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Sure there are pro’s to travelling with a partner or friend, like potentially cheaper accommodation or someone to watch your stuff whilst you head to the bathroom.
But the pro’s of solo travel, are life changing.
One of my first big solo trips was traversing North America over three months. I stayed in mostly hostels and in every city I visited I had someone new to chat to and hang out with. Sometimes it was only a few hours, other times it was a few days. On several occasions I bumped into travellers in multiple cities as we headed in the same general direction. So even though I was solo travelling, at no time was I ever actually alone, unless I purposefully went out sightseeing by myself.
As a child I was always an introvert, preferring to play with LEGO, and still as an adult I relish my quiet downtime, but meeting new people everywhere I went, taught me how to be more extroverted. It’s easier in a hostel where you have people from different countries, all seated at the same table, looking to share stories and learn about unique places to visit from other travellers.
Some hostels include breakfast or offer discounted dinner ordered from a local takeaway and you can be guaranteed that if a hostel is offering free or discounted food, people will come; and there’s no greater way to meet new people than over food.
As a traveller, meeting other travellers, you have an instant connection. The first question is always, “where are you from?” Followed by, “where have you been?” Finished with, “where are you going next?” With these three questions, you can end up with hours of conversation.
Sometimes these friendships are temporary, but on other occasions they can last a lifetime. I remember staying at the YHA hostel in Niagara Falls (on the Canadian side). It was a warm August night, I’d eaten dinner and sat outside to have a drink and chill out. A short brunette girl with brown eyes, walked past and asked me for the time (okay she actually asked me for a cigarette because back then I was a smoker) and anyway we started chatting. Her name was Ilse, she was from Belgium and what seemed like the very next second, it was 3am.
Coincidently, the next day we were heading in the same direction and to cut a long story short, we’ve been friends now for almost twenty years.
I’ve visited her multiple times, in Belgium and Italy, (where she now resides) and if I wasn’t travelling solo, it’s unlikely we’d have struck up such a long initial discussion, and certainly less likely to have travelled together for a few days more. So whilst it’s still plausible to meet other travellers when you’re with a partner, going solo opens up the possibility of meeting someone incredible. That once-in-a-lifetime connection. The best-friend you never knew existed.
However more than that, when you’re in a foreign country, and no one speaks the same language, and something doesn’t go right, yet you somehow solve that problem, all by yourself, because you have to; then it instills in you a greater self-belief. It makes you resilient to future problems because you’ve been through far worse.
Travelling solo embellishes on you, the kindness of strangers. In my podcast, Travelosophy Episode #1, I talk about being stuck in Dublin without accommodation and basically ended up knocking on a stranger’s door asking if I could sleep the night. Luckily they had a spare room, and kindly obliged. An act made easier because I was on my own.
However the greatest lesson you’ll learn from travelling solo is you’ll become unreliant on other people. There’s no greater freedom than wanting to do something, like see a movie, or go to an exhibition, and doing that, without having to worry about if someone else is available, willing, and free. You can just go and do it.
Never again miss out on a cheap flight, a concert ticket, or seeing that random indie pop-up exhibition because you had no-one else to go with. Never miss out on anything again.
The first time you travel solo, of course it’s going to be daunting. Try putting a box of LEGO together without instructions and depending upon the complexity, it’s going to be difficult but certainly not impossible. So just like a box of LEGO, you just need a good set of instructions to make those first few journeys possible. Once you realise the possibilities, you’ll end up booking a bargain flight, without discussing it with anyone, because you can. Never again miss out on a bargain vacation because your friends have to save up the money first, or check with their boss who’s currently in a meeting.
When you travel solo, there’s no one else to consider, there’s no compromise or settling. You do exactly what you want, when you want, with whomever you want. If you want coffee and a croissant at the cafe from Amelie in Paris at 2pm, on your own writing postcards, it’s yours. If you want to spend a day in bed, reading your book, and order room service, no one’s forcing you to go out. If you want to skip the Empire State Building in New York because the queues are too long, and find a hidden jazz bar, so be it. There’s no one to argue, disagree with or tell you otherwise.
If your idea of a vacation is to spend a day perusing local craft shops before attending a local cooking class, then so be it. If you want a day snorkelling, followed by a massage, and then sunset dinner on the beach in peace and quiet, then you can do just that. Whatever YOU want to do, is yours to do.
Back when I was a travel agent, a friend of mine quit her job, and was planning on doing a three month round-the-world trip. It got down to a month before she was due to leave and she still hadn’t booked any flights, and when I asked her why, her response was, “because I was waiting on other people and they can’t get their act together.”
So I said, “go without them.” It ended up being something like a two hour conversation about how that would work, and how to travel solo, but long story short, she did it. She met incredible people, she had an amazing time, and when she returned home she mentioned going to the movies, and when I asked her, “who with?”, she said, “no-one, just me.”
It was only from travelling solo, and doing everything on her own, including attending a broadway musical in New York, that she realised she didn’t need anyone else to do stuff with, and it totally changed her life.
From conversations I’ve had, the biggest thing holding back potential solo travellers is the fear of danger and what other people think, both of which are imagined.
Remember that just like your hometown, travelling to another city or country is just another place filled with people going about their daily business, who couldn’t care less that a foreigner is visiting.
