Over the years, I’ve been asked countless questions about how and why I travel solo. But I’d say below are the 5 most common questions and comments I get. If you’re thinking about your first solo trip, hopefully this will answer some questions you may have.
So, what are the 5 most common topics I get asked about solo travel?
- Anxiety – feeling nervous about leaving
- Budget – how do you afford to travel?
- Loneliness – do you ever feel lonely traveling solo?
- Eating – how do you eat alone?
- Safety – keeping your things and yourself safe
The most common comment I receive about solo travel is from people are ready to pull the trigger to go but are trying to find a way to get over the anxiousness of their trip. They’ve done the research on where they want to go but the first time solo traveler is equally scared and excited about their going on their trip. Don’t worry, everyone feels it their first time.
I think the only way to get over the anxiety of your first trip is to embrace the process and to know that you will make mistakes along the way. I certainly have and will continue to make them. However, I think it’s important to learn from your mistakes and not be afraid of making them.
You will be scammed. You will have something stolen or pickpocketed. You will get lost and a “helpful” local will offer help only to demand money later. However these aren’t problems that are exclusive to solo travelers. They happen to tourists every day regardless of whether you’re traveling solo or in a group. The difference is you will have to deal with it on your own.
If something is stolen, think immediately about how to move forward. If your camera is gone, think about where you are in your trip. If it’s at the beginning of your trip and your only camera was stolen, are you going to go the rest of your trip without a camera? Probably not. Suck it up and go buy a new one while you can. It may not be as good as the original but would you rather come home with no pictures at all? Wallet pickpocketed? Notify your bank immediately and cancel those cards. Today, it’s so easy to just chat with your bank online to put an immediate stop on your cards that it really shouldn’t be a problem. The point is to move forward and do it quickly. If you’re stuck trying to get your things back, your entire trip is going to be ruined. Don’t lose site of the big picture and don’t overthink it. When your house is burning, you don’t stop to yell at the fire.
The anxiousness of your trip will decrease over time as you learn the process. If you’re reading this and you haven’t gone on your trip yet, you’re probably worried about how to get from the airport to the hotel. Check to see if your hotel offers an airport shuttle for pickup and if not, how about the metro or a basic airport bus that takes you into the city? You can plan those routes ahead. If that doesn’t work, you can try Uber and if THAT isn’t an option, a lot of airports will have a taxi stand where you can take an authorized taxi or even prepay a taxi ride to a specific point in the city.
These are all things that you’ll learn and by your third or fourth trip, it’ll become 2nd nature. The key is to not be afraid of making mistakes because you’ll get paralysis through analysis. Be brave. Make mistakes. But learn from them. The anxiety is not about making mistakes or knowing everything you need to know before you go. You need to understand that the anxiety you feel is about not knowing how you’ll react to a situation.
When people hear about my travels, the first question I always get is “how do I afford to travel so much?” I utilize credit card points and airlines miles almost exclusively for my travel so that certainly keeps costs down. However, I also have a steady job and I’m an old millennial and not fresh out of college . I’m not rich but I’m not poor either.
More to the point, my budget and what I consider affordable may not be the same for you. Depending on your budget you’ll first have to understand what kind of travel you can afford. No one can have a champagne lifestyle on a beer budget.
Easy ways to keep costs down is to LET THE PRICE DICTATE YOUR DESTINATION. There are always sales on flights to random city pairs. A way to sort of predict this is to look at new routes an airline is going to operate. If there is already an airline that is flying that route, the new airline is going to basically create a price war for that route. An example is when United first started flying non stop from San Francisco and Los Angeles to Singapore. United introduced massively discounted fares (I think it was around $300 round trip) and forced Singapore airlines to not only restart flying non stop themselves but also lower their price.
Also, go to destinations during shoulder season or off season. I always try to visit a country when it’s shoulder or off season because prices are lower, rooms are abundant, and tourists are fewer. Yes you’ll have to deal with the rain, heat, cold, snow, etc. but you’ll be saving tons of money on airfare and accommodations. For example, for Americans, Europe is a very popular destination for summer vacation. Good luck trying to find a cheap flight or hotel during that time. However, what if you go south of the equator where it’s winter? Australia, South Africa, Argentina, etc. are cheaper and far less crowded during these times because it’s winter.
