In London, I hugged my friends goodbye as she headed to the airport. Wandering around trying to figure out where I was going next, I realized I was now entirely on my own in an unfamiliar city.
Here I was, the last of a group of three to still be traveling, but I was so anxious about getting lost or losing my wallet that I struggled to even enjoy it. I had a few weeks until I joined my family in Egypt and hastily made arrangements to travel alone for the first time in London, Barcelona and Athens, where I would then take a short flight to Cairo.
While traveling with my friends, they seemed to know exactly where everything was, always made itineraries that seemed to make the most sense, looked at maps and found the cheapest routes. I still needed to build the confidence and skills they had. So traveling with my friends was a practice run - now was my time to experience traveling solo.
Traveling alone was something I definitely never considered or thought was an option for myself. But by the end of the journey I made on my own, it ended up being one of my favorite travel experiences and I’ve traveled several times alone since.
Here’s what I learned from my solo travels, why I travel alone (and why you should too), and my top 10 tips!
1. If you’re nervous, start small
Start out traveling alone on a smaller scale. Or, slightly less intimidating, just do the transportation on your own. This way you can meet someone at your destination so you’re at least confident in navigating new airports and bus systems solo.
The year before I traveled internationally on my own, I made trips to St. Louis, Boston, and San Jose, Puerto Rico. Those trips showed me that traveling was definitely something of interest to me and that it wasn’t rocket science to do alone.
2. Plan the trip solo
If you have previous experience traveling with friends, you may have made compromises on doing activities to keep every person happy. This includes your friend who loves museums to the one who just wants to be outside, or who would rather sit at a coffee shop or lay by a beach. However, if it’s just you, plan it just for you!
Otherwise, if you don’t feel the need to plan ahead and just want to be spontaneous, as long as you have a place to stay and some sort of budget, you can even play it by ear. You’d be surprised how many people you can meet or places you might end up by doing it that way too.
If you are overwhelmed by the idea of planning an itinerary, googling a simple “things to do in...” is a great way to go.
In my past travels, I’ve enjoyed a bit of both methods. Personally, I love museums and taking long walks through each city - something probably not everyone would want to do. On one lonely day wandering around Athens with no plan, I made a local friend at a market who gave me an unofficial walking tour of Athenian neighborhoods and showed me a great view of the city from a hilltop. This experience ended up being just as memorable as my more “organized” day of site-seeing.
3. Ask for recommendations and do your research
If you know anyone who’s traveled to the place you’re about to go to, ask them for their recommendations. Usually people are happy to share about their experience, and you don’t need to take their advice unless you want to.
Also, make sure to do enough basic research so you’re aware of the general atmosphere and culture of the country - such as dress, weather, manners, norms, etc.
I have received great recommendations from a hostel receptionist, parents I’ve babysat for, classmates, even total strangers. Now, I love to pass along my own advice to people, like cute book shops or cafes to visit, hole-in-the-wall restaurants with the best food, and amazing sites that aren’t tourist traps.
Pro tip: Watch movies or television shows set in your travel destination and see if there are any places or landmarks you’d be interested in seeing. If it made it to the big screen, it's probably worth a visit.
4. Pick a good hostel and book ahead of time
Before traveling solo, my friends and I would often avoid hostels entirely by using CouchSurfing, or working in exchange for room and board. If we did end up in hostels, we would occasionally engage with other guests, but most likely we’d branch off.
When traveling on my own, staying in hostels helped me get out of my comfort zone and socialize. I connected with people in a way I never would have before. I visited sites with people whose names I had just learned and went to events arranged by the hostel with a group. Rather than wondering if it would be “awkward” or “uncomfortable,” learning to hang out with these other travelers ended up being pretty easy.
That said, I only had these kinds of experiences in hostels I put time and effort into finding. You can use a variety of websites to look at guest ratings, the location of the hostels, if they arrange events, etc. The best hostels get booked fairly early, so do look into it as soon as possible. The hostels I stayed in that were last-minute reservations often ended up being cold, fairly empty or too crowded!
5. Take advantage of being alone
While it can be nice to split the cost of a room with a friend or have company everywhere you go, someone to eat with, someone to laugh with, there are definitely benefits to being alone when traveling (especially abroad).
Going back to tip #2, you’ve planned your trip to suit your interests, but if you’re worried about the solo part of solo travel, think of what you can do on your own. There is an exhilarating sense of freedom to it.
