Solo travel has a lot of upsides and it’s the only way I travel. I like the challenges it presents when being forced to figure out a solution, meeting new people in the most random of places, and even the solitude that allows me to really appreciate where I am and how lucky I am to be there. However, there are challenges that are unique to solo travel. Although these challenges aren’t isolated to single travelers, the consequences could be more challenging because you don’t have anyone to lean on. With that in mind, here are some tips to being safe and prepared.
- Safety First
- Digital Copies of Important Docs
- Travel Light
- Be Organized
- Schwab Checking Account
- Avoid Foreign Transaction Fees
- Local SIM
- Be aware of local customs
- Useful Apps
- Travel Insurance
- Street smarts
Before you book your lodging, do some research as to the area it’s in. It’s always easy to book a hotel online with some photos and think we’re safe but the last thing you want is to find out the safe area is actually 5 blocks away and your hotel is actually in a not so good part of town. One of my first international trips was to Sydney and I blindly booked a hotel in the city outskirts called King’s Cross. At the time, I didn’t think anything of it and thought it was a decent hotel in a nice area. It wasn’t until my first night there that I was told by hotel staff that the area isn’t really that safe at night and walking around the streets alone may not be a good idea even though it was perfectly fine during the day. Had I done a little research before booking, I probably would’ve known.
Over the years, I put more and more emphasis on safety. I try to stay in recommended neighborhoods and stay away from areas that are just cheap. You don’t want to be walking around an unfamiliar area at night and have to worry about your safety on top of finding your back to your hotel. I typically choose hotels that are close to metro stops to minimize my chance of getting lost and to avoid accidentally wandering into a bad neighborhood. If the hotel is located exactly at a metro stop, even better.
Before you visit any city or country, try a quick Google search to what the most common crimes are. Most of the time, it’s simple pick pocketing or petty theft. Although this will give you a decent idea of what to expect, remember that Google is only giving you general guidelines. If you feel like you’re in a dangerous or uncomfortable situation, remove yourself immediately.
Make copies of all important documents and save them in the cloud or some electronic form. I’m referring mainly to your passport, green card, birth certificate, phone numbers to financial institution, etc. Look, the hope is that you’ll never have to use these resources. But if you lose your passport or get robbed on a bus, how do you intend on getting home? Getting an expedited passport at an embassy is possible (though not cheap but at that point, money is the least of your problems) and having a copy of your passport would go a long way in speeding up that process.
Also, if you’re the type of traveler who likes to plan everything out, it may be a good idea to leave a copy of your itinerary with someone back home. This way at least someone knows where you are (or should be) and if you happen to be traveling in an area with limited internet service, you may not be able to reach people back home for a bit of time. By leaving your itinerary, at least they’ll have an idea of where you are.
Bonus tip: If you have an extra passport photo, you may want to keep that with you as well. Obviously it’s going to have to be clean and usable (not folded and crumpled up somewhere). Why? Because getting a passport photo in a foreign country may not be the easiest thing to get. How easy or difficult is it to get passport photos now? You usually have to go to a special place to get them so think out difficult that might be if you don’t know where you’re going or speak the language.
I’ve always been a believer in only having carry on luggage but it’s become increasingly more important to always be mindful of space. Regardless of the length of travel, I never pack more than 4 days of clothing. Yes, 4 days.
Does this mean you’ll have to do laundry in the sink or the bathtub? Yes. And I’m ok with that. I almost exclusively pack quick dry shirts so after a wash, I hang them overnight and by morning, they’re dry and good to go. Socks and underwear might take longer but it’s ok. You’ll almost always be in a situation where you can buy whatever you need at your destination or can pick up along the way. Unless you’re going backpacking through the unknown Amazon, you’ll be fine. There is NO REASON for you to bring an umbrella (no matter how small) just in the off chance that it might rain.
Another way of looking at this is never pack for the if. If it rains, if it I need an outfit to go out, if I meet someone, etc. So often we wonder about the if that we don’t think about how annoying it’ll be to drag that through the airport, into the subway, up some stairs, or into a taxi. I’ve traveled all over the globe and never once wished I had brought more stuff. I’ve seen people dragging suitcases through airports that are bigger than they are and they look miserable because they’re by themselves and no one’s there to help them. Don’t be that person.
