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Mastering The Art Of Solo Travel
I had always heard Europe was a fun destination, as well as easy to navigate thanks to their efficient train system. Living with five other girls, I proposed the idea in October, many months before May graduation, so we would have time to prepare. Everyone excitedly said "yes," shouting out all the cities they wanted to include on the itinerary.
By January, I was down to only two girls who still wanted to go, and come the end of March, I was completely on my own. Inside, I panicked. Do I give up a trip I had been mentally planning for over a year? Or, do I go solo and open myself up to new adventures?
With shaky fingers, I pulled up the Delta website on my laptop, typing in a flight itinerary that would have me flying into Dublin and out of Athens. Without thinking I grabbed my credit card out of my purse, as if a force stronger than myself was moving me. I chose the cheapest flight, entered in my personal details and clicked "pay now." Oddly, my nervousness vanished completely, and I was left with a sense of pure excitement. I was spending the summer in Europe, solo.
If It's Your First Time, Create A Detailed Itinerary Before You Go
I am not joking when I say I pre-booked every hostel for an entire summer through Europe before even leaving the United States. While this is something I wouldn't do now, I do think it can relieve a lot of stress for first time solo travelers. You'll know you won't be frantically searching for accommodation in an unknown place, and it ensures you'll always have a retreat to run back to in case you start feeling nervous. Moreover, if you're traveling on your own for the first time – or even your 50th – it's likely your family and friends will have concerns. Creating a detailed itinerary you can type and print out for them will help assuage their fears.
Know That Traveling "Solo" Doesn't Mean You're Traveling "Alone"
"But, won't you be lonely?"
This is the most common question I get before an upcoming backpacking trip on which I am going companionless. The truth is, not at all. In fact, I find it almost impossible not to meet other people while traveling. At hostels, money exchanges, on tours, in parks, eating at cafes, sitting alone at bars. When you're on your own, it makes you approachable, especially if the person who's thinking of talking to you is also traveling alone. Additionally, you can create situations where you cause yourself to meet new people, like purchasing extra food to share with others in the park or inviting people to do an interesting excursion with you. For a detailed guide on how to make friends when traveling solo, click here.
Choosing A Destination Where People Speak English Can Help Newbie Solo Travelers
If it's your first time traveling solo, I wouldn't recommend throwing yourself into a situation where you won't be able to communicate with locals. It's better to get used to traveling on your own in an environment where you'll be able to book hotels and trains, order food at restaurants and ask for directions without having to hurriedly flip through a dictionary. You may also want to stick with more Westernized countries your first time around to limit your culture shock. Western Europe is a popular choice, especially Ireland and the United Kingdom, as well as Australia and New Zealand.
Research Each City Before You Arrive
How much research you do will depend on your personal travel style; however, I do recommend getting a sense of a place before arriving. Even after numerous solo trips, I always do a bit of Googleing to check out a map, get a sense of what there is to do and, most importantly, learn about any safety issues. For example, while most people think the tourist area of a city is usually the safest, this isn't always the case. In Quito, the touristy "La Mariscal" area is actually one of the most dangerous areas in the city. Although my hostel was less than a 10 minute walk from this area, I knew at night it was not walkable if I wanted to make it back with all my belongings. It's also a good idea to ask your hotel or hostel to give you a map and highlight the safest areas to explore on your own.
Realize The Perks Of Solo Travel
If you're going to travel solo, it's important to keep a positive mindset. Instead of going into it thinking "I wish I had someone to travel with," you need to realize the perks of traveling solo. First of all, you can choose when you want to be alone, and when you want to be social. Sometimes when I'm traveling, I like to just go to a park or wander a neighborhood on my own, getting lost in thought and just enjoying spending time with myself. If you're traveling with a friend, they may take this personally; however, since there's nobody to answer to when traveling on your own, you can do this. On the other hand, you can also invite others along with you if you're in the mood to be more social.
