Solo Travel 101 (from a Serial Solo Traveler)
Let’s get something straight. The biggest “solo travel tip” I have is this:
just do it!
You are in control and you don’t have to worry about coordinating amongst anyone else. This is YOUR life.
Maybe it’s because I’m an only child and I’ve always been comfortable doing things on my own, but it is so relieving to be able to look at a guide book and say “hey, I want to see or do that thing,” and just go see or do it without having to run it past anyone else. You really learn so much about yourself when you aren’t trying to please anyone else but you. Give yourself a chance to be independent. So you want to go to Prague and you have a free weekend but no one else can go with you? Life is too short to be constantly waiting for other people’s schedules to line up.
Ok now that we’ve gotten that out of the way…
- Do your research. There’s something to be said for spontaneity, but within reason, and the more you know about where you are going, the more you will feel confident exploring. And be thorough in that research – know the currency, the local customs, a few key phrases in the local language, the best places to get information, the neighborhoods that are safe and those that are not… You can never over-research!
- Scan all your important documents (passport, license, health cards) and email them to yourself and a family member or friend and have a copy of each to carry with you at all times. This way, in the horrible chance that something happens, you have a backup. It’s always best to be prepared. That old adage rings true: “Prepare for the worst so that the best will happen.”
- Make sure that someone knows where you are going, where you are staying, and a general gist of your itinerary. Again, as much as spontaneity sounds nice, in the interest of safety you should be checking in with people to make sure everything goes smoothly.
- Petty crime, especially theft, is all too common and travelers are a prime target. Be on your guard for pickpockets and scammers. Sorry to be blunt, but don’t be dumb. Common sense goes a long way – don’t carry your important valuables in an outer pocket, carry bags with flaps over them that aren’t easy to access, don’t carry things loosely in your hands so that someone could run by and grab it. Just be on your guard and alert at all times and you should be fine.
- Avoid appearing like a tourist and don’t feel bad lying a little. If you are wearing the souvenir t-shirt, the passport lanyard necklace, toting around a big map looking confused, then guess what? You, my friend, are a prime target. This goes hand in hand with doing your research because sometimes something entirely minimal can make you stick out like a sore thumb. Along the same vein, don’t be afraid to lie a little – for example, if someone asks where you’re staying, tell them a neighborhood, not a name or address. Or if you’re asking for directions, say “I’m off to meet my friends at such-and-such location, can you help me find it?” so that they do not assume you are alone. While in Santorini I once made the mistake of telling a seemingly friendly waiter where I was staying that night, then as I was paying the check he came over to the table and gleefully declared that he would “See me later that night when he got off work,” he would “come by with a bottle of wine.” I wound up locking the door and shutting off all the lights to pretend no one was there, he apparently got the hint and left, but the lesson was definitely learned.
- Trust your instincts. Ultimately, if something feels unsafe, chances are it probably is and even if you decide to go along with it, be more alert than ever and have a backup plan. While on study abroad, I once went on a tour with my roommates and the car transport that we had booked into Slovenia wound up being a pick up at a sketchy industrial area in an unmarked white van with a bunch of large men who did not speak English, but were rambling on it some Eastern European language. I felt like I was in a scene straight out of Taken and I spent most of the ride planning ways to fight them and leap from the van, stunt double style, if need be. My overactive imagination may have gotten the better of me and we made it to our destination just fine, but at least I was prepared had that not been the case.
Some common fears
- I think the biggest fear of solo travel is the safety aspect and while those fears are not unfounded, they can be mitigated. Traveling solo really is safe, assuming you go prepared. Of course, you cannot prepare yourself for everything, that’s impossible – but hey, that’s life. To quote one of my favorite movies of all time, A Cinderella Story, “Never let the fear of striking out keep you from playing the game.”
- You may be worried that you’ll get bored, but boredom is up to you. My philosophy in most things is that it is better to be busy than bored, so keep exploring. Even if you don’t have twelve tours booked, chances are there is so much to see if you just start wandering around.
- It can be lonely, but loneliness does not have to be a bad thing. Sure, dining alone is weird at first, but you get a remarkable amount of service when you’re at a fancy five-star dinner and they realize you are alone. I made friend with several waiters in Vienna this way and they wound up giving me advice about other things to do and see in the city. You will meet people. Whether it is a waiter giving you advice or a friendly group of students traveling around on a tour or a cute old Greek couple that is hosting you in their hotel and make you olive oil cake for lunch because you are “too skinny.” Most people are entirely hospitable and take pride in showing you around and making new friends.
- Homesickness will happen, but it’s zero excuse to not to go at all. Ironically enough considering my vast love of travel, I am a total homebody. But I also have an overwhelming fear of missing out about pretty much everything, at all times. In the grand scheme of things, home will always be waiting for you, regardless of a few weeks away. And when you are back home in the routine of daily life you will find yourself yearning for those days abroad, so try to enjoy them while they last.
Be open to new experiences
You will meet so many amazing new people, try so many incredible new things, see so many wonderful places, but only if you are willing to do so! The best way that we grow as individuals is to step outside of our comfort zone. Experiences, above all else, make us who we are. And what better way to experience the world and become more understanding and accepting of it than to experience all of its diversity firsthand? We are so lucky in the 21st century to have more opportunity than any generation before us to travel, so don’t waste time waiting around for someone else to go with you. You will gain so much more than you could ever expect.