Also, try to wear clothes that can pull double duty. Pants that have zip off legs so they can be worn as shorts or a light coat that can be a rain coat and a windbreaker. A button down shirt is usually a good idea to wear on the plane so if it’s too cold, you can roll down the sleeves and up if it’s too warm. Also, if you’re in a position where you might have to look a little more dressed up than normal, you’ll have a button down shirt ready.
Let’s just be clear. These aren’t fashion choices. You aren’t going to see these “fashions” on the walkways of Milan. But you need to value form and function over style. Otherwise, you’ll be carrying around multiple suitcases everywhere you travel. For any solo traveler, overpacking is a mistake only made once. If you’d like to see what items NEVER leave my bag, please see my post HERE.
I like to use old amenity kits from airlines to separate cords and items for each thing. One bag for all cords needed for things like my phone, USB cords, etc. another bag for camera gear like extra batteries, chargers, cords, and another bag for all other electrical items like converters, small travel cords, etc.
It’s just so much easier to have everything in a little kit especially if you’re prone to go somewhere on a whim. I like to have extra batteries and memory cards for my camera so I’ll just have them all in a bag. That way if I decide to go on a last second trip somewhere, I don’t need to worry about battery life and can just go. And anyone who enjoys photography should already have an extra memory card or 2 in their bag. You never know when one will fail and when it does, you’ll probably be in a position to not be able to get another one (like on a safari).
Another tip is if you forget a specific cord somewhere, just ask the hotel lost and found to see if you can dig through their box of items left behind by other guests. I guarantee you’ll find what you need there. This can be hit or miss since some hotels have this (idiotic) policy of never allowing items to be borrowed and some have a more common sense approach and will let you dig through the box. I feel like I’ve forgotten enough USB and phone charging cables in hotels that they should automatically have one on demand.
Another thing some people swear by are packing cubes to help them stay organized. If that helps, then by all means grab some. I don’t use them personally but I understand their purpose. If those cubes help you limit the amount of things you take, then it’s a job well done in my book.
Schwab Checking Account (not sponsored)
I love my Schwab checking account. I’ve had it for years and as an avid traveler, it just makes life so much easier. I don’t have to feel like I’m geting ripped off at the airport exchange kiosks, travel around with a lot of money, or worry about how much my bank will charge for using a different ATM.
Open a Schwab checking account. The account is free to open, has no minimum fees, and reimburses you all ATM fees. Of course you can use Schwab as your primary bank but I have the checking account with Schwab specifically to use for travel so I only transfer money as needed and if something happens to it, there isn’t too much that can happen financially.
One thing you need to make sure you do though is notify Schwab where you’ll be going and for how long. It doesn’t need to be a detailed itinerary but a basic idea of which countries you plan to visit and possibly some countries you’d like to visit just to be safe. I made the mistake once of forgetting to notify Schwab and when I got to Lima, I had no usable currency. It was a long 24 hours before I could get to the ATM.
The two big drawbacks to the Schwab account is that they will do a hard pull on your credit report and that it can be a little difficult to deposit cash. You can do mobile deposits if you want to write a check to yourself and deposit it but otherwise you’ll have to transfer funds from your primary bank to your Schwab account.
Avoid Foreign Transaction Fees
Use credit cards that don’t charge foreign transaction fees. There are so many credit cards out there that there is absolutely no reason to be paying foreign transaction fees today. A lot of of these cards also have no annual fee so there really is no excuse. Even if a credit card does have an annual fee and one of the perks is no foreign transaction fees, typically those cards waive the annual fee for their first year. So you can easily enjoy all the perks of the card and cancel after the first year.
While traveling, I usually try to carry at least one type of each card (Visa, Mastercard, Amex, and Discover) in case one is not accepted over another. However, I find that Visa and Mastercard are almost universally accepted while Discover, Amex, and Diners Club cards are much rarer.
Local SIM Cards
Local SIM cards are incredibly cheap so you should definitely get one if you’re traveling and you don’t have international coverage. The problem is you have to know how to troubleshoot the problem and if you’re traveling to different countries, you’ll have to get a SIM card in each country.
However, I use Google Fi service and I love it (this is an honest opinion, not a sponsor). Google Fi works in over 200 countries and it just works perfectly for me since it’s a pay for what you use type of system. The main drawback is that it’s severely limited in the type of phone you can use (sorry iphone users) but it may be worth to have a 2nd phone just for travel if you travel enough.
