By Jess Goulart
Photo courtesy of Latin America for Less.
“When you travel alone there are different types of fear. There are nerves and then there is the overwhelmingness of the freedom that once you get somewhere you can do anything–it’s on your terms,” world traveler Pippa Whishaw explains on Twenty-Something Traveler (TST), BTR’s travel podcast. “That’s intimidating, but I think it’s a matter of turning [that feeling] into excitement.”
At 26, Whishaw has visited South, Central, and North America as well as Asia by herself. Most recently, she even traveled to Europe. She says even though she’s practiced at making friends through hostels, volunteer programs, meet ups, and a general attitude of approachability, occasionally shyness still paralyzes her.
“When you’re by yourself you have to put yourself out there a bit more… but it’s always worth it,” Whishaw emphasizes.
Though solo travel was stigmatized as an anomaly in the past (particularly for women), today it’s one of the fastest growing trends.
Whishaw is right, it is both daunting and exciting. Making your own schedule means you don’t have to compromise what you want so someone else can have a good trip. You can be flexible, spontaneous, even risky, because you’re not answering to anyone. It’s an exercise in self-agency that will leave you feeling empowered.
Unfortunately, it will also leave you feeling lonely from time to time. Even if you consider yourself outgoing, even if you’re adept at striking up conversation with strangers, nerves will occasionally get the better of you and, when that happens, it’s easy to withdraw and spiral into homesickness.
If you’re considering solo travel, here are TST’s top tips to guarantee a good experience.
Know your goals
Before you leave, take the time to think about your goals. Do you want to meet new people or are you more interested in whirlwind sight-seeing? Are you traveling because you need some time for self-reflection or do you want to immerse yourself in a new culture? Decide why you’re traveling and then allow that to dictate how you travel.
For example, on this week’s TST, Earlene Cruz, founder of a new company called Kitchen Connection that introduces home cooks around the world to one another, tells a captivating story about her stay in South Africa.
Cruz was in the middle of Semester at Sea and knew South Africa was an upcoming land stop. She’d recently come up with the basic idea for Kitchen Connection and decided she wanted to take a trip by herself for introspection and planning. Instead of staying in the city with the rest of her class, she opted for spending the week at a nearby ashram. Though her plans went awry (tune in for the full story), she got the alone time she needed to create her business plan.
On the other hand, if you decide you want to make new friends, staying in hostels is the most effective way to connect with fellow travelers. Read Yelp (and other) reviews and pick one with the right atmosphere. Once you’re there, remember to…
You might feel self-conscious, but you’re actually much more approachable on your own than with a few friends.
Increase that approachability by staying off your phone while in common areas (you can do it, just put it down), asking other hostelers if they want to cook a shared meal with you, and smiling.
Jess venturing alone in Scotland.
Hostels often organize pub crawls or community dinners, but remember, you can also take charge of the getting-to-know-you games. Bring a deck of cards and start a round of King’s Cup in the lounge, invite everyone in your dorm to go on a walking tour, or get some people together for a group photo. Calling attention to yourself in a friendly way is an easy way to break the ice.
Despite all the planning, research, and effort–and even if you’re having a blast–there will be moments where you just want to go back home (or hide under the covers). When that happens…
Stick with it
During tough times, it’s a lot easier to give up when you’re traveling alone. No one is there to console you, distract you, or keep you to your word but you should fight the instinct to bail.
Be inventive. If your hostel ends up being empty and you were hoping to meet fellow travelers, get to know the staff instead. Find the local pub and chat up the bartender. Treat yourself to a fancy meal. Listen to your favorite album. Having fun is just a matter of changing your perspective, not changing your ticket back home.
Last, remember, nothing–nothing–can turn a good night into a bad one like finding yourself in danger. Our number one tip is…
This is tricky because you don’t want to be so afraid you miss out, but you need to be careful. Researching where you’re going before you get there will help you decide how cautious you need to be and maybe put to rest some preconceived ideas about the destination (or confirm them).
Here are our three golden safety rules: don’t get drunk if you are by yourself, don’t leave a public place with a stranger (no matter how sweet, cute, or nice they seem), and trust your instincts.
Finally, the hard truth is, if you are a woman you probably need to be more cautious than most men.
“I’ve come to realize that as a solo woman traveler, I don’t think you can be as open to new experiences as some men can,” agrees Whishaw.
“However,” she smiles, “that’s no excuse for not opening yourself up when you can.”