Tackling Solo Travel

Jodi Ettenberg July 24, 2014 18

Real talk: the internet is full of articles that read as though travelling alone is something shameful, or a last resort for people who couldn’t wrangle a friend or partner to join a trip. “Don’t Worry!” the headlines scream, “You TOO Can Do This.” Or “here is how to fit in at a restaurant so people won’t even know you’re by yourself!” There is even a Google autocomplete for “how to travel and not be lonely.”

Why the negativity?

As with many articles online, fear sells. Yes, the unknown can be daunting, especially when people love to tell you that you are better off travelling with friends or a partner. In the case of solo travel, instead of focusing on fear I wanted to set out some tips and talking points for those determined to set out alone.

J Ettenberg Profile Photo - Press copy

So, for starters: it merits noting that solo travel does not mean you are lonely. Be it meet-up groups online, message boards about destinations, or just chatting in a hostel’s common room, it is easy to meet likeminded people. Often that means crossing paths and then organically deciding to continue on as a group if you’re headed in the same direction. Travellers are often more than happy to strike up a conversation or provide tips if they know the destination well. And in an increasingly interconnected world, the ways to meet people via technology in foreign places are growing every day.

While it remains easy to disconnect and disengage if you choose to do so, fear of loneliness tends to dissipate quickly once you’re on the road. Not once in my years of travel has anyone raised an eyebrow about a table for one. Sure, people in other countries can be curious about those who have the ability to travel alone, and in many places people do not have the means or opportunity to set off by themselves. Despite being painted occasionally as a desperation scenario for those unlucky enough to have no takers for a trip, solo travel is actually a positive choice. People are far more open to random conversation than you realize – more often than not, new friends emerge out of these impromptu interactions.

Realities of Solo Travel

Now to the practicalities: I would be lying if I said solo travel, especially as a 1.5m-tall (5 ft) woman, had no challenges whatsoever. Everything in life has its share of difficulties, and roaming around the world is not exempt, even the way I do it (ie in search of soup).

When people ask about practical downsides, my first response is: someone to watch your bag when you pee. While pithy, this is not fully a joke; I have a small bladder and I have to pee often. It would be really great if I could just leave my bag with someone I trust while doing so. The solution is usually simple; there are often people who will watch your bag for you. But this response disarms because generally people expect my answer to be “trying not to be chased by rabid bears while running away from armed bandits,” not bag-watching.

(I will also add that practical downsides include not splitting room costs, not being able to order more food to share and try everything you want, and not having someone next to you at all times to provide running commentary about everything you see.)

Of course, the “rabid bears and armed bandits” issue (aka security) merits discussion. Personal safety is generally a concern, and based on the amount of emails I receive from young women, solo travel is not taken lightly for this reason. The umbrella threat of sexual assault is one that is used as an argument to stay home. And as challenges and fears go, it is very real. But those dangers exist at home as well as abroad. Bigger and more important than “should I, as a woman, travel alone?” is “how can we, as a society, change the worldview toward women both at home and in far-flung places?” This is not a topic I can tackle here, but it merits mentioning. For each person that says “aren’t you afraid of solo travel as a woman?” I respond that I’m occasionally afraid as a woman when I’m not travelling and occasionally when travelling, but I can only travel in the body I’ve been given.

And with six years of worldwide adventures behind me, I can say with the utmost of certainties that it was far better than staying at home.

Tips and Talking Points

When people say, “you should be careful” what they’re often really saying is “I would be scared.”

These tips are for people on the road, but they also work to appease nervous family and friends, becoming conversation points as you plan. It shows you’ve thought out circumstances and have done research.

  • For those wanting to get their footing before setting off alone, take a group trip first. I am historically a solo traveller, but by working with G Adventures, I’ve been able to show my readers that, “hey, there were places that worried me and I went there with their groups, and then stayed on alone.” There might be fearless people out there who can just pick up and go to anywhere, always, but I’m not one of them. Starting with a group gets you used to a place, makes you aware of some of the cultural mores in person, and then allows you to retain that solid foundation before you move on within the country alone.
  • Basic common sense tips that apply to solo travel and to general outings at home: watch your drink closely to ensure no adds anything to it, and avoid drinking to excess. It’s easy to get complacent when in a group of others doing the same, but when you’re travelling alone, it is always important to remain aware of your surroundings, which harder to do when intoxicated. Again, this applies at university, on the road, and as a general rule.
  • Dress the part. If you are in a country where locals are conservatively dressed, it is respectful to try and mimic the general rules of this style. This applies to men, too, though they are less targeted when dressed liberally. If the local custom is for women to keep their elbows and knees covered, then regardless of how hot it is, I’ll wear a loose flowing shirt or t-shirt and a longer skirt. I’ve found this also allows for better engagement with locals, who have often flat-out said that they appreciate the effort, and even when it isn’t explicitly verbalized, I’ve noticed that people are more willing to jump into a conversation.
  • If a stranger asks where you are staying, have a backup place in mind to tell them instead of the actual hostel or hotel. Would you give your address to a stranger in your home country? Unlikely. Don’t do it abroad either.
  • Carry a small rubber doorstop, available at any hardware store, to wedge under your door from the inside at night. I’ve been doing this for years and it provides extra peace of mind while asleep. I also carry a safety whistle, which can be helpful when hiking or wandering alone. Added bonus: It really keeps the monkeys at bay. (Trust me on the monkey front; if a loud blast of a safety whistle scares them away you will be happy.)
  • Be aware that eye contact in some countries can invite aggressive behaviour. Again, it’s not the message I’d like to put out (as in, I wish this wasn’t something we had to worry about at all, anywhere) but it can be the case. I am mindful of this fact, especially as a Montrealer – a city that proudly declares its love of eye contact.
  • If you are travelling in a country for more than a few days, register with your local embassy. I’ve done so here for Canada in many countries, as have my American and Australian friends in town. Most consular services do include registration for citizens abroad, and it is very helpful in the event of emergency (or even natural disasters).

