Help me decide where to go on vacation.
January 14, 2014 5:31 PM   Subscribe

I need advice on how to best plan my international vacation. Package deal or self made? Eastern Europe, Africa or Middle East? Someplace safe and easy to find my way around.

I've decided I would like to go on an international trip in 2014 (probably spring or summer). I'm hoping Askme can give me some tips and pointers on how I should do this.

Things to know:

-Female, traveling alone
-Experienced traveler, but I still like to remain cautious (which is why I probably wouldn't go to India alone, as much as I'd love to see it)
-Not western Europe or South America
-I'd like to keep it less than $2000
-Up to two weeks
-very open to a long layover in any other city

Places I would love to go:

-the Balkans
-Eastern Europe/Russia (not Czech Rep. or Poland - I've been there)

I think it might be better to stick with E. Europe/Balkans given I'd like to go for two weeks, as I can travel around as much as I'd like to see different cities (Morocco and Dubai seem like shorter trips - unless there are other nearby cities worth visiting in each of those areas?). I love the idea of Egypt but I'm not sure how safe it might be for a single female in Cairo right now.

Given that I might be going places where English isn't widely spoken, I'm almost inclined to pay for a package trip that has all my transport and other logistics planned so as to minimize my chances of messing something up and being stranded somewhere alone or something. Unless people who have done this before can attest that it's easy to set all of it up myself? In the past I've always sorted out my own logistics, but then again, I've always traveled to pretty easy places that have millions of tourists and where English is pretty widely spoken (Berlin, Paris, etc). If anyone thinks it would be just as easy to plan it out myself, could you please point me to sites that would have suggested itineraries that I could follow?

I like to think I'm pretty street smart, but I want to do my best to avoid places that might be slightly less safe for women traveling alone. Of the places I've named, are there any countries that I should avoid?

Any other suggestions on place I could travel that meet any of my criteria are welcome. I like history and culture and I would not say no to a place that was warm, sunny and had potential for a day or two spent at a beach.

I've probably seen any previous askmes that may have been posted.

Thank you!
posted by triggerfinger to Travel & Transportation (18 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: NOT Egypt. Can't speak to the rest of it. Even if you didn't actually get attacked, the constant unceasing harassment would be very unpleasant, and if you're alone it would be frightening as well.

What about Israel?
posted by fingersandtoes at 6:54 PM on January 14, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best answer: My partner (female) and I (male) spent autumn 2013 traveling in Central/Eastern Europe (Germany, Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, Serbia, Bosnia & Herzegovina) and had a great time. The entire trip was planned by us using guidebooks/sites (Lonely Planet mainly) to identify where to go, and Tripadvisor, etc to find accommodation. It took a while, but was relatively easy (apart from working out public transport, at times). If you're an experienced traveler, you can certainly do the same.

Additionally, people generally spoke reasonably good English (certainly in hotels and restaurants, less so at bus stations). We are very monolingual but didn't have many problems at all.

Safety-wise: I felt no less safe in the big cities than I would in Paris or Berlin (indeed, probably safer).

I can suggest a couple of itineraries. One might be to fly into Zagreb, spend about a week traveling down the coast of Croatia, then into Mostar in Herzegovina for a few days (including a day trip or two), up to Sarajevo for three days, then train back to Zagreb. I've not been to Croatia, but my partner spent a week there on her own without hassle. The tourist parts of Mostar and Sarajevo will be quite safe. People are very friendly and speak English.

Another might be doing a circuit of Hungary: starting in Budapest for 3-4 days, Lake Balaton, Pecs (all of which I've done), then going east (which I haven't), or heading south into Serbia or west into Croatia. Many people speak English, although in the west (Balaton) German is

I can expand at length on these suggestions if you like ;-)

Worth noting: travel will be slow - you're looking at local buses and trains that run infrequently and stop everywhere, so allow for travel time (I probably wouldn't recommend trying to do Croatia, B&H and Serbia, for example, the travel times are too great).
posted by Pink Frost at 7:24 PM on January 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Loved Morocco, and if you want a longer trip, add on Spain and/or Portugal. We went to Barcelona, Cordoba, and Seville, then took the ferry from Tarifa to Tangier. Train to Rabat and then Marrakech. Came back up, went to Faro, Lisbon, Sintra, and Porto. (This trip was actually closer to a month, but we also went to a lot of places. You could just go to some of them.)

