Solo travel is not for everyone; really, it is not for most people. There are many factors to take into consideration, some that might never have crossed your mind when you travel with another person; safety, boredom, depression, and pleasure are a few of the issues that might arise when traveling alone. In my late-2010, “born-again” travel life, my wanderings have been almost all solo, yet I’ve managed to stay safe, stave off boredom and depression, and keep myself thrilled with it all. So, how does a solo traveler like myself manage?
Safety is always the biggest concern, and with good reason. It is true that there is safety in numbers, and it is the case whether in your hometown or in a third-world, foreign city. However, when traveling in a foreign land, your unfamiliarity with the place becomes clearly evident; you may look around like you are lost, you dress and act differently from the locals, and your attempts at communication in their language may falter. Locals, wherever you go, are normally pretty keen at observing who is a tourist, and those of them with malintent may take advantage of your situation.
- Limit Your Inebriation – I’ve heard countless stories of backpackers getting hammered at the local bar, only to find out the next day that their wallet, money, camera, laptop, phone, or backpack was stolen, or worse yet – their passport. Leave all that stuff if you can, like at the hotel room, hostel safe, or with your couchsurfing friends. However, most of us who backpack may find that this is not an option every night. In that case, remain aware of your surroundings; allow yourself to get a little loose, but not easily susceptible to crime. One of my favorite tips – carry a second form of identification when going out at nights, so that your passport needn’t be pulled out; a passport card or driver’s license is usually acceptable anywhere.
- Commit – To commit is a key strategy, but not in terms of a relationship or a murder. Committing means to carry something out. Hesitation is a prime indicator to those watching you that you are vulnerable, and those with bad intentions may be prompted to act on this evidence alone. When you try to talk to someone in their language, of which you may have a basic understanding, commit – say what you were going to say with confidence, because though you may have said something completely unintelligible, your confidence exudes a strength that can deter those looking to do harm or cause damage. When asked to pay a cab fare or a meal price that you are certain is much higher than what you had calculated, don’t be a pushover! Firmly demand an explanation, and argue your case if you still think that you are being cheated; however, don’t do anything irrational, as this may cause a much different kind of danger. Commitment and confidence is attractive and useful even when you are in your hometown, but on the road, especially when alone, it is one of your greatest defense mechanisms.
- Talk to Strangers – In the spirit of confidence, we should also forget that rule we learned as kids. Talking to strangers not only shows that you possess a bit of courage, but it is also a good way to get others to quickly look out for you. For instance, I was once in a Mexican bar, alone, and I started talking with the bartenders. Soon after, the guy sitting next to me started talking to me, probably to show off the English he knew, as he could see that my Spanish was lacking. As I went through the night, talking to this guy and the two bartender girls, I had a fourth person sit down next to me on my right side. He soon started talking to me, too, and I thought that I was quite the popular gringo! But when the fourth guy went to the restroom, one of the bartenders came up to me and whispered that I should be careful around that guy; they knew him as a regular, and though they couldn’t explain much more, like what I should be worried about, I kept my guard up nonetheless. See, when you start having a conversation with strangers, and if you are the traveler, there is an inherent nature that almost always kicks in; you’ve stepped past the ‘anonymous’ level and become somewhat closer to ‘acquaintance,’ and now they feel partially vested in your overall well-being. Talking to even those strangers who may have wanted to cause trouble can disarm them, as well; when you talk, you become more than a mark or another score, you become human.
- Use Common Sense – Utilizing your common sense is only overrated in Hollywood’s projection of affairs of the heart. Using common sense is especially important in foreign lands; it’s just common sense. If you are staying in a shady-looking room due to budget restrictions, look through the peephole before answering a late-night knock. Don’t leave a drink unintended; actually, don’t leave anything unintended! Don’t walk dark streets at night.
- Don’t Pick Fights – As the visitor, it is important that you keep your cool at all times. Fighting with a person, whether physically or verbally, might have a more severe penalty in the country you are in than back home, and ignorance of the law is not a commonly-accepted excuse. When encountering verbal harassment, ignore them; these people are often hungry, looking for the next person who is foolish enough to stand up to them (remember, they may have many friends two seconds away). Ignorance, or feigned ignorance, of their language, as well as general non-acknowledgement, will bore the antagonists and they should move on to their next victim. If police jump into the mix, having a cool head will immediately tilt their trust in your favor.
- Dress Conservatively – When I say that I think you should dress conservatively, I don’t mean one-piece bikinis; rather, avoid a show of wealth, especially when traveling alone in a country poorer than the one you come from. You may have already peaked the interest of those locals around you by your attitude and appearance; don’t taunt anyone further by wearing a shiny watch or expensive-looking jewelry.
Boredom & Depression
Boredom can be felt at any time that a solo traveler is not occupied or generally content. When traveling, we may feel bored without plans, on rainy days, or in just about any lull in activity. As boredom is felt more and more, it can cause us to get depressed, and perhaps even homesick; this leads to a bad experience and possible reluctance to travel again in the future, and that is something that I’d rather not consider. Thus, as solo travelers, we need to take extra caution to combat boredom.
- Plan Ahead – Though I am a poor ambassador for planning ahead, having at least some options to fall back on is a good way to travel alone. Though we may want to just see how it goes and play it by ear, it is prudent to have some backups. Some good backups are actually the most famous attractions; though I am not to amused to do touristy activities like standing in line to go up to an observation deck, these are great options for when you simply can’t think of what to do for a certain time. Keep a note of some sites that would be decent “plan B” options, and you will be further from getting bored.