For context, my usual phone bill is around $25/month. Now I’m also not the type of person who is constantly on my phone so that probably has a lot to do with it. I’m sure others will have different experiences but I’ve been really happy with it.
Familiarize yourself with local customs
Do a little research before traveling and learn some of the local customs and a couple basic words. At the very least “please” and “thank you” should be ingrained in your head and if not, have them written phonetically so you can say it. You don’t need to be perfect but it certainly would go a long way to show an effort. It drives me bonkers when I see tourists get impatient when they’re not understood so they resort to speaking slowly and loudly.
Also, know the dress code when in certain countries. In Muslim countries, respect the local culture and customs. Dressing modestly is expected for both men and women. But this doesn’t just apply for Muslim countries. Men shouldn’t run outside with their shirt off in Japan for example. Take the time to look up the local customs before you leave and you’ll be less likely to offend anyone.
I find this important for two reasons. First it shows the locals that you respect their culture and customs. It doesn’t mean you understand it or even agree with it but as a traveler, you are a guest in their country. Showing respect for the local culture is the least we can do as visitors.
Secondly, I feel like people are more likely to go out of their way to help if you make an effort. I’ve seen so many tourists (American) who get aggravated when someone doesn’t understand them so they just speak slower and louder as if that’s going to solve the problem. Think about it. If someone came up to you and started speaking a language you don’t understand, would you stand around to help? Now if that same person were making a genuine effort to communicate with you in YOUR language (no matter how terrible) wouldn’t you be more inclined to help? My Spanish may be terrible but I can say please and thank you along with some other words. If I get stuck, the person is just so much more likely to help than just throw up their hands and ignore me.
There are 2 main apps that I can’t live without. Google maps and the TripIt app. Google maps is pretty much the reason I finally got a smartphone because it is so useful overseas. I’m not sure if I can go back to travelling without Google maps now.
TripIt just consolidates everything into one place in chronological order so you don’t need to dig through emails if you’re trying to find confirmation numbers or ticket numbers. You can also add activities into your itinerary and I often try to put in reminders (like buy souvenirs, street market opens at 8am, etc) so that I can remember to go.
Another app that is semi useful is Google Translate. Although this is a great app in trying to figure out some words, it has a long way to go before it can really understand human speech. The problem is that it doesn’t understand idioms very well. So if you were to ask “who is running for office?”, you might get a translation that takes a very literal meaning of someone running with an office cubicle behind them. The app works best for very basic human communication to just get your point across like “toilet,” “recommendation,” or “water”. Outside of that, I don’t really use it.
I also use a photography app so that I can take photographs with me in the photo and not have to put the camera on a timer and then run into the frame. This will make your photos look better since you’re not holding a selfie stick. I know most travelers only carry their cell phone for pictures and in many ways, I think it’s better than having a full camera. But if you do take photos, you should have an app compatible with your camera so you can control it and be in a couple photos yourself. Each camera manufacturer will have a compatible app with get the app that corresponds to your camera.
I don’t travel with travel insurance mainly because I’m covered via my credit cards. So many cards offer some form of travel insurance that I think it’s kind of redundant to have. However, if you don’t have one of these cards, you can easily get covered at your local AAA office (in the US).
I’d say the greatest perk of having travel insurance is having trip protection. Many book flights well in advance especially if there is a great fare. However, as the date draws near, life may give you unexpected surprises. Having travel insurance to help recoup any non refundable expenses can be a real help.
Also, if you have a medical emergency, you may need to pay in cash before being admitted. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a policy (even though I’m sure they’re out there) where hospital visits are covered when traveling internationally. If you’d like to read more on travel insurance, please read my post here.
Be smart and listen to your gut. I’ve been fortunate enough to make it through my travels without problems but that doesn’t mean they’ve all been without incident. As a solo traveler, I rarely drink anymore mainly to keep my wits about me.
Look, have fun and enjoy yourself. There’s nothing wrong with going out to the bars or clubs at night to meet people and have a good time. But remember, this isn’t like your home town where you know the streets. If you don’t feel comfortable walking home, don’t be afraid to call a cab just to go a few blocks. You can always say you didn’t know and the embarrassment you might feel will be short lived to the alternative. The most obvious rule is if you think someone is acting in a way that might be weird behavior where you live, it’s probably weird there as well.