Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Travel Series: Going Solo

It's been quite awhile since I've done a travel post, and since Meadow Walk gave me the great suggestion to do a post on traveling alone, I figured the timing was right. The photos included here are from solo trips I've taken.

By nature I'm an extrovert, and although it might seem that would make it easy for me to meet people any old time I want to, the fact is that I still have the impulse to be shy when I don't know anyone. Extroversion and boldness are two very different things; I might not want to spend a lot of time alone because of my extroverted nature, but the natural reserve that most anyone feels in an unfamiliar place will doom me to that very fate if I don't make an effort to get over it. So traveling alone requires a certain strength of will, even for an extrovert like me; I think all but the most confident and unabashed among us will find it to be the same. But trust me, it can be done, and it's very, very worth it.

The first time I tested the waters traveling alone in a foreign country was on a trip I took to Japan in 2003 with my ex. Since he was there for work, I was left to my own devices for much of the time, and decided to take a couple of day trips on my own. On my very first outing I ended up in Hiroshima, where I was approached by a group of students of all ages who were taking private instruction in English. Their assignment for the day was to find and interview a native English speaker, and among a sea of Japanese faces I suppose I was pretty easy to pick out. The students were friendly and respectful; they asked polite questions about myself and about American culture, they gave me their email addresses and small gifts they'd made themselves. When I got back home we corresponded for quite some time afterwards; they would, as a class, send photos of themselves and brief updates on how they were doing. It was a simply amazing connection, and one I probably never would have made if I'd been caught up in traveling with a companion.

Berlin wasn't even on my travel itinerary in 2005, but I was persuaded 
to go by an Australian friend I made along the way.

In 2005, I decided to leave my then job and move to my current company, taking a 1 month break in between to travel. My first thought was, "Who can I convince to go with me?" Because no one hops on a plane and heads off to a foreign country for the first time all alone, right? Especially not a woman. But after I gave it some more thought and remembered all the great experiences I'd had by myself in Japan, I decided I was going to do the whole trip alone, and not only that but I was going to extend my break to 2 months. I wasn't even going to ask anyone to join me for part of the trip. So there!

I'll be honest with you, one of my first experiences on that trip was getting my wallet stolen in Rome and feeling utterly adrift. But as luck would have it, a few days before that I had met a friendly Chicagoan down in Sorrento, who I'd reconnected with in Rome and gone sightseeing with that very day. I called him as soon as I'd been pickpocketed, and he immediately offered to lend me cash and help me with anything I needed, including letting me crash in his hotel room. Ryan and I have been good friends ever since, and in fact it was he that Mark and I went to visit in Chicago this summer. It's amazing how kind people can be if you only give them the opportunity. And it's equally amazing how a seemingly terrible experience can lead to all sorts of wonderful things that you never expected.

That 2005 trip that started in Italy eventually took me all over Europe, to Iceland and back to the continent, and to places I hadn't even planned to go. And it was all because I went alone; in my guesthouse in Reykjavik I met a couple of Australians who would convince me to drop my plan to fly to Helsinki and instead drive around the country with them. One of them would end up accompanying me to Denmark and Sweden, and then convincing me to go to Berlin. By the end of my 2 month trip I had changed my flights 6 times, was giddy and elated, and was utterly convinced that I should travel alone as much as possible.

I could go on and on about the people I've met, both locals and other travelers from all over the world, and the great times I've had with them. I could tell you about the quieter moments spent alone, whiling away hours in cafes or poking around in shops or happening upon some one-of-a-kind experience when I least expected it. But rather than get carried away reminiscing in my own travel experiences, I'd like to share a few ideas for you to get the most out of a solo trip, because that's really why you're reading this post, isn't it?

In Brussels I discovered that the best dorm-mates are often the guys; they don't make a big fuss 
when they come in late at night and get ready for bed, and they generally don't get up at the crack of dawn.

Choose Your Own Adventure

Before you even set out, it's important to ask yourself what sort of experience you really want to have. For some travelers, the excitement of surrounding yourself with new people in a vibrant city is what it's all about, but perhaps this isn't your cup of tea. Maybe what you actually want are quiet, solitary walks in the woods and a chance to take in natural beauty undisturbed. In other words, don't plan a trip to Rome or Tokyo when what you really desire is the tranquility of the countryside. You can still meet people and experience a new culture in smaller, more out of the way places, but you can do it on your own terms. I don't believe that there's a single place on Earth that everyone needs to go see; if you think Rome might be too hectic for you, it probably is.

