by Rebecca Holland
Solo travel is written about all the time. My friend Justin talked about it in a recent interview here, and there are dozens, probably hundreds, of blogs devoted specifically to female solo travel. I guess that’s why I’ve never written about it, even though a decent amount of my travel does happen alone. I never thought about it, but I was talking to a friend the other day and she brought it up.
“You just randomly booked a flight to Jordan at the last minute and landed there late at night and didn’t think anything was weird about that? That’s not normal! Most people would not do that. You should write about it so more people do.”
So, here we go. I guess it’s not normal, but for me it is, and for a lot of other women who travel too. What was funny about my friend’s comments is that she’s one of these women, and the first time I left the US it was with her. She helped me feel so much more comfortable about travel, getting around without Internet, and relying on strangers for advice.
Traveling to a foreign place, even with friends, can be intimidating. Maybe you don’t speak the language, don’t understand the currency and are afraid of getting ripped off, are worried about getting lost, or don’t know what to do in an emergency situation. That’s understandable, and these feelings can be amplified times 10 when traveling alone. It can be especially intimidating for women, which is sad but true. There are certain things I see male travelers doing that I know I wouldn’t. Things like walking alone in certain neighborhoods at night, which limits where I can stay, or even hanging out at a bar alone. I could and do do that sometimes, but often it’s not worth it. Men are able to sit at bars without other men coming up and being creepy. It’s more annoying/intimidating/difficult for women to travel alone than men, no matter what other female travelers tell you.
That said, some of my favorite trips have been by myself. I love the time to savor things at my own pace, journal, walk every inch of a city with no real agenda, be alone in my head without making conversation, and on and on. The first time I really traveled alone I was on a work trip to Barcelona, and it’s still one of my favorite travel experiences. To be honest, I prefer traveling with friends because I happen to have really amazing friends who travel in a similar way to me and enhance my travel experiences, but I do think it’s important for anyone to feel comfortable traveling solo. It opens up the world to you and builds confidence. Can’t find anyone to go on a trip with you or be able to take time off work? You don’t need them. Somehow stuck somewhere alone on a layover or because of a flight mishap? No problem.
These are a few of the things I’ve learned about traveling alone and traveling in general that have made solo travel more comfortable for me, so that when I decide to randomly book a flight to the Middle East and arrive at night alone, I don’t even think about it anymore.
Do your research, especially for your first few trips.
Nothing calms nerves like preparation. Know where you’re staying, how you’re going to get there, what you want to see/do/eat. The more you prepare, the more you’ll feel comfortable stepping foot in a new destination. This is especially true for places where you won’t be able to access Internet for the first few hours, or for places that might be out of the norm for certain things. For example, in Cuba it’s better to exchange Euros than USD, and ATMs are virtually non-existent. Without adequate research, I would have shown up and not had enough money for the trip, or paid a higher exchange rate. In one situation where I didn’t do enough research and thought Internet would be easier to come by, I ended up wandering around Beijing for hours looking for my hostel.
Make copies of everything.
Your passport, your health insurance, your vaccination card (if that’s required for where you’re traveling), your credit cards. This is really helpful in canceling cards or if you lose your passport or it gets stolen and you need a new one quickly. Speaking of that, it’s a good idea to know where your country’s embassy is.
Do tell someone where you’ll be.
If someone has the address of where you’ll be staying, it will help in the very, very rare case that something happens. I usually let someone know where I’ll be and tell them if they don’t hear I’ve arrived within about 48 hours of me leaving for the destination, they can start to be worried. (It’s never been an issue).
Try to find Internet fairly quickly.
It helps me feel settled to quickly check in on the world, and even if I don’t need to use it right away, knowing where I can access Internet and therefore any information I might need is a comforting feeling. This is less of an issue now, as free Internet is expected at most hotels, Airbnbs, and cafes. Even just a few years ago it was harder. You can also take comfort in the fact that social media is such a part of our daily lives that people will notice if you’re not around or something has happened. A friend once texted me saying, “I know this sounds crazy, but I noticed you haven’t posted on Instagram in a few days. Are you ok?’ I was fine, just busy, but it was nice to know someone was thinking about my safety. If you want to have Internet immediately, try switching to T-Mobile. I did this year and it was a life changer! They have free data anywhere in the world, which is SO helpful for maps (and my InstaStories). Most countries are covered, though sadly they haven’t reached Jordan yet, where I am now. Still, it’s been worth it for trips all over Europe, and they cover most of Asia too.
Whether you bring a guidebook and physical map or use Google Maps, take the time to mark down the places you for sure want to see (I star them on Google Maps). It helps you see where things are grouped, so you can be strategic about your itinerary. Use the offline save function on Google too.
Utilize Airbnb hosts or your hotel concierge
These people are experts! Airbnb hosts know their cities and will give you advice you can’t always get from research. Same with your concierge, though to a lesser extent. You might have to try to push them to give tips on things that are really local, and not just something the hotel benefits from.
