I started travelling solo when I was in my early 20s. Back then, most of us had just started working, so finding a friend who had the time and the money to travel at the same time as you was akin to asking the stars to align at your discretion.
My first solo trip to Europe was when I was moving on to a new job and had a couple of weeks in between. There I was sitting at a travel agency (pre-Skyscanner days), fully intent on that exotic and extreme-sounding journey to Brazil – I am nothing if not adventurous and I thought nothing of Rio being my virginal attempt at travelling solo – when a poster caught my eye.
I think it showed the leaning Tower of Pisa and in bold, clear words, it proclaimed that this tour was for young people. Well, those between 18-35 years at least.
My turn was up, so I headed to the counter and enquired about Brazil where I found out it would take me the equivalent of an entire day to fly across the world. So I quickly changed tack and asked about “that Contiki thing over there”.
And that, my friends, kickstarted my European love affair, as I went on to visit Italy, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Austria, Czech Republic and Greece on my own.
How to travel solo…like the fierce explorer that you are!
1. Join a free and easy.
Ironic that that’s the first thing I would say, huh? Counter-intuitive though it may seem, flexi-tours like Contiki were a godsend for a young traveller like me. Because I had to make my own way to the country and because you have plenty of chances to be completely on your own when you want to, but never alone when you didn’t want to, it was the perfect fit for an independent girl like me.
While some of my tour mates preferred to zip off to see ancient ruins, I would hang at a nearby café enjoying a good book, a cuppa and lotsa flirtatious stares from Italian romeos.
The flexibility to plan my days meant that I could snooze in the morning because I didn’t want to be up for an early boat ride, but instead spend the day pounding the cobblestone streets in search of yummy treats to munch on.
But when I didn’t want to be alone at night, that’s when the beauty of Contiki came in. Dinners (followed by optional partying seshes) would be arranged every night so you never have to dine alone, if you didn’t want to.
What I loved most (aside from the independence I had) was that I was usually the only one from my country on the tours. These free and easy sorts are the perfect place to make new friends from around the world.
There are other operators offering such “yolo” tours, for example, Wander Tours and Journey Woman, and often, they are tailored to your specific lifestyle interests, say adventure, wellness etc, so do your research and take that plunge!
2. Plan… to have a great time.
Of course, if you’d rather do it completely on your own, that’s great too. But the best thing you can do for yourself here is to plan well.
Book your rooms in advance. It saves you a lot of hassle especially when it’s a place you’re unfamiliar with.
Have a well-planned itinerary. You don’t need to know exactly what you will be doing every day but you do need to have a rough guide to ensure you make your transport and accommodation plans in advance.
2.3. Walk like an Egyptian… or Roman… or whomever.
Have a rough idea of where you’re heading before you leave for the day.
The trick here is to not look clueless or lost. There have been a few times where yours sincerely directionally-challenged me might be lost, but with my shades and general confident stride, no one would harass me and eventually, I find my way – whether that means asking around or discreetly looking at maps (not on a lonely street corner, of course).
I’m not kidding when I say that often, I have been asked for directions – talk about the ultimate “blending in”!
2.4. Day tours.
Even if you’re completely on your own, taking day tours or free walking tours gives you an opportunity to get a feel for the place and maybe make a friend or two. Which could come in handy if dining alone at night is not your thing.
2.5. Buy insurance.
This isn’t something I used to think about when I travelled but frankly, flight delays and lost baggages are more common than you think and having insurance would help offset costs you might incur. It really doesn’t cost that much and you will be thankful should anything untoward happen. Keep the number of the travel insurer’s hotline with you.
2.6 Get a local Prepaid SIM card.
These days although Wifi is prevalent, you never know when you might need to use data and there’s no Wifi access. Getting a local prepaid card is your best bet to ensure you remain plugged in.
2.7 Download before you go.
There are quite a few useful travel apps that you can download before your trip and use offline, thus not requiring you to use data (whether via Wifi or a local prepaid data pack).
Tripit – easily consolidates all your transport, hotel information in one customised itinerary. Saves you from having to log in to many different accounts or carry stacks of printouts of your various bookings.
Google maps – When it comes to maps, this one is pretty much de facto. GPS doesn’t require data connection, so you will be able to use the offline maps that you can download in advance.
XE Currency – one of the most reliable currency conversion tools out there. Sync up when you have online access and you will have the latest rates on hand for when you’re out there without a data connection.
Tripadvisor – some people baulk at the idea of letting Tripadvisor reviews determine their itineraries but I have had plenty of wonderful hotel/dining experiences, thanks to a little bit of “savvy” review readings. This app lets you download city guides with the reviews, so the next time you’re in an unfamiliar area, you can pick your lunch spot without any hesitation.
Triposo – compiles information from Wikitravel, Wikipedia and elsewhere into useful travel guides that also incorporates information from exchange rates to weather to translation.
Google Translate – speaking of translation, this is your nifty tool that will help ensure you’re not buying yoghurt when you’re actually looking for milk (happened to me in Sweden), or that you’re not inadvertently ordering chicken hearts when you really wanted chicken wings.
Avast Wi-fi Finder – there are many free Wifi finder apps around, and this one allows you to look for hotspots while offline and offers security information too.