I felt safe in all of those places. I speak medium bad Spanish and very bad French, and had very few problems - all of those places are heavily touristed. Easy to get around on public transit, too.
posted by goodbyewaffles at 7:27 PM on January 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Also, what about Turkey or Greece? Also heavily touristed - English-only will be even less of a problem than it would be in Morocco or Spain - and super beautiful and interesting and safe. It's easy to get around on public transit (and Turkey has Pegasus Airlines, which is something halfway between Ryan Air and Southwest). Warm and sunny, lots of history, lots of culture.

We went to Croatia and Slovenia last year, which was great, but would've been difficult without a rental car. It's the first time we've caved and gotten one - we are good at public transit, but it was such a huge hassle.

(If you want itineraries for any of these places, memail me; I am an obsessive and still have them.)
posted by goodbyewaffles at 7:30 PM on January 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Turkey! Istanbul is one of the great cities of the world and there is so much to see in the rest of the country. It is a very safe place by most standards. Speaking English is no problem in Istanbul and you shouldn't have too much trouble in much of the rest of the country as well. You'd also be just around the corner from the Balkans if you want to stretch things a bit.

I'd be a little hesitant to recommend Egypt these days, especially for female solo travelers. I was a little underwhelmed by Morocco, but it is a lovely country.

As far as planning, I think you should DIY, especially since it sounds like you're relatively experienced. Turkey would be pretty easy if you want to make things up as you go.
posted by theory at 7:31 PM on January 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Forgot to mention, I've been to Turkey, but not Istanbul. I was in the south (Kalkan). I usually don't like to go back to places I've already been because there are so many other places to see, but Istanbul is compelling. I'm thinking it may be a bit small for two weeks - would that be right? I might consider Istanbul if I can tack on a few other (relatively) nearby cities.
posted by triggerfinger at 8:20 PM on January 14, 2014

Best answer: Go to India alone. Seriously. I did it. I'm still here. Along the way, I met tons of other women doing the same thing. I absolutely would not call India unsafe for female travelers.

Other thoughts:

1. Why the fuck would you take a package tour? The only reason I can think of to do one is if you have mobility issues or are traveling with young children. Or maybe if there was some super special package tour that made it possible for you to take a certain type of trip that would otherwise be out of the question (despite the fact that I'm an indie traveler all the way, I have to say I'm a little tempted by the tours Mike Duncan has curated in conjunction with his podcasts).

2. Want to know a secret about "messing something up and getting stranded"? So what. There's a way out of just about every typical traveler's problem. There'll be another bus. You will eventually get un-lost. Something will be open for food. Especially if you are visiting places where tourists sometimes go. And even if you're not. Nobody's going to let you starve or rot or die in a ditch. I remember once in Peru I missed the stop for the town I wanted to go to. When I realized what had happened, I got off at the next bus stop, which was really just a wide spot in the road. It was the middle of nowhere. Nobody was anywhere. There wasn't a car on the road as far as I could see. And rural Peru isn't the safest place to be a lost gringa. So I took a deep breath, and tried to relax and think about what to do next. Then, off in the distance, I saw another bus coming the opposite direction. I dashed across the road, waved down the bus and got on. I think they made me pay the tiny fare to go one village back down the road? Maybe? That was literally the worst thing that happened -- I had to pay an extra thirty cents and wasted 5 minutes. So what.

3. Re language barriers, it's a lot less difficult than you'd think. For one thing, if you decide to go somewhere Anglophone tourists often go (Morocco, Greece, Russia, Egypt, certain Balkan countries), somebody somewhere is going to speak at least a little English. And even if they don't, well, you'll muddle through. I was once the only guest staying at a hostel in Turkey, and the owner spoke no English. Could I figure out the WiFi password? No. Did I otherwise transact everything exactly as usual? Yes. I had a lovely vacation smiling and nodding at the guy at the front desk twice a day.

4. Awkward is not the same as dangerous, in general.

5. I probably would not go to Egypt right now. Just too politically unstable. Anywhere else on your list would be fine, I think.

6. For some places with a more Western outlook but that you might not have specifically been to before, what about the Baltic states, Slovenia, or Croatia? These will be a lot easier to travel in than Russia, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Albania, or the like, but are definitely pretty different from Western Europe.

