The first time I travelled alone was to Australia. The reason being I really wanted to go and no one had the time off work or the money or they were going on vacation with their boyfriend or they had no interest in going to Australia or going that far away. I just told myself if I wait on finding someone to share the experience with, I’d never get to go. So I went solo, and I had an incredible time!
Since then I have travelled alone to Brazil, Costa Rica, Peru, Bolivia and Chile for extended lengths of time. And I have travelled alone on mini breaks as they are called to Barcelona, Rome and Budva.
So what are my tips for solo travel?
(A Comforting) Tip Number 1: You are never actually solo
Australia was really easy to travel around in and really easy to meet fellow travellers, as I stayed in hostels the entire time. I joined day tours to the Blue Mountains, The Great Ocean Road and the Pinnacles desert.
And I joined a five days camping trip from Alice Springs to Ulura, Kings Canyon and the Olgas – the only tour I pre-organised before I left.
In Brazil, I flew into Rio and stayed in a hostel where I met up with fellow solo travellers and we discovered the city together. I was leaving Rio to go to Itacare for a 3-week surf camp, but I arranged to meet one of my youth hostel friends in Salvador after my surf trip and we then explored some more together.
In Peru, I was only on my own in Lima, as I had arranged to do the Inca trail and Lake Titicaca with an American friend of mine. But even in Lima, I ended up hanging out with the people I had gone on a bike trip with. In Bolivia, I met up with two girls in the Amazon Jungle who were also travelling solo and arranged to meet them a few weeks later in Sucre (as I wanted to do the CheGuvera trail and they wanted to hang out in La Paz again) and we ended up travelling together for the rest of our time. I travelled on to Chile with one of the girls as we bade a sad farewell to our new friend who was heading to Argentina.
The only places, I never really met fellow travellers were in Rome and Barcelona and I think this is because I did not stay in Youth Hostels with common rooms therefore making it harder to bump into people. And I went on those open bus tours where you listen to a taped tour through earphones, which is hardly conducive to striking up a conversation with fellow travellers.
So, you meet so many people travelling that sometimes you actually wish you had a few days to yourself so you can just read a book and catch up on emails!
Tip Number 2: Be open to try totally new experiences
In Costa Rica, for the first three weeks I volunteered at a turtle conservation project where I slept in a tent by the beach, in a camp that had no running water or electricity, but I had an absolutely amazing time. I went on turtle patrol at night and saw turtles laying their eggs on the beach. Afterwards we would collect the eggs (so poachers and birds could not get to them) and bring them back to the camp where they would be reburied. Once they hatched we would release them back in to the sea. It was a really great experience.
Tip Number 3: For the first night at least, know where you’re going to stay
Book your hostel before you leave. Who wants to arrive somewhere they have never been before after a long haul flight or bus journey and then have to find somewhere to stay? Some hostels even arrange to collect you from the bus station or airport for an extra fee (it is worth it especially if you are arriving late at night). Or at the very least, work out how to get to the hostel from the airport or bus station.
Stay in a Hostel with a common room or a kitchen where you will definitely bump in to other people. Most hostels have private rooms if you do not fancy staying in a dorm (which is cheaper) but you are never going to meet fellow travellers staying in a hotel. Well I never did!!
Tip Number 4: Seek out tours
They are a great way to see specific areas and to meet others as well! I love the free walking tours where you tip the guide what you think he deserves – they usually finish in a bar or restaurant and you end up having beers with the people you were on the tour with. Plus the tours are usually by locals and are really interesting too. And the longer the tour, the more likely you are to bond with someone. A lot of the people I went on longer trips with (between 3-7 days) I am still friends with!!
Tip Number 5: Research the surroundings before walking on your own
As for walking around on your own, work out where you need to be and then walk with conviction like you know the place. I always would spend each morning in the hostel over breakfast trying to figure out where I wanted to go and the route I needed to get there before I left for the day. And the guidebook would come out again when I stopped for lunch at a café.
Tip Number 6: Don’t draw attention to yourself
Also don’t draw attention to yourself by wearing flashy clothes or jewellery – I always wore my oldest of clothes when travelling and just dumped them at the end of my travels and I never wore any jewellery I wanted to keep. For the solo female traveller, a cross body bag with zips to keep everything safe inside and out of the easy reach of pickpockets is essential. Never bring anything you are willing to lose.
A good book or your travel journal to write in are all legitimate activities at a bar or restaurant if you feel strange sitting on your own. And there’s always fiddling with your smartphone. If you still feel you stand out like a sore thumb in a bar or restaurant on your own choose a counter seat or a seat at the bar where you will stand out less and you can always chat with the bar or wait staff from there.
Tip Number 7: Make sure you save your memories
Carry two or 3 memory cards for your camera and ALWAYS upload your photos to facebook/dropbox. Photos are the one thing you cannot replace!!!
Tip Number 8: Only carry enough cash for the day/night on you
There was one incident in Rio when a few of us were coming home from a nightclub in a taxi and it was surrounded by police and we all had to get out and were searched for drugs. On finding nothing the police helped themselves to the remaining cash in our wallets. I kid you not. But I had about the equivalent of €5 left so it was not a major drama aside from the fact that you cannot trust the police in Rio – they are notoriously corrupt!!! Apparently we were lucky they did not plant drugs on us and then march us to the ATM to pay a fine!! But another lesson here is only carry enough cash for the day/night on you.
But nothing bad ever happened to me when travelling. Maybe you are more aware of your surroundings when travelling and a bit less trusting when travelling alone and give off a don’t mess with me vibe? I travelled alone on buses – sometimes over-night buses – on my own in Bolivia and apart from numerous breakdowns and delays which were annoying, I was never harassed or robbed or had my kidneys removed. Some of these stories are surely urban legends! In fact, no one ever bothered me and just looked at me like I was some kind of alien as I was the only gringo on the bus. Some kids stared at the blonde woman but that was about it!! Actually, I got mugged in Dublin and The Hague (where I have lived).
Tip Number 9: For some countries, it helps a lot if you take some basic language classes before
Language wise, Latin America is definitely a challenge but I have like 10 words of Spanish and managed, but I do think I would have had an easier time if I could speak Spanish. At the very least bargaining at the markets or with guesthouse owners in remote places would have been easier rather than paying the gringo prices! Plus getting to know the locals better would have happened, as most Latin Americans do not speak English.
Tip Number 10: If you fear travelling alone, choose special camps or holidays
Also if just heading to a country on your own fills you with dread, consider volunteering holidays, Surf Camps, Bike Trips, Hill Walking holidays etc where you just become part of the group.
What are the advantages of travelling alone?
Having no one but you to decide what to do each day is a rare luxury. You want to take a day off and lie in a hammock, you can. You decide where you want to go and what you want to do and if you get bored of a place you just move on or if you like a place you stay on.
Imagine no one to sneer at you because of your love of tractor/button/hat museums. No one to gripe at you when you rush through a gallery in 30 minutes because you are bored of all the religious paintings (I was bored in the Louvre, the Prado and the Hermitage-Sorry art lovers!!) and no one to give out to you when you miss your train to Moscow because you were too busy haggling over the price of a scarf you never wore again anyway.
If travelling with a partner of friend, you tend not to bother with fellow travellers so travelling alone you get to meet way more people-people you may never have considered talking to before and people who will never realise that they made an impression on you or inspired you in some way.
I am trying to think of disadvantages but honestly I cannot as I had great experiences each time. Although I guess having to tell your story over and over again is a pain…you begin to dislike telling it and the where have you been, how long have you been travelling, how long will you be travelling conversations get a bit boring after the 100th time.