Another way to keep down costs is to be mindful of where you stay. Sure, hostels and Airbnbs are options but think about the city you stay in as well. If you’re coming to San Diego, instead of staying downtown in the Gaslamp district or along the popular beach areas like Pacific Beach or Coronado, think about staying further east in the college area or south in Chula Vista. Both are well within reach of all the tourist sites via the trolley but hotels will be cheaper since they’re not in the tourist hotspots. When looking internationally (especially in Europe), I usually try to find a location about 1 or 2 towns away that is about 15-30 mins away by train. Most people won’t want to stay that far so prices are lower.
If you want to stay in a specific area, you’ll need to either lower expectations or raise the budget. That could mean staying in an Airbnb, hostel, or a capsule hotel if visiting an expensive area. But if you’re traveling to a cheaper part of the world, you’ll probably notice that your money will go a long way when exchanged to the local currency. Like I said before, let the price determine your destination and not the other way around.
Homesickness/Loneliness and Meeting People
How do you deal with loneliness? This is such a personal question that I’m not sure anyone can really answer this except you. Are you an introvert or an extrovert? Do you enjoy alone time or are you the type of person who constantly needs to be around people? Unfortunately there is no online answer for this.
So, what do I do? First off, I have to admit that I enjoy my alone time and enjoy being alone vs. in a large crowd. That said, I think anyone who has traveled solo has felt lonely at some point. The one thing I always do is keep in touch with friends and family back home. Every 2-3 days, I’ll send out a quick email with photos of where I am and share any funny or interesting things that may have happened along the way. As my travels have become more frequent, my emails have gotten shorter but I still send them.
I do this for 2 reasons. First, it’s to let everyone know that I’m ok. This sounds grim but it lets people know that I’m still alive. Second, it makes me feel like I’m connected with my loved ones back home. I love reading responses since it gives me a little slice of home. Receiving a note from home just has that feeling like you’re not forgotten. It invokes a memory that just makes you feel good…like getting a home cooked meal after a long time away.
Of course, you can change your environment if you want to be around people. The biggest thing is to stay in hostels because you’re surrounded by like minded individuals and it’s enough contact where if you want to do something together, you can, but the time is short enough that you’ll be on your way before you know it.
You can also do short tours during the day like food tasting tours, kayaking, sunrise tours, etc. Since you’re surrounded by people with similar likes, you’ll probably have more in common than you think. At the very least, it’s an easy conversation starter. Meeting people on a day tour can easily turn into an evening meetup for drinks, dinner, cultural activities, etc.
Another way to meet people is to use stereotypes to your advantage. Americans are known to be loud and have the “slap you on the back and invite you to dinner” persona. In a lot of countries, people view that as fake or insincere. Use that to your advantage. Genuine hospitality is an American trait. It isn’t fake. I use that attitude all the time to meet people. Once people see that I’m genuinely interested in their lives, I think people start to let their guard down and we become friends pretty quickly. Whatever your cultural stereotype is, see if you can use that as an advantage.
Finally, speak to locals and ask them for recommendations. Places to eat, cool sites to see not listed in tourist books, local markets to check out. Locals have tons of information and most times they’ll be excited to share their city with you. You never know when you’ll meet that person who is so excited to share their city with you that they end up taking you around. Also, if you don’t speak the language, try. At the very least learn please and thank you in the native tongue. Then do everything you can to communicate. Mime, draw, act, sing…whatever it takes. It eases the tension and makes for a fun environment when you’re both trying to communicate with each other as you both flail your arms about to make your point.
I think loneliness is more in our heads than anything else. I think many first time solo travelers worry about not being with people. But once you’re on your trip, you’ll realize there are ample opportunities to meet new and interesting people.
This is one of those things that’s so ingrained in us as a group activity that the thought of eating alone is sometimes petrifying. But it isn’t that abnormal is it? Have you ever been busy at the office where you end up eating at your desk alone? How about eating in your car as you head to class? Ever eat a sandwich as you wait for the bus to arrive? If you’re in a bar, eat there and watch the game with some locals.
