I remember sitting in the boarding area of Heathrow’s Terminal 5, wide-eyed and 21 years old, trying to keep my breath under control. Having never traveled alone before, I was about to fly solo to Africa — a continent where I knew no one — for two months, where I would be living in a city affectionately nicknamed “Nairobbery.” What was I doing? I had clearly gone mad. Why hadn’t my parents tried to stop me?
The answer was: because I was already an adult. At least I was, technically, but it was this trip that marked the real making of my adult self.
Since that first jaunt I have traveled alone throughout Europe, Africa, Asia and North America. Each trip has been special and different.
Perhaps you’re embarking on a business trip, a city break or a six-month round-the-world adventure. I expect right now you’re feeling a mix of fear and trepidation — both totally normal. The fear the first time you do something like this will be very real, but it can be conquered and is so worth doing. Wherever you’re going and whatever you’re doing, these tips apply.
Don’t put all your dollars in one wallet
Perhaps my greatest solo travel “disaster” ended in me trying to explain to a series of baffled Ugandan policemen that I needed a report for my insurance company. They listened and transcribed as I explained my purse was stolen. In a way, it was my own fault — I briefly took my eye off the ball while I lingered over the breakfast buffet at a hostel, leaving my bag unattended. Within seconds, it was gone.
Fortunately, I had packed an emergency credit card in another purse stashed away in the bottom of my rucksack. So, the crisis was ultimately averted. In some countries, you may be able to get away with using contactless payments, like Android Pay or Apple Pay, but don’t count on it.
Don’t keep all your valuables in one place at the same time. You wouldn’t invest all your money in one stock, right? Avoid the same risk with your belongings. Wear a money belt if necessary or stash a spare card (I always carry at least two) somewhere on your person. Keep track of where all your stuff is and memorize a mental checklist that’s easy to run through whenever you arrive or depart a new place so you can be sure you have all your most precious stuff with you.
Take yourself out for dinner
You know who doesn’t really have to queue for fashionable no-reservations restaurants? Solo diners.
Go alone, go late (or super early) and use Google Maps to help you avoid peak times and dodge the line. The app displays a bar graph that shows you when the restaurant is most busy. It worked at Tim Ho Wan in Hong Kong, it worked at Momofuku in New York, it worked at Bao in London. If you’re a table for one, it makes you much easier for wait staff to squeeze you in, especially when there’s a bar or counter you can sit at.
Put all thoughts of stigma aside. There’s no reason you should have to hide in your hotel room eating subpar room service off a tray just because you’re alone. Take your Kindle or a notebook if you like — there’s no shame in reading and eating. Plus you never know who you might end up sitting next to. Speaking of which…
Be prepared to make friends
“But I’m an introvert,” I hear you whisper. Welcome to the party. I know what it’s like to wish I was at home with my cat as much as the next socially incompetent human. The truth is that traveling alone has been the best thing for my confidence I could have ever wished for, and it’s not half as painful as the other ways people tell you to boost your social skills (drama classes, networking events, debate club — eye roll).
People tend to be naturally relaxed and sociable when they’re on vacation or when they’re in bars. Often, when they realize you’re on your own, they just start talking to you. They literally do the hard bit for you and you’ll almost always be met with curiosity and admiration. That’s just the culture of solo travelers.
I haven’t met any lifelong friends this way (Facebook friends, yes), but I’ve had many unexpectedly lovely conversations with strangers in restaurants, bars and even once on board an inflatable river raft.
Set yourself up for safety
This almost goes without saying, but there’s no point in taking unnecessary risks. Of course situations may arise that you don’t anticipate, but work on honing your instincts. When no one’s around to tell you that something might be a bad idea, you should be able to address that question to yourself and trust that you will get a good answer in reply.
Good planning goes hand in hand with safety. Understanding the place you’re going by reading up on scams, knowing which streets or neighborhoods to avoid and just getting a grip on the culture is really half the battle. Google Maps comes in handy here, too — download the local map for offline access to avoid getting lost. Likewise, consider downloading offline access to a translation app such as Google Translate.
This was particularly true for me when I was in Nairobi — a city with a particularly high crime rate and a unique set of rules to follow if you want to stay safe. But it was equally important on the subway in Paris and Barcelona, where pickpockets are rife and have specific tactics for targeting tourists.
This sounds like contradictory advice to the point above, but in fact it’s not. Doing your reading in advance and having a solid knowledge base means you’ll be well prepared to spot an opportunity worth seizing when the moment arises.
When traveling alone, it’s so easy to change your plans to suit you. You might have created a strict itinerary for yourself and then find that you’re unexpectedly tired when you planned to go out, or discover it’s beautifully sunny just when you’d scheduled a museum visit.
At no point in time will you be better placed than when traveling alone to totally give in to your impulses. With nobody to answer to but yourself, you’re free to act on any and every whim. It’s a luxury that’s otherwise hard to come by in life — see it as the gift that it is and treasure it.
Tip: Keep track of your adventures with a visual diary, such as 1 Second Everyday. You’ll have a wonderful montage of short videos at the end of every trip.
Fully enjoy it
Try not to worry too much and remember that humans — including you — are almost always more resilient than they think they are.
Realistically, the worst thing that’s likely to happen on your solo trip is you end up trying to balance over a squat toilet on a moving train with a giant rucksack on your back. (Fortunately, that never happened to me, although there have been many occasions when I wished someone was there to watch my stuff while I popped to the loo.)
There will be times when even the most introverted or self-sufficient person feels lonely or bored. Cabin fever can roll in fast, so don’t sit in your room. Set yourself a photography challenge, find a bar where your language is spoken or sign up for a group tour or activity.
You’ll dine out off these stories for years, and you’ll make your parents proud.
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