Sure if your skin colour is different to everyone else on a train, then people may stare, (or in Japan, take a photo) but that doesn’t mean they’re out to get you. They’re just curious and a smile goes a long way.
Like in every city, including your hometown, basic precautions should always be adhered to, these are the same whether you’re travelling solo, with a partner, or at home going to work.
There’s plenty of forums and posts on Reddit dedicated to solo travel, and certain countries may have specific things to be aware of, but generally all you need to travel solo is:
- Money – no money no travel
- A guidebook – I prefer Lonely Planet as these have specific info about the places you’re going that could take hours searching for on Google and are still usable when you’re phone has a flat battery or you’re on a flight
- An easy to find social media presence (as apposed to private accounts or weird names) so travellers you meet can easily keep in touch
- A Swiss Army knife (kept in your check-in luggage not carry on) so you can Macguyver your way out of any situation
- A detailed first aid kit including pain-killers (no codeine), cold and flu tablets, antibacterial cream for both cuts and insect bites, rehydration sachets, band-aids, dressing and bandage, condoms (also act as waterproof container), anti-histamines, anti-bacterial hand sanitiser, ear-plugs, tweezers, scissors, needle, insect repellent, sunscreen, and most importantly tissues
- Travel apps including off-line maps, translator, accommodation, travel diary, pro-camera and plenty of music
- A good book to read
Whether you’re a planner or a winger, it helps to have an idea and at least the first few nights booked so you have somewhere to go to. Arriving in a busy airport, with hundreds of taxi drivers all shouting at you and gesturing to “come in my taxi”, can be daunting for anyone, but it’s good to know what options you have to get you from the airport to downtown, and how much they should cost. Some airports have official taxi ranks which require pre-booking or pre-paying inside the terminal, which means there’s no arguing over the meter price.
You should easily be able to carry your own bags, and have no more than two when flying. I technically have a three-piece set (80L combo roller bag and backpack, a 20L carry-on that perfectly fits the maximum carry-on size requirements for most airlines (and sits neatly on the handle of the big bag), and a small backpack that when empty, clips into the lid of my large pack). As I always travel with a heap of camera gear, I need a large carry-on, but when I’m out during the day, I don’t always carry everything with me like a tripod or flash, hence the smaller day-pack.
With Apple or Google maps, you can find your way around most cities easily enough, and even if you’re in a taxi, you can give directions. Many hotel booking apps like Agoda include a map and directions in their confirmation email.
If you’re on a tight budget, YHA (Youth Hostel Association) is a viable option. They’re cheap, clean, will organise local tours and sightseeing, and are an easy place to meet other like-minded travellers. I’ve stayed at YHA hostels the world over, and you always know what you’re going to get. They often have unique buildings in iconic locations as well. They have single-sex and mixed dorms, or you can opt for a private room. In Europe they often include breakfast which is a bonus.
On arrival at your accommodation, dump your bags and go for a walk, (always keep your important stuff secured with you) become familiar with your local neighbourhood and if you see lots of locals eating in a restaurant, then it’s probably a good option. Following this principle I ate incredible meals in India, and it was easy sticking to a vegetarian diet which meant there was less chance of making an odd-meal choice and getting sick.
If you’re anxious about dining solo, take a book, write postcards or your travel diary, or plan your next days sightseeing. In many eateries in Asia, you’re so jam-packed in, you’ll relish the space of not having an extra person at your tiny table. Likewise if you’re staying in a hostel, buy stuff from a supermarket, and cook in the hostel. An easy way to meet other travellers.
If you plan on using public transport to travel long distance, then head to the bus or railway station a few days before you need to travel to sort out tickets and timetables. In China, I found an app, C-Trip that booked all trains in China, which made collecting tickets a quick and easy process.
If you’re a nervous traveller, and prefer to have something organised, or don’t want the hassle, then booking a day tour, or a hop-on-hop-off bus (most big cities have them) can get you to most sights, without having to navigate subways or local busses. However as public transport becomes integrated into map apps, and many subway networks have english translations added to signs, it becomes easier to navigate big cities on your own. I found having a two or three day transport card, alleviated confusion about which tickets to purchase and allowed me to jump on and off any bus or train, giving one less thing to worry about.
If you find yourself down, or lonely on a long trip, (it happens) then treat yourself to a nice meal and a movie followed by a video call back home. You’d be surprised how quickly your mood changes with some comfort food and the distraction of doing something normal or not travel related. However if you learn a little of the local language, you can easily meet locals wanting to practice their english giving you an opportunity to immerse yourself in the local culture. Hostel notice-boards or libraries often have community notices about language exchange.
If it’s your first solo trip, start with an easy destination like Hong Kong, Singapore or the Philippines (I found the Philippines easy to navigate solo because everyone speaks english). Travelling countries that have excellent transport like Japan, Germany and Switzerland are other viable options, or stick to a big city like New York, or London. Both easy cities to navigate solo. Alternatively, Reykjavik in Iceland is tiny and easy to navigate on foot, solo.
These days there are tours aimed at solo travelers but that defeats the purpose of solo travel, which is having the freedom and flexibility to do what you want, when you want. Whether you’re a married mother with kids, a retired widow, or single, anyone can enjoy solo travel, and reap the benefits.
Take plenty of photos, keep a detailed diary (you’ll thank yourself in years to come) and most importantly remember to have fun. Anyone can travel anywhere solo, but be warned, it can become addictive.
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