I am becoming somewhat of an expert solo traveler. These days, I travel solo close to 50% of the time.
At first, it was out of necessity. Let’s face it, most people would love to share their travel experiences with someone else… friends, siblings, parents, significant others, even co-workers. However, if you are single, or your schedule doesn’t always line up with others’, then you have to be innovative or else you’d never get to travel. There were times I’d really want to go on certain trips with someone and plans would fall through (bummer!), and then we’d end up not going. Or it’d be so difficult coordinating schedules that it’d end up taking the fun out the trip. When you rely/depend on other people’s schedules, inevitably, you are bound to be disappointed at some point. You can’t get mad.. everyone has something different going on and different personal circumstances. It’s life. Instead, learn to enjoy and appreciate your own company. Nowadays, I have really embraced solo travel. And in doing so, I have found that being able to travel solo has opened up my possibilities immensely. I do not have to wait to find someone to go with before I get up and go. It has made me so much more flexible as well (I can just decide where I want to go and how soon I want to go without having to coordinate schedules or wait on someone else’s approval).
Don’t get me wrong… traveling with someone is always fun and I’d say I’d prefer that for a lot of journeys. For instance, holiday or birthday trips are trips you absolutely want to experience with loved ones, bar none. But for other leisure and cultural immersion journeys, don’t be afraid to get up and go by yourself.
I remember well when I took my first solo trip. Ok, technically, maybe not entirely solo ;-). I was a brave young girl traveling across seas as an unaccompanied minor. It wasn’t scary at all! I got along great with the flight attendant who was assigned to watch me, and I felt completely safe (of course, you are guarded and protected at all times). Each time I traveled as an unaccompanied minor was never scary as I was really quite independent from a young age. My parents also felt comfortable with that decision as I was very well mannered and they could bet a million dollars I’d never run into any mischief.
My first time traveling alone as an adult, I wasn’t completely alone. I was with my friend to Vegas in 2005, but while there, I wanted to see Nevada and not just stay on the strip and she wasn’t quite interested in that (I never like to go somewhere just for fun alone.. I also want to learn about that place historically and culturally). So I took an organized tour of the town and we went to some of the country/rural areas of Nevada. After that, I started working as an Analyst at a Consulting firm, and by default, I had to travel alone, albeit to my client site where I met up with my team. On weekends, I’d travel to cities in the United States that my friends had zero interest in going.. and to be honest, I didn’t want to subject them to either :).. like for instance, not many people (at least from the Northeast US) count Des Moines, Iowa, Denver, Colorado or Boise, Idaho as an ideal weekend vacation spot. But I was curious to go and see these places, so I went, solo.
Then I went to London in November 2007 (though I don’t think that counts as solo as I did meet up with my dear friend who’s also named Lola and my family while in London). So I guess my first true solo international foray was when I decided to break away from my MBA module group in London/Paris in Feb 2010 and travel to Milan, Brussels and Copenhagen alone. Never once did I feel nervous or afraid but then again, those are completely safe cities. I felt completely liberated, free to explore and meet people from around the globe.
When you are alone, I find that your heart and your eyes and ears are more open. You are more eager to learn, see and experience. You are more in tune with your thoughts but also your surroundings. You are of course, more approachable, and that works great for me, especially as I love to talk to people and get to learn about their journey. I have never traveled solo without making at least one new friend on my travels. Be it another solo traveler, a tour operator, or just a guy who randomly approaches me. Oh yeah, when you are female and travel alone, men take it as an open invitation to approach you, of course. Though the advances are typically more friendly than aggressive.
Even if married or have people to travel with, I do encourage traveling alone sometimes – there’s a certain zen to being alone with your own thoughts and embracing your own presence. If that’s too “deep”, hahaha :), then do it if you truly want to get immersed in the atmosphere and culture of your destination. Truth be told, when you travel with people, you find you lose a little bit of your independence, as two people can never think exactly the same. Compromise is awesome, but if you have a short (or long) list of things you’d like to do and see in that city (like I often do) and not a lot of time to spend, more than likely not, you will not be able to do it all in the company of someone else –unless that person completely surrenders to being on your schedule and timetable, which is rare.
There are so many myths and misconceptions I’ve heard about solo travel..
“You won’t enjoy yourself”
“You’ll look like a loser/loner/creep”
.. and it goes on. Truth is, many people travel solo out of preference. It’s all in the mentality and approach. If you go into it feeling sorry for yourself, you will not have fun. If you go into it with an open mind and heart, ready to experience all that the destination has to offer, you WILL have fun and accomplish things you didn’t even imagine!
That said, if you are ready to get out there solo, here are some of my tips:
1. Before you decide to go, make sure you check for any travel advisories for that country or city. Safety is of utmost importance and you should never compromise it in the name of adventure. Of course, anything could happen anywhere, but as much as you can try to avoid putting yourself in imminent danger, do. I check the travel.state.gov site religiously before I travel for safety concerns, unique laws and regulations, as well as entry/exit requirements. Just to note, travel.state.gov stays on the side of better safe than sorry, which means they are on the rather conservative side most of the time. There have been some cities that travel.state.gov suggests not going but I have found to be not that bad. For instance, Cancun, Mexico. Like with everything else, do your research. I check travel.state.gov first, but supplement it with other sources of research.
