5 Essential Travel Tips Learned Over 20 Years of Solo Travel

solo travel tips

My first solo travel experience was more than 20 years ago. In true Irish scholar fashion, I was packed off to the Gaeltacht. For those non-Irish readers out there, the Gaeltacht is the name for Irish speaking areas of Ireland where language schools operate during summer holidays. I happily shoved my teddy bear into my backpack and, without a backward glance at the moist eyes of my dear old Mammy and Daddy, I hopped on a boat ‘trasna na dtonnta’ (across the waves) headed for Inis Mór in the Aran Islands.

Little did I know how lucky I was, or that it was only the first in a ridiculously long line of trips that I was going to take alone over the next twenty plus years. A few years later, at the ripe old age of 15, my solo travel experience truly began when it went international. I headed off to Spain to au-pair for a summer. I’m not sure who thought putting a 15 year old in charge of children was a good idea, oh wait, that’s right, it was the family from hell!!! After a less than impressive first real solo trip, I arrived back home with lessons under my belt that have stood to me on every trip I’ve taken since (and surprisingly few to Spain).

Thank God that one nasty family didn’t forever quieten my wanderlust. In fact, I’ve hardly been able to stay still since then. I’ve visited every continent except for the Antarctic (working on that one!) and picked up some essential travel tips that I think every young girl (and guy!) should know before they travel solo.

Aran Islands
Aran Islands

Essential Tips for Solo Travel

1. Use Your Common Sense

It doesn’t cost anything, it doesn’t weigh anything and it’s not likely to get you into trouble at airport security. Still, so many people who travel seem to have forgotten to pack it. Common sense is the single most valuable thing you need to take with you on any trip, no matter how short or long. Over half* of all travel disasters are caused by somebody doing something that could have been avoided if they’d just applied a little brain power

(*this statistic is a total fabrication created because I think that’s about right)

It could mean something as simple as labelling your suitcase correctly, or if could mean something as important as avoiding visiting dangerous areas alone. The best advice I can give about using common sense when you travel is to be mindful of where you are, who you’re with and to do a little research before you go. Have a basic understanding of culture and environment so you don’t land yourself in hot water.

Recently, I met a Canadian girl travelling solo in Greece who was trying to get her bank cards reissued after they’d been stolen. It was proving difficult because she had no phone – it was also stolen, as had any cash she had left for her trip. Her flight home was the next morning but she couldn’t pay for her night’s accommodation or transport to the airport. She was living a travel nightmare, so I helped her out by lending her my phone to contact her bank and her Dad to get help. I asked what had happened and was completely stumped by her answer.

Drunk, at a beach party on Mykonos, she had dropped all of her belongings with a few guys she had just met and went off skinny dipping with one of them. Needless to say, her new friends quickly disappeared along with her phone, purse and all her valuables. I bit my tongue as I listened to her story. The most amazing thing was that even as she told it, she couldn’t see that she had simply not engaged her brain at any point in the lead up to the theft.

Now, we’ve all been there – sort of! We’ve all gotten drunk and made poor choices. What I couldn’t figure out about this girl’s choices, though, was the lack of awareness when she was planning her night out. She was going to a beach party. She planned to drink. At what point did she decide that taking all of her money and all (indeed any) of her bank cards was a good idea? And where did she think she was going to put them to keep them safe? In her bikini?

That wasn’t the only concern. She left her stuff with strange guys to go to an isolated part of the beach with one of them without telling anybody where she was going. I shuddered at the possibilities of what might have happened. She was still blissfully unaware. All I’m saying is that using common sense may help you to avoid some situations that you really don’t ever want to encounter.

Beach Party

2. Say Yes

This probably goes against everything you’ve ever been taught, but a top travel tip I’ve learned over 20 years of solo travel is that interesting and new opportunities often only present themselves once.

Say yes.

Obviously, this requires a certain amount of tip 1 – applying some common sense. It’s probably best to say no to strangers who want to go down a dark alley (or to an isolated part of a beach while all your belongings are guarded by strangers).