- Do What You Want – When travelers come to a new city, especially for the first time, they sometimes feel obligated to do those things that tourists are “supposed” to do, like see the famous historical museum or a famous statue. You should do what it is that you want, and if seeing a particular site is not your thing, why waste your time? As travelers, and as people in general, there are different things that interest each of us; some travelers may like trying new foods, and may hop around to different recommended restaurants, others may focus on cultural aspects of the city, and perhaps like to see the working-class neighborhoods in action, and some others may be a student of history, enthusiastic to learn about how the city came to be. There are art lovers, and there are spring-break kids, all looking for the same city to cater to their interests. So identify what it is that excites you, and fill your day with such activities.
- Create a Second Home – Solo travelers need some semblance of home and familiarity to stave off depression and homesickness. If you are going to settle in a room for more than one night, you should arrange it so that it feels homely. Maybe bring a photo of your friends, family, or significant other which you can place on the nightstand. If your laptop is with you, plug it in and turn on some music, so that you can hear enough of your own language to make you content; the internet can help you keep up with life back in your country. Unpack the entire contents of your pack, to make the place look like you own it, and even be a little messy; throw some dirty clothes on the floor if that’s how you live back home.
- Interact – Interaction with other human beings is necessary for most of us to stay sane. Exponentially more for solo travelers, we need to compensate for the lack of a steady companion by locating a person or two to talk to of the local variety. Humans are meant to communicate with each other, because it is needed for our general progress and overall well-being. Strike up a conversation with those you encounter: the grocery clerk, hotel guest attendant, cab driver, etc. Not only will it satisfy those needs to interact, you may also come across a new friend or some good advice. Guided tours and excursions are solid ways to get out of human isolation.
- Have Enough Money – Many of us backpackers are this kind of traveler primarily because budget restrictions force it to be. However small our budget may be, there should always be enough set aside to allow us to get by with not too much trouble, and to allow for most of the things which we came to do. When checking our bank balances, sums lower than the amount we expect to have can immediately lead to anxiety and depression. To compensate for an unforeseen expense, we may opt to eat food that is not too appetizing, and skip some of the activities which we had planned on. Money trouble is scary enough back home; it can be absolutely terrifying when there is no shoulder to lean on.
Other Factors to Consider
Though safety and boredom/depression are the greatest areas of concern with solo travelers, there are several miscellaneous, yet very important, other things to take into consideration.
- Always Be On The Radar – When you travel abroad, a friend or family member or two may know your general plans, but more precise detail should be given if you travel solo. Send email updates. Know if and where there is an embassy or consulate for your country, and take down the contact information for it; this is one great and powerful friend that you can make use of while in a foreign country, and you don’t need to feel guilty for only calling them when you need something! Your tax dollars paid for most assistance that they could provide you with. Register your travel with your government, so that there is an official notice of your general whereabouts on record; in the United States (as well as some other countries), you can register your foreign travel online with the State Dept.
- Stay Healthy – As an unaccompanied traveler, you need to look out for yourself, which means being 100% independent. Most of the time, you may think that you are pretty responsible even when you travel with a buddy, but don’t be so sure. A partner would be able to tell you that you should drink some water if you look dehydrated, and they could perhaps remind you to take your prescription medication; being alone forces you to take charge of your health, and knowing your responsibilities and limits. Don’t overexert yourself, as it is easy to do so without someone to pace you.
- Act Like Someone Is There With You – Some travelers who go on a solo adventure may throw all their inhibitions to the wind. They may overplay their behavioral freedom, which may get them into a situation that they’ll regret. For example, having a responsible buddy beside you, you might never bring up your curiosity of the prostitutes in Bangkok. Also, it may be harder to resist trying drugs on the streets when offered, but if you are going to try them, it is best to have a partner beside you who you can trust.
- Be a Good Ambassador of Your Country – Since you are on this journey alone, you won’t have as many chances to behave foolishly. Every country has something bad that someone can say about it, but if you can change the opinion of just one or two people, it does wonders.
Perks of Solo Travel
With all the factors seemingly against even the mere thought of traveling alone, it can seem a bit discouraging, at best. However, there are great reasons to travel solo, which is why it is growing ever more in popularity. If you can manage or counteract the effects of these past few discouraging considerations, there are some bright opportunities ahead.
- More Approachable – When you travel by yourself, you experience that gift and a curse: you are more approachable to miscreants and criminals, but you are also more approachable to good people, those locals that wish you no harm. That vulnerability that you may exude may sympathize strangers to your cause, and many will often go above and beyond to show you kindness, as well as to allow you to leave their city and country with a good taste in your mouth.
- Freedom – Remember that advice to stave off boredom, “Do What You Want”? While you may not have the company of a friend, you at least don’t have to see anything that they may have obligated you to. Take as much time as you want, or get the hell out of there immediately; spend all kinds of money at a questionable venue, or as little as you want – it’s all up to you!
- Culture & Experiences – As a solo traveler, you are more likely to be invited to a meal, events, or even on a date. Invitations are withheld often times towards couples or groups, as they don’t want to cause an awkward rejection of their offer, but the locals may rather do so with an individual. Consider this also: Just like you in a foreign country may feel vulnerable and overwhelmed when alone, a potential host would probably not want to invite more people than they would feel comfortable with.
- More Travel! – The main reason that I travel solo often is because I cannot find people who want to come with matching schedules. Also, I book trips late, and this procrastination doesn’t make it easier for someone to join me. If you can handle traveling alone, then you open up the possibility to travel at any time!
Each person needs to weigh the costs and benefits, and identify which experience poses the greater reward. I like to travel with friends at times, at other times I like to make some new friends, and there are a few times when I visit a place simply to observe. Everything in moderation, as they say, and I am quite comfortable with my travel arrangements thus far.