To travel alone, what does this mean? To some, it might be frightening, uncertain, perhaps even impossible. To others, to me, it is pure freedom. There is an exhilaration, as if your soul is awakened and your arms are outstretched, embracing a world different from your own.
Whether you’re traveling some place new and foreign, or familiar and reminiscent of a place like home, there’s beauty in your steps. And while I rue the journey home, the promise of future destinations keeps me awake. I’m ready for an embrace.
My first solo trip was when I was around 12 years old and my parents put me on a plane from Philadelphia to San Francisco to see my uncle. While there were adults waiting for me at either end of the flight, it was my first taste of going somewhere alone. And I loved it.
Most of my adventures in the last few years have been on my own; everything from two months journeying through Southeast Asia to weekend camping trips. Sometimes I’ve intentionally found friends along the way and sometimes I’ve cherished the solitude and ability to do whatever I wanted, wherever and whenever.
So from Australia to Antarctica, Norway to Cambodia, I’ve learned a lot about the pros and cons of solo traveling. Here are some of my biggest lessons.
Know What Kind of Traveler You Are
When you first decide to venture somewhere on your own, you need to know how you like to travel. It’s okay if you don’t know yet! You can ask yourself some questions to figure it out. For example, how do you feel about booking an early morning flight? If you’re not a morning person or if you’ll spend the entire night prior anxious you’ll oversleep, consider booking a flight for the afternoon or evening.
What about planning—do you love to plan or do you prefer to wing it? I’ve found that my best trips are when I plan a few things, from lodging to a few excursions, but leave plenty of time for exploring and spontaneity.
When I travel, I tend to be very active. I want to see and do as much as possible in the time I’ve got. With that said, I understand that when I return home from my adventures, I’m usually more tired than when I started out! For me, that’s okay because I relish the exhilaration and wide-eyed wonder that I get from feeling so immersed in a place. But there are also travelers who want to find a location, hunker down, and relax with a good book and beverage. Know what’s going to make you happy when you travel – don’t force yourself to do or see something just because it’s “trendy” or you think that’s how the travel experience should be.
In the same vain as knowing what kind of traveler you are, you do need to remind yourself to be flexible when traveling alone. There will inevitably be bumps in your journey, from missing a connecting flight, to crummy weather, to lost luggage. But if you can acknowledge that your trip won’t be “perfect” you’ll end up having a much better time. Everything will come as a blessing then and you’ll feel more grateful when things go the way you want them to. And if something does go terribly wrong – don’t panic. When I’m in instances of discomfort or inconvenience, I remind myself to take a step back and address one issue at a time. Take a deep breath, control what you can, and you’ll get through it.
Anecdote: I’ve traveled alone enough times that I’ve experienced real shoddy situations, so I feel well-equipped to handle whatever is thrown at me. And sometimes that’s what it takes to become a comfortable solo traveler. I’ve spent the night on a bench outside of Heathrow airport, I was nearly mugged in Cambodia and rode a terrifying night bus there (you share a bed with a stranger for 7 hours), I’ve forgotten my passport in the Oslo airport, and most recently I was rerouted while aboard a plane to Kenya because of closed air space over Sudan. In this instance, I was scared because this happened while the plane was in the air and we had no details about the military coups occurring in Sudan below us. But because I was flying Lufthansa (highly recommend—airline recs below), we were sent all the way back to Germany, a country I’d never visited before. To me, that was the silver lining. I would arrive to Kenya a day later than originally planned, but I’d also get to visit a new place in the meantime. When I finally made it to Kenya, I was so grateful to be there. I was alive, safe, and about to embark on an adventure that had been nearly a year in the making. Disappointment wasn’t even a consideration to me.
Another reason to be flexible is to account for all the good things that might happen on your trip. If you love a particular place or experience, allow yourself to stay there! My most recent lesson in flexibility was while in Bangkok, Thailand for a friend’s wedding. After the wedding festivities, most wedding guests went to a beach town a few hours away. I was supposed to stay in Bangkok in a cheap hostel then depart for Australia 36 hours later. After all the wedding guests departed for the beach town, I ran into the bride and groom. There hadn’t been enough room on the bus for them, so they had to hire a new one. To me, this seemed like serendipity! Spending time with them and friends in a beautiful beach town sounded so much nicer than spending 36 hours in dirty Bangkok alone. So quite spontaneously I hopped the bus with them and away we went!
Do Your Research, Then Do Some More
Even if you’re not the planning type, make sure you have an idea of what you’re in for—you’ll have a better experience overall. Plus, researching a place ahead of time will help you to be a respectful traveler.
When I choose a place to visit, my first step is getting a Lonely Planet guide or visiting Lonely Planet’s website. I find these insights to be spot on and the recommendations for sightseeing usually pique my interest. I’ll find a few tourist attractions, restaurants, and accommodations to get started, then I’ll head to Google to do some more thorough digging. From there, I’ll pop over to Instagram and see what other people are seeing/saying about a specific location. By visiting Instagram, you can also get a “real” perspective of weather and what people are wearing—both are important when you pack your bags.
Lonely Planet also has pocket-sized phrasebooks that I love to travel with. It provides the basics to a foreign language and writes out pronunciations in English even if you can’t read the foreign language’s characters. I was able to scrape by Prague with my broken Czech thanks to these books!
Stay Safe Out There
The question I am most asked by friends about solo travel is how to stay safe. For women travelers especially, this is a big concern. There’s no surefire way to guarantee your safety anywhere – from your own neighborhood streets to the streets in a foreign place thousands of miles away. So my best advice is to make a plan ahead of time for a possible emergency. For me, this includes sending a detailed itinerary to my parents, including address and phone number to the places I’m staying and any known-contacts I’ll be with. One habit I swear by is notifying somebody when you leave the hotel, hostel, or campsite. Whether it’s a concierge desk or a park ranger, they’re very understanding if you say you’re a solo traveler and you’re headed out for a couple hours. When I go hiking, I let the rangers know what trail I’m taking and that I’ll check in when I return.
