18 to 30s Solo Travel-Insider Tips: My travel worldwide started early. If I had to summarize it, I would say it has been from “Crocodiles to Cholera”. More on that later! In elementary school, my older sister and I would take a bus to visit relatives in a neighboring space. By the time I was twelve years-old, I began to daydream about exotic spots with towering palm trees. I have a vivid memory on a bright sunny day of gazing out the window deep in travel dreams. Unfortunately, I was not aware than my eighth grade teacher was calling on me.
By thirteen, my sister and I had “graduated” from our interstate bus trips unchaperoned to our first plane trips. I recall seeing smoke (steam) coming from the prop jet’s engine. I quickly wondered if the plane was on fire! (While I have since had an emergency landing on two commercial flights, fortunately my fellow passengers and I made it safely back on the tarmac!)
By the time I was a teenager, I had become an “accidental” solo traveler. I found out that at any age it is hard to find friends or family free at the same time for the same place. Years later this has been more so. Why is that? Most adults find the need to work full or part time to balance the budget. As a result, I began to travel both through the United States and abroad as a “solo traveler”. With youthful enthusiasm, I relished each and every adventure.
By the time I was sixteen, I flew to Boston to look at schools. I checked into a Sheraton Hotel in Cambridge and had a great time. I had my first subway rides on the MTA. I had clam chowder at fabled Durgin Park and that night had a lobster dinner. I finished the day at a double feature in the local movie theater. While it may not have been wise to put my college interviews on the backburner, I did have a great time.
At eighteen, I was set to test my wings as an international solo traveler. I filled in an application to join a YMCA summer project in the dual island nation of Trinidad and Tobago. At this point in life, I do lots of research and plan ahead. Not so much at that point in my life! I was very excited to be accepted. There was one surprise. I had thoughts of setting out off the coast of Florida. In reality, I was heading farther south. In northwest Trinidad, on a good day you can view Venezuela just about ten miles off the Boca del Dragon to Venezuela. My first thought was to take a boat to explore that neighboring country. Unfortunately, I learned that such casual immigration without the right documents could result in arrest.
By the time I was twenty, I was anxious to “see America”, my home country. I had no car and a very small student budget. Undaunted, that summer I spent five weeks solo riding Trailways and Greyhound buses from Washington, DC to Los Angeles. With only an overnight bag, I spent many nights sleeping on the bus between visits with school friends along the way.
Every time I go on the road I learn something new. Here are my personal tips from my adventures from my early days as a young solo traveler.
What to Think About Before You Travel Solo:
If you are new to solo travel, ask yourself these questions:
- Have you traveled often at home or abroad with family, friends or school groups?
- Do you like to explore new cultures, places and languages?
- What is your travel budget after you consider all your school or living expenses?
- How long can you be away from school or work?
- If you get delayed abroad, what would be your “plan B”? After I had been a long time solo traveler, I was stranded abroad for 8 days after 9/11. It was very hard even with my long-time experience traveling alone. Since a “ground stop” prevented all flights to the United States, I focused exclusively on flying to Canada. However, as 40,000 Americans were stranded in small towns in Canada’s eastern provinces, no more US passport holders were allowed to buy a plane ticket on any airlines arriving in Canada. I was so set on that sole plan, I completely overlooked the obvious. I should have flown for a second visit to Mexico and taken trains and buses north to Washington, DC. This was a real life lesson for me that when one exit plan failed I needed to move on to an alternative.
- What is your reason for traveling solo? For example, do you relish the adventure? Alternatively, are you keen to “see the world” but do not have a travel mate?
Ways to Stay Safe(r) on Your First Solo Travel:
- Never eat or drink something offered by a stranger.
- Be sure you have a safe place to sleep with access to reliable local transportation.
- Divide your money and credit cards up, and put them with your passport in a money belt. I wear one under my waistband out of view.
- Always have a way 24/7 to get to outside funds in an emergency.
- Trust your sixth sense if someone you have met seems off or the situation does not feel right.
- Know how to get back safely where you are staying. When I leave my B&B or hotel for the first time, I snap photos of landmarks and street signs. That way I have a street map how to get back.
- Stay away from political demonstrations.
- Money changing: Use an ATM inside a shop, your lodging or well-lit place.
- Spoil the fun for pickpockets. Do not fall for the old trick where one person distracts you while the other swipes your wallet or purse.
- Travel in the daytime if possible.
- Always have your own way back to where you are staying..
- Think about security when you are booking a place to stay. There may be safety in numbers, but a group house can have its own issues if people come and go at all hours. The larger the group keys may have been lost, and no one may lock up if there is a lot of traffic back and forth.
- Have a daily check-in via text, email or phone with a friend or family at a set time.
- While remote places can be special, take a reliable local friend or guide.
- If you are meeting a day tour or special outing, meet where you are staying or in their office. By mistake, I once road off on horseback into the setting sun at the Pyramids of Giza with a stranger. I had been booked with a trust-worthy stable, but unfortunately, there was a mix-up when a guide brought a horse for me to mount and accompany him into the desert. I made it back in one piece but had some concerns once I realized the mix-up.
- Wear a referee’s whistle on your wrist. In an emergency, the really shrill noise will quickly gather a crowd.
If you plan to go scuba diving, sightseeing via a small plane or riding in a hot air balloon, check out the vendor and their safety record.
If you are taking an independent sports trip, such as skiing, find a buddy at your level of expertise. I had good luck with this in ski lessons in both Norway and Andorra. Whether you are a novice or an expert, it is better to have someone with you on the trails.
Be extra careful if your destination is having civil unrest or political upheavals. This is not always obvious. I did find once after arriving abroad that our host said he thought he was being watched because of his political dissent. As one guide advised elsewhere, if a political demonstration breaks out, walk away. While it might be interesting to watch, crowds can turn violent, and/or police or military forces may make a wide sweep arresting anyone who is even mistakenly perceived as being part of an uprising.
Practical Ways to Save on Your First Solo Travel:
- Find a grocery store and have a daily picnic in a park (or even your room!)
- If you must eat out, find neighborhood cafes. Skip the appetizers, desserts and drinks. As a student, friends and I would attend a free lecture and concert at the National Gallery of Art followed by dinner. Our greatest find was a local Italian restaurant. We could order spaghetti with tomato sauce only (Hold the meat balls! Meat tends to add to the price.)
- If you are of legal age and want to sample wine, buy local vintages. Sign up for a free wine-tasting at shops or with tours of vineyards.
1. Learn about the culture and local customs at your destination. Be aware that as I found in Cairo that there are some restaurants that are primarily for men rather than single women and families. In parts of the Middle East in the past you could ask if there was an area for families and women. International hotels at all price levels will be a good alternative.
2. In some airports, such as Amman, Jordan’s when I was there, have separate screening for women. Unfortunately, that means your carry-on bag(s0 are left unsupervised out of your sight on the conveyor belt moving through security. I could not see parting with my wallet and passport when I left my purse behind. When I went through the women’s security check, I held them both out, and there was no problem.
3. While being friendly at home can be natural in a foreign culture, it might be misunderstood.
4. Although the weather in the tropics can be steamy, in SE Asia, South Asia and the Middle East, dress codes can require more modesty than a hot day at home might allow. In temples, other houses of worship and royal palaces, both men and women may be asked to cover up. In some spots, there are loaners you can use during your tour inside.