Some people love travelling alone and there are some that simply wouldn’t dream of it. I used to belong to the latter group. That all changed when I went on a (predominantly) solo, five-month round-the-world trip. I had the time of my life and rarely experienced a lonely moment! Most of all, I found it to be a very empowering experience. For those of you who still have doubts, well, give it a go, even if it’s just for a week. Based on my own experiences, I compiled ten tips on what to do when you travel solo.
Things to do when you travel alone
1. Travel with an open mind
I consider travel to be the best school there is. It sparks the imagination and creativity and it inspires me to be adaptable, compassionate and understanding. As I travelled around the world, I was exposed to different customs, cuisines, languages and the like, and saw how very ordinary things are done differently in different countries. How we react to such differences can make or break a trip, so my first decision when I embarked on my round-the-world trip was to go with an open mind. I literally told myself out loud to leave my judgements at home, accept the differences and try to learn from them. Travelling with that mindset taught me so much, broadened my horizons and was a constant source of inspiration.
2. Opt for a Homestay
The proliferation of Airbnb and homestay booking platforms has created terrific opportunities to enjoy a truly local experience, whether it’s in a big city or out in the country. Choosing this accommodation type allows you to get to know the locals and experience the local lifestyle first hand, especially if you choose a shared accommodation. Don’t use their home as simply a place to sleep. Use this opportunity to brush up on your social skills, and if you’re in a foreign country, your language (or sign language 🙂 ) skills. Another great thing about homestays: you’ll never have to eat alone. Show your interest and it will be reciprocated multi-fold. At the end of your stay, you might have made a new group of friends for life.
This is one of the best reasons to travel alone. You’ll finally have all the time to yourself and what better way to use this time than to reflect! See it as a kind of ‘getting to know me’ exercise, a worthy investment in yourself. After all, getting to know yourself better and identifying your talents, strengths and flaws will allow you to apply your talents and strengths more effectively in any situation and help you work on your flaws. Reflect on the past: how you reacted in various situations and why, if your ego has ever clouded your judgement, your relationships with your family, friends and loved ones and how these relationships have evolved and what were the catalysts for change… just to name a few. Reflect on the present and the future: where am I today, how did I get here and where am I heading? What has made me the person I am today? What baggage am I carrying with me and of what use will it be for me tomorrow? Am I passionate about what I do now? Ask yourself some of the following questions: what makes me happy? What makes me angry? What makes me feel secure/insecure? What are my strengths and weaknesses, why are they my strengths and weaknesses, and in which situations do my strengths and weaknesses come into play? What makes me laugh/cry? I’m sure you’ll be able to think up many more interesting questions to tackle.
It’ll probably take several months or perhaps even longer to go through the entire list and it may be difficult to find an answer to some of the questions but it really is worth the effort. Take your time but open your mind to your thoughts and be honest with yourself. Oh, and don’t forget to socialise during your trip. Talking to strangers is a fantastic way to reflect.
4. Open your senses
Travelling is an opportunity to gain new experiences and broaden your horizons. In order to fully appreciate and exploit this wonderful opportunity, it’s important to be aware of and open to whatever may come down your path. Be aware of the details as well as the bigger context. For instance, the colour of a leaf (detail) as well as the lushness of the forest (bigger context); or the scent of a single fruit as well as the variety of fruit at a market stall. Being in this state of awareness opens doors to a whole new world of sights, sounds and scents, as well as their relations with each other.
To help me be more aware, I often do a simple exercise I learned from a martial arts instructor many years ago. Ok, this may sound silly to some but I find that it does help in increasing my awareness of my surroundings. The exercise is as follows: stand anywhere you like, preferably outside. Then bring your hands together to your chest level. Your fingers should be outstretched, and your palms parallel to and facing one another but not touching. Slowly move your hands forward, still parallel to one another, in a lightly (upward) sloping line until your arms are fully stretched. When you do this, keep your eyes focused on your hands and breathe in normally (through your nose). When your arms are fully stretched, exhale slowly through your mouth as you move your hands away from one another in a wide arc until your arms are back at your sides. As you do this, change the focus away from your hands and look ahead and around you. Notice the wide space that is being created as your hands part. The whole movement is similar to a breaststroke but then in slow motion. Repeat this exercise several times. I find that this exercise opens my eyes (quite literally) as the narrow focus changes into a wide focus. The effect is amazing.
5. Try something new
One of the great things about travelling alone is that you can go anywhere you want on a whim and do anything you like. That includes going to places you previously might not have thought of or doing something you’ve never tried before. All in the spirit of broadening your horizons.
One of the themes of my RTW trip was challenging myself to confront certain fears. That obviously meant doing stuff I wouldn’t ever have dreamed of doing. Before I knew it, I found myself zip-lining across the forest canopy 20-odd meters above the ground (confronting my fear of heights) and swimming with sharks (confronting my ‘Jaws’ complex!); these were fun, exhilarating experiences with some educational value. I realised that these fears were, well, based on nothing really, and I’ve kept challenging myself constantly since then. One unforgettable challenge was skydiving!