I’ll also review State Department travel advisories if I’m traveling to a developing country. (The State Department website also lets you know if you need to get any vaccines!). Throughout my planning, I make sure to properly research the places I visit by reading reviews and checking out photos on social media, travel blogs, or even Google Street View. Once there, ask your hotel, hostel, homestay, AirBnb – wherever you’re staying! – if there are areas you shouldn’t visit or go to alone, after dark, etc. Above all, be aware. I’m hyper sensitive of my surroundings so I never feel very uncomfortable or without control. If my gut tells me to leave a situation or location, I do so immediately.
If you’re really nervous about your security, look up contact and location information for the nearest US embassy or consulate for your travel destination and consider enrolling in the State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP). This program allows you to notify the government when you’re traveling overseas and enables the State Department to contact you in case of an emergency.
Quick tip: Women, carry a cross-body purse instead of an over the shoulder bag. Pickpockets can’t grab and run off with the bag if it’s attached to you. Backpacks are even better but will make you look more like a tourist.
Okay, I’ve got to admit, I’m the queen of finding good AirBnB stays. It’s not hard to find a stellar stay though: use filters to select what you’re looking for and be prepared to peruse through hundreds of pages. Patience is key and ultimately worth it!
If you’re willing to spend more money to stay in a hotel, check out reviews of the hotel prior – do they offer free cancellation, a shuttle to/from the airport, is it conveniently located, and can you get reward points for a credit card or airline?
Hostels are a great way to meet people while traveling solo. But what you gain in shared human experience, you often lose in privacy. Some hostels offer lockers for your belongings but don’t guarantee against theft. Also be mindful of additional costs: hostels don’t always provide towels or sheets. I once had a 102-degree fever in a hostel in Zurich, Switzerland in a room with six other women, two of whom snored all night. That was when I decided I’d never share space again.
Most of us tend to overpack. And let’s be honest, huge suitcases are a pain in the ass. So be a mindful packer and bring clothing items that can be reused throughout the trip. For example, I’ll pack a neutral sweater than can be layered on top of any of my outfits, a pair of casual shoes than go with anything, and bottoms that aren’t heavy or take up much room (think linen or maxi skirts instead of denim). For some people, the idea of re-wearing clothes is weird or gross, but traveling light gives you much more freedom and flexibility.
Another tip is to make a list ahead of time! So many people wait until the last minute to pack and then they don’t pack the right stuff or they overpack (or both!). I tend to jot down items in the weeks leading up to my trip; that way, if I do wait until the last minute, I can reference my list quickly without forgetting anything.
Planes, Trains, and Automobiles
In some trips, I’ve taken a train, plane, car, then boat to get to my destination. Sometimes that dream travel destination requires a real trek to get to and I’ve grown to prefer certain ways to travel. Here are my thoughts on each.
Plane – I’m willing to spend a little more money to travel on an airline I trust or one with good reviews. (If you’re a budget traveler, this might not be as important to you.) Emirates is a pricier airline, but for long journeys, their cabins are comfortable and service is top notch. I’ve had great experience with Lufthansa too – when confronted with a rerouted trip, Lufthansa put me into a hotel and gave me taxi vouchers and rebooked me seamlessly. Both my taxi and the hotel knew I’d just come off a rerouted plane, so I felt very comfortable and knew that Lufthansa had informed them I was coming. Other airlines I recommend: Qatar, British Airways, Virgin, Southwest, Alaska, IcelandAir. If you’re a budget traveler, research the airlines local to the region you’re traveling to. For example, in the United States we’ve got Frontier and Allegiant Airlines. Super low-cost, but you get what you pay for in terms of comfort and service.
Car and/or motorbike – I’ve rented cars and motorbikes internationally and have always enjoyed the freedom they both offer. I feel like I’m part of the local culture. But to travel this way, I recommend that you are very comfortable and aware of your surroundings. There are thousands of tourists in Southeast Asia who rent motorbikes because it’s the easiest way to get around densely populated cities, but hundreds are seriously injured every year because they aren’t familiar with traffic patterns and rules of the road (plus, some have never ridden a motorbike before). So do yourself and your destination the courtesy of traveling smart – if you want to get on that motorbike, practice and learn the local traffic laws/guidelines.
Trains – What a fun way to travel! So many countries around the world have exceptional train transit. If you can get from A to B taking a train, try it! It’s often cheaper and you get a lovely view of the local scenery this way.
Mass Transit – To me, using a city’s public transportation is such an authentic way to get to know the place. If you’re a timid traveler or a first-time soloist, I wouldn’t recommend testing out Rome’s buses or Seoul’s subway. While both are easy to navigate, they’re bustling and busy! So make sure you’re ready to dive in head first when traveling this way.
Boats and ferries – My best advice is to do your research and be ready for a slow journey. These means of transpo are often less reliable and slower moving. But that doesn’t mean the experience is any less authentic!
Upon returning home from Africa in April 2019, a friend asked, “Now that you’ve been to all seven continents, which one is your favorite?” And of course this is an impossible question to answer. But, if I had to play this game…I can’t choose North America because I live here and I think it’s remarkable and diverse and rich and amazing. It’s in its own bracket. So I’ll say Europe because of the diversity of culture, history, food, and landscape. Followed by Africa for its history and wisdom, Australia for its uniqueness and charm, Antarctica for its memory, South America for its hospitality, and Asia for its chaos.
So what do you think? Do you have any tips for solo travel? Comment below!