In my past travels, if I wanted to stop and buy a pastry and ask, “Caliente, por favor”, and eat it perched on a park bench, I could (and certainly did). If I wanted to spend fifteen minutes staring at the same painting that took my breath away in a museum, I could (and probably did that too). If I wanted to go out or spend all day wandering around the city and walking for hours, I did not need a general consensus from the rest of the group or feel slightly guilty if I was branching off on my own.
Although I missed my friends and was certainly on my toes more while I was on my own, there was something liberating about it. Some people were surprised that I’d be sitting for a meal by myself, but that also meant that I could strike up conversations with the staff of the restaurant or another fellow diner and have new experiences.
6. Ask for help
If you are not the best with directions, ask for help! It’s worthwhile overcoming any shyness or embarrassment about a language barrier or lost-puppy-eyes for the peace of mind of knowing your way. I usually look out for a group or family where if one person is unsure, another person will surely know.
Pro tip: If you are also lost in an airport, I have teamed up with families or other wandering souls to find our way as well. Airports can be just as overwhelming and confusing as a major city.
7. Be aware of yourself and your surroundings
This is different for everyone and each location you travel to. I traveled in Morocco differently than other locations simply because I could speak the language. In certain places, you may draw more attention to yourself than others (and vice versa) because of uncontrollable factors such as appearance, language skills, and luck. Researching more specialized guides on solo travel gave me great resources for traveling solo for my own specific interests or identities.
Consider your surroundings. I was usually only out at night if it was with a hostel group or a friend I’d made who was local to the city, or walking back from a long day exploring solo. If I was walking alone at night, I always made sure I was in areas of the city that were packed with other people under many streetlights, no music in my ears, and aware of what was going on around me.
8. …And take all the precautions
While in Oslo, I used CouchSurfing for the first time by myself, but to make sure I felt safe, I researched and found a profile of someone with good reviews and who was close enough to the airport.
In all situations, carry a phone charger and plug converter everywhere you go. I used Google Maps so much that I often found myself sitting in restaurants or hotel lobbies while charging my phone enough to keep using it throughout the day.
Having a phone (and finding WiFi) is also useful to message family and friends. I had not thought of this myself at the time, but I had a protective friend who always asked me the address of anywhere I went in the evenings and the names of people I was with. Having someone who knows your whereabouts is never a bad thing.
9. Pack light and lighten the load as you go if needed
Unless you’re flush with cash and can get cabs every time you need to get to the airport or check out of your hostel, you’ll be dragging along your suitcase from place to place. With friends, you can always shuffle things around to keep loads even, but alone it’s all on you! And probably on your back for that matter.
Many hostels will have a pile of clothes that people have left behind in case you want to lessen your bag’s weight or make a switch to warmer or lighter clothing. I have found some cool articles of clothing this way and occasionally amuse myself by wondering what kind of life one of my old sweaters is leading since being left in Tangiers.
10. Be open-minded
Even if you have a smooth journey overall, there will be plenty of awkward interactions or annoying inconveniences along the way. I wouldn’t suggest being blindly positive or saying yes to almost every situation, but when help or generosity appears, remember to appreciate it!
You may find out that a friend of a friend of a friend will let you stay the night at their place, or that you’ll have a great conversation with someone who doesn’t speak the same language as you. It’s the little things too.
One example I have of this was when I was worried about a hostel I booked late in Athens. I didn’t know anyone who had ever been to Athens before, so it felt like very unfamiliar territory in general and I was nervous. The hostel seemed very empty which wasn’t reassuring. In my room there was a bunk bed and the bottom bunk had someone’s belongings on it beside a duffel bag. My roommate was nowhere to be found.
I went to sleep and shivered all through the night, already contemplating why I had decided to come to Athens in the middle of winter. I woke up the next day feeling warm. I found that my mysterious roommate had whisked away to wherever her next travel destination was leaving her blanket on me while I slept. She must have noticed my violent shivering. That small gesture completely changed the tone I arrived to Athens in and I took on my first day with a renewed sense of positivity.
LAST STEP: Look back and realize all you’ve done on your own!
Traveling solo for just a few days or weeks will raise your level of independence and confidence immensely. To look back on your photos, souvenirs you collected, or simply the memories you have will be more worthwhile than you realize first starting your solo adventure.
You may have started off as someone who was nervous to book flights or ask for directions, and by the end, you’ll see how you’ve grown! Now you have this amazing experience to share and bring back what you’ve learned.
Being open-minded abroad is something you can always bring back to your home base. Traveling alone made me realize that I could have local adventures wherever I am, and to look within my own community and appreciate it as well.
To have a meaningful time abroad, enrich your professional experience, and get time to travel solo on the weekends, go ahead and start your application to intern abroad with Global Experiences today.