Solo travel is daunting, exhilarating and addictive. It is definitely not for everyone, but that does not mean you should not try it at least once in your life (especially if you are female).
I grew up very sheltered and protected, with parents who made sure I knew of every possible danger that existed around every possible corner. It took a long time for me to decide to take the massive step of travelling overseas on my own (and on my very first overseas trip as well). At the age of 24 I decided to take the leap, mainly because I realised that I needed to prove to myself that I could do something on my own, with no real safety net.
Even with using London as the starting point, and a 2-week Contiki tour of Europe to start, I still found myself in absolute shock when I arrived at my first hostel. The realised of just how far away from home and family I was sunk in, and I ended up calling my mum in tears. Fast forward 3 months later when I returned home, I had fallen in love with my newfound freedom and independence.
Settling back into my parents’ home was a strange and surprisingly uncomfortable feeling. It didn’t take long for me to decide it was also time to move out on my own.
Looking back I have to wonder how long it would have taken me to move out of my parents home if I hadn’t taken that step.
Travelling solo can teach us so much about ourselves, about what we are capable of. There is an old saying about not knowing our strength until its needed and putting yourself in the most uncomfortable situation possible is certainly one way to do that.
Personally I love Europe because it does not have the stigma of solo travel that places like Australia does. The number of times I have received pitying comments (mostly from women) and snide remarks (mainly from men) all because I enjoy occasionally doing things on my own – such as movies, dinner, galleries, even a holiday – is disappointing because not all your friends or partners are going to enjoy the things you do.
If you don’t want to miss something, then it is important for your own happiness and wellbeing to learn how to be okay on your own. Which is why I am a huge advocate for every female to travel solo at least once in their life.
So here is a brief and easy guide to planning your first solo trip, using tried and tested tips, tricks and practical advice.
Practice solo travel at home
If you have never done anything on your own before (and trust me it is more common than most people realise) then this is the place to start.
– Take yourself out to dinner
– Go to the movies on your own
– Visit a gallery or museum solo
– Go on a hike or long walk
– Be a tourist in your city and explore on your own
Try to avoid being on social media the entire time and just be in the moment. Focus on your surroundings and really look around you. You will be surprised at how many little things you miss, simply because you are always there.
Once you start being comfortable with your local area, expand a bit a look at nearby cities or destinations that you can do as day trips or even overnight.
It is ok if you genuinely don’t enjoy the experience, but at least you can honestly say that you have tried it. Some people prefer travelling with others and sharing experiences and that is totally okay as well. There is no right or wrong here.
If you do enjoy the experience though and want to take the next step, then it is time to start planning the big one.
Decide on your destination
You might already know where you want to go, it can be abroad or it can be in another part of your own country. You can pick a half-way point to start – such as somewhere that speaks your local language.
Or if you want to try somewhere completely foreign, have a look at small group tours that offer plenty of solo time. You will get the best of both worlds – time to yourself, and the reassurance of a group.
Start Researching & Planning
Whether solo or in a group, you should always do some research about your destination.
There is no need to plan everything down to tiniest detail, always leave some flexibility. After all, you never know who you might meet and what opportunities will appear.
But for your safety and peace of mind, planning some of the key elements is important.
Consider things like:
– What sites do you want to see
– How will you get around your destination (do they have easily accessible trains, buses, light rail?)
– What are the cultural expectations (this will help with clothing)
– What is the food like (important if you have allergies or food intolerances)
– What are your accommodation options?
– If you are travelling in peak tourist season not only will costs be much higher, but it will be harder to find accommodation on the road – you may need to reserve in advance
– Are there any known scams/potential dangers?
I once met a 19-year-old blonde, blue eyed gorgeous American girl in Milan. The hostel we were staying at would host Aperitivo each afternoon which was a great way to meet other travellers. Without hesitation she started telling the entire table of her plan to fly to Morocco the next day and couch surf. She had been travelling solo though Western Europe the past month and couch surfing with no issue. And truly believed there was no danger in walking into a random bar in Marrakesh with the intent to find someone with a spare couch would be no issue.
No research, no understanding, no SIM card and no backup. The entire table just looked at her in shock… mainland Europe is one thing, but to go to a North African Muslim country with a strong conservative religious culture is another. She knew absolutely nothing about Morocco, only that there was a cheap flight available.
Needless to say, the entire table (men included) had a few thoughts on this plan. While we didn’t see her again, I really hope she listened to some of what we said and at least booked accommodation.
Look at group tours
Contiki is usually one of the first companies that come to mind when thinking group tours, but there are dozens of companies out there that provide group tours. Each with different age groups, interests and even genders as their focus.
There is everything from food, hiking, camping, city to multi-country tours. Some offer large blocks of free solo time, while others have every second planned. But if you want to travel solo, but not quite ready to be completely solo (especially in a country where you don’t speak the language), then this is a great option.
My first ‘solo’ trip was with a tour and it gave me the confidence I needed to make my next trip completely solo.
Trust me on this, we never wear half of what we pack (the only exception being shoes!).