The point is to differentiate between potentially dangerous situations and opportunities for once-in-a-lifetime experiences. I visited Egypt with a friend a few years ago and as we were looking at the Sphinx and idly chatting and taking photographs, a guy approached us. We were tired of people looking for ‘baksheesh’ (tips) or badgering us to buy knick-knacks. We were annoyed with the inappropriate comments that we’d been getting from some Egyptian men. So when this young guy started talking to us, our initial reaction was to say ‘no, thank you’ and walk away. Thankfully, we didn’t and for some reason, we got talking to him. As it turned out, the young man lived across the road and his rooftop had a perfect view of the Sphinx. He invited us for tea and to watch the sunset from his roof. Of course we said no, even though we both desperately wanted to go. And he would have left it there, except that an older lady came out of the house and took a newspaper to his head for having bothered us. It broke the ice. We all got chatting and, well, long story short, the sunset from his roof was an unforgettable experience. When we said our goodbyes, he and his mother waved us off with pleasantries and well wishes, refusing point blank to take the ‘baksheesh’ we offered.

Sphinx and Pyramids: Photo by Matt Champlin

3. Be comfortable with your own company (and bring a book)

If you’re not comfortable with your own company, then to be quite blunt; solo travel may not be for you.

Of course you’re going to meet new people and if you’re a social butterfly, you may have a hectic party schedule as you travel, but the reality is that most of us are not 24 hour party people. Even if you are, the party ends some time and when the next day rolls around, you’ll be on your own again. Get used to it. You may just find that yours is the best company there is. Being alone also opens up opportunities for others to approach you and make conversation, so you never know where you could meet new friends. And for those long, lonely airport layovers, bring a book!

Read

4. Talk to strangers.

I always try to meet new people when I arrive in a new place and it’s easier than you might think. Strike up a conversation with people you meet. If you know people in the city, why not arrange a catch up? Or if you don’t know anybody, maybe your facebook friends can hook you up with their contacts. Use social media to try to connect with locals or people living nearby. There’s no better way to see a new place than through the eyes of someone who knows it well.

I sometimes contact other bloggers living in the place that I’m visiting. Who better to know what I’m looking for when I’m blogging about a destination, and they’re usually quick to arrange a meetup or to point you in the direction of people who will make your stay memorable. You may not be a blogger, but maybe you can try to contact people through your work. Maybe your company has an office in another city. Maybe there’s a colleague who’d be happy to show you around. Are you an artist? Contact local artists. Are you a tech guru? Research local networks.

There are likely to be plenty of other solo travellers looking to connect. If you’re planning to stay in a hostel, chat to the people staying there. Ask about activities. Hostel staff are usually in-the-know and people staying in hostels are usually eager to meet new friends. You’ll be surprised how many solo travel tips you’ll be able to learn and share between you.

Facebook is a great place to find friends. There are dedicated travel communities on there that can really help, not just with meeting people, but with advice and support if you run into trouble. I’m a member of a travel community for female travellers called Girls Love Travel and I’ve often posted in there when I’m in a new place and looking for people to hang out with. I’ve had some great adventures with the ladies I’ve befriended through the group and have recommended it to all the solo female travellers I’ve met on my journeys. Sorry boys, you’ll just have to get your own group!

girl travel

There are also so many apps now for connecting travellers with locals and with fellow travellers that you will find yourself spoilt for choice. I like the CouchSurfing app. I’m reluctant to recommend it for finding accommodation because there are just too many weirdos out there, but I love the ‘hangouts’ feature. If you’re not familiar with it, it might be worth checking out. It lets you connect with locals and other travellers in your area and explore or socialise together. There are usually events that you can rock up to and just like magic, you’ll have a new social circle in your new city.

Outside of cities, you may have to go old-school and actually *shock-horror* speak to people. Which, let’s face it, is still the greatest way to make new friends. But don’t forget tip 1 – common sense is King. It’s great that you’ve just met a Dude in the Caribbean who’s invited you on board his boat, but if he’s got the look of Captain Jack Sparrow about him and there’s a Jolly Roger flying from his ship that looks suspiciously like the Black Pearl, well… adventurous and all as it may seem, sometimes it’s best to avoid those pirate types.

