Saturday 23 February 2019

A dozen practical tips to start travelling solo

Convincing yourself to travel solo for the first time is daunting. While it does instil a sense of excitement, the truth still remains. It is daunting and that is what puts off many.

Anyone, who now regularly ventures out on their own, has been through this stage at some point in their life to get where they are now. And that includes me. For some this may have happened in their teens, while for others it may be in their sixties or even later. There is no real age to start (or stop) travelling on your own.

The fact is, many of us do wish to travel solo at some point in our life. This may be just to challenge ourselves to get out of our comfort zone, or to be independent of other people's availability and travel plans. Either way, it takes a lot of courage. To be noted that here by travel I mean, travel for leisure. It is interesting that many people, especially the ladies, who are perfectly comfortable in dealing with the demands of their professional life independently, are so reluctant to set out on their own when you take the work part out of travel. So having heard out many people on their views on solo travelling, I found that the biggest two fears for anyone intending to start out (apart from their family responsibilities) are: number one, getting into sticky situations on their own, and number two, feeling lonely with no one to share their experience with. While the first I have found applies more to the ladies, the second is a general feedback irrespective of gender.
Read The dozen times you knew you should travel solo

I have always lived a very sheltered life in a close knit and very protective family, till my mid twenties. This means that when I started travelling solo, both these points were very much applicable to me. But after over a decade of being on my own, I guess I have started to figure out a few things. That would make me eligible to write this blog. It's true, you cannot guarantee safety, but by following some basic rules, we can stop inviting trouble for us. Listing down some tips from my experience to make solo travelling more enjoyable and stress free, and at least to get you started. Since I am a woman, these observations will be from the perspective of a woman too. But I hope, everyone can relate to it in some way. Also since I am not into nightlife or partying, the tips are not relevant to travels involving this particular category of enjoyment.

1. Familiarity

We can't deny, that unless we are an adrenaline junkie, it is the fear of unknown that scares us the most. What makes it even worse is the prospect of facing the unknown on our own. So to start off your solo adventure, choose a place you are familiar with. Plan activities which you have done before, but this time do them on your own. It will feel a bit weird, like suddenly having an empty seat beside you when your companion leaves, but don't fight it. Cherish that empty feeling (like spreading out on to the empty seat), let it sink in and suddenly you will realise you can see, hear and feel things you probably never noticed when you were travelling with company.
I started my solo travels in Scotland, a place I was familiar with for about two years and had already been out and about. I started by taking day trips around Edinburgh, where I lived and gradually moving further out. Then I graduated to overnight stays in places I had taken day trips to. Isle of Arran was my first overnight stay, and hence always my first love.
Standing stones under an overcast sky - Machrie moor, Arran

Brodick castle under the snowy hills - Arran

2. Being judged

Unfortunately popular culture has imposed this notion in our society that every single person who looks cheerful on the outside, is actually lonely and sad inside, craving for love and a high probability will own a cat or a dog too (nothing wrong with that though, but you get the picture).
When you are out for the first time, you may feel more eyes are on you than you normally do. The truth is, you will feel more eyes on you than there actually are. Most of the time, people don't care if you are travelling solo or in a group unless you choose to draw attention. And the majority of the people who do notice are just curious. Don't be surprised if they approach you for a chat. In all my travels, I have never met anyone who showed compassion at my solo status, but they were always very inquisitive and thought it was very brave.
So stop thinking that everyone around is judging you. As for those lonely Christmas holidays you see in the movies, I had some of the most memorable Christmas experiences while travelling on my own.
Christmas market - City hall, Vienna

Christmas market at Schonbrunn palace, Vienna

3. Talking to strangers

And curious and inquisitive people brings the topic, whether or not to talk to strangers. To tell the truth, what you were told as a child, still holds true, but in a slightly different perspective. While solo travelling, you meet people and you make friends. That's one of the best parts of solo travel. Just be careful what information you are giving out. Unless I have a valid reason, I will never give out exact details of where I am putting up, or my itinerary. If someone says they are from the same city as you, never ever give away your address, work or home. Keep it polite though, mention the area name if you wish to disclose depending on your comfort, or an area you are only familiar with. Stay alert when people get too inquisitive. Sex trafficking is real and so are perverts on the loose.
Whether I was staying in hostels, hiking the Scottish highlands, taking a ferry to a remote island, visiting ancient wonders or getting lost in the cobbled stone narrow streets of Venice, I have made some incredible friends, and they had only started off as strangers. Just be careful on what you share and you will be fine.
Bun and his cousin, who went out of their way to make my visit to Siem Reap memorable