I typically eat in a corner and use the time to plan my day. Since it’s time I can’t really do anything, I try to use the time as wisely as I can. Also, planning keeps me busy and helps the time go by faster. I also keep a notebook with me where I write notes about what occurred during the day. This again just gives me something to do as well as keep my thoughts organized.
I also eat a lot of street food. It’s a great way to get a cheap quick meal but also keeps me from sitting stagnant too long. Street food is also where I find the best food of a city so for me, it’s a win win situation. Grab something and eat while walking around. A small picnic lunch on a park bench in a peaceful setting beats any upscale Michelin starred restaurant in my book.
But I know you’re wondering how do you eat alone in a restaurant? Just ask for a table for 1. Maybe sit outside if it’s a nice day so you can people watch. When you’re eating in a restaurant, do you notice who is eating by themselves? I certainly don’t. My attention is on my date, friends, coworkers, etc. My attention is on the conversation at the table, not on random strangers eating at the restaurant. So why would it be different anywhere else? You might feel weird but no one is paying attention to you. The embarrassing feeling you get from eating alone is all in your head.
Obviously the easiest option is to reach for your phone and scroll through your Instagram or FB posts. But I’d recommend against that. Sure, it’ll give you something to do but I think that defeats the entire purpose of your trip. If you’re just sitting there, why not just enjoy the day, enjoy the site, people watch? You’re spending all this time and money to be in a new location and you’re doing something you could just as easily be doing at home. If you’re looking for directions or looking up info, that’s one thing. But please resist the urge to reach for your phone just to stare at something.
How to keep things safe
First things first. Please keep a digital copy of your passport and other important documents somewhere. I have a copy saved on my gmail account but you can use whatever service you have. Just make sure it’s there. If you lose your passport, getting a new passport will be much easier and faster if you have a copy of the original.
In terms of keeping items safe when you travel, my basic rule is never take anything you don’t want to lose. Now obviously there has to be some compromise here. I would be devastated if something happened to my Macbook, camera, or lenses. But, I need to have those when I travel so I can work.
That said, leave whatever you don’t need for the day back in your hotel and in the hotel safe. Before I go out, I take out whatever I won’t be needing for the day. This includes leaving my passport, extra cash, and emergency credit cards. If something were to happen, I can at least get home safely.
I also carry a combination lock on my backpack. I have an anti theft backpack, but if you have a regular backpack, I’d use it to tie the zippers together so you can’t be pickpocketed. Having a combo lock means you won’t have to worry about misplacing the key. The other great thing about having a lock is that you can tie your backpack to the overhead rack if you’re on a crowded train so it doesn’t get stolen. I’ve even tied the lock through my shoelaces if I think I’ll fall asleep and afraid of someone taking it.
How about keeping things safe at the beach? This is where you have to be willing to take an inventory of what you’re willing to lose if it comes to it. I only take what I need. I take my hotel key and just enough cash to get me through the day. It just goes in pocket in my boardshorts and that’s it. If you want to take everything with you, you’ll either have to ask someone to watch your things, find a locker, or (if there’s a hotel nearby) act like a guest and check it there.
In terms of keeping safe yourself, a lot of it comes with just being sensible and using common sense. I’m not trying to belittle attacks on tourists (men or women) or say that safety isn’t an issue depending on where you travel. But bad people are everywhere and all you can really do is minimize your chance of being attacked. Try blending in. Don’t try to wear shorts and a t shirt if you’re entering a mosque. Don’t wear fancy jewelry or carry around a fancy phone in a poor neighborhood. Just use common sense and you’ll more than likely be fine.
This is by no means a comprehensive list but it certainly covers the most commonly asked questions and topics I get asked. Hopefully this will help guide you through any questions you might have. Each person has to decide what their risk tolerance is and there is no blanket statement that can ease everyone’s nerves. Religion, sexual orientation, race, sex are just some of the reasons that can make you apprehensive. But would you rather stay at home because you fear something might happen? Or would you rather go out and try it? If you need reasons to give solo travel a try, please read my post on why you should travel solo here.