3. Stay Social.
On that note, keeping your friends and family updated of your whereabouts via social media is a good thing. An occasional post or check in especially when you hit a new area will allow for easier tracing back, just in case anything goes wrong.
Instead of spending much moolah to climb the Harbour Bridge, climb the Pylon Lookout instead for almost nothing and still get this gorgeous view! More tips on free things to do on a Sydney stopover on my blog. #sydney #ilovesydney #sydneyharbour #sydneyoperahouse #sydneyharbourbridge #sydneyskyline #sydneyview #skyline #gorgeous #beautifulskies #harbourview #harbour #sydneylove #beautiful #beautifulcities #viewoftheday #waterview #australia #sydneylife
4. Your wits are your best friend, so keep them close.
If your accommodation has a safe, use it. Otherwise, split your money up. Carry some in your wallet. Put some in your underwear bag, some in your toiletries bag and keep them hidden among your clothes. Likewise with your cards, keep at least one separate, in case your wallet gets stolen. And always lock your suitcase when you leave your room.
But when you’re actually travelling (flights, buses, trains) I wouldn’t recommend keeping your money in your suitcase.
I normally don’t carry my passport when I am walking around, but if you think you need to (like when you’re seeking VAT refunds!), then be careful to slot it into a separate zippered compartment in your bag.
Take a picture of your passport with your mobile phone, email it to yourself (in case your phone gets stolen too, at least you can access it via email from anywhere) and have a photocopy printout of it as well, that you can keep in your suitcase. It makes things easier with officials should your passport be stolen or lost.
Never lose sight of your bag. Keep your bag firmly planted on your lap when you’re eating, don’t just leave it on a counter when you’re paying for your stuff, don’t leave it on the couch when you’re trying on shoes..etc etc.
I don’t like backpacks, and it probably makes you look even more like a tourist than anything else. Just carry whichever bag you feel like, and make sure you have a firm grip and eyes on it. My favourite type is a cross-body sling, carried with the zipper facing inwards.
Please don’t be tempted to wear your camera as an accessory. Sure, in typical tourist areas this may not be a big deal, but if you’re like me, and you prefer to explore off the beaten track (but safe) hoods, you don’t want to be walking around with a camera slung around your neck from the get go.
Assess the situation, when you feel comfortable, take the pictures you want and keep your camera away.
Speaking of accessories, keep the bling to a minimum. I normally don’t wear any jewellery when I travel.
Do not flag pirate or unidentified cars off the streets. I rarely cab it and usually take either public transport or walk. Of course, this is dependent on making sure you don’t take such transport too late into the night when it may be empty or if you’re staying in a more deserted area.
5. Making friends.
By all means, be friendly. Hey…when that cute Romeo called out “ciao bella” to me, I turned and flashed my pearlie whites right back. But that’s also because it was on a busy street and well, he was the gelato vendor.
No, I didn’t get free ice cream.
But if you’re on the subway, limit the eye contact or smiles, please. He may get the wrong idea and before you know it, he might just exit the same stop as you and attempt something more dangerous than a friendly smile.
Needless to say, this is not good when you’re in an unfamiliar area.
6. Fake a boyfriend or husband.
If you are feeling uncomfortable, there’s no harm in lying that you are not alone, saying stuff like “I’m travelling with my husband, he will be meeting me soon”.
And this doesn’t apply to just men either. Groups of girls or another seemingly friendly couple could cause trouble, so trust your instincts and never admit that you are alone unless you feel safe enough to do so.
7. Party time.
Hey, you’re young, you probably don’t want to be sitting alone in your room at 8pm at night. Well, there are many options out there for you.
I loved my Contiki experiences. Most nights, we’d be hitting up clubs. But within the safety of our group, I always felt safe and the guides really do always look out for their “charges” 😊.
If you’re not part of such a group, you might have made friends when you took a day tour out. You can always arrange to meet up with this group in the evenings. Or maybe it could be your hostel roommate. Or maybe someone you met on a 2-hour bus ride you took somewhere.
That said, you could survive a bar trip alone, as long as you keep an eye on your belongings and drinks and talk to safe people. Who is safe? Well, that’s hard to tell but I suppose a 30-minute hangout with a mixed group of people should be fine. And you probably would not want to stay out too late or venture into areas where you are not confident of your trip back to your place of accommodation.
And remember rule #6 above – don’t admit that you are alone.
And finally, respect cultural norms please. Keep those shorts in your suitcase if you know you are in more conservative environments. Bring a shawl or scarf to wrap around (and look uber stylish while you’re at it).
This isn’t about your freedom to stroll around in whatever you please. This is about respecting the culture of the place you are visiting.
Since having met my amazing hubby, I have had trips far more exciting and astounding than ever – we’ve explored the far reaches of the Arctic on our hunt for the aurora borealis, braved a crazy boat ride reaching the point where the wild Southern Ocean meets the Antarctic Ocean, hot-air ballooned over the otherworldly Star Wars like landscape of Capadoccia, and eaten and drunk our fair share of the finest around the world.
Still, I hold the memories of travelling alone as a young lady close to my heart.
The trepidation, the confidence, the pure, unadulterated joy of just being with oneself.
If you’ve yet to take this first step, do it. Trust me, the you 20 years down the road will thank you for it.