Meet up with people when you get bored
If you’re staying in a hostel it’s easy to meet other travelers. I haven’t stayed in hostels for a few years (they make me feel old), but I have met up with people through Instagram, and have made some great friends this way. If there’s someone you follow (a blogger for instance) who’s based in the city you’re visiting, reach out and see if they want to get coffee. You’ll get a new perspective on the destination from them too.
Go out to eat alone
It’s tempting when traveling solo to grab food to-go all the time. This is fine, especially in places with great markets, but challenge yourself to a nice dinner alone every once in awhile. Order a glass of wine and a full meal, and get comfortable dining alone. It’s really not as strange as it seems. No one is looking at you weirdly (people who travel often for work eat out alone all the time), and your waiter is used to it. Plus, I’ve gotten some extra glasses of wine and free dessert (and given them away in my years as a server) from dining alone. Say there’s only a tiny bit of a certain bottle open, or the kitchen messes something up and they need to give it to someone or let it go to waste. It’s easier to give it to one person than try to split between people at another table. Make sure to ask your waiter and the bartenders where they like to go to eat and drink. Restaurant staff are extremely keyed into the food/bar scene in any given city, and usually give great recommendations.
Know your insurance policy/get travel insurance.
Are you covered abroad? Is medevac covered? (That one is important only if you’re somewhere without a large hospital nearby). If not, look into travel insurance.
It’s a good idea to have a list of emergency numbers for the city you’re visiting. I have to admit I rarely do this, but probably should. In many countries dialing 911 will automatically reroute you to the correct number.
Use Uber or a local taxi app–many countries have their own that work in essentially the same way as Uber or Lyft. These ride apps are great because you don’t have to deal with getting ripped off by taxi drivers, or with trying to explain directions to a place you’ve never been, in a language you don’t know.
Don’t underestimate the power of a good book
If you start to feel lonely, or feel weird eating alone, or realize you don’t know how to spend hours without working, open a book. Same if you’re stressed, or worried, or that bus that was supposed to arrive 20 minutes ago feels like it’s never going to show up. The calming, warming, friendly feeling a book can provide is a truly amazing thing. (Favorite book of the last year).
Be open to things not going well and spontaneous experiences.
I know I said to prepare, prepare, prepare before, but the best plans can go wrong when traveling. That’s ok. Deep breath. Often whatever happens next will be better than what you had planned anyway, or at least be a great story. If someone invites you somewhere that sounds really cool, but isn’t on your itinerary, go anyway. Leave room in your planning for spontaneous experiences.
Always depend on the kindness of strangers.
Most people are nice and happy to help you. Even if they’re not that nice about it they’ll probably still help you begrudgingly. People out to cause you harm are very, very rare. Remember that. Talk to strangers, ask for their recommendations, take their advice, and rely on them when you’re lost, don’t understand something, don’t know how something works, or are just dying to have a conversation with someone aside from yourself. If you’re asking for help, a smile and a few words in the language will get you a long way.
That said, use common sense.
Talk to strangers, but don’t get in random cars (or do anything) with strangers who give off a creepy vibe. That’s not to say don’t get in strangers’ cars in general though, because if that were the case I might still be on the side of the road somewhere in Indonesia. Use common sense, trust your instinct, and you’ll be fine.
Think about the absolute worst that could go wrong.
This sounds counter intuitive. I’m supposed to be giving you less anxiety about traveling alone, not more. But I do this. If I’m in a situation where I start to panic, where I’m lost or something isn’t going right, I stop and take a deep breath and think about the absolute worst case scenario. Ok, so maybe I get lost and end up wandering for five more hours and never find my Airbnb and I have to sleep on the street and someone comes and attacks me and my life is over. Thinking of it to the worst case scenario makes me realize how ridiculous I sound. So now I can be like ok, that’s not going to happen. Of course I will eventually find my Airbnb or at least a cafe or bar where I can ask for directions or use the Internet or call a taxi. In another scenario that happened once: What’s going on it’s 3am why are we being pushed off this train in the dark somewhere in Turkey and where even am I and why am I not allowed to put on shoes? Ok, deep breath, worst case scenario. They’re about to murder all of us out here in the middle of the night and that will be it. Yeah that’s pretty bad. Also highly, highly unlikely. Probably just some random procedure I don’t understand because I was sleeping and it was in Turkish. Much more likely (and true). This might not work for everyone but it’s a strange coping mechanism I have, and it might work for you too.
Now, think about the absolute best case scenario.
You go on amazing trip and you do it by yourself. You build your confidence. You see, do, and eat amazing things. Your Instagram benefits. (Kidding, kind of). You meet new people and maybe even make lifelong friends. You learn about a new place and you learn about yourself. You realize every cliché about solo travel is true, and instead of being annoyed you’re totally ok with it because you feel all those life changing things too. So go, book a trip, and remember that the world is small, and you can always find me here, here, here or at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have questions, no matter where you are in the world!