I’m 36 (damn, that’s hard to say), and I’ve traveled to 54 countries. Most of it was done solo though I did occasionally join other wanderers for short periods of time if we were traveling in the same general direction. And many of these short-term travel partners have become close friends over the years, even as we live in our respective locations around the world.
Making the decision to travel solo was an easy “snap” decision. I wasn’t preoccupied with the common solo travel concerns: loneliness, boredom, meeting other travelers, or safety; although I certainly understand why these concerns tend to halt, or delay, solo travel for other females. If you come away with only one piece of advice from this blog: DO IT! Go solo! You’ll gain so much understanding, respect and confidence for yourself. And it’s more fun to travel solo (at least in my opinion).
Be comfortable with being alone.
No matter your age, I think that learning to be alone and to be comfortable with your own company is one of life’s most valuable lessons. Solo travel teaches you that you can handle any situation and that you don’t have to rely on others for problem-solving, planning or entertainment. You alone are responsible for all of your decisions, a valuable ingredient in learning self worth and confidence.
Throw away your list.
I say this as my own lengthy to-do list sits next to my computer. Granted, my list is specific to my work, but I am one obsessive and thorough planner. Except when I travel! Sure, I’ll plan out a quick, messy itinerary. Start in Guatemala and slowly make my way down to Panama in three months. I know that seems scatter-brained! However, during my most recent trip to Central America, many of my most beloved and crazy adventures were those that were unplanned; when I let go of my day-by-day itinerary and let myself stay an extra week in Belize or take a detour back into Guatemala to experience the Rio Dulce. These are the times that I remember most fondly. Be flexible with your plans and consider new opportunities when they present themselves to you.
Don’t worry: You will make friends.
I’m an introvert. I crave alone time to recharge my soul and energy, and I often escape to a quiet corner to read, journal or simply observe the activity happening around me. On the other hand, when I interact with people, I’m the crowd surfer that engages with everyone and encourages conversations and activity. I honestly don’t know how this happens given my yearning for silence and meditative, calming spaces. Perhaps there is an extrovert in me after all! My point is that even though I value alone time and see no problem with sheltering myself for hours (even days) at a time without meaningful conversations, I easily make friends when I travel solo. You’ll be surprised at the genuine friendliness of other travelers. People tend to let down their guard and social barriers when they travel because everyone is on the same playing field, regardless of income, race, religion, looks and orientation.
Take off the headphones and put down your phone.
It’s tempting to use your headphones or phone for entertainment and even as a “protective barrier” to the environment around you. Case in point. During a week-long stay in Budapest, Hungary, I spent many early mornings running through the city’s park. Of course, I immersed myself in the world of NPR podcasts via my iPod for the extent of my runs. The path was often crowded with other runners and, like any fellow runner, we exchanged cursory waves and half-smiles. One morning, I forgot to charge my iPod the previous evening so I was stuck without my talk radio companion. While I stretched, one of the woman from a running group approached me and started a conversation. It started off talking about my brand of American running shoes and then evolved into an invitation to join her running group for their 5-K jog. This same group invited me to join them for brunch that same day and drinks later in the week. Since them, our friendship has evolved into a trans-Atlantic gal pal group. Two of these women visited Chicago this year, and we intend to meet up in Europe in the near future. When we make ourselves available and vulnerable, we open ourselves to experiences and life changing events.
Try new things and meet the locals.
Be open to new experiences. Instead of frequenting the neighborhood grocery store, browse the outdoor city market where the locals shop. Eat where the locals eat, and go to cafes and restaurants that don’t have English menus. During my China trip, I wandered into a local eatery. Nobody spoke English and my Mandarin phrasebook was not helpful in interpreting the menu. So…I walked around and peered at the other patron’s dishes until I found one that looked appetizing and pointed it out to the chef. While also finding one of the most delicious Chinese meals I’ve ever eaten (to this day, I have no idea what it was), I also enjoyed the company of a local family who invited me to sit down with them. (They didn’t speak English, but we engaged through a series of smiles and gestures.)
Get off the beaten track…
If your nose is stuck in the Lonely Planet or you strive to check off every bucket list item in Frommer’s, you are missing out on amazing opportunities. Sometimes the most inspiring and cultural moments come when you wander off of the beaten path. Stroll through the side streets to absorb local life, visit a village not mentioned in the guide book, or ask residents what they do in their free time. Locals may recommend restaurants, clubs, museums and other hidden treasures not mentioned in the regular tourist guides.
…but do be safe.
At the same time, don’t be an idiot, please. Always plan your first night’s accommodation when arriving in a new destination and know how you are going to get there. I don’t often go out at night and, in places like Central America, I try to be back at my accommodation before dark. I’m not a night owl, nor do I like clubs or bar hopping (in most cases). Plus, it saves money. If I do go out, I ask the staff at my accommodation where the safe areas of the city are located, and I let them know where I’m going and when I expect to be back. And of course, don’t drink too much or take drugs. I’ll say that again, don’t drink too much or take drugs. For obvious reasons gals. Also, don’t go home with anyone either. You’re not in college. Finally, buy travel insurance, and carry a whistle and doorstop.
There’s no going back.
Traveling solo is soul stirring and life changing. It will teach you valuable life lessons and change your levels of comfort with yourself and the world around you. You’ll return home with improved social skills and the ability to think on your feet and make informed, educated decisions. Plus, you will be planning the type of trip that you want to take at the pace that you want to travel.
And word of warning though: You will love solo travel and want to keep going (Well, until you fall in love and he wants to travel with you! We’re still working on making those travel plans.)