I’ll never stop solo traveling; it’s inexplicably intoxicating. There’s nothing quite like venturing to unfamiliar corners of the globe with only the most rudimentary handle on local life and merely yourself on whom to rely.
But if traveling solo was meant to be easy, everyone would be doing it. Take my word: I've been solo traveling for years, so here's what I can tell you about why and how you should travel alone.
Why should you try solo travel?
It’s imperative that we all travel alone at least once. Our responses to cultures and opportunities are too often molded and thus tempered by the company we keep. Traveling alone makes friends of strangers and opens us up to experiences that ultimately culture us. And when we embrace those experiences on our own, we come home with new eyes; the places we’ve pinned become a part of us and we come back armed with understanding and modesty, appreciation and respect.
Ultimately, you’ll be forced out of your comfort zone. When surrounded with familiar faces, you seldom break out to meet new people; when you’re alone, craving company as humans do, you’ll be more inclined to engage with new people. And when you do, you’ll surely find yourself in new, unplanned situations.
Likewise, solo travel means that you won’t be restricted by your travel partners’ fears, inabilities or apprehensions, or confined to their itineraries. You won’t have to agree on sites to see or dinners to eat; rather, you can do whatever you want to do whenever you want to do it.
What are some top practicality and safety tips for solo traveling?
Here’s the thing: getting lost, getting mugged and getting scammed are all pretty much inevitable if you travel enough. Fearing them is to fear the dark; eventually, the day will transcend into night and you’ve no control over it. What you do have at least some control over, however, is the outcome of your circumstances. You can prepare for any of the aforementioned circumstances if you plan ahead in anticipation of them.
I’m not saying you should necessarily expect for your solo travel plans to go awry, but I am saying that it doesn’t have to be the end of the world if they do. If you’re planning to take a solo trip any time soon, be sure to keep these tips in mind before shipping out.
1. Find U.S. embassy locations in the case of emergencies.
One of the first pieces of information you’ll want to look up about the place you’re visiting is the location of the U.S. embassy. In the event of an emergency, you can go to or contact the embassy for help. For example, if your passport is lost or stolen and you’re stuck in a foreign country, the U.S. embassy or consulate will be able to provide you with answers and get the ball rolling on administering you a new passport. Likewise, if you fall ill or get injured, the embassy can help find you adequate help or schedule your transportation back to the States if necessary. This link will guide you to a list of addresses to all embassies, consulates and diplomatic missions around the world.
2. Share any general itineraries with someone back home.
If you’ve got an agenda or at least some idea of what airlines you’ll be flying, where you’ll be staying or any other pertinent information, it’s wise to share that with a friend or family member back home—preferably someone you may have jot down as an emergency contact. If something were to happen to your flight, that person would be alerted or could keep themselves alert. If something were to happen to you while traveling, like you mysteriously go missing or something totally out of the ordinary, that person could help track down your whereabouts (or at least your remains…).
3. Make laminated copies of your passports and other identification cards.
Losing your passport is nothing short of a nightmare, especially if you’ve got places to be because, ultimately, you’re stuck. And you don’t want to be stuck in a foreign country trying to explain to the police who don’t speak English that you need to get home. Basically, if you lose your passport, you must be able to prove your identity and citizenship to the U.S. government and the easiest way to do it is to have copies of your passport and any other identification at the ready. You would bring those copies to the U.S. embassy or consulate, where you’d spend some time waiting in line and answering a bunch of questions, calling people back home to vouch for you and filling out a slew of paperwork. But the process would run a whole lot smoother if you are indeed able to provide those copies. And, if you can, laminate them to make sure they don’t get destroyed along your journey (and make them look more legitimate).
4. Call your bank and credit card company.
It’s important to carry some cash on you while traveling, especially since you won’t want to have to pay international credit and debit card fees. But it’s also important that your credit and debit cards actually work if you do need to use them—and sometimes you’ll want to charge purchases instead, since taking out too much cash can be risky. Call your bank and credit card company prior to your trip to let them know where you’ll be and when you’ll be there. This will let them know not to flag your credit or debit card for fraud, which would place a hold on your account. You don’t want to have to worry about calling them while overseas to deal with a declined purchase or ATM withdrawal, especially if you don’t have an international phone plan.
5. Stash cash in different places.
Putting money away in various hiding spots is key. If a pickpocket does get you, you get mugged, you lose your wallet or something else entirely, you’ll have backup stashes. Some hiding spots include toiletry bags, laptop sleeves, rolled up socks, empty Advil bottles (don’t mix dirty money with the pills…), in eyeglass containers, et cetera. You can certainly get creative, but send yourself a note about where you hid the money just in case you become slightly too stealthy for even yourself.
How do you plan a solo trip?
I'm not much of a planner — planning gives me more anxiety than having no direction gives most other people. In fact, when I’m on the road, I live by the quote, “A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving,” by Lao Tzu. It’s quite the clichéd backpacker-type quote to reiterate, from an ancient Chinese philosopher, no less, but it resonates for good reason.
While planning is typically a precursor to traveling — booking flights and accommodation, researching a destination’s attractions and any specific safety advisories — I’d argue that the best type of trip is the unplanned trip. I’ve traveled more than 50 countries around the world, mostly with no itineraries.
If you’ve got the time and nowhere to be, at least for a short while, consider the plan to make no plans. If you indeed have a timeframe, a budget or crippling anxiety over leaving with no plans, these tips will ensure that you make the most of your travels around the world.
