25 Mar 10 tips for first-time solo travellers
There’s an annoying stigma attached to travelling alone, as if it’s a sad activity that only the pathologically weird are allowed to enjoy. But if you ask me, solo travel is an experience that everyone who has the chance should try – even those who are worried what others will think, and especially those who are convinced they won’t have any fun without someone to share the experience with.
Travelling alone is awkward, it’s strange, it’s unexpected, and it’s totally liberating.
Before this year, I’d had various partial experiences of solo travel – a couple of intercontinental flights to meet someone at the other end, a handful of city breaks to visit a friend living abroad which involved entertaining myself all day while they were at the office, the odd bit of sightseeing solo on the first day of a trip while waiting for a friend to join me, and then of course the real solo experiences of moving first to Spain and then to Italy – totally on my own – and having to figure it all out.
But I never really considered any of these to “count”, as they were all situations which had been chosen with the aim to not be on my own, even if that did mean a little bit of accidental time to myself.
However, this year I had my first ever deliberately solo trip – to Palermo, Sicily – a weekend away that I booked without even asking if anyone else wanted to come, and with the full intention of exploring a new place all on my own. Obviously, this means that I now feel qualified to share a bit of my newfound solo travel wisdom, so here are a few nuggets for you first-time travellers:
1. Accept that solo travel is different for everyone
Don’t listen too much to what anyone else tells you about travelling by yourself – we all have different personalities, different budgets, and different priorities, and the differences between travel styles is much more pronounced when you’re going it alone. So just because someone tells you that something worked for them, it doesn’t mean it will for you. And that’s ok.
If your best friend advised you to use Couchsurfing to meet locals to hang out with, and to spend your evenings chatting to strangers in hostel bars, but you can’t think of anything worse and prefer to book yourself into a luxurious spa hotel where you’ll be left in total peace for the weekend instead, that doesn’t mean that either of you is doing solo travel wrong.
Share your experiences, but don’t preach about how your way is the only way – there’s just no need.
2. Know that being alone doesn’t mean feeling lonely
There are different kinds of travellers who decide to go it alone – some want to meet new friends along the way, staying in hostels to meet like-minded people, getting chatting to locals and tourists at bars and restaurants, and signing up to do activities in company; others are going solo precisely because they want some me time and would prefer to speak to as few people as possible along the way.
Whichever group you belong to, by the time you’ve decided to take the plunge into solo travel, you’re probably already mentally prepared for the experience, so don’t worry too much before setting off.
If you’re not planning on going down the super-social route, but are worried about feeling lonely, make plans accordingly – book an Airbnb room in a shared house (even if you don’t intend for these people to become your best friends, it’s nice to come home to a house which isn’t totally silent), work on an itinerary which keeps you out and about and busy all day, or search online for activities like walking tours where you’ll be around others without necessarily having to chat.
If you do feel loneliness creeping in, give a friend back home a quick call and tell them about all the awesome things you’ve seen and done so far – you’ll be feeling better in no time.
3. Make sure you’ve got a lifejacket
Even if you’re not usually a big planner, it’s not a bad idea to make a few arrangements for your first solo trip, even if you aim to be a bit more spontaneous on future occasions.
For the first time, at least, book at least your first night’s accommodation before you arrive, figure out how you’ll get there from the airport or train station, write down the address and phone number of the place you’re staying as well as the national emergency numbers, and download or print a map of the city you’re going to. It’s not a bad idea to have a shortlist of 2 or 3 cafés which definitely have WiFi too, just in case you need to change plans last minute, and a backup phone charger isn’t a terrible idea either.
It’s very unlikely that anything will go wrong, but if the airport bus happens to be on strike that day, or you get off at the wrong stop, feel totally lost, and have to flag down a taxi, or if the Airbnb apartment buzzer is broken so you can’t get in, you’ll be glad you had a way around the problem. Little problems feel bigger when you’re totally on your own, but a bit of preparation makes tiny hiccups much less likely to ruin your day.
Emergency Plan Bs are your lifejacket – something you hope to never have to use, but that you’ll be glad to have if something does go wrong.
4. Fake it til ya make it
If this whole travelling solo thing makes you feel a bit uncomfortable, rest assured that it will get easier, and you’ll feel like an expert in no time. Until then, you can either fumble through awkwardly, or you can pretend you’re a pro and watch with glee as absolutely nobody questions you.
I’m a fan of the second option, of course.
You will feel weird the first time you do certain activities that you hadn’t previously ever considered doing without company – sit down dinners are probably the finest example – but remember that you are the one who decides how many fucks to give and you’ll soon learn that the correct amount is as few as possible.
Don’t feel embarrassed of being alone – instead, take advantage of your solo status; even at peak times when couples and groups are getting turned away, there’s usually one seat in a restaurant going spare and waiters will often be extra kind to you, going out of their way to accommodate you and make sure you’re having a nice time. You’re not expected to rush your dinner, and you’re definitely not going to be judged for getting a glass of wine or a dessert, so if that’s what you feel like, go wild!
And think about it, if you saw someone alone at dinner, in a park, at the cinema, or in a gallery, you’d most likely not even give them a second look – even if you did, you’d likely just assume they had time to kill, or were in the city for business – you’d never judge them, so why would someone else judge you? And, more to the point, why should you care if they did?
Even if you feel like a weirdo, pretend you don’t – walk into that restaurant with your head held high, ask for your table for one, and enjoy.