If you opt for traveling in more rural areas, you'll need to consider your means of transportation. Trains and other public transportation might not be able to get you all the way to your destination, so you'll need to think about whether or not you want to deal with a car. Personally I love the luxury of not having to drive for weeks at a time, so I tend to choose destinations that are readily accessible by train or bus. But I've also had some great experiences renting a car for a day or two and visiting the countryside as a day trip, or staying at lodgings that are a little off the beaten path and not right in the heart of downtown.

The view of Vienna from my hostel up in the hills; this offered a great balance between 
easy city access and the serenity of the countryside.

Security Tips for Solo Travel

Don't think just because I've gone all over the place by myself that I fly in the face of conventional wisdom when it comes to safety and security. As with any foray into the unknown, a bit of planning goes a long way towards keeping you and your belongings safe.

Choose your location:
  • When deciding on a destination, take some time to read up on the current situation there. Let's be honest, some places are safer for solo women travelers than others. Check the US (or your home country's) travel advisories and tips for traveling abroad. Pick up a guide book; Lonely Planet books have a section in the back of each guide that details specific considerations for women traveling alone.
  • When choosing a place to stay, do some research into the area of town in which it's located. Read reviews, go on Hostelworld or Hostelling International and read what other travelers had to say, ask people who've been there, and consult your guide book. Take some time to figure out how you'll get to and from the airport or train station and your lodging; it's all good and fine to stay in a safe part of town, but if the only way there is a dodgy bus line, you might be better off somewhere else.
Prep work:
  • Before you leave, make sure you've left a photocopy of your passport with someone at home in case you lose it abroad. As added insurance, scan it and other important documents and upload them to Dropbox, where you can have ready access any time from a computer or your smart phone. It's also a good idea to bring a paper copy with you that you can lock in your suitcase.
  • Bring an extra credit card and ATM card (from a different account than your primary) that remain in your luggage in case of emergency. This was the one thing I didn't do in 2005 and really should have; it wouldn't have mattered nearly as much that my wallet was stolen if I'd had another set of cards somewhere other than my wallet. You might want to open a special travel bank account just for that purpose; before the trip you can use it to stash money away and out of easy reach, and while you're traveling it can be an additional source of cash.
  • Although I generally don't use one unless I'm going out late in a sketchy part of town, security wallets really are a good idea. Rick Steves, travel guru and surprisingly cool guy, makes a nice silk one that seems less irritating than some of the scratchy nylon models.
  • A good purse is an investment worth making. I like a bag that lies flat against my body, has a heavy duty cross-body strap, and has hidden pockets on the inside for my most valuable items. Always go with a bag that zips completely, versus one that is held closed only with a single snap. Highway bags are my personal favorite.
Planning for your arrival:
  • When booking your itinerary, make sure you have a reasonable arrival time so that you're not stuck trying to catch a cab or find a subway line late at night.
  • Make sure you have the contact info for your lodging readily available; people who work at at hotels and hostels generally speak English and are a great resource if you hit a snag. I even had one hostel clerk in the Czech Republic who came and picked me up in her own car when I knew I'd be getting in late. When I stepped off the train there she was, holding up a little cardboard sign with my name on it. Awww!
  • Get some cash in the appropriate currency before you arrive; few things are more stressful than arriving in a new place with no money. Exchange rates are typically poor in airports and other such locations, so don't get a lot of cash out, just enough to get you through the important first steps of getting settled in. 
  • Know where you're going. Study a map and look over the train lines or bus stops that will get you from the terminal to your lodging. People who look lost are ideal targets for thieves and swindlers. If you're going to be taking a cab, know the address of your destination in addition to its name. It's a great idea to know how to say these things in the native language if at all possible; it's not unheard of for unscrupulous cab drivers to take you on an unnecessarily long route to get more money from you (smart phones can obviously help with this too if you can get a reliable signal). If you sound like you know what you're talking about they're less likely to take advantage. 
Once there:
  • Look confident. You might not know exactly where you're going, but never let on that you don't. Don't walk along with your face pressed in your guidebook; if you need to figure out your route, stop and do it discreetly in a doorway, or even pop inside a cafe or shop to figure it out. If you're lost for a few moments, just enjoy the view until you find your way again.
  • Keep your hand on your purse whenever you're in a crowded area. I love the cross-body bags because they make a good armrest as I'm strolling along, and I've always got control over the bag.
  • Avoid keeping all your cards and cash in the same location. I always keep a little cash in my pockets for small purchases, so that I don't have to pull out my whole wallet. A spare set of cards stays in my locked luggage, and I only take a day's worth of cash with me at a time. This protects you not only from theft but also loss.