Whatever you choose, have fun but keep it safe always! To be sure, get a travel insurance policy that covers your travel and any adventurous activities.
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6. Give yourself a treat
It’s hard work travelling alone 😉 . Lugging your bags across cobble-stone streets or up staircases, planning the trip, researching your destination, arranging transportation, keeping an eye on your budget… you’ll have to do all that on your own. All that hard work has to be rewarded of course and what better way to do it than to treat yourself to something special once in a while. A glass of exquisite wine, a meal at an excellent restaurant, an afternoon at a spa, whatever suits your fancy. Consider it as a pat on the back for saving up all those months to make this trip possible and for a job well done in planning and executing it!
7. Beware of scams
Travelling alone makes you more approachable but this factor unfortunately also makes you an easier target for all sorts of scams. Some are quite transparent and can be easily brushed off by a friendly shake of the head and a smile but some scams are downright ingenious. Strangers posing as students who are saving money to study overseas, or children who’ve lost their parents and need money to go to school, or fellow tourists who’ve been robbed of everything they have and have no money to buy a meal, let alone a ticket back home. Their stories may or may not be true but there are other ways of helping instead of giving them money directly. There are a multitude of scams and it may involve a single person or a group. Unknown to you, there may be other co-conspirators waiting to take the scam into the next phase. Be especially wary if you’re invited back to their home after a friendly chat. Some scams involve giving you a helping hand such as with your bags (how many bags have been whisked away at bus terminals?!!) or someone offering to clean the bird poo that’s dropped on your back or shoulder (it’s mustard!) while an accomplice pickpockets you.
It’s a good idea to prepare yourself by checking with the local tourism office or guidebook of your destination for known scams. If approached, listen carefully to your instincts and don’t hesitate to walk away. Keep it friendly, keep calm and never be rude. A (repeated) ‘no thank you’ and keep on walking always works best. Staying stationary only invites persistence. And always keep an eye on your belongings. Travel safe!
8. Stop for a recap
When you’re travelling a lot and seeing and experiencing so much in a relatively short space of time, it’s great to stop for a moment, maybe while you’re having a coffee in a café or a glass of wine on a sunny terrace, and recap what you’ve done and seen so far. Ask yourself what day it is and where you are right at that moment and what you did earlier that day.
Then ask yourself where you were, what you did and experienced exactly a week earlier or two weeks earlier or maybe even a month earlier. Try to conjure a specific moment in your mind and include details like the surroundings, people, colours, scents or sounds; anything that might’ve caught your attention during that moment.
It’s easier said than done! But if you can recall a certain experience and the emotions attached to it (i.e. how you felt at that moment, a scent you smelled or a certain song you heard), and couple that with a specific moment in time, you’d be surprised how many details you still remember. I find this recap helps me digest all the information (that comes with all the experiences) more effectively. In addition to being a simple memory exercise, I also find that reliving those experiences in my mind enhances awareness of and appreciation for my trip.
9. Make new friends
One of the great things about travelling alone is that it makes you a lot more approachable. There will be countless opportunities to meet new people. So, take good advantage of these factors and make some new friends along the way. Take the time to have a chat with the locals and/or fellow travellers. Get to know them by listening to what they have to say and add some depth to the conversation by, for instance, asking about their every day lives or telling them something interesting about yourself. Most importantly, keep an open mind and listen without judging. Talking to strangers, telling them something about yourself and acquiring their feedback is also a great way to reflect. You may learn something new about yourself or acquire a fresh perspective. I’ve learned many new perspectives and gained tonnes of inspiration during my travels by approaching people with an open, positive mind. It’s made my travels a lot more enjoyable, meaningful and memorable.
10. Learn a new language
Travelling alone provides us with a great opportunity to learn new things or pick up a new skill. In the increasingly globalised village we live in nowadays, what skill could be better than languages? During my travels, I’ve often met other fellow tourists who were learning and/or practising a new language.
Language schools geared at tourists are popping up all over the world. A good friend of mine spent a month in Guatemala and Costa Rica learning Spanish, coupled with a homestay, before heading off to South America for five months. She did a beginners course in Antigua, Guatemala and completed an intermediate course in San José, Costa Rica. She opted for homestays as she was able to practise what she learned with the local families she stayed with. Needless to say, the experience was invaluable. She encountered no language problems, made many new friends and when she returned to the Netherlands, she got a job spearheading a Dutch company’s marketing efforts in South America.
If you’re not totally convinced about the benefits of solo travel, read “Ten reasons to travel alone” and “Taking a solo road trip” (a brilliantly written piece on solo travel by my travel blogger pal, TheSoloWriter). For my readers who have travelled alone, I’m interested to know about your experiences or if you have more solo travel tips to share. Please share these in the comments section.