As a chronological leader in the cohort of Baby Boomers who are now retired or thinking seriously about it, I’m happy to say that I have the resources and appetite for travel. Time is no longer a constraint, but there are others, of course. While I still have the energy to schlep through airports, carry my own luggage, and spend 12 hours strapped into an airplane seat, I have lost all desire to backpack through Europe or hitchhike across the United States. However, I still have lots of exploring to do.
Others of my generation, and even younger folks, satisfy their urge to see the world by signing up with group travel companies that plan their itineraries, book their flights, reserve their hotel rooms, and arrange their meals and sightseeing tours. You’ve seen them – gathering on crowded corners near tourist sites, lining up for their buses, straining to see their guide’s flag over 50 other heads, filling entire sections of restaurants to the horror of their servers.
That’s not for me. I enjoy searching the internet for flights and destination details, browsing hotel and restaurant reviews, and reading up on what to see in the places I’m planning to visit. That’s part of the fun and reward of travel. And there’s so much useful information available that it makes the preparation nearly as enjoyable as the trip itself.
Although I’ve met many lovely people along the way, I have no desire to spend all day every day with the same ones. Dining at restaurants that have been selected because they’re large enough to accommodate the group and low-priced enough to fit the budget has no appeal for me. Eating great food when and where I choose is always a highlight of my travels.
I understand that many of my fellow Boomers and travelers of all ages appreciate the security of having someone make the arrangements and care for them along the way. Group travel provides comfort for solo travelers and those who aren’t confident about planning all the details on their own. It eliminates worries about finding transportation, getting lost, missing an important site, or not speaking the language. I get it. Here are some tips based on what I learned about managing those challenges on my recent solo trip to Italy.
Do your research.
After deciding on my destination, I make the basic arrangements for flights and hotels, also considering what I want to see and where I want to dine. (I told you the eating part was important!) Then, if I have any concerns about getting around or being able to visit the popular tourist destinations, I look for day tours with reliable companies, especially those offering front-of-the-line access or other methods for avoiding the crowds.
Choose the right day tour for you.
In Rome, I naturally wanted to see the Sistine Chapel and Vatican Museums. So do thousands of others every day, especially during the peak travel months. I signed up with City Wonders for their morning tour when I learned that the company’s official Vatican Museums partnership enables their groups to use a special no-wait entrance. (Even skip-the-line groups often wait up to an hour.)
Our small group entered the museums 30 minutes before other tours, and our English-speaking guide shared fascinating anecdotes and historical details before leaving us to enjoy the magnificent art on our own. She relayed that as a sculptor Michelangelo was reluctant to take on the project of painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling, but “when the Pope asks, you do it.”
She also described Michelangelo’s challenges of painting while standing on a platform (not lying on his back as many believe) and applying the color to porous plaster. With our guide’s words in mind, the extraordinary work of art was even more breathtaking to see.
Seek out new experiences.
Through its aforementioned Vatican partnership, City Wonders also offers a unique opportunity to visit Castel Gandolfo, the summer residence of the Pope, and to tour the Apostolic Palace and Barberini Gardens. Along with our tour guide, we walked through the Pope’s actual study, chapel, and even his bedroom. Pope Francis chooses not to summer at Castel Gandolfo, making the gardens and residence available to the public, but popes before him have spent time there since Pope Urban VIII in 1626. Visitors are limited, however, making this a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Overlooking huge, blue Lake Albano with forested hills in the background, the grounds also include farm animals and organic gardens. That takes us to the next thrill of this tour.
We were served a buffet lunch prepared with products from the Pope’s private farm. We enjoyed cheeses, meats, pasta, vegetables, salads, and even prosecco and wine. Was it my imagination, or did everything taste a bit better in this spiritual setting as we ate the exact same foods that are sent to Rome each day for the Pope? After lunch, we visited the Papal store where locals can buy the farm’s extra products at low prices. On our way back to Rome, we spotted the farm’s donkeys and cows (yes, holy cows, of course) as we digested the special meal and memories.
Make a to-do list.
One more thing was left on my Rome “must-see” list: the Colosseum. By then, I was totally spoiled by special entrances and no lines, so I stuck with City Wonders and signed up for their tour with entry through the recently opened “Gladiator’s Entrance” and access to the Arena Floor. We entered easily, and our entertaining guide described how the Colosseum was built – an engineering miracle, especially for its time. He made us feel the intensity of being in the arena surrounded by 80,000 spectators and filled us in on some gruesome but captivating details.
The children in the group enjoyed his stories, and he kept them engaged, telling them at one point that there were no teenagers in ancient Rome. You went pretty quickly from child to adult, and lifespans were short. As we left, still awestruck by the experience, we noticed thousands of visitors waiting in long lines to enter. I couldn’t help feeling a bit smug.
Don’t forget to relax.
With the tour over, I needed to find the nearest pizza and gelato. Following the aroma of tomatoes and bread roasting in a scorching oven, I hunted down the perfect lunch. Then, my afternoon was spent sipping prosecco and watching the crowds in Piazza Navona. Maybe I would head to the Piazza di Spagna and sit on the Spanish Steps for a while. Or maybe not. I had no schedule to keep. There was no guide with a clipboard looking to check my name off a list and no bus waiting to take me back to my hotel. I was on my own, the way I like it.