Some activities are naturally more meditative and lend themselves to a day spent solo. 
A day trip to the quaint Austrian village of Hallstatt is a perfect example.

Meeting People

Regardless of whether you choose a bustling city or a tiny hamlet, you will likely still want to meet people, and unless you're naturally gregarious and completely comfortable among strangers, you might also need to make a conscious effort to alter your social behavior. Here are a few tips for meeting people when you're traveling alone.
  • Choose a lodging that fosters social interaction. Hostels are the obvious way to go, as most of them have common areas and many even have organized activities, tours, etc. for guests to take advantage of. Common kitchens, dining areas, and lounges are great places to meet up with other travelers, so make sure your lodging has one. I've sung the praises of hostels before, so click on over to this post if you'd like more info.
  • Particularly if you're shy, avoid the temptation to get a private room and opt for a dorm instead. Unless you are exceedingly unfriendly, I can guarantee that if you stay in hostel dorms you will meet people. A good hostel will have secure lockers for your stuff, so don't sweat security too much. If you're a light sleeper, get yourself a good pair of earplugs and a pair of eye shades and you'll be golden.
  • Make yourself available. You went to all the trouble to find a hostel or guesthouse with a common area, now get in there! Mosey into the lounge and strike up a conversation with whoever is there. It isn't hard to find things to talk about; ask what they've seen, where they're from, how long they're staying. When you're among other travelers, everybody has something to talk about. The vast majority of the time, when I've ended up finding a companion to spend the day sightseeing or a night on the town with, it has been another guest of the hostel I'm staying at.
  • Don't think that hostels are the only way to meet people, either. Again, it's about making yourself available to others. If you go out to a cafe or bar, don't just sit there with your face buried in a book; start up a conversation with the person sitting next to you. The same goes for riding a train (trains are great places to meet locals, by the way) or visiting a museum or sitting at a park. People are naturally curious; often once they hear your accent they will want to find out more about you, so ask them a simple question such as directions to the theater and see if you can get them to engage in conversation.

The Auchwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, which I visited in 2007 with two other American travelers 
I met at my hostel in Krakow. It would've been very hard to go to alone, because it's so emotionally affecting.

Having Fun on Your Own

Finally, don't forget about the real luxuries that traveling alone offers: setting your own hours, choosing a busy itinerary or a completely relaxed one, doing exactly what you want when you want, choosing the time and location of every meal; the list goes on and on. I tend to be a haphazard traveler, preferring to have a very loose schedule that I can change at will, and sometimes even arriving in a city not knowing where I'll stay or even if I'll stay there at all. This type of travel stresses a lot of people out, but on the other hand it stresses ME out to travel with someone who has a minute-by-minute agenda that must be adhered to. When I travel alone everything is at my command, and I'm free to spend my time just as I like.

So don't forget to relish these luxuries; if the people at your hostel are planning an outing and it's too early in the morning for your liking, skip it and catch up with them when they get back. If you'd rather spend the afternoon people-watching at a cafe than looking at works of art in a museum, then by all means do. Again, I don't feel that certain things are mandatory experiences for everyone; I went to Paris and skipped the Louvre, even though most people would agree it's a must-see. When you're traveling solo, always remember that the trip is 100% your own.  

A fun day spent alone was my trip to the Lithuanian countryside to visit  
Grūtas Park, otherwise known as "Stalin World" by the locals.