And if all else fails? Well, you’ve got the best company of all – you! (and your book)

solo travel

5. Do it all – you may never be back.

Too many times I’ve told myself ‘I’ll come back’ and left bucket list items unchecked because I had to compromise for one reason or another. If you’re travelling with someone, your wishlist may not fully align with your travel buddy and you end up missing out on something you wanted to see or do. Usually, you don’t mind because you’ve agreed a compromise, but there are one or two things that will niggle away at you like and unscratchable itch. Make sure you prioritise well and work out a plan with travel companions so that nobody misses out on their ‘must see’ places.

Money is another factor that may stop you from doing something you really should. I visited Rio a few years back during Carnival and it was pretty epic. I was travelling with a friend and we had a brilliant time… except…

The Sambadrome tickets were hideously expensive. We had a limit on our budgets. With so many brilliant, brilliant things to do in the city, we decided to do the ones that we could actually afford. Who needs the Sambadrome, right? Turns out, we both regret it to this day. Ok, it would have put pressure on the credit card. Ok, we would have had to make a few other sacrifices, but we were both adamant that we’d be back. We would have another chance.

That was eight years ago. And while we may well get back some time, it will be a totally different experience. An experience for older, slightly more sensible, slightly less wild women. It’s my one real travel regret and if I could change it, I’d go back, I’d buy the stupid expensive tickets and I’d dance and party the night away. I’d always remember Carnival at the Sambadrome and never once would I remember those credit card repayments or the pot noodles I would have had to eat for weeks when I got home.

Sambadrome

 

What are your top travel tips learned from solo travel? Don’t be shy, I love a bit of commentary… leave a comment below or get in touch on all the social networks! And if you really love the blog, sign up for the monthly newsletters in the panel on the right (scroll down if you’re on a phone).

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45 Comment

  1. Alex says: Reply

    LOVE this post! As a wife and mum I rarely travel alone (usually just for work if I do) but the tips are mostly relevant to anyone travelling – particularly about being street smart and saying yes!

    1. Rambling Ruth says: Reply

      Agreed. Glad you enjoyed!

  2. I really agree with all your tips for solo travel! Making the most out the moment and saying yes to everything really gives you memories you never thought you would get!

    1. Rambling Ruth says: Reply

      Absolutely. Glad you enjoyed

  3. michele h peterson says: Reply

    All of thee tips are handy but the one I love the most is “Do it all – you may never be back.” – That’s so true! I wish I’d done many more things rather than say “next time”

    1. Rambling Ruth says: Reply

      I know, me too. But I guess you live and learn.

  4. Cath says: Reply

    Great tips! I use all of them and feel so lucky to meet new friends wherever we go! Love that you included (not so) common sense

    1. Rambling Ruth says: Reply

      Haha… it’s the simplest things 🙂

  5. Fantastic tips. Completely agree about common sense being number one! I have met too many travelers over the years that have stumped me with their lack of it! And, like the woman in your story, seem completely oblivious to it! It’s a wonder nothing worse happens to these people (obviously not wishing that on them!).

    Haven’t used the couchsurfing hangouts app yet – I’ve seen it though and looks cool!

    1. Rambling Ruth says: Reply

      Thanks Sam. The couchsurfing hangouts are definitely helpful if you’re in a place and know nobody. I’ve ended up meeting some really cool people through it

  6. Lana says: Reply

    Having only done solo trips a couple of times, I loved meeting new people. Being a chatterbox I have no problems talking to strangers! I’m so with you on the common sense! Great post, really enjoyed reading it.

