All By Myself: How to Travel Solo like a Pro
Traveling buddies are great. You can discover new experiences and foods together, then have deep conversations about whether it really was worth waiting hours in line for a rainbow grilled cheese (or whatever the hot new food trend is). Plus, if your friend is particularly keen on researching everything, you can follow their lead for things you wouldn’t have thought to do, see, eat, or try otherwise.
But traveling solo has its perks, too: you’re independent and in control. When I’m alone, I tend to travel more mindfully. That is, I observe and learn a lot more because there isn’t anyone else around who’ll tell me what to do. It’s my own itinerary and pace.
At the same time, I have to make my own fun and push myself to do things. And if anything goes wrong, it’s all on me. Whether you’re on a soul-searching journey to find yourself (whatever that means) or just want to finally leave the nest, here’s how to keep yourself safe and enjoy your time flying solo.
1. Research the basics
Well, this lands firmly in “no duh” territory.
But take heed, because this goes double for when you’re traveling alone. Much of the anxiety and stress of traveling are rooted in a fear of the unknown. When you’re at home, you already know what to expect: you wake up and know exactly how long it’ll take your Mr. Coffee to gargle out a cup, for example. In a new place, you don’t even know when, where, or how you can acquire coffee—and that’s scary.
First things first, make the unknown known by reading up on available transportation methods. You may assume that the subway will be fastest, but find that bike-sharing runs rampant in the area (and gives you a much better view).
If you are going to take the public transportation, look for a city pass or rechargeable card so you don’t have to fumble for change like a tourist. (A particular stressor when you’re figuring out new currency in a different country.) Bonus: Some transit cards offer a discounted fare.
Get the lay of the land by checking out maps beforehand. (Alternatively, you can look up areas on Google Maps and download them for offline use later.) Use resources like TripAdvisor, Fodors, TouristEye, TripIt, Lonely Planet, and Lonely Planet to look up cities or even specific neighborhoods to learn about other people’s experiences of getting around, booking hotels, and nearby restaurant gems. This is also a good time to turn on the charm, practice your language skills, and ask baristas, bartenders, wait staff, and bus drivers about the best local spots.
2. Keep yourself safe
No doubt, traveling alone is a thrill and a never-ending journey of self-discovery, but as a solo traveler, you may also be more vulnerable.
- Be aware. Never walk around with your nose deep into your smart phone.
- Stick to public, well-lit areas, but in crowded conditions, just watch your belongings. You can help deter crime by keeping your bags closed with pockets tightly zipped up and in front of you.
- Never put important items in your back pockets. (You can buy a concealed cash and passport carrier to wear under your clothes.)
- Share your itinerary with friends and family. We have social media for a reason, you know.
- If you’re not comfortable with a situation, listen to your instincts and get outta there.
The reality is that the same sensibilities about keeping yourself safe at home apply anywhere else in the world. And with some advanced research to boot, you’ll be all the more prepared to stay sharp.
3. Travel light
If you know you’re going to be particularly mobile, avoid being encumbered by heavy, unwieldy bags. Personally, I bring a bigger-than-average sized backpack with plenty of pockets that is easy to take on and off, and a duffle bag. For longer trips, I like dual-purpose duffle bags that also turn into a roll-y type luggage. It’s easy to carry around, and you can tug it along when your arm gets tired. For a weekend bag, I like rugged, expandable bags, that can easily fit in the carry on compartment.
- Skip the backpacking packs: For some reason, backpacking packs are a popular choice, but they’re way too bulky for general travel. They’re fine if you’re actually going to be in scarcely populated areas—like, say, the woods—but they’re a hassle if you’re going through major metropolitan areas.
- You can always do laundry at a public place: If you know you’re going to be away for a while, pack enough for a couple days’ to a week’s worth of clothes, using these space-saving hacks, and prepare to spend some time in a Laundromat if you have to. At the very least, you may learn how to say detergent in another language.
- Stick with necessities: Check ahead for the weather. During the cooler seasons, it’s wise to bring layers, rather than a bunch of puffy jackets. We all have a tendency to overpack, but one trick I’ve learned when deciding what to bring is holding the item in my hand and asking, “If I use or wear this tomorrow, how useful would it be?” If I can’t give a sensible answer that’s not something like “It’ll look good,” then I pass.
- Laptop or no? I recommend against bringing laptops, even though I bring one myself. BUT. My laptop is my source of living (I write and consult for a living, you see). If it weren’t, I’d leave mine at home. A camera, my phone, an external charger, and my Kindle are all I need.
In my experience, you think you may need to bring a lot of the comfort of home with you, but you really don’t; you’ll learn to adapt and appreciate your travels more. (And your luggage-bearing shoulders and arms will thank you.)
4. Meet locals and new friends
Just because you’re traveling alone you don’t have to always be alone. Now this doesn’t mean trawling bars, knocking door-to-door, or spending time on Tinder (unless you want to). Here are some general tips to meet people:
- Social media: Check your Facebook for local events happening and invite yourself to them. I’ve even met people through Instagram and Twitter. I’d post about my adventures, and people would reach out to me about meeting if they’re in the same area.
- Head to the tourist information office: You’ll likely run into people there to whom you can talk. If you’re sincere about it, you can always ask to tag along with a friendly-looking group, especially if you’re going to the same places.
- Common ground: If you’re in a foreign country, it’s incredibly easy to connect with English-speakers. Kindly approach someone and open up with something like, “I couldn’t help but overhear your conversation in English. I don’t know too many English speakers here…” and strike up a genuine conversation.
- City-run blogs: A lot of cities have their own official or awesome resident-run sites that aggregate information, a lot of current events, and cool things for tourists to do. Give a search on Google with something like “[City name] events [Year]” to find the specific sites.
- Smile! You’d be surprised by how far a nice smile will go.
5. Consider staying at a bed-and-breakfast
Back in my college days, I would’ve been okay with a hostel, but now I don’t mind paying extra for more comfort and privacy. You don’t have to break the bank either.
Services like Airbnb make booking accommodations that fit all kinds of budgets a breeze. Living with someone who understands travelers and the city you’re in is one of the best ways to get some local flavor and advice. Bonus points if you guys get along, too!
6. Get travel insurance
Most people don’t think about getting travel insurance (I certainly didn’t before a friend told me about it), but it’s a nice thing to have (but hope you never actually need) if you’re always on the move.
It’s more than just coverage in case of a medical emergency; it’ll get your back when your expensive stuff breaks or gets stolen, or your flight gets cancelled. You just never know. Blogger Nomadic Matt wrote a very helpful guide on what to look for in a good travel insurance plan. Basically, he recommends a policy with a minimum coverage of $100,000, covers emergency evacuation and care, and can be used in most countries.
7. Enjoy eating alone
If I’ve learned anything during my travels, it’s that it’s okay to eat by yourself—judgey eyes be damned. The upside of being alone is that no one can veto your restaurant choice.
Of course, consider the setting when selecting a place: Sit at the bar or counter top; go during off-peak hours; avoid romantic, candlelit bistros. I spend a lot of time at coffee shops for work, general chill, and a quick snack.
With all of these tips in your bag, you should be set to embark on a stellar solo trip. Have any additional insights? Share them in the comments below. Happy trails!
Stephanie Lee is a nomadic writer and types to you from anywhere in the world. She writes for Lifehacker.com and her site FY!S. Her motto is “Take life by the balls, but have a ball.” Learn more by visiting www.thefyslife.com to read her lighter takes on travel, life,and shenanigans. You can also follow on Twitter and Facebook.