We’ve already written about the solo travel movement generally, and how more and more people are deciding to set out alone. If you want to meet people as you travel, it’s not difficult to do so; networking opportunities, hosted events, and meet-up groups are plentiful just about anywhere that travellers are. Sometimes you don’t want to share space with others, and in those cases the fact that you’ve set off alone is a decadent thing. The beauty of solo travel is the freedom of choice, the ability to explore along a theme of your making, to deep-dive into an esoteric aspect of culture or history, to trace the routes of one particular dish or person that fascinates you. As you travel generally, you remain more and more open to learning from people you meet and seeing the world through their eyes, too. You discover new things. As a solo traveller, you can choose to connect or choose to disconnect, and then follow your own schedule or curiosities wherever they might lead.


Getting There

G Adventures runs a number of departures encompassing a wide range of departure dates and activities to cater for different tastes. We’re thrilled at the prospect of showing you this big blue planet of ours— check out our small group trips here.

18 Comments »

  1. Erin July 25, 2014 at 1:02 am - Reply

    JODI. Definitely want to meet up + eat yummy soup soon. I’ll be in Indo in Aug/Sept, Turkey in Oct and Romania in Nov. OR there’s always Toronto… What’s on your route?

    • Jodi July 25, 2014 at 10:48 am - Reply

      Hallo! Sadly no Toronto for me this summer. Sad face. I’ll be in Southeast Asia as of late September — first Japan, then back to my soup stomping grounds. Send me a note & we can coordinate via email. Enjoy your travels!

  2. Rob July 25, 2014 at 1:45 am - Reply

    The underlying message I read in the “solo traveler” controversy is almost always about the “solo female traveler” and the risk of sexual assault or harassment. But I don’t necessarily see this as an issue that is much bigger when traveling than at home.

    Not an issue for me as a man, of course, but all other solo travel issues are. I find that when traveling I am much more gregarious. It’s something of an act as I’m pretty shy normally but it means that I often have long conversations with people or groups of people when I travel.

    Also, I’ve found it both feels good and is useful from the “people contact” perspective to help people. If you happen to have been in a town for long enough to know your way around and you encounter people loudly wondering where on the map the grocery store/Notre Dame/hot springs might be, engage with them and help. Similarly if people are having language issues that you may not have. It’s a little people contact for a few minutes and is almost always appreciated. And sometimes they’re going where you’re going so you can engage a bit then.

    In short, don’t view yourself as a “solo traveler” but more as someone who’s traveling with all the other travelers and who interacts, or doesn’t, whenever one feels for it.

    IMHO, of course. YMMV.

    • Jodi July 25, 2014 at 10:50 am - Reply

      Hey Rob, I agree and that’s what I try to bring the conversation back to when people say “oh but it’s dangerous” — I feel safer wandering around Southeast Asia alone at night than in many parts of Europe or North America. That said, there are certainly countries where it is more dangerous than others as a solo female traveler, but people have the ability to pick and choose what/where makes them comfortable, and go from there.

      There’s no question that if you’re open to meeting and learning from people, you will find that engagement leading to all sorts of fun new plans and conversations :) Thanks for stopping by!

  3. Sarah James July 25, 2014 at 5:39 am - Reply

    Hi, my name is Sarah, I travelled for 2 years by myself, a couple of years ago. I was very happy to be travelling on my own, being solo means you can be by yourself if you want, but also you can meet different people if you wish. It means you have to make more of an effort to interact with different cultures and peoples. In my travels I have met some fantastic people who I am still in touch with now, however you do meet some real idiots, the best thing is you know you will never see them again. I had a fantastic time, and I would do it again if I had the money.

  4. Paul Howey July 25, 2014 at 5:45 am - Reply

    Travelling alone is the only sure fire way of truly interacting with the new places and people you meet along the way….. there’s no choice!
    you’ll leave with an experience of ‘living’ those places rather than just holidaying there…. travelling light with the complete flexibility of going and doing where, when and what you like is second to none :-)

  5. Jossie July 25, 2014 at 12:50 pm - Reply

    Hi, Jodi. Love your comments on solo travelers. One thing that is hard to find is the single accommodations without the extra charge… Both men and women solo travelers experience this situation, and I believe there are more of us now ! Hope the travel world comes to terms, specially cruises, about this issue. Safe travels !