7. Go to Turkey! I always recommend Turkey. It's great! You'll love it!

8. No really, if the only thing keeping you out of India is the whole "woman traveling alone" thing, just go to India. Though two weeks is a pretty short trip, in my opinion.

9. I think Dubai will be dull and expensive, but if you've always dreamed of it, why not?
posted by Sara C. at 8:26 PM on January 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

Oh, and re your update which I did not see before I posted, what about Istanbul + Dubai? If you can afford it?

Hungary is also a good choice.
posted by Sara C. at 8:31 PM on January 14, 2014

Best answer: I have travelled quite a bit and have only spent a few days in Egypt, but remember getting hassled a lot. I personally wouldn't go to Egypt right now as it could be stressful. I've never been to Dubai but it seems like an odd choice and agree with your assessment it's for a shorter trip.

I think Israel is a great suggestion. You could fill 2 weeks with beaches and history and be very safe. I spent some time there, and subsequently had frightening experiences in Jordan, so maybe stick to just Israel if you go to the area.

Also, Istanbul is not to be missed in your lifetime and you could always go up to Eastern Europe from there.
posted by gillianr at 9:05 PM on January 14, 2014

Best answer: I don't think Istanbul would be too small... you could easily spend your entire two weeks there. It's got a lot packed into the ancient center, but it's also a sprawling city with lots of neat stuff to see and do over a wide area.

But I get the sense that you like to roam around a bit on trips like this, and I definitely think there are plenty of other great things to experience in Turkey. And Istanbul being the hub that it is, you can get cheap flights to the Balkans to save on travel time.

Sara C. speaks the truth about independent travel.
posted by theory at 9:10 PM on January 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: anecdata: I just spent a little less than two weeks split between Istanbul, Israel, Palestine, and Jordan. It was amazing. Went alone, booked everything myself, spoke English (and a few helpful Arabic phrases) everywhere, rented a car for part of it, had no issues anywhere. I don't like going back to somewhere I've already been but I'd make an exception for Petra, Jordan.
posted by xbonesgt at 9:54 PM on January 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

Japan is very safe, the people are very courteous and eager to try their English, and the food is amazing.
posted by Dansaman at 12:19 AM on January 15, 2014

Best answer: Istanbul! I just spent 5 days in Istanbul alone as a female traveler and had a great time. I'm like you, I don't like to go back to the same place more than once since I have so many places on my list, but I'd go back to Istanbul if I had the chance. It's an incredible city!

(Dubai would be fairly inexpensive in the summer because hotel prices tend to drop, but that's because it's insanely hot. I spent this past summer in the UAE and I avoided leaving the house before 7 pm if I could. Summers here are not enjoyable. However, if you do decide to check out Dubai, you could easily do Dubai, Abu Dhabi, maybe Fujairah or Ras Al Khaimah [two other emirates], and Oman in 2 weeks.)
posted by gursky at 6:57 AM on January 15, 2014

Best answer: What about Turkey + Iran? Culture, food, safety, great people.
Nthing stay away from Egypt, not because of the current instability, it's just not a country for single women at all, unless you have connections everywhere.
Morocco + southern Spain is a great idea mentioned above.
Petra is an amazing place but probably needs combining with Israel and or Lebanon.

And now for something completely different: what about Finland + the Baltic Nations + Petersburg? I have only done fragments of this, but they have been fascinating. Its completely safe, its wildly exotic, and so beautiful.
posted by mumimor at 3:54 PM on January 15, 2014

Iran is extremely difficult for an American to get a tourist visa for, and one of the few places I would recommend going on an organized tour. If only to handle the red tape.
posted by Sara C. at 5:35 PM on January 15, 2014

Response by poster: Okay, first of all, thank you so much for all of the excellent suggestions. I've done several hours of research and I'm thinking I may be too ambitious to think I can see all the cities I'd like in the Balkans in two weeks. The travel times between major cities looks to be roughly 6-10 hours. I'll have to pick and choose because I don't want to spend half the time messing about with buses and trains and then just end up rushing through places.

