I received an email last week from a recent college graduate. She is in her first year of teaching and thinks spending the summer in Thailand will be more fulfilling than teaching summer school. Yes! A hundred times, yes! Teaching summer school is generally the pits, but when your other option is going to Thailand, you always choose Thailand. This same student’s first flight was an international flight to South Africa, so my guess is that she’ll be just fine traveling alone, but she asked for advice, so here it is.
1. Just go
Before going on my first solo international trip, I second-guessed myself several times a day. Mostly because everyone around me seemed to think the idea was crazy. I was forced to answer questions that I was asking myself. Is it safe for you to travel through Asia (specifically India) by yourself? Won’t you be lonely? I didn’t know the answers, but I assured everyone that I’d be fine, while suppressing my–oh shit, I can’t believe I’m doing this–nerves.
Having now gone on several solo trips, my advice would be the same: go! You will be fine (you will actually be better than fine), and you will meet amazing people. There’s something wonderfully liberating about traveling alone. You answer only to yourself. When in life are we allowed to be that self-indulgent? You set your own schedule, doing only what pleases you. And you’ll meet all sorts of wonderful people in the most unlikely places. When you’re alone, you’re not so engrossed with the other person with whom you’re traveling. You pay more attention to your surroundings and other people, and in turn, it’s very easy to make friends. I’ve made friends outside fish market in Tokyo, sitting in a cafe in Vietnam, emailing in the hotel computer room in Nepal, drinking at a bar in Paris. The list could go on and on.
2. Do your research and be aware of your surroundings
As a solo woman traveler, I think it is important to fully research your destinations ahead of time. Sometimes entire cities get a bad rap, when it’s only one neighborhood that needs to be avoided. It’s important to be smart about your surroundings. There are some places where I feel comfortable walking by myself at night and other places where I don’t. In those places, I might go out with someone else or hire a driver to take me back to my hotel. Often times, I use late evenings for relaxing in my hotel and watching local television (which always proves to be entertaining).
3. General safety
I know that with light brown hair and fair, freckly skin that I stand out in a lot of the places, but I try to blend in as much as possible. I wear clothes that are appropriate for the destination and never wear anything that looks expensive or flashy. I always carry a scarf that can be quickly used to cover my head or shoulders if I need to be more modest in certain parts of a city. I use a small messenger bag instead of a purse when I travel so that I can keep it (zipped and) in front of me. I try to keep everything simple. So far, I’ve never had anything stolen from me, but I did catch a woman trying to get into my bag in the Paris metro.
I try to avoid looking at a map on the streets. I like to appear as if I know where I’m going. Oftentimes, I’ll look at a map or my guidebook over lunch so that I have a plan for the next part of my day. I walk fast in general, but I try to walk with purpose when traveling. I have found that when it looks like I don’t know where I’m going, I get lots of people (mostly men) wanting to ‘help’ me.
4. Money and identification
I would recommend making a copy of your passport and itinerary before leaving. I email this to my parents and to my own email. I also carry a copy of my passport with me to use when I don’t want to carry my own.
I create a folder in my email with all my hotel bookings, flights, and itinerary information. This has been incredibly helpful in a couple situations where I have needed to prove that I had paid in advance for a hotel or had a flight out of the country.
It is also important to have a couple ways to access money in case of an emergency. I typically bring at least two one-hundred dollar bills, and I’ve had to use them in several scenarios when ATM machines didn’t work properly or when I couldn’t convert my Indian rupees in Nepal. I was once in a city in Bali where the ATMs wouldn’t take Visa, only Mastercard. I now travel with both, but at the time, I was grateful that I had cash with me.
5. Go with the flow
There will always be situations you cannot predict, situations you do not instantly know how to handle. These are the moments that make great stories after-the-fact, but at the time, they are generally pretty nerve-wracking. Just don’t loose your cool and things will work out. I’ve been lost in Tokyo, without money in Nepal (that’s when Western Union comes in handy), and sick in a few different countries. Lost luggage, missed flights, crammed busses – it’s all part of the experience. Just embrace it and have fun.