5. Pack light
One of the things that does suck a little bit about solo travel is having to lug all your bags around by yourself, and not having anyone to watch them when you need to run to the loo.
If you’re going on a short trip, try to squeeze everything into a backpack – if you get a decent one with back support (and yes, my 13-year-old past self is cringing at that recommendation) you’ll find it much more convenient than a little wheely suitcase (especially when nature calls), and a good one can hold just as much as your usual low-cost airline carry-on. I have a little black Herschel one which miraculously always seems to fit more in.
Check the weather forecast and pack appropriately, but remember that if you really need an extra layer, there is probably an H&M where you’re going, so don’t feel the need to bring everything but the kitchen sink. One of the joys of solo travel is the fact that nobody will insist you have your photo taken if you don’t want to, so you don’t have to care about outfit repeating either.
Take the necessities (if in doubt: an umbrella and a pair of sunglasses) but don’t overpack – trust me.
6. Be present
We’re so programmed to try to look busy if we’re ever not in company that pulling out our headphones, scrolling through Instagram (yep, that’s my weakness) or sticking our nose in a book when travelling alone is almost a reflex.
If you genuinely want to listen to music or call your mum while you walk around, and that’s something which will help you to enjoy the experience more, by all means go ahead, but don’t just disconnect from your surroundings because you feel like you should. The same goes for book-reading at mealtimes – if you’re hooked to your latest literary find and desperately want to read as you eat, you go ahead and live your life, but just be open to the idea that people watching and really savouring every mouthful of your dinner might be more fun than you’d imagined – give it a chance.
Keeping your devices locked away in your bag may not feel natural at first, but it might make your trip feel a bit more purposeful, and will certainly allow you to feel more connected with all the exciting new sights, sounds, and smells around you (and there is nothing wrong with whipping out your phone for an occasional shot for the ‘gram every now and again, obviously).
7. Ease your way in
If you’re still not 100% sure if solo travel is for you, why not dip your toe in with a short trip to a destination where you know you’ll feel safe?
For me, this meant taking a plane to the other end of Italy; a place where I speak the language, and where the way of life is familiar enough, but also a place with history, culture, climate and cuisine different enough to feel exotic and “foreign”. Palermo isn’t necessarily considered one of the safest places in Italy for female solo travellers, but it’s by no means dangerous. Although I’m not a regular solo traveller, I’m pretty clued up on how to travel safely, so I was well within my comfort zone, and knew that feeling safe was not going to be an issue for me.
If you’re not ready for an international experience, pick somewhere a few hours by train or plane from your hometown, and spend a weekend there, getting used to travelling alone before going any bigger.
8. Trust your gut
I cannot stress this one enough – trust. your. instincts.
Wherever you’re going, there’ll be a ton of things to see and do. If you’d planned to go to a particular area, but get a knot in your stomach as you get close, there is nothing wrong with just not going, and nobody will think worse of you if you miss one thing off your list.
If you’re desperate to go to an area which you have a bit of a bad feeling about, consider shelling out for a taxi, or joining a group tour – making a compromise, whether that be in terms of cash or your preferred travel style, is worth it if it means feeling safer.
9. Keep your wits about you
In the same vein, you’ll want to pay attention to what’s going on around you to make sure you stay as safe as possible.
In the majority of cities – particularly in Europe – you’re no more likely to have problems if you’re alone, but if you do run into trouble by yourself, it’ll feel more overwhelming, so take the precautions you can to avoid it happening at all.
If you’re generally a careful traveller, you probably won’t need to make any changes, but just make sure – as usual – to keep valuables out of sight (leave your bling at home, gals, there’s no one to impress here!), pop your travel documents into a zipped, inside pocket where they can’t fall out (no one wants to spend their weekend begging for a new passport), don’t flash cash or expensive electronics around, and try to avoid wandering around badly-lit areas at night, if you can.
Ask your host or hotel if there are any areas that are best avoided (and avoid them, duh!), and try to walk with purpose whenever you’re out and about – a quick glance at Google Maps now and again is fine, but the more you blend in with the locals and the less you stand around looking lost, the less likely you are to be targeted by pickpockets and other dodgy folks.
If you’re ever feeling in danger, walk close to a couple or a group (make smalltalk if you feel too awkward just hovering!) or dive into the nearest café to call a cab, ask for advice, or just sit with a cup of something warm to relax.
Be sensible, and everything will go perfectly.
10. Do whatever the heck you want
Solo travel is one of the most liberating experiences you can have, for the simple reason that you – and you alone – make the rules.
Nobody will influence your decisions, and you can choose to spend as much (or as little) money, time, and effort as you want, doing whatever you like. You can change your mind as often as you like, and can decide to make a plan or totally improvise depending on how you wake up in the morning. This is pure freedom.
Craving tiramisù for breakfast? And again for lunch? Go get it! Want to power through every one of the city’s art galleries in one day? Do it! Want to take a nap between breakfast and lunch, go to bed at 8pm, or wake up before sunrise? Cool, you’re the boss!
Remember that what happens on solo vacay stays on solo vacay, so (within the usual limits of ethics and national law, c’mon guys) you can do whatever you fancy, and you don’t even have to tell anyone that you had 9 ice creams in one day, if you don’t want to.
Need even more tips? Check out 50 more from Digital Travel Guru here!
If you’re embarking on your first solo trip, I’d love to hear where you’re going and how you’re feeling about it – leave me a comment below!