It was my senior year of college. My friends and I would soon be giving up math classes and research papers for 9-to-5 jobs and business suits. I knew that before that happened, I wanted to do something memorable; see the world for an extended period of time before entering a world of one-week-per-year vacations.
I had always heard Europe was a fun destination, as well as easy to navigate thanks to their efficient train system. Living with five other girls, I proposed the idea in October, many months before May graduation, so we would have time to prepare. Everyone excitedly said “yes,” shouting out all the cities they wanted to include on the itinerary.
By January, I was down to only two girls who still wanted to go, and come the end of March, I was completely on my own. Inside, I panicked. Do I give up a trip I had been mentally planning for over a year? Or, do I go solo and open myself up to new adventures?
With shaky fingers, I pulled up Kayak on my laptop, typing in a flight itinerary that would have me flying into Dublin and out of Athens. Without thinking I grabbed my credit card out of my purse, as if a force stronger than myself was moving me. I chose the cheapest flight, entered in my personal details and clicked “pay now.” Oddly, my nervousness vanished completely, and I was left with a sense of pure excitement. I was spending the summer in Europe, solo.
After that first trip going to Europe on my own, I realized I actually loved traveling solo. It’s hard for some to understand, but the trip style has many benefits. Don’t ever let having to travel on your own stop you from going to a destination you really want to see. Instead, master the art of solo travel.
If It’s Your First Time, Create A Detailed Itinerary Before You Go
I am not joking when I say I pre-booked every hostel for an entire summer through Europe before even leaving the United States. While this is something I wouldn’t do now, I do think it can relieve a lot of stress for first time solo travelers. You’ll know you won’t be frantically searching for accommodation in an unknown place, and it ensures you’ll always have a retreat to run back to in case you start feeling nervous. Moreover, if you’re traveling on your own for the first time – or even your 50th – it’s likely your family and friends will have concerns. Creating a detailed itinerary you can type and print out for them will help assuage their fears.
Know That Traveling “Solo” Doesn’t Mean You’re Traveling “Alone”
“But, won’t you be lonely?”
This is the most common question I get before an upcoming backpacking trip on which I am going companion-less. The truth is, not at all. In fact, I find it almost impossible not to meet other people while traveling. At hostels, money exchanges, on tours, in parks, eating at cafes, sitting alone at bars. When you’re on your own, it makes you approachable, especially if the person who’s thinking of talking to you is also traveling alone. Additionally, you can create situations where you cause yourself to meet new people, like purchasing extra food to share with others in the park or inviting people to do an interesting excursion with you. For a detailed guide on how to make friends when traveling solo, click here.
Take Safety Precautions
Whether traveling solo or in a group, safety should be your number one concern. Start planning steps for safety before you leave home. Sign up for the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (if you’re a US citizen), invest in pickpocket-proof clothing (I use Clever Travel Companion), take a self-defense class, buy a lock if you’ll be staying in hostels, and leave any valuables that aren’t crucial to the trip at home. Other great safety items to pack include Door Stop, Safety Whistle and Safety Zip Security Wallet.
Once at your destination, continue keeping yourself safe. Ask your hotel to give you a map and annotate where it’s safe to explore on your own and where it isn’t, carry your hotel’s business card on your so you can catch a cab and get away quick when in uncomfortable situations, don’t drink too much, don’t walk at night alone and don’t tell everyone you’re traveling on your own. Sometimes if I’m in a situation I feel may be dangerous, I’ll wander up to a group of women or men and women and pretend that I’m with them (you can let them know you’re situation, or, if you don’t speak their language, walk very closely).
Research Each City Before You Arrive
How much research you do will depend on your personal travel style; however, I do recommend getting a sense of a place before arriving. Even after numerous solo trips, I always do a bit of Google-ing to check out a map, get a sense of what there is to do and, most importantly, learn about any safety issues. For example, while most people think the tourist area of a city is usually the safest, this isn’t always the case. In Quito, the touristy “La Mariscal” area is actually one of the most dangerous areas in the city. Although my hostel was less than a 10 minute walk from this area, I knew at night it was not walkable if I wanted to make it back with all my belongings. It’s also a good idea to ask your hotel or hostel to give you a map and highlight the safest areas to explore on your own.
Keep In Contact With Family And Friends
Whether you have a detailed itinerary planned out in advance or planning a trip without making plans, you should keep in contact with loved ones while on the road. If you have an itinerary give someone a copy. If you don’t, send regular emails and update your social media profiles so people at home will know where you are and that you’re okay. In the event your family doesn’t hear from you for a few days, at least they’ll have a better idea of where you might be or where you were last in case something happens.
Choosing A Destination Where People Speak English Can Help Newbie Solo Travelers
If it’s your first time traveling solo, I wouldn’t recommend throwing yourself into a situation where you won’t be able to communicate with locals. It’s better to get used to traveling on your own in an environment where you’ll be able to book hotels and trains, order food at restaurants and ask for directions without having to hurriedly flip through a dictionary. You may also want to stick with more Westernized countries your first time around to limit your culture shock. Western Europe is a popular choice, especially Ireland and the United Kingdom, as well as Australia and New Zealand.