4. Alcohol abstinence

Well, I don't mean as strict as the heading. I still enjoy a glass of wine now and then. At least on one of the nights on my travels I treat myself to a proper dinner. But unless you are extremely good in holding your drink, alcohol does impair our cognitive ability and makes us vulnerable. Unfortunately we live in a world where there are people waiting to take advantage of our weakness. So go slow on the alcohol when on your own.
I have denied invites from guys to go out for a drink at night. Some may say, I miss out on the fun, but as I said before, that's not the kind of excitement I look out for on my travels. Being out in an unknown city, with an unknown guy and accompanying alcohol, I feel is the deadliest combination possible. My excuse to such invites, I had a long day and I have to wake up really early. Maybe you can meet me for breakfast?
A refreshing glass of vino de tinto in Granada

5. Planning and research

If you are the planner in your travels, then this will come to you naturally. Else, to start, take help from friends who are or use reputed travel agents. When starting to travel solo, you need to have a good planning to avoid getting into sticky situations. If using public transport, check out their timings especially for the last service. If driving, have a run through the route you will be taking. Read reviews of the accommodation you will be staying in, and research the area for safety at night. Send an email to your accommodation asking them for the best way to get there from the train/bus station or airport. And then verify their recommendation on the internet. It may seem over the top, but you never know when it comes in handy.
In Milan, the hotel website mentioned a certain way to reach them which I followed, but ended up being taken for a ride by the taxi after spending a fortune to call one up after waiting for over half an hour at a deserted parking lot beside the subway. When I reached the hotel, the staff told me the alternate route which was much quicker and was only walking distance from another subway station by the hotel. The station was newly built and their website was not updated. This was the first time I was travelling on my own to a country not speaking English as the common language, and the experience did shake me up.
Milan. A short ride on the subway to my hotel from the Duomo. Christmas again.

6. Maps and location tracking

Yes, we need them to know where we are heading out to, even to reach the accommodation for the first time, and to get back after a long day's wander. Ideally physical maps are the most reliable ones when you are in a foreign country or remote locations or in a built up area or your phone is dead. However it's Google map or similar apps nowadays. While Google maps works in most places, and it's offline features work better in South East Asia and definitely in China where Google is useless.
Am sure many, including me, have faced the rude shock of unable to use the map apps in a new location and finding out that life isn't the same without data connection. So make sure to always download the offline map of the area before you travel. Make sure your phone is fully charged and you have not drained it on the journey.
When travelling to Granada, after I was literally shoved off the bus (it was a very well intentional shove by the passengers, since the driver was actually telling me that my stop had arrived and I was blissfully unaware), I could end up safely at my hostel just because I was carrying a paper map. As to finding my 'current location' on map, I walked into a shop and asked where I was. After about an hour, a girl joined me at my dorm. I recognised she was on the same bus as me. She was extremely flustered as Google map was not working for her and it took her ages to find the place with the language barrier.
Wandering around Rome, and stopping for lunch. The map is a constant companion (even in the previous photo of Granada)

8. Stash your cash

Don't carry all your cash in your wallet but stow some away in various places. Keeping them in your accommodation may not be always a good idea, and you have to make a judgement call depending on how comfortable you feel about the safety of the place. You may carry a personal lock, but I always forget, hence not proposing. You can divide the cash in internal pockets or deep inside your backpack. Carry only the cards you will be using, same for driving license. That is don't carry anything unnecessary when you leave home and don't bulk up your wallet. This is true not only for the currency of the country you are visiting, but also for your home country.
It was unfortunate I was pick-pocketed in Prague. It was entirely my fault as I got too carried away and was not even shocked when I saw the purse missing. I had my stash of Korunas and Euros in my backpack, but all my Pounds were lost. Thankfully a friend offered to pick me up from the airport in Edinburgh and buy me food, else it would have been a very long walk back and a long hungry weekend.
Prague - it's a pity my purse got stolen here. Fell in love with the city still. This I think was the last photo before I got pick-pocketed

