Group rates are a common way for people to save on day travel and major excursions. Traveling with a group, however, can be cumbersome and complicated. Traveling alone, on the other hand, is an adventure that affords you many options and unique experiences. You just need to be comfortable in a strange place on your own, and you must be ready to spend some major time on preparation and planning.
If you’re new to traveling alone, you may find the challenge daunting. Hitting the road without a companion isn’t easy, but it’s exciting. With the right preparation, it’ll also be safe, fun, and efficient. Follow these travel tips and ideas for solo travel.
Choosing a Travel Destination
Know Your Comfort Zone
Especially if you’re new to traveling alone, you need to choose your destination, or destinations, carefully. If you’re feeling a little nervous about being on your own, don’t pick an adventurous destination. Also avoid overwhelming destinations, like remote locations and national parks in areas with no cell service.
If you want to leave the country, but you’re concerned about the language barrier, choose a comfortable spot in the UK that will feel more familiar. If a potential destination is particularly dangerous, unwelcome to tourists, or prone to political unrest, cross it off your list.
Think about your priorities, including what activities you’ll want to do on your trip. Consider climate, time zone, and language. Finally, don’t ignore local cost of living or, if you’re leaving the country, the value of the dollar.
Now that you’ve picked a destination in your comfort zone, use the opportunity to build confidence as a solo traveler. Insight and information are your tools for gaining confidence. Talk to friends and family members who have been to your destination before. Their experience will become your knowledge, so ask them about things like flights or other transportation options, restaurants, hotels, car rentals, local customs, and must-see locations.
If you can’t find someone who has already been to your spot, check your online networks or visit communities and forums on travel web sites like:
Fellow travelers post in these forums and share tips, reviews, and photos. If you find an expert, you can even ask some more specific questions.
For example, when I was planning my trip around Bali, I spoke with other travelers who had been there on their own, and they provided the encouragement I needed. Their positive stories and travel knowledge gave me the confidence to branch out and explore smaller villages and regions of the island during my trip. I felt completely safe and had some wonderful adventures.
Building Your Travel Plan
If you’re comfortable, confident, and ready to start planning the details, you’ll have a lot to consider. Let’s start with the big issues:
When you’re on your own, you need to be certain your accommodations are safe and secure. The building itself and the surrounding area need to meet your needs and expectations, and you need to be confident that they’ll honor your reservation.
The best way to do your research is to speak with someone at the hotel or hostel, then follow up by reading reviews on the same sites you checked for communities and forums. Look for the most recent views, since they’ll provide the best glimpse of the current situation at any given location.
One strategy many people use is to book a reservation for just one night. You can use that night as a trial period to look around the area and find other accommodations that are more suitable for you. It’s a great way to make sure you don’t get stuck at an unbearable accommodation for the entire length of your trip.
If the place is a dump, speak with the manager and explain your issues. Request a full refund, or at least a partial refund, for your money, and if the manager explains no refund is possible, ask for a free upgrade to a more amenable room. In most cases, if you state your unhappiness with the situation, the manager will work with you and either offer you a refund or discount, or find you something better on site.
Putting It in Action
Renting a Car in Foreign Country
Take the time to research the various rental car companies around your destination. Don’t necessarily go with the cheapest company; it might have bad customer service, unreliable cars, or be located in a difficult spot. Remember to bring your maps, so you’ll be more comfortable adjusting to driving in a new country.
Before you leave the rental agency, have someone show you how to open the gas tank. I know it sounds ridiculous, but it’s not. I once spent fifteen minutes in Spain trying numerous methods to open my gas tank door just to fill the tank. The open button ended up being in the glove compartment. Another time, in Majorca, I couldn’t turn the rear windshield wiper off.
These small things will become annoying if you can’t figure them out. Remember that foreign cars vary in unpredictable ways, so ask the rental agency to physically show around the vehicle. You’ll save yourself a future headache that way.
Choosing a Restaurant and Dining
In addition to helping you with selecting your location and your initial preparation, TripAdvisor is also a good resource for learning about restaurants. After you look at their restaurant reviews from fellow travelers, check out local tourism websites. These sites will have links to restaurants and activities.