  6. Jeffrey July 26, 2014 at 4:00 am - Reply

    Jodi, Southeast Asia? You might want be interested in this upcoming event in Bangkok: “International Institute of Peace and Development Studies (IIPDS) in cooperation with Asian Resource Foundation (ARF) and Asian Muslim Action Network (AMAN) announces “Youth for Peace (YFP) Training workshop” scheduled 11th -15th September, 2014. The program is soliciting applications from young peace and developmental workers, youth leaders, faith based workers, NGO activists, journalists, researchers and to those who are interested to develop and share their knowledge and skills in the field of peace and development.”
    I found it on the “ASEAN Youth Interfaith Community” fb page.

    • Jodi August 1, 2014 at 2:25 pm - Reply

      Thanks, but I am currently in North America and will not be back in SEA until late in the year. Appreciate the note.

  7. Tina July 28, 2014 at 8:46 am - Reply

    Nice dilemma is being discuss in Post I too Agree that if your travelling alone some where that time you face many people to whom you interact some you find godo or some bad but finalizing I would like to tell that it all about your choice .

    apart from this to fear of new thing you should try to indulge with these things

  8. Michela July 29, 2014 at 3:38 pm - Reply

    I always feel the fear of loneliness before any solo trip. The anticipation of the trip makes me feeling anxious and I start to question everything. Then when I am on the road fear naturally dissipates. So, going it solo is definitely easier than what you imagine. And feeling lonely becomes more natural as you don’t experience it as something negative any more.

    • Jodi August 1, 2014 at 2:26 pm - Reply

      I think after a few trips your brain knows it’s feeling x, y and z, but you intellectually know that you’ll conquer it when you leave, so it makes it a bit easier when those initial anxieties pop up. Glad you’ve found that your worries dissipate on the road!

  9. Helen Dickerson August 2, 2014 at 3:29 am - Reply

    This is so interesting! Never had a chance to travel solo and I think it is sometimes liberating to be on your own. I might try to have a solo trip next time. Let’s see what I can get. ;)

  10. Andrea P August 19, 2014 at 9:42 am - Reply

    Thank you so much for this inspiring article. I’m a little woman as well and am planning my first solo trip…I am so pumped! :-)

    • Jodi August 20, 2014 at 1:11 pm - Reply

      Hey Andrea! Glad to hear. If you’re looking for a backpack, Gregory packs actually makes an “XS” for their bags, which is great for people with small torsos like us. (I’m not affiliated with them at all, I just tell short people about them because it’s great!)

      Safe travels!

  11. gloria August 30, 2014 at 1:09 am - Reply

    I am an aged 65 female and traveled solo several times over the years. The only time I had a local person take out a bloody knife (sheep blood, butchering season on the Tibet plateau), I was actually traveling with a man, a big man. I had wandered a bit down a the remote road to take pictures of nomads – well, more like gypsies I think. When I talked to a Tibetan descended from nomads, he was very offended that I called this group of tent dwellers nomads. Within sight of my husband, and full daylight, two 20 something’s stopped their motorbike, took out their knives, looked menacing and pointed to my camera. Not to be out-bargained, I acted as if it was a point of conversation. I stuffed the camera in a pocket and began baa-ing like a sheep, gesturing to the knives, smiling and asking if they used the knives for butchering sheep. They looked more menacing, I baa-ed louder and they finally saddled up and rode away. Other than that, I have not been physically threatened while traveling by myself. I have had unfortunate experiences. I once gave an old holy man some traveling money to bless (at his suggestion), and the second I saw it go into the holy book I knew I was a fool. One should never completely suspend their disbelief. There I was, attacking an old holy man trying to get money out of his holy book. People were staring and it was deeply embarrassing. I had to walk away to find a bank to re-bankroll my plan. I was once chased off a temple by a monkey in Agra and sustained a compound ankle fracture (I have more monkey stories, not a single good one). A busload of Brittains came to my rescue. When I yelled out from the front of the bus if anyone had any pain killers, I never saw so many Percodan appear out of pockets in my life. Those Brits are not what they appear! My story of the healthcare system in India of 25 years ago, well, 2 weeks in hospital with the doctor with the very strange and personal way of checking for fever……

    All of which is to say, that I would not trade any of it. Nor would I likely had the up-close and personal experiences if I had not been alone. But, perhaps, I am actually a cautionary tale.

  12. Judy September 14, 2014 at 3:41 pm - Reply

    This is all really interesting. I’m hoping to go on Safari sometime in the near future. I’ll be going with some group, of course, but will be paying the single supplement. One of the reasons I won’t be leaving immediately! I have travelled alone before but only in U.S. so far. (Outside the U.S. w/others).

  13. Sacha Mlynek September 16, 2014 at 1:43 pm - Reply

    Hi Judy,

    When you travel with G Adventures you don’t have to pay any single supplement as you will be sharing with another person of the same gender on tour.

    What safari were you thinking of? We’d be happy to help you plan this out.

    :)

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