While I have taken my share of group trips (e.g., to Morocco), the vast majority of my travels have involved me going solo. When people hear about this, their reactions tend to fall into two camps. Some are impressed by my “bravery”. Others express concern about safety, loneliness, and other issues. I don’t think that solo travel necessitates any particular extra level of courage, nor do I think that a lot of the concern is justified. The main thing to keep in mind when you’re going it alone is that, since you can’t rely on a travel buddy, you have to be prepared to be your own best resource. Here are five tips to help you do just that on your next trip:
1. Packing: I won’t give you a detailed suggested packing list–there are a plethora of such lists online, for example, from Beth Whitman’s Wanderlust and Lipstick and Janice Waugh’s Solo Traveler. I will say two things. First, I wholeheartedly agree with Jodi Ettenberg over at Legal Nomads that, despite what other experts might say, packing jeans is a great idea if that’s what you like to wear. Second, you don’t actually need to pack “light” if you don’t want to. There is no Olympic medal for people who can fit two months’ worth of travel gear into a laptop bag (and, if there were, I would lose). The key is to pack only what you can carry. Your ability to move around easily, maintain flexibility in your travel plans, keep your budget under control, and generally stay under the radar are all dependent on your not needing to depend on always finding people to help you carry your stuff.
You don’t need to get formal. Normally, in the weeks leading up to my trip, I pile everything that I want to take in a corner of my living room. When the time comes to pack, I get my big backpack that I know that I can carry at full load, which load will still be under airline weight limits. (Note: if you know that you can’t carry much, get a smaller bag, or hit the gym!) Then, I weed out unnecessary items until the bag is packed with a small bit of room to spare (for souvenirs, guidebooks, etc.). I also toss in a smaller, empty canvas tote, just in case I buy enough to need a separate bag. Voilà–packing done without the fuss, and peace of mind that you’re not bringing more than you can handle on your own.
2. Planning: As I’ve gotten better at traveling, I like to give myself more and more flexibility, rather than having to stick to a rigid schedule. To do this as a solo traveler, though, it’s on you to plan for the unexpected. Again, I have two thoughts. First, I approach my travel planning like I approach my packing: gather everything, and then edit. I recommend that you make a list of everything that you want to see and do in your destination. Then, eliminate, eliminate, eliminate until you have a list of sights and activities that matches your trip length, interests, and stamina. Finally, divide that list into two categories: those things that you absolutely HAVE to do, and those things that you would LIKE to do but that you’re willing to cut if you get tired or sick (see my next tip!) or things just generally do not go according to plan. That way, you can hit the highlights without having to schedule every moment of your time (thus allowing for maximum serendipity and flexibility), and you have room to forgive yourself when the guaranteed trip hiccups arise.
Second, always have a backup plan. If you miss your flight, is there another, or do you have time to hop on a train? If that seemingly too-good-to-be-true $1/night hostel turns out to have ants that bite you as you sleep, a deathly ill dorm-mate whose girlfriend spends all day and night tending to his mysterious ailment, and an untalented white guy with dreads who refuses to stop singing and badly playing the guitar in a woeful attempt to woo uninterested ladies and win dude-friends, do you have the cash and the will to cut bait and move to the $2/night hostel around the corner? (And, yes, that really happened to me!) If that hot club that you read about in your guidebook has shut down, have you talked to enough people to have another place to party? While it seems counterintuitive, knowing your options will actually help you to feel MORE freedom–you know that you’re not committed to any one thing because you can always move on to something different. Backup plans–use them!
3. Health and safety: I normally take my trips in 4-week blocks. In my experience, I am GUARANTEED to be sick for one of those weeks, either with a vicious cold or a nasty stomach bug, sometimes both. For colds, I bring a little bit of standard medication from home, just in case, and then make it to a local pharmacy at my destination for more medicine, cough drops, etc. Whether you’re sick in Portugal or in Vietnam, the professionals there will know just what to give you. The key is to listen very carefully to their oral instructions because, depending on your language skills, you many not be able to read the medicine box after you leave!