Lastly, when you arrive at your destination, talk to the hotel staff. They can be very knowledgeable about local restaurants, and they’ll let you know their favorites. Moreover, remember that the best advice will often come from other travelers in your hotel or on a day excursion. They can provide up-to-date, first-hand information on their recent restaurant visits.
As for the dining experience itself, you may find the idea of eating alone intimidating, embarrassing, or just boring. If the thought of eating alone in a restaurant bothers you, try one of these strategies:
- Plan ahead and bring a book, an e-reader, or a magazine.
- Sit in the bar area or at a counter where it’s easy to talk to and meet other travelers.
- Eat at a time when the restaurant is less busy so that you feel less out of place.
One of my favorite things about traveling alone is that I can do exactly what I want with my day. I can choose to go on any tour or organize my own trip. If I want to start early and get on the road, there’s no discussion about what works for my travel companions. It’s all about your wishes when traveling solo!
If this is your first time traveling alone to a particular city, don’t completely eliminate the idea of a paid excursion. You’ll get the benefit of a professional guide and a ready-made group of companions, even if they are strangers. A day trip or tour can help you familiarize yourself with your destination when you arrive.
When you’re considering tour excursions, research the available tour companies thoroughly. Many tours can offer great experiences while others can be a nightmare. Ask yourself some questions to make sure the tour will meet your needs: What are your tour priorities? Do you want an in-depth tour or are you simply interested in a hop on hop off bus tour? Would you prefer a more active option, like a walking, Segway, or bicycle tour?
If you don’t want to pay for an excursion, check your travel guide and map to choose and visit your favorite locations by yourself. Make a list and plan it out with a map so that you get to see everything on your list. Ask the hotel staff about public transportation; you’ll save a boatload of money and get a feel for the local system too.
If this is your first time traveling alone, give yourself time to relax and take in the experience. Schedule a few activities but save days and blocks of time to choose what feels good or what appeals to your sense of fun. If you overbook you will feel stressed, and you won’t be able to soak in the culture and the overall experience.
When you travel alone, safety is your top priority. As an experienced solo traveler, here are my most important safety travel tips:
- Don’t accept drinks from strangers unless you watched the bartender or vendor pour the drink.
- Keep a portion of your money and one credit card in a different location than the rest of your money in case your wallet or purse gets stolen.
- Have a change purse with a few small bills for incidental shopping. Don’t pull out a wad of cash while traveling because it can attract dangerous attention.
- Always let someone know your travel itinerary and occasionally touch base with them via email, Skype, or text message so they know you’re OK.
- Be aware of your surroundings and make eye contact with people. Travel with confidence.
- Know the number for emergencies in the country you’re traveling in.
- If you plan to drive, read up on the local laws before you leave. Studying will have you better prepared for the differences.
Finances as a Solo Traveler
I suggest taking a debit card and a credit card for your travels, and vary the providers behind your cards in case you’re at a venue that won’t accept a particular credit card company. Bring no more than $200 in cash, and use crisp, clean twenties. I’ve occasionally had older bills and smaller denominations refused at exchange booths in foreign countries.
Worried that you won’t have enough cash? Keep in mind that in most destinations, even third world countries, ATMs are available, but fees can get high. Before you leave, notify your bank that you’ll be traveling overseas. If they’re prepared for the foreign usage of your card, they’re less likely to shut down your card for suspected fraud. As one final piece of protection, you can also set a daily limit on your debit and credit cards.
Further, take that opportunity to ask about any foreign transaction fees. If your bank or credit card company charges an excessive fee for using credit cards abroad, you’ll want to choose an alternative card or limit your transactions.
Some banks have sister institutions abroad that allow you to use your debit card with little or no fee – know which banks these are before you depart. If you have a Schwab One account, for example, they’ll reimburse you for any ATM fees abroad. When it comes to your credit card, most companies will charge a 3% foreign transaction fee. If your primary card charges a higher rate, bring a different one. As an example, all Capital One cards do not charge this fee.
I recommend you travel with only what you can comfortably carry. You’ll likely be moving around a lot, and you’re not necessarily going to have someone available to help carry your stuff. Don’t assume that you’ll find a readily accessible supply of luggage carts and escalators at your destination.