However, it does seem that the cities are a little closer together around Budapest. With that in mind (and along the lines of what Pink Moose mentioned), I was thinking of one of the following itineraries:

Option 1
Fly into Vienna
Vienna to Bratislava (1 hour)
Bratislava to Budapest (3 hrs)
Budapest to Zagreb (6 hrs)
Zagreb to Ljubljana (2 hrs)
Ljubljana to Vienna (3 hrs)

These all seem like pretty straightforward routes in terms of minimizing fiddling about with transport. I'd be missing Sarajevo and Dubrovnik, which are some of the main cities I'd like to see, but I can always cover them on another trip to cover the southern part of the Balkans (Serbia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Montenegro, etc). Also, Budapest has been another city high on my list to see, so that would make me happy.

Option 2
I would love to see Istanbul and I was thinking maybe one week in Istanbul & surrounding and then a plane to one of the Greek islands for the other week (which would get me my beach fix). I think it can be a hassle to get from Istanbul to the airport though so this is kind of bringing it down a notch in my mind. I'm thinking there is so much to see in Turkey that I might want to do a different trip and just go around different cities within the country.

Option 3
I am very, very intrigued by xbonesgt's trip to Israel, Jordan, Palestine and Istanbul. I wasn't really thinking about the Middle East (apart from Istanbul) and I've just started researching it. I'd be very interested in hearing more.

I've decided to leave out Morocco for now. I've been to Spain and Portugal so I'm thinking I'll do Marrakech as a side trip on one of my future trips (rather than the main destination).

Also, thanks to gursky for the suggestions on seeing the other emirates as well. I don't know why, but I've been focused on Dubai for a few years because I've seen friends' photos from there and it looks gorgeous, plus the UAE is kind of interesting to me so I'd like to see it. That will be one of my next tours.

If anyone has any additional thoughts to add on any of my potential itineraries, I would love to hear them. Otherwise, I'll just keep chugging along with my research. Thank you very much for all of your suggestions so far!
posted by triggerfinger at 9:32 PM on January 16, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The UAE is a great country to travel in because it's pretty small, there's a lot to see, and seeing the differences between the seven emirates is really interesting. If you can somehow time a trip to the UAE to happen in late November/early December, you'd get great weather and you'd see all of the National Day preparations and festivities. National Day falls on December 2 and the amount of celebrating and decorating is unbelievable. I really mean that - it's hard to fathom unless you're here to see it. It's amazing.

As for getting to the airport in Istanbul, I flew in and out of Ataturk airport and it was really easy to get into/out of the city. You can take a taxi (cost varies depending on where you're going; my cab to Sirkeci was about 40 TL), take the tram/subway, or catch a shuttle. I'm not sure about the other airport though.
posted by gursky at 12:59 AM on January 17, 2014

Best answer: It was really simple to get from Ataturk (Istanbul's larger international airport) to the middle of the city. Grab your luggage, buy a Metro pass (get the Istanbulkart instead of the single tickets if you're going to be riding the Metro around town), and follow the signs. Inside the airport everything is in Turkish and English, and every train and stop I saw or took outside the airport was very clearly marked (in Turkish only, I believe).

And a quick summary of the rest of the trip since you said you might like to know a bit more:
- US$800 roundtrip JFK -> IST -> AMM -> JFK on Turkish Air (good food, outstanding service both on and off the plane)
- Four days in Istanbul, which let me do all the touristy things in Sultanahmet and still have time for exploring the modern city to the north and east (Asia) and to go shopping
- Flew to Amman, took a taxi from Amman to the Palestinian border, went through Jordanian/Israeli/Palestinian border control in about 90 minutes, then a bus to Jericho. American tourists are an oddity so everyone was really curious but friendly. I'm 6'5" though so I'd maybe cut out Palestine if you're at all uncomfortable with being a solo female there
- Sherut (shared taxi) to Jerusalem, you'd have no problems at all here. The old city was unbelievable, and I say that as someone who's not religious in the least
- Sherut back to Amman, through the border rigamarole again, taxi to Amman airport, picked up rental car, then drove south through high country to Wadi Mujib, Karak, and eventually Petra. This drive was GORGEOUS, and since Jordan used to be a British territory all the highways are marked in English as well as Arabic (as a tourist, if there are no English signs on the road you're on, chances are you don't need to be taking it)
- Two days in Petra, which was the absolute highlight of the trip
- a day trip from Petra to Aqaba to go snorkeling on a coral reef in the Red Sea, though if I had to do it again I'd've spent an extra day in Petra or gone to Wadi Rum instead

Mefi-mail me if there's anything in particular I can answer for you.
posted by xbonesgt at 1:42 PM on January 20, 2014

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