Okay, over to you. Have you tried traveling alone, or would you? If you've got additional wisdom for would-be solo travelers, let's hear it!


Jennie said...

I love your travel posts! I've always been afraid to travel alone, but you make it seem so non-scary. Thanks!

Cel said...

Thank you so much for this post! I want to travel, but a problem is not having someone to travel with me. I get along quite well on my own and enjoy being by myself, but safety had been a bit of a question for me. This gives me a little more confidence in solo-travel :)

lawyerdoll said...

I'm right there with you! I've done a good bit of solo travel, and loved the adventures it led to. I especially loved picking up travel buddies along the way, then doing my own thing when the plans diverged.

I could go into way more detail, but this isn't my blog....

Jennie- its not scary at all, and I highly recommend the experience.

Fawn said...


And Dropbox is full of awesome. When I was on vacation in England a couple of months ago, I used it to store not just copies of my passport and credit cards, but bus schedules, train schedules, and a map of the Tube (because when you're actually ON the Tube, with no Internet access, that handy-dandy Tube map app doesn't work so well).

I really should do another travel post myself. I'm feeling the itch again.

HollyElise said...

When TM and I were in NYC in August, he was working most of the time. So during the day, I wandered NYC alone. I had a sturdy messenger bag, good shoes, and a Metro card for the subway.
The best part for me was visiting the Museum of Natural History alone. I could take all the time I wanted in the halls that interested me and completely skip others without annoying anyone.
I also found an awesome icecream place :D Not at the Museum, though.

AK in NYC said...

Fantastic advice! I agree with all of it. I've traveled alone several times, for several weeks at a time, (in Europe and most recently in Turkey) and found that it was an incredibly rewarding experience.

The only tip I would add is that when you go out, take with you a few of your hostel/hotel's business cards; that way if you get lost or something happens (especially in places where you don't speak the language), you have something to refer to when asking people how to get back. I like to go running while I'm on vacation and I always take a card and some cash with me when I run, too.

Meadow Walk said...

great tips -- thanks !!!!

MJ said...

I am so bookmarking this page! I can't wait till I have enough money to travel alone - it sounds like loads of fun.

Tess said...

This is a great post. I often travel alone because I'm single and most of my friends are either married with families or are beach bunnies while I prefer cities. I've met some really friendly lovely people travelling alone (especially in the US - I'm British).

Some of your advice I've already been doing but I love the stuff about using DropBox and having spare cards etc., hadn't thought of that.

One wonderful thing that's happened since I started blogging is that I've met up with (so far) two people I previously only knew through reading each others' blogs. Next time I go away, I'm going to ask my virtual friends for introductions at my destination.

Anyone afraid of travelling alone, I would really try not to worry so long as you take the sensible precautions described here. You're just as likely to meet with misfortune in a city in your home country where you speak the language.

And AK in NYC, great little tip about taking the hostel business card!

Nicki said...

I'm taking a bunch of solo trips soon--well, accompanied trips with lots of alone time, like your Japan trips--and this article was INCREDIBLY informative. And reassuring, too. Thanks for posting it.

Anonymous said...

I love this post! I’ve traveled alone and with my partner both to foreign countries and within the States. Travel, for me, is some of the most rewarding personal "growth" I’ve ever experienced. The tips you provide are excellent, as are your recommendations of Rick Steeves and Lonely Planet. One thing I always learn when I am in a foreign country is how to say (at the least) “Please” and “Thank you” …dorky I know…but a little politeness (and attempt to speak the native language) I’ve found goes an incredibly long way :)

Northmoon said...

Great timing, I was just thinking a weekend in another city would be fun. Dipping my toes in the water of solo travel if you will.

Your post is so encouraging and informative - thank you!!

Cyan said...

Great post! Several years ago, after a divorce, I planned on taking a cruise through Asia. I cancelled because I had cold feet about travelling alone. I've regretted it ever since. I wish I'd been adventurous enough to take that opportunity when I had it. Thank you for sharing.

Anonymous said...

Love this post, thanks! My solo travel so far is very limited. A few years ago I studied abroad in England, so most of the time I was with other people from the program. However, I did take a day trip by myself to London and then a 3 day solo holiday to Wales. It was definitely a good experience, and I look forward to doing more extended solo travel in the future.