Learn How To Get A Free Meal
Traveling solo usually means you’re trying to stay on a budget. You’ve probably read tons of tips on how to save money on food — opting for street food, eating at local restaurants, shopping at grocery stores; however, there is one great tip you can use to get a free meal when traveling. Many cities where English isn’t the first language will have restaurants with English menus littered with mis-spellings. Find these places and state that in exchange for a free meal you will edit their menu to have proper grammar and spelling. You’d be surprised how many restaurant owners will jump at this opportunity
Make Use Of CouchSurfing And Travel Forums
When I’m traveling solo, CouchSurfing is my top resource. CouchSurfing is a place where locals can offer up their couches and spare rooms free-of-charge to travelers. While it’s useful for finding complimentary accommodation and staying on a budget, I enjoy it for its city forums. On the website, you’ll be able to search through different destination-specific groups and let people know when you’ll be arriving in a city. For example, if you’ll be arriving into Rome on Wednesday log on Monday and post something like “Hey all, I’ll be arriving into Rome on Monday and would love to meet up with some people to go hiking or get a drink. Let me know if you’re interested.” Both locals and travelers who are free at that time can then respond, and you can get a little meetup group going.
Stay In Hostels
While the topic of traveling solo and staying in hostels has been written about extensively, I can’t possibly write an article on Mastering the Art of Solo Travel without including it. I’m an avid hostel-goer as I’ve met some of my best friends staying at these types of accommodations. If you’ve never stayed in one, wipe your mind clean of any scenes from the completely-unrelated film Hostel, and instead picture a homey place to stay with social, down-to-earth travelers looking to meet others and share experiences. Many times, hostels also offer free/inexpensive meals, tours and experiences, as well as single rooms if you’re not comfortable sharing. For more on this, check out How To Hostel When You’re Past “That Stage”.
Utilize New Technological Tools To Help Make Solo Travel Easier
Everyday, new travel apps and tools are being created, making it easier than ever to travel solo. My absolute favorite resource to utilize while traveling solo is the above-mentioned CouchSurfing, but for more than just accommodation. I also use it for the group forums. For example, if I’m traveling to Buenos Aires, I’ll join the “Buenos Aires” group and put up a message telling everyone when I’ll be in town. I’ve gotten to attend great meetups and events by doing this, and have also gotten the chance to see the city from a local’s point of view. Moreover, sites like Gomio allow you to search hostels and see who will be there before you book. And for social travel planning, sites like Gogobot and Travelmuse allow you to source information from others.
Keep Yourself Open To New Adventures (But, Don’t Put Yourself In Danger)
To do this, you’ll have to do what most people find most difficult — let go of fear. Don’t lock yourself in your hotel room and only go on guided tours because you’re terrified of stepping out into the sunlight on your own. Remember how easy-going you are at home, and try to find that inner peace. If someone asks you to grab a bite to eat or go explore together, go for it. Moreover, if you hear about a tour or experience you’ve never heard of, try it. That being said, always trust your gut, and don’t put yourself in dangerous situations. Meeting a local for a burger in a public restaurant is one thing, going back to their house for a drink alone is another.
Realize The Perks Of Solo Travel
If you’re going to travel solo, it’s important to keep a positive mindset. Instead of going into it thinking “I wish I had someone to travel with,” you need to realize the perks of traveling solo. First of all, you can choose when you want to be alone, and when you want to be social. Sometimes when I’m traveling, I like to just go to a park or wander a neighborhood on my own, getting lost in thought and just enjoying spending time with myself. If you’re traveling with a friend, they may take this personally; however, since there’s nobody to answer to when traveling on your own, you can do this. On the other hand, you can also invite others along with you if you’re in the mood to be more social.
The other reason I absolutely love traveling on my own is I never have to compromise my itinerary. If you’re interested in adventure and outdoors and your companion is more of a museum type person, you’re going to end up missing out on some of the things you really wanted to do. Additionally, there may be certain days when you’re feeling energetic but your partner doesn’t feel like leaving the hotel room. When traveling solo, you have full control of the what, when and where of your trip.
Furthermore, when you travel solo you open yourself up to both external adventures and internal discoveries. You gain a new sense of yourself, and also realize what you’re capable of. It’s rare that people go on solo journeys and don’t learn something new and positive about themselves. So, instead of lying on a therapist’s couch for $80 an hour, get out and explore the world on your own.
Know That Solo Travel Isn’t For Everyone
It takes a certain kind of person to be able to travel solo. While I recommend everyone try it at least once – even if it’s domestic or nearby – in the end it may not be for you. There’s nothing wrong with not being fit for the solo-travel mentality. Some people just feel better having a companion with them when they’re visiting a new place, and that’s perfectly fine. And, if you can’t find anyone to travel with, you can always consider a group tour.
Have you traveled solo? What advice would you add to this guide? Please share in the comments below.
This article was adapted from a piece originally published on Gadling
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