Anything more than a single suitcase and a backpack will quickly grow cumbersome. When possible, select bags that you can connect together, to make moving around go even more smoothly (i.e. types of luggage traveling on flights). Lastly, keep in mind that some destinations will have cobbled sidewalks or dirt paths that aren’t easily maneuverable with wheeled luggage. Research your destination and make a plan for every possible scenario.
If you can’t limit your packing, you may have an experience like the one I had, struggling with multiple bags from the Amsterdam airport metro terminal into the city of Amsterdam. I’d flown for more than ten hours, and was exhausted and overwhelmed, mostly by the weight of all my bags.
If you do get yourself in a challenging luggage situation, ask for assistance from a policeman or another official. You can also pay for a porter or ask hotel concierge to assist you like I did. Lastly, you may need to simply spend the money and jump in a taxi.
Maps and Apps
Along with your standard suitcase fare like clothes and sneakers, you’ll need a few files, whether they’re on paper or virtual.
Preparation, even over-preparation, is the key to success when traveling alone. Before you depart, visit a bookstore for a map of your destination. If you’re an AAA member, you can get plenty of travel materials for free. Alternatively, you can go online and download printable travel maps. You can also access plenty of map information on a smartphone, but download as much as you can before the trip to save money on your cell phone plan and to prepare in case you hit “dead spots” as you’re traveling. Also, contact your carrier to be sure that your service will work before you depart, and make sure to add an international plan to avoid astronomical fees. Here are my top navigation picks for the major smartphones:
If you don’t come prepared, you’ll probably end up with whatever your rental car company or hotel may have on hand. You might get lucky and get a superb map for free, but you can just as easily end up with a worthless, and perhaps over-priced, map. Also check out some of the best free travel apps for saving money on the road.
If you’re traveling abroad, you’re already thinking about your passport. Even if you’re traveling within the country, however, you need to be prepared should you lose any important documents. Before you leave your home, scan the information page of your passport, your airline ticket, and your itinerary, and email copies of them to yourself. The copies won’t take the place of your official documents, of course, but they’ll help you recover or de-activate them in the event of theft or loss.
I also suggest taking a photo and emailing copies of your credit card numbers and the customer service phone number for each credit card. Additionally, give copies of all of these documents to someone you trust. This way, you’ll have access to your numbers and other essential information while you’re traveling. For example, if your wallet gets lost, you’ll know exactly what credit cards you need to cancel.
Essentials to Bring Along as a Solo Traveler
Some items I’ve found handy in my travels abroad:
- A cell phone and a SIM card good for the country you are traveling in. A SIM card can be purchased at a phone store when you arrive in another country
- A travel guide and map
- Essential phone numbers, including the number for your hotel in case you are delayed, and emergency numbers in your destination area
- Additionally, bring a hard copy of your emergency contacts’ phone numbers. Remember all those times you forgot your friends’ and family members’ numbers? Don’t be caught alone on the road without them.
- Imodium, aspirin, Airborne, and acupressure bracelets for seasickness – these four easy-to-pack items will be lifesavers if you fall ill
- Plan ahead with a small amount of local currency to use in situations where you aren’t comfortable using a credit card. Occasionally in third world countries, I’ve made purchases where I felt paying with cash was the best option (or sometimes the only option).
- A door stop to push under your hotel or hostel door to prevent someone from trying to enter
- A cheat sheet of the exchange rates can save you money as you convert purchases. I once overpaid for a Turkish rug by making an error when converting the rate in my head. The vendor didn’t say a word about my error, and I lost $100 in that transaction.
Your first trip by yourself is going to be filled with excitement and a little nervous energy. That’s normal. As you travel, keep a small notebook handy and jot down things that you love about the trip and things that you might do differently next time. As you become comfortable with traveling alone, you’ll be more creative in your planning. You’ll also grow more adventurous in choosing your destinations.
That’s how it should be. You gain confidence in yourself and your ability to travel on your own. It’s my hope that these solo travel tips will give you the confidence to plan your own solo trip.
Where have you gone on your own? What’s your next destination? What top tips do you keep in mind when you’re traveling alone on an adventure?
(photo credit: Shutterstock)