2. Stay alert at all times. While traveling solo does give you more freedom and provide more opportunity to meet people from all over the globe, it also makes you a more likely target for crime. The saying “there’s strength in numbers” applies. When traveling alone, you absolutely have to be on alert at all times. Not paranoid, but just don’t let your guard down, especially as a woman. When I visit places that are notoriously known for petty theft, such as Rome, I tend to look at everyone as guilty until proven innocent. There are many tactics that have been developed to rob unsuspecting tourists – some people may appear friendly, but end up robbing you of the shirt off your back. I don’t mean to scare you, but just be careful. Use common sense… don’t go out to shady areas at night, don’t leave your purse unattended, don’t carry a purse with an open top in a crowded area, don’t dress provocatively, don’t wear your $165,353 jewelry out when touring (you shouldn’t travel with anything that valuable in the first place) and whatever you do, do not accept rides from random people or unmarked taxis.
3. Speaking of taxis.. make sure to pre-arrange transport to and from the airport when possible. Most cities I have visited, I have been able to arrange transport to and from the airport before traveling. The hotel you are staying at will likely have this service. You can also check tour companies, such as Viator to arrange transport. Though this option may be more expensive than attempting to take public transport or just flagging down a cab when you get there, I put no price on safety and peace of mind.
4. Book a tour (or two, or three). When I travel solo (or with anyone, for that matter), a tour is an absolute must. I am the tour queen! I simply consider it a sin to visit a new country or destination and not try to get to know the culture, main sights or history of that destination and tours help with that. Ok, maybe a sin is an exaggeration, but you catch my drift. It is a travel must for me to take at least one organized tour with an experienced guide knowledgeable about the city/destination, and then you can decide to explore on your own after you have gotten your footing. More than likely, your hotel will have plenty of tour options that will pick you up and drop you back off at the hotel after the tour. These are convenient, but can sometimes be pricey. Also, you may run into sold out situations. I typically prefer to book tours in advance. My tour planning goes something like this: I check tripadvisor for the main attractions for the city/destination I am visiting or rely on personal knowledge of the location. I then make a short list of things I’d like to do/accomplish in that city. For instance, when visiting Rome, I wanted to see the major sights like the Colosseum, the Roman Forum and Trevi Fountain. If I were going to Venice, I’d really want to take a gondola ride. In Bangkok, I might opt to ride an elephant. And so on and so forth. Once you have a short list of things you’d like to do/accomplish, then you can begin your search. For my tours, 95% of the time, I book through Viator. If the experience I want to have isn’t available on there, I search on google for other sources or book on location. Tripadvisor also has some good recommendations.
Some people prefer to skip the organized tour and visit sights on their own. Doing it this way may be more cost-effective and you aren’t restricted to the times allotted by the tour company. I have done it both ways and I find it to be a matter of preference. One of the benefits of taking an organized tour is having a knowledgeable guide usually from that city that can share information you may not be able to find in any tour books or through research. There are hidden gems in every city that only the locals know well (and keep secret, unless you take their tour). Another advantage is the opportunity to meet people. Other tourists like you who come from near and far and are also curious about the same things. This is why I prefer organized tours. I have met so many people from tour groups from all around the world and some are still my friends today. You could be taking a tour in Aruba and meet someone from New Zealand or Russia. Happens all the time. Another advantage is having someone who can take pictures of you : ). When you are solo, you don’t get many pictures of yourself, unless you ask a fellow tour patron or the tour guide. This is how I have pictures of myself when I travel solo.
5. Book stays at hotels close to or in the city center. Since you will be solo in an unfamiliar city, I think it’s important to be close to the main sights and attractions. This way, you are able to navigate better, can stay out later and don’t have to struggle with a public transportation system you are unfamiliar with, or worse, fall victim to shady taxicab drivers. I should also mention I have a strong preference for established hotel chains mainly from a safety and convenience perspective. When it comes to safety and comfort, truth is, I do not jeopardize that just to save a few dollars, especially as a woman. For this reason, you will probably never find me at a hostel or staying at hotels located in dodgy neighborhoods, just to save a buck. I am a member of every hotel loyalty program there is, but even in lieu of that, I will always have a preference for the convenience and peace of mind of an established hotel establishment (& for more reasons than just safety).
6. Have fun!!! I can’t say this enough: Keep an open mind and an open heart and let your journey guide you! I will always enjoy traveling with loved ones, but I have had some of the BEST travel experiences of my life when on solo excursions. It’s all in the attitude and the approach. When you decide you WILL enjoy yourself, guess what? You WILL!!! So get out there, mix, mingle, smile often, introduce yourself, be genuinely curious and be liberated. It’s your life, live it on your own terms!!
And there you have it… my thoughts on solo travel. As you can see, I am a big fan :). I look forward to having a constant steady partner someday (aka, my future husband *wink wink* lol), but until then, I will always enjoy the solo exploration.
If you have any doubts that you can do it, breathe in, breathe out and believe in yourself :). If that doesn’t work, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me and I’ll try to help as much as I can. Be it with a peptalk, recommending hotels or planning logistics.
Disclaimer: I do not recommend solo travel for everyone (definitely no one under 18). It does take a certain bravado to be able to navigate another part of the world solo, especially if you have not done it before. I am super independent – a trait I developed at a very young age and I know it is something difficult to adopt in adulthood. Do not feel you are any less of a traveler if you prefer not to navigate solo. The key is enjoying your journeys and if you truly feel like you won’t be able to enjoy them by yourself or you will not feel safe, then there is no point in going solo! However, if you’re cool with your own company and just skeptical about solo travel, do not let just fear of the unknown alone hold you back from some amazing experiences… you are more courageous than you think! 😉