Don’t believe me? Try this experiment: pack a suitcase like you would for a 2-week trip overseas (or interstate) and use only the clothes, shoes, accessories and skin care that you have “packed”
There is only one rule: Do not use anything else in your home.
This will not be easy, but it will prove a point. We love the comfort of having choice. But the reality is most of us only wear a fraction of our wardrobe. So why should you pack clothes that you don’t even wear at home (except for the odd birthday party?)
The other point here is you will have to drag that suitcase behind you everywhere you go. Need to go to the bathroom but at a bus stop? Suitcase goes with you. Trying to find your hotel/hostel at 9pm at night, but it is a 15-minute walk up cobble stones from the nearest station? You are dragging that bag behind you (I know – I did this with a 25kg wheeled suitcase and matching 6 kg carry-on… plus handbag). It is a hard lesson but one we all learn!
Remember – the more ‘stuff’ you have, the bigger the target you are and the more stuff you have to lose.
Be realistic about where you are going, and if you really do need something, most places will have what you need (bonus it will be more suited to where you actually are).
Find your style, research your destination, learn to layer and make use of accessories.
In winter especially, one jacket is plenty. Just mix up your scarves to create the illusion of a different ‘look’ each day. The same in summer.
Love to read? Invest in an e-reader. There is nothing like holding an actual book, but the weight it adds is simply not worth it.
Relying on one form of funds to travel with is a dangerous game. Always have at least 2 different bank cards as well as some cash.
Personally, I have 2 bank cards (with different banks), my Qantas Frequent Flyer pre-loaded cash card and cash. I always leave one card hidden with some cash in my luggage.
You won’t need your entire wallet, just ID, the local train pass, a bank card and some cash. Tuck some cash into your bra or a hidden pocket in your clothes.
It is not always pick pockets you need to worry about, broken ATMS and lost luggage also play a part.
If your card is stolen or you notice strange transactions in your bank account, transfer out whatever funds are left and notify your bank straight away. They will freeze your account, but if your details have been stolen then this minimises the loss.
RFID slips are a great affordable option to protect your cards (and anything with a chip in it) from being skimmed by card readers.
As for ID, it is a good idea to keep a photocopy either in your luggage or in your emails (in case you lose your passport). It makes it easier if you have to find an embassy to prove your identity.
Get travel insurance
Travel insurance is often ignored as an expensive and unnecessary expense. But all you need is one accident in a foreign country to find out why it is so important.
Anything can happen, at home or abroad. Whether it is food poisoning or a broken leg, and it can really put a damper on your whole trip. But hotels still need to be paid and so do Doctors.
So make sure you research travel insurance, and make sure the destinations you want to visit along with the activities you want to do are 100% covered (which means don’t go for the cheapest option – it is cheap for a reason)
It is not a bad idea (and a great way to stay fit) to get some basic self defence skills. There are dedicated classes around the world and online or look even look at kickboxing.
If the classes are a bit expensive then look on YouTube. There are some great videos and tutorials online that will help you get started. It will have the added benefit of you feeling a lot more confident as well.
Or do as a family friend told me years ago… poke the eyes, fingers in nose & pull down, knee in the groin, then run and scream like hell.
Fake it till you make it… an old saying that is still true. The best way to not stand out as a tourist (and easy mark) is to look confident. Don’t hold a map in front of you looking at street signs and try to avoid walking with your phone in your hand using google maps to guide you.
Try to memorise parts of your walk, especially if you have a destination in mind. If you do lose your way, just check your phone quickly like you are looking at a text message (especially if you don’t feel comfortable in the area you are in).
Otherwise, if you are just wandering around, then focus on that and enjoy the scenery. You can always check where you are when you stop for a break!
Stay in Touch
One of the top tips I recommend to anyone travelling is to take an old spare mobile with you when travelling. Why? Because when you are overseas you can easily purchase cheap SIM cards at airports and train stations, giving you reliable cheap data (and a portable modem).
Public Wi-Fi in many destinations, while free, can be easily used to hack your personal information. So, if you need to connect to your online banking, personal emails or social media accounts, then I strongly recommend you connect your main phone to your hot spot and use that.
Otherwise the second phone is perfect for Google maps and Google translate. Bonus – not the end of the world if it gets stolen or left somewhere by accident. After all, it should have absolutely nothing on there except for Google.
Make sure a family member or close friend has a copy of your itinerary, house key, passport and travel insurance.
Keep in touch with that person, whether it is chat, email or phone calls. Keep in touch with anyone who is important to you. It will help keep the home-sickness at bay and keeps people calm.
My maternal grandparents only have a landline (they refuse to use the mobile my parents gave them) so whenever I travel, we agree to a day and time that I call every week. They know to be home and by the phone waiting. No matter where I was, how tired or hungover, every Sunday night at 5pm Australian time I would call.
Even now with the chaos that this pandemic has caused, with not being able to visit in person, I started calling every Friday around 5pm. It is sometimes as short as 5 minutes, other times as long as 30. But that call means that absolute world to them.
Solo travel is amazing and life changing. Whether you only travel alone once, or find it addictive, it can change you and help you grow as a person.
Safety is always important, so do your research and be aware of your surroundings. But most of all – have fun!