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.
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 it 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 went, alone, to an isolated part of a beach with a guy she had just met. While drunk. I hope I don’t need to spell out the problems in that story. At the very least, she could have told someone 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.
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.
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 people you don’t know).
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.
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!
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!
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)
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 an 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.
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).