On Monday, after five months spent on an island so small that I can walk the perimeter in about an hour, I got on a boat to go to Bali by myself. My friends and boyfriend either didn’t want to spend the money (times are tight for small business owners!) or were busy with work. I’ve been dreaming about the food variety in Bali (endless veggies, nearly legit Mexican food, and sushi), wanting to go to the med spa, considering getting a tattoo, and needing to go to the doctor. So, instead of waiting for a time when I might have company, I decided to go it alone.
The first time I took a solo trip, not counting when my mother put me on a plane when I was 11 to go visit my father over the summer, was to Portugal when I was 20 years old. I had spent the academic year studying overseas in France and then Senegal, zipping around with friends on daring adventures over the weekends and learning to speak new languages. I had discussed meeting a crush in Portugal, but when he changed his mind I decided to go anyway. After being exposed to new cultures and new ways of life for eight months, I was ready to venture out on my own.
I meticulously researched the best hostel in Lisbon, opting for a shared room to match my student budget. The first night, I wandered the hilly streets by myself and read a book while I ate my fresh fish dinner, feeling awkward. I had never eaten in a restaurant alone before. The next morning, in the common kitchen, I befriended a Spanish clarinetist who lived in Finland. We went on a tour together to see the Moorish ruins outside of the city. He had a girlfriend, and I felt safe with him until he tried to kiss me that evening in our shared room. The next day, still in the common kitchen, I befriended a group of Italians and went out to the bars with them. I spent a day at the beach by myself, wishing that I could go in the water but too worried to leave my possessions unattended. Overall, I viewed the trip as a success, but it was much harder being alone than I had expected. The meals and activities that I spent by myself seemed to drag on forever, even though I kept myself busy with my journal or a book.
Since then, I’ve traveled alone to Morocco, Zanzibar, Vietnam, Berlin, Rome, London, Cambodia, Thailand, Singapore, and Indonesia, with stopovers and time spent solo in Dubai, Cairo, Paris and around the US. It’s probably also relevant to mention that I’ve lived alone for extended periods in Cameroon, the DRC, Niger, and Afghanistan. The more I’ve traveled, the more I’ve learned how to have a fun and safe time on my own. There are a few key elements that I consider and implement in order to make my solo travels a success.
- Planning. For me, there is a sweet spot between planning too much and too little. I always make sure that I have somewhere to sleep, unless I am 100% sure that it is a place where I can get better deals on arrival and that those places will not be full. Also, I like to read up on what I need to plan for, and what I can just decide on once I get there. For example, if an art exhibit or play sells out months in advance or if there are limited spaces on a tour, I want to make sure I can go! On the other hand, one of the very best parts of traveling solo is that YOU and only YOU get to decide what you do each day. It’s a lovely feeling to wake up with endless possibilities and do exactly what you feel like doing.
- Packing. I am obsessed with finding the perfect suitcase and packing it with exactly what I need. I make sure that all of my clothing pieces go together and that everything reflects my style. Just because some technical fabric cargo pants are supposed to be the best thing there is for the solo female traveler doesn’t mean that I should buy them – no matter how much I’m tempted. If it’s not something I would wear in my daily life, I try to skip it because it will just stay in my bag for the duration of the trip. This is key, because if you over pack or pack things that you don’t use, you’ll be annoyed with yourself. Because you’re alone, you’ll be even more annoyed because you have to carry everything yourself, and you’ll probably also want to buy new things from the country you’re visiting. If you travel frequently, do the research on the best, high quality suitcase for you that can easily transition between urban and rural areas. I use a hybrid backpack/roller bag from Osprey and its fantastic.
- Know where you’re going – and where you shouldn’t go. There’s nothing that screams “I am a tourist and I’m alone!” like stopping in the middle of the sidewalk to look at your Google Maps or a paper map. Once you’ve downloaded a route, Google Maps will work offline and still give you directions. If you can’t memorize the directions, put in earbuds and let your phone guide you. If you need to regain your bearings, duck into a coffee shop or at least to the side of the road and do it discretely. On the other hand, in major tourist cities, one of my favorite things to do is wander without a destination in mind. In Rome, you can come across amazing historical sights without even trying. Just make sure that you know where you shouldn’t go. I’ve ended up in dangerous neighborhoods in Rabat and Berlin this way. If this happens, plot a route out of there – or better yet, get a taxi.
- Do what the locals do. Learn some essential phrases and vocabulary for free on DuoLingo. People will love it if you make even the smallest effort, especially if English is your first language. Get a local SIM card for your phone – you’ll have cheap access to data and can call local numbers. Many American carriers will allow you to unlock your phone for this purpose. Download local apps for transportation, restaurants, and more. You can’t use Uber in Southeast Asia, but you can use Grab or Gojek! Don’t be afraid to get on the back of that motorcycle taxi – it’s a third of the price as a car (just make sure you get on the left side to avoid the exhaust pipe). If you’re feeling adventurous, rent a scooter. I’ve had one lesson and am gearing up to finally venture out into the Bali traffic on my own.
- And with that in mind, Get insurance. Some of your travel credit cards may have insurance, but you’ll want to check what it covers. It’s a great idea to buy additional travel insurance that covers healthcare costs, things breaking, and theft.
- Make friends. Even though you are purposefully traveling alone, making friends along the way is one of the best parts of a solo trip, and chances are that you’ll keep track of them for years to come. There are countless Facebook groups for different travel destination communities, as well as groups for travelers. Couchsurfing (app or website) has been a fabulous way to connect with people for “hangouts” in cities all over the world, although they’ve decided to start charging a fee and it’s unclear if the community will accept it. If you are feeling extra brave, stay with someone from Couchsurfing, as long as you’re smart about it. Only meet up or stay with people who have good reviews – and if you’re a woman, consider only staying with women. Tinder and Hinge are also ways to meet people, although of course they will have certain expectations. Make sure you meet them in a public place first, and follow your instincts. Finally, Hey! Vina is an app for women to meet up with each other. If meeting people online feels forced, stay in a hostel and see if they host any events – or hang out in the kitchen and strike up a conversation with people passing through. If all else fails, ask people to take photos of you or to help you put sunscreen on your back at the beach, then strike up a conversation with them. Talk to the people that you meet on public transportation or see in your hotel lobby! I’ve ended up traveling whole countries with people I met this way. It’s amazing what can happen if you are open to it.
- Be safe. Don’t overly trust people. Don’t let people into your hotel room until you really know them. Don’t accept drinks from strangers, and don’t get drunk unless you are with trusted friends. Familiarize yourself with the drug laws and enforcement in whatever country you’re visiting and be smart. Get comfortable saying no. Don’t volunteer that you’re traveling alone. Don’t carry all of your cash around with you and have at least two credit cards (keep some cash at home, along with your Passport, your ATM card, and a credit card. Use the safe!). If you are going for an extended trip, consider purchasing a portable safe bag. Find out where the dangerous parts of the city are, and what kind of crime and scams are most common. If women are getting mugged when they are out alone at night, don’t go out, or make sure you have someone to escort you home. Walk with confidence. If you feel like people are following you, make eye contact with them and get on the phone to call someone. Take a self-defense class before you go anywhere.
What are some of your solo travel tips and tricks?