    1. Rambling Ruth says: Reply

      Thanks Lana. Much appreciated

  7. I always look up to those solo travellers/backpackers for me their are very courageous, and positive to be able to voyage alone and face all by oneself is such a great effort. I agree on the last part “do it all you may never come back” as much as we wanted to come back to those places that we have visited, we can’t really assure it, I kinda get why you said that 🙂 anyway you got a great tips here very useful for all amature solo travellers. thank you

    1. Rambling Ruth says: Reply

      Thanks Mary. You never know, you may travel solo one day! Whatever your travel style, enjoy!!

  8. Fantastic tips and nearly all can be used in any type of travel not just solo! Common sense is the biggie and I see SO. MANY. PEOPLE. not using this during their travels. Just stop for one second to think about the decision you are about to make! It could save your life!

    Great post and great tips!

    1. Rambling Ruth says: Reply

      Thanks Cat

  9. Roamingourearth says: Reply

    Fantastic tips! In all honest I found my solo trips where the best I took in my twenties.
    Literally laughing out loud at the common sense story!

    1. Rambling Ruth says: Reply

      It’s pretty laughable! Yes, love solo trips and I think my 20s was probably the best time for them too!

  10. How wonderfully you have penned down these tips, specially the common sense one.

    1. Rambling Ruth says: Reply

      Thanks Anushka

  11. lloyd says: Reply

    great advice! got to be comfortable speaking to people and making new friends and these are the people who you will still keep in contact with in 20 years time 🙂 great work!

    1. Rambling Ruth says: Reply

      Absolutely! There are new friends everywhere 🙂

  12. First of all, I love your photos! Then I’ve appreciate the thoughtful suggestion you give to those who are thinking of traveling solo for the first time. Hell, they’d be useful even for me!

    1. Rambling Ruth says: Reply

      Thanks Dany. Hope they come in handy

  13. You have covered them all in a single post. Incredible! I love the tip of saying “yes” and being open to new adventures and opportunities that present themselves. Cheers!!

    1. Rambling Ruth says: Reply

      Thanks 🙂

  14. Love the post. I think common sense is the most important thing that one needs while traveling. People asking for bakshish is a big no, a valid travel tip

    1. Rambling Ruth says: Reply

      Thanks Ambuj. Glad you enjoyed

  15. Joyce says: Reply

    Thanks for sharing such a great post! Would love to travel solo at one point in life!

    1. Rambling Ruth says: Reply

      I’d highly recommend it.

  16. Common sense is spot on! I did a solo road trip a year ago and loved it. The best part of it was doing things on my schedule and not someone else’s. Happy travels.

    1. Rambling Ruth says: Reply

      I completely agree. Road trips are the best

  17. I can’t believe you were an au-pair for a summer at 15! I can see how that shaped your sense of adventure – such good lessons here, and I believe strongly that it all starts with saying yes!

    1. Rambling Ruth says: Reply

      Haha, I know, what a crazy experience. It would never happen today, so I’m glad I got to do it, even if it was a bit traumatic!!!

  18. DTG says: Reply

    I really enjoyed reading this especially how you started out travelling, and you shared some great tips, some fantastic advice for solo travellers or for those who want to start out. Would love to interview you for my blog..

    1. Rambling Ruth says: Reply

      Thanks. And feel free to contact me at ruth@ramblingruth.com

  19. All these tips are really great, I solo travelled for over 10 years before I got married, so i can totally related to this xx

    1. Rambling Ruth says: Reply

      Best time of our lives!!

  20. Hra says: Reply

    Lovely tips 🙂 I definitely agree to be open in new adventures and opportunities too !!

  21. Katie says: Reply

    I always try and say yes whilst we travel – that is how you can make the most out of your experience and try new things. I am working on saying yes to more unusual foods! thanks for sharing!

    1. Rambling Ruth says: Reply

      Food is one of my favourite parts of travel! Enjoy 🙂

  22. Rahat Arora says: Reply

    Thanks for tips, this gonna help me and I took screenshot of your tips for my future trips

    1. Rambling Ruth says: Reply

      Glad you enjoyed 🙂

  23. Great tip, especially the first one. I also liked “bring the book” part – I always do! 🙂

    1. Rambling Ruth says: Reply

      Can’t beat a good book!

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