Anonymous said...

Dear Audi,

this is such a great post. I knew you had travelled through Europe, but I never realized you had been to my country Belgium, a small country that is often overlooked being surrounded by the UK, France and Germany. I really hope you liked it.

As for travelling solo, I am not that courageous, when I was on a student exchange program in Japan for a year, I was so glad a spoke Japanese. Where I was (Osaka) few people spoke english, and I think I would be freaked out not being able to communicate well. And when my sister-in-law had to leave early on our summer vacation in Greece, I couldn't lie on the beach for more than 30 minutes without a guy being all over me. Well, I guess I wouldn't have to worry about that now, being 20 years older :)


Meri said...

Great comprehensive guide!
Luckily I have a trip planned in january, or this would give me crazy travel bug itch.


LPC said...

This is such a wonderful post. Should be an article in a widely read publication:).

karen mouse said...

Thanks for this - lots of good stuff in this post!

I have travelled a bit, maybe not as much as I would have liked to, but all of my travel has been solo. I have really achieved a good amount of financial security in the past couple of years, though, so more travel will be coming.

My big fear is not being able to communicate - I speak English and French, and the travelling I have done has been to the UK, France, all over North America, and Morocco (where everyone speaks French). I really want to get over this fear, though, because I find myself wanting to go to China, Japan, Argentina, India, Turkey, Italy, Tanzania, Madagascar, Poland, etc, etc, ...

Ranjita said...

Great post! I agree with each advantage you list about solo travel. This last summer was my first solo trip to Europe. I surprised myself by what a wonderful time I had by myself. I enjoyed the independence of doing what ever I like whenever. I got off trains at Swiss stations because a town or hiking trail looked pretty, I stood in line for the Louvre because it is a "must-see" but at the last minute decided to skip it, woke up at dawn one morning, coudn't go back to sleep, so decided to check out some markets and so on - all of which most likely would not have been possible if traveling with someone. And you are right, I was hardly ever lonely, as everywhere I went I always found good company amongst my fellow hostel mates whenever I wanted. Your post makes we want to plan my next solo adventure! DO continue with the travel posts, I love them! :)

Lisa T said...

I've done my fair share of traveling alone in Europe and Asia, and at first I was a hostel girl all the way. Totally agree that you can meet some wonderful travelers and friends there. But even better than hostels, in my opinion, is Couchsurfing.org - that way you meet locals, not just other foreigners. It sounds like a scary concept, and for years I discounted it as something just for hippies and homeless people... but I decided to give it a try and have never looked back. There's definitely a way to be smart about the people you choose to stay with (or host, for that matter). My hosts around the world have been incredibly generous, amazingly kind people, and because of them I've had experiences I never could have had as an outsider (and if you're on a budget, there's also the bonus of free accommodations).

Anonymous said...

Great guide to going solo, Audi! I have no problem travelling solo since I speak some foreign languages (I'm Russian) and indeed have had some great adventures with that. Definitely will be adding Dropbox tip to my arsenal. +1 to Couchsurfing, although I'd rather meet with locals to have them show me around or smth like that than stay at their places (yes, I am a bit paranoid, I know).

P.S. Funny to see the pic of good ole Lenin in the Lithuanian "Stalin world". Hey, who knows, maybe one day you'll come to visit Russia too :)

Eyeliah said...

I'm going solo to Holland in March/April so this is perfect timing for me. I'm thinking of extending my trip to 2 months, I'm so excited/nervous. Thank you again for sharing your wisdom, will let you know how my trip goes of course.

Anonymous said...

This is a great post and should be inspiring to everyone who has never eaten in a restaurant alone, let alone travel the globe.

Rebecca said...

Solo travel is a unique experience that nothing can prevent you from experiencing it. You just have to overcome your fears and go. Although i always travel i prefer to stick to my itinerary and go to places where there are a lot of people. Last year i've been in Mexico for my first RTW trip. It was a unique experience!! I got some packagesMexico offers and just took the flight. The country is beautiful and the rumors about security and safety are totally unfounded. I've gota time of a lifetime and spent a relaxing massage session in the most relaxing spa Mexico has. Don't be afraid of this rewarding experience!!