Trying new foods is one of the best parts of travel, and I am an adventurous eater–I’ve tasted snake, dog, and certain unidentified items (some delicious, some not). While I’m usually OK, there is always a good bet that traveler’s stomach will catch up with me. To deal with this, I bring at least loperamide/Imodium A-D from home. Remember, this medicine is only a “stopper”, i.e., it will let you get on that eight-hour bus ride without having to ask the driver for frequent bathroom breaks. You shouldn’t take it for more than three days at a time, but, usually, the bug will be gone by then. For something more serious, you’ll need to get antibiotics. I’ve only gotten sick enough for this once, but, based on my destination, my doctor at home had prescribed the appropriate medicine in advance, and I had the pills with me–godsend.
Other than that, take basic precautions. Find out whether or not you can drink the water and act accordingly, keep an eye out for peeled fruits and vegetables, take care in how your food is prepared, wash your hands frequently, and bring hand sanitizer. Most importantly: always bring toilet paper with you everywhere. Seriously. As Westerners, we are so accustomed to this luxury that we have become spoiled. Well, get unspoiled. Having toilet paper will be crucial to your, um, comfort and cleanliness. Plus, you can use it as a napkin, paper towel, or Kleenex, as necessary. Most important, sharing your toilet paper is a good way to make friends (see my final tip below)!
As for safety, just use good common sense. I carry around a whistle with me as well as an expired ID and credit card, just in case, but I have never had to use them (knock on wood). Safety-wise, the worst thing that I have repeatedly suffered through is street harassment. In my experience, there is no need to whip out the fake wedding ring; the best response is no response–generally, if you ignore the comments, stare straight ahead, and keep walking and going about your business, you will eventually be left alone. In short, if you fly under the radar (i.e., don’t flash anything expensive, dress appropriately for your location, act like you know where you’re going, don’t arrive in a new place at night) and follow the lead of the locals, you’ll be safe. When in doubt, ask for help. People are overwhelmingly good and kind, and, as long as you keep your wits about you, you’ll feel just as safe walking in safe areas in Johannesburg as you would in safe areas in your hometown. No sweat.
4. Patience: While this is certainly not my biggest virtue, I have definitely improved in this area through my travels. Obviously, if your money or safety is at issue, or, if through no fault of your own, you’re about to miss your flight/your connection has been cancelled/your bag is missing and no one is helping, raising your voice might make sense. That being said, being patient and staying cool will help you through a number of situations. First, people will be much more likely to help you if you’re nice to them–I know, who knew? Second, there are certain situations that can’t be fixed, no matter how angry you get, so why stress? Keeping a clear head will probably help you more readily find a solution to the problem at hand. If not, what can you do? Just let it go–eat something, drink something, take a nap, whatever. Then, when you’re sufficiently zen, yank out your backup plan (see point 2 above), and figure out what you’re going to do next!
5. Socializing: If you’re a solo traveler and you want to make friends, I have one word for you–hostels. Now, I know what you’re thinking: you’d prefer a hotel so that you can avoid the noise, the mess, the illicit sex, etc.–that’s all valid. However, don’t give up on hostels–many of them offer an experience that is as nice as, if not nicer than, a hotel. Plus, if you research in advance, you’ll be able to find hostels with the features that are important to you: free breakfast, security lockers, great location, single rooms, etc. My favorite site to find all of this information and to book my stays is Hostelworld.com. A more recent favorite, for finding guesthouses, is booking.com.
But, I still haven’t made the case for shared housing, so let me do it now: this is, hands down, the best way that I have found for making friends as I travel. When you share a room or bathroom or kitchen with a stranger, you can’t help but talk; most times, you’ll end up striking up a conversation that leads to great times at meals, bars, dance clubs, mini-tours, etc. Plus, the people who work at the hostel may plan events to help people meet each other and can also point solo travelers towards fun places where they can meet other travelers with similar interests. I am still in touch with many of the people I have met while abroad, some of whom I have met up with subsequently, whether in their home country or mine. Basically, the best way to meet new people is to be around a lot of them in a smaller space. Hooray for hostels!
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While you’ll definitely learn more about solo travel once you get some experience under your belt, these five tips should be enough to get you on your way. Happy (solo) traveling, and feel free to ask any questions in the comments!