holiday--whatever it was, it sure was fun and entertaining. 

17. Eat some delicious vegan thai food (yes, delicious AND vegan)

The one night I was looking for an easy, yet good dinner in Chinatown. I came across a sign in a window to go in the building and up the stairs for My Thai Vegan Cafe. Being intrigued, I went up for a look and ended up at a table for one. Although the servers didn't know how to treat a solo guest (service was minimal and without any extras), the food was some of the best Thai I've had outside of Thailand. The menu is ginormous and filled with a plethora of fake meat, so I opted for Pad Kee Mao with tofu, which was their take on drunken noodles. Even better was when I ordered a mango smoothie bubble tea to go. Made with coconut milk and fresh mango (I'm assuming from the pieces of fruit I encountered) this is probably the best bubble tea I've ever had. 

18. People-watch and get caffeinated at Cuppa

This little hut of a coffee place is easy to miss. But if you duck into the one-room building with a slanted roof near the Haymarket T, you'll get a damn good coffee. I tested out their cold brew, which was rich and flavorful, while sitting on one of third mini tables outside and watched everyone go to work. 

19. Take a day trip to Cambridge

There are many towns on the edge of Boston worth a visit; however, the most famous would be Cambridge. Be on the lookout for a post that details how to have the perfect day in Cambridge soon.