9. Eating out

Perhaps the most daunting part of solo travel is eating out in a proper restaurant. Many just grab fast food or a takeaway to avoid the discomfort of eating alone. However, as more and more people are now travelling solo, the restaurants, especially in the tourist locations are more habituated to cater for solo travellers. So you need not feel embarrassed about it. The most awkward part probably is when you are waiting for your order to arrive. Staring at other guests may be an option. Or if it is a street side seating, people watching. But I am sure more often than not you will be flipping through your mobile phone or sorting all the photos you took during the day. If you are old fashioned, just carry a book. I also utilise the time to plan my forward travel, ask for the Wifi if I don't have data.
Romantic street side dining. At the insistence of the chef at my hotel, I had in house dinner on both nights over some happy Italian banter

10. Travel documents

Whether or not to carry your passport on you or leave it at the hotel is debatable. It depends on the country and the type of accommodation you are staying in, and you will have to make a judgement call on that, same as your stash of cash. However, always keep a paper copy of your passport in your luggage and one on you. Take a photo of the main page, additional information page and all active visa pages and store them on your email so that you can pull out a copy in case of a mishap even if your phone is lost. Send a copy to a friend or family member for safe keeping. And yes, always buy travel insurance and do the same with it - keep copies and email your family.
Just some unrelated photo - Granada cathedral. I almost missed my train to Seville visiting this

And isle of Skye - no rushing about here.

11. Luggage, clothing and accessories

When you are travelling solo, you will realise that you cannot travel the same way as in a group. Biggest disadvantage, you will need to go to the toilet at some point, and you won't have anyone to look after your luggage. In a public toilet you actually have to take everything with you in that tiny cramped space, so plan your luggage and packing accordingly. While on a transport or at a restaurant, you have to make sure you have your valuables safe, so packing them in a separate smaller bag which you can carry around always helps. I normally pack a smaller backpack in my bigger one during my flights. I then repack once I have reached my destination, putting all valuables in the smaller pack.
As for clothing, pack according to the weather and culture, and pack light. You will thank yourself for that. Even though we try to deny the risks and say we should be able to dress as we wish, the truth is, clothes do feature a lot when it comes to safety of women, even though it always stirs controversy. In my personal experience, the less you draw attention to yourself, the lesser you will end up in unpleasant situations. But saying that, I have also been hit on while dressed in jeans and bulky jacket.
And definitely avoid all bling accessories, that is, no gold or silver or precious stones on you.
Travel light. My backpack for my outdoors and city breaks. Carries my whole world.

And some travel bling

12. Keep in touch

Finally and very importantly, yes, always let your family or friends know where you are and what's your plan for the next day and assure them before hand if you will be out of reach for a while. Always provide the contact details of your accommodation and share your itinerary, even if it's vague.
Also what I do is share my day with the people I love regularly. Send them the photos you clicked and tell them of your adventures. This actually keeps away the loneliness that comes with solo travelling. You are sharing the magic you experienced with the people who care for you and at the same time living it all over again. With Wifi readily available in most places, connectivity has never been easier. When out and about, depending on the country you are visiting, you will find many open networks provided by cafes, restaurants, hotels and even the government. Just use your judgement on which ones to connect to. When connected to a public network, be careful about the information you are typing in on any of the websites or apps, don't type passwords to log on to any of your apps and definitely no bank transactions. Staying in touch was never been easier.

I remember there was a problem with the WiFi here as I waited at a cafe for my train back to Vienna.

Hope this will help some of you to find the courage to go out on your own, and for those who are already into solo travelling, you can relate to this post.
Let me know what you think in the comments below and share your experience with solo travel.

Feedback is always appreciated.

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Read The dozen times you knew you should travel solo

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