Tackling Solo Travel
Have a solo trip planned? Wanderer-in-Residence Jodi Ettenberg dispels some common fears and shares some tips for those determined to set out alone
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.
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.
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.
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