1. Save money in advance.
Traveling is expensive — it’s even more expensive when you don’t plan it. Save enough money before you go so you’ll have a cushion to fall back on in the event that unexpected circumstances arise… And they will. Consider the type of traveler you know you are (Do you prefer hotels or could you survive in a hostel? Do you like to eat out a lot or would your hotel’s free breakfast and some other small bites suffice?) and the general regions you’ll be traveling (the States, Europe, Asia?) and save accordingly.
Also keep in mind that currencies vary, which means exchange rates will differ depending on where you go. This could mean that you need more or less travel money. Apps like GlobeConvert offers live exchange rates with an offline mode, so you can use it while you're on the road even when you don’t have WiFi. XE Currency is another free app that allows you to view live mid-market rates via an interactive chart.
2. Book your first flight, and book the rest of transportation as you go.
Booking flights in advance will likely save you some dollars, though doing so could sacrifice spontaneous experiences. My advice is to book your flights as you go, but at least have a general idea of what transportation will cost you in the region to which you're traveling. This way, even if you make a last-minute travel change while on the road, you won't break the bank trying to reroute.
Of course, there are an array of traditional flight search engines that promise discounts and deals like Expedia, Travelocity, Priceline, Kayak, etc. But there are also some less-utilized travel sites that, few people know about but prove invaluable to those who do. My go-to websites for flight hunting are Momondo.com and SkyScanner.com. I use Momondo primarily to search for multicity travel; it offers you the option to search one-way, round-trip and multicity flights even using the destination “take me anywhere,” which allows you to check out airfare in the cheapest cities given your specified dates. Through the multicity option, you can swap cities in and out in different orders to determine the cheapest routes. Sky Scanner also boasts a flexible airfare search engine through which you can search “everywhere” as a destination and explore specific dates, entire weeks, months or the “cheapest month.”
There are also some other good sites to be aware of. For one, SecretFlying’s Facebook page finds and posts error fares, which are falsely advertised flight prices (and totally valid flight deals). These happen when computers glitch or humans type in the wrong numbers or forget to add things like tax charges. Some airlines won’t honor these deals if they catch them, but will cancel your flight and refund you, while others will bite the bullet.
Additionally, apps like Google Maps, Embark and Maps.me will show you all of your options for navigation routes by several modes of transportation, such as by train, plane, car, bicycle or foot. Additionally, apps like Rome2Rio will help you get a grasp on all of your options for traveling from Point A to Point B, and you can compare your cheapest and quickest routes, as well.
3. Book some accommodation.
Like flights, booking accommodation ahead of time is cheaper and safer — you’ll probably save money by booking in advance, and you’ll know exactly the address to tell your taxi driver once you land at the airport. You’ll also be able to rest assured that you’ll have a place to sleep at night, without having to hunt for vacancies once you arrive.
But planning your accommodation ahead of time is blindly trusting that you’ll like the neighborhood in which you book. It may be smart to book just one or two nights in any cheap place in the city’s center so you have a definite place to drop your bags and sleep while you get a feel for things. And then you can spend the first day exploring and asking locals about any recommended areas. You might discover a neighborhood or hostel/hotel that’s particularly appealing to you, or you might even get an offer to crash with a local.
Use apps like Hostelworld or Booking.com for finding hostels and hotels. Likewise, you can use Airbnb for a more authentic, home-share experience or Couchsurfing.com, a free home-sharing network through which travelers stay with locals for nothing but a cultural experience in exchange.
4. Get travel insurance for peace of mind.
Travel insurance can be a lifesaver. According to the U.S. Travel Insurance Association, which represents 90 percent of the trip-insurance market, Americans spent $1.9 billion on insuring their travel in 2012 — up nearly 50 percent from five years prior. Why? Certain types of travel insurance allow you to cancel an otherwise nonrefundable trip, as it’ll reimburse 75 to 90 percent of the trip cost.
Travel insurance also can cover a large portion of expenses if you need medical evacuation following an emergency. But know that it costs, on average, four to eight percent of the total trip cost.
I use World Nomads. I prefer it because, unlike most travel insurances, you can buy it at any point throughout your trip (most make you buy before you leave), and you can change your covered countries if your travel plans change. It'll cover more than 150 activities, and it's relatively inexpensive compared to what you'd spend if your travel plans go awry and you're not covered — you lose your luggage, your flight gets canceled, you're mugged, you're injured, etc.
What are the best resources for women traveling solo?
Contrary to popular belief, 72 percent of American women are interested in solo travel, and those who pursue it are doing so more adventurously. In fact, The Travel Industry Association of America reports that 20- to 70-year-old women make up three-quarters of those embarking on nature, adventure and cultural journeys, and the average adventure traveler is actually a 47-year-old woman.
This means that you're not alone, even if you're "solo." There are tons of other women traveling the world on their own, as well, and thanks to that, there are equally tons of resources women have put together to help each other out. Here are a few of my go-to solo travel resources for women:
- Solo Women Travel Tribe
- Female Digital Nomads
- Conde Nast Traveler Women Who Travel
- Women for Ethical Travel
- Women Who Are Traveling Alone
- The Solo Female Traveler Network
- Women Passionate About Travel
AnnaMarie Houlis is a feminist, a freelance journalist and an adventure aficionado with an affinity for impulsive solo travel. She spends her days writing about women’s empowerment from around the world. You can follow her work on her blog, HerReport.org, and follow her journeys on Instagram @her_report, Twitter @herreportand Facebook.