Solo travel can be an amazing experience, but it’s not without its challenges. Loneliness, lack of confidence, a sense of being lost and isolated are all normal sensations for new solo explorers. It can be tough, but ultimately solo travel can be rewarding in ways you can’t imagine. Being alone can force you to be more open and step out of your comfort zone. It can also make you more approachable and open doors the average tourist will never even know existed. To make the most of it, here’s a list of 10 things you need to know before setting out on your adventure.
1. Other travelers are lonely too
One of the biggest woes of first-time solo travelers is loneliness. Weeks on the road by yourself can leave you with no one small talk with, nobody to confide in and a sinking sense of hopelessness. The beauty of the world drifts by, but you can’t appreciate it because there’s nobody to share it with.
However, it doesn’t have to be like this. The secret to a good solo trip isn’t to be alone, but to find people who can share what you’re experiencing. The obvious place to start is the hostel. Odds are, everyone in your dorm is in the same situation as you are, and it’s always easy to strike up a conversation. Maybe you’ll trade a few tips for the road, or perhaps you’ll end up tagging along on some unexpected adventure.
2. Travel forums are a lifesaver
If you’re really in need of some company, it may also be worth connecting with travel forums. The tried and true option is Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree forums, which have long been a place for backpackers to rally together for an adventure. Alternatively, most popular travel destinations have some kind of traveler community on Facebook.
3. Locals will define your trip
While it’s always easy to make a few friends among fellow backpackers, the real highlight of a trip will almost come from connecting with locals. Don’t be that stuck up gringo who snubs ordinary people. You’ll be surprised just how eager people can be to show you around their town and give you an insight into their lives.
To give you an idea of what I mean, just from chatting to random people on the road, over the last few years I’ve somehow found myself exploring an underground Freemason temple, farming organic mushrooms in the middle of the mountains, looking after goats in the middle of the Sahara for a family of Amazigh nomads, being invited to a few dozen Chinese weddings, having the privilege of witnessing a traditional Tibetan sky burial and spending a month riding a horse across Mongolia with a friend of a friend of a guy I met in a hostel a few countries over. Things can get weird, but that’s the point of travel.
4. People will try to take advantage of you
Openness is the key to fulfilling travel, but so is security. While the risks of travel are often overblown in the media and by travel advisories, it’s always worth erring on the cautious side. If something doesn’t feel right for any reason, then trust your instincts and back away.
This is especially true in tourist traps. The tourist economy can bring out the worst in people, attracting everything from common pickpockets to elaborate scam artists. In these areas, a general rule of thumb is to be extremely suspicious of anybody who approaches you on the street. It’s sad to say, but odds are they view you as a sack of money to be emptied.
5. A notepad is worth its weight in gold
The biggest secret of the veteran traveler is the notepad. Fill it with the names and contact details of everyone you meet on the road, and keep it in your back pocket for when you need a place to crash.
6. You will lie to people
No matter what happens, you should never admit to traveling alone. You should always have a fictional friend waiting for you just down the road, or at your next destination. That fictional friend knows where you are, what you’re doing and they’re probably a bodybuilder. This will help somewhat in weeding out the people who want to take advantage of you. If you’re just out to make friends, I’d also recommend wearing a wedding ring. This can be an especially good trick for women hoping to avoid the rampant sexual harassment that plagues much of the world. However, it can also be useful for guys, too.
7. Language is everything
There’s a good reason why everyone insists travelers should learn a bit of the local language, and this rule applies to solo travelers more than anyone else. Your ability to communicate with people will likely be the single most important factor in determining just how satisfying your trip will be. At the very least, a few memorized phrases will show locals you respect them enough to make the effort.
8. Don’t be afraid to whip out a compass
Everybody gets lost traveling, which is why you always need a good map. This is easier than ever in the era of smartphones and free WiFi, but nothing beats a solid, tangible map of your surroundings. Make sure you know how to read the map, and bring a compass so you know which direction to head in.
9. Nobody cares what you’re wearing
… and if they do, you’ll never see them again anyway. While this applies to all travelers, it’s nonetheless critically important for those traveling alone. Since you’re alone, there’s nobody to impress and nobody to judge you. So leave your high heels at home and dress as simply as possible. Nobody cares if you don’t look fashionable, so bring some well-worn sneakers or hiking boots, comfortable walking pants and the lamest, most protective hat you can find.
10. A long book will keep your sanity intact
No matter how wonderful or action-packed your trip turns out, it will still include long stretches of boredom. Long bus trips and nights alone can take their toll, so be sure to bring some solid reading material. This list from Conde Nast is a good place to start.
— Ryan Mallett-Outtrim