The other reason I absolutely love traveling on my own is I never have to compromise my itinerary. If you're interested in adventure and outdoors and your companion is more of a museum type person, you're going to end up missing out on some of the things you really wanted to do. Additionally, there may be certain days when you're feeling energetic but your partner doesn't feel like leaving the hotel room. When traveling solo, you have full control of the what, when and where of your trip.
Furthermore, when you travel solo you open yourself up to both external adventures and internal discoveries. You gain a new sense of yourself, and also realize what you're capable of. It's rare that people go on solo journeys and don't learn something new and positive about themselves. So, instead of lying on a therapist's couch for $80 an hour, get out and explore the world on your own.
Have Travel Goals In Mind
Traveling solo means nobody will be there urging you out of bed and dragging you to every tourist site in the city. For this reason, you need to be on top of yourself. Sit down, and make a list of what exactly you want to get out of the trip. This may mean figuring out what your travel philosophy is so you can pinpoint why it is that you travel. For example, I knew I wanted to backpack through Patagonia in South America in order to immerse myself in some of the world's most unique landscapes. This entailed researching what some of these were beforehand, and making sure I home-based in cities that would give me access to rare hiking experiences. It also meant there would be a lot of early-to-bed, early-to-rise days, which I kept in mind when being tempted with late night glasses of wine and bar hopping. While it's OK to change your goals, make sure you do it with a clear head so you get what you want out of your trip.
Utilize New Technological Tools To Help Make Solo Travel Easier
Everyday, new travel apps and tools are being created, making it easier than ever to travel solo. My absolute favorite resource to utilize while traveling solo is CouchSurfing. While you could use it to save money on accommodation and stay with a local, I use it for the group forums. For example, if I'm traveling to Buenos Aires, I'll join the "Buenos Aires" group and put up a message telling everyone when I'll be in town. I've gotten to attend great meetups and events by doing this, and have also gotten the chance to see the city from a local's point of view. Moreover, sites like Gomio allow you to search hostels and see who will be there before you book. And for social travel planning, sites like Gogobot and Travelmuse allow you to source information from others.
Keep Yourself Open To New Adventures (But, Don't Put Yourself In Danger)
To do this, you'll have to do what most people find most difficult - let go of fear. Don't lock yourself in your hotel room and only go on guided tours because you're terrified of stepping out into the sunlight on your own. Remember how easy-going you are at home, and try to find that inner peace. If someone asks you to grab a bite to eat or go explore together, go for it. Moreover, if you hear about a tour or experience you've never heard of, try it. That being said, always trust your gut, and don't put yourself in dangerous situations. Meeting a local for a burger in a public restaurant is one thing, going back to their house for a drink alone is another.
Make Time For Yourself
"But, isn't making time to travel already making time for yourself?"
Yes and no. While it's great you made time away from your everyday schedule to explore a new destination, there's still the chance of the dreaded travel fatigue setting in. If you're starting to feel anxious, tired, withdrawn or depressed, stop traveling immediately and remedy the situation. I don't mean you need to go home, but a bit of pampering, journal writing, calling friends from home and TV time can be beneficial to your health in this situation.
Learn How To Stay Safe
While there are many benefits to traveling solo, you do open yourself up to being a target more easily. Instead of letting this thought scare you into not going on your trip, learn how to keep yourself safe. As mentioned above, always find out where the safe and more seedy areas of a city are. Moreover, don't carry valuables, take taxis at night, leave your jewelry at home and never make your money visible. I love wearing Clever Travel Companion's secret-pocket underwear and tank tops, so I can carry my money, credit cards and ID without anyone knowing. If you're going to carry a bag or backpack, put it in front of you so you can see the pockets at all times. And, number one, always trust your gut. If you're in a situation or place you don't feel comfortable in, hop in a cab and get out of there as fast as you can.
Know That Solo Travel Isn't For Everyone
It takes a certain kind of person to be able to travel solo. While I reccommend everyone try it at least once – even if it's domestic or nearby – in the end it may not be for you. There's nothing wrong with not being fit for the solo-travel mentality. Some people just feel better having a companion with them when they're visiting a new place, and that's perfectly fine. And, if you can't find anyone to travel with, you can always consider a group tour.