There are plenty of good reasons for travelling solo, Eat, Pray, Love tropes notwithstanding. But if you’ve never done it before, it can also be intimidating. I still remember the feeling of sitting on the plane for my first trip as it sped along the runaway, gearing up for take-off. There was no going back at that moment, and the thought that I was by myself, whizzing towards a country across the ocean where I knew absolutely no one, was terrifying. In the end, there was not one moment of my trip I regretted, although I hit some stumbling blocks along the way. Certainly there were things that would have made the trip a little smoother. I learned by trial and error, but to save would-be first-time solo travellers from the arrhythmia-inducing panic when something goes wrong, here is what I wish I’d known:
- Print out everything.
Sure, having your boarding passes on your phone is convenient and all, but you know what isn’t? Having your phone battery die when you’re trying to make your connecting flight. Or when you’re arguing with the receptionist at the hotel you SWEAR you booked but now can’t pull up that email that had your confirmation number. This tip actually comes courtesy of my father, who advises it’s always a good idea to have “a piece of paper you can wave in their face” if need be. Print out EVERYTHING for your trip, and screenshot any important emails or confirmation numbers you might need, so you won’t need an internet connection to access them.
- Let your bank AND credit card companies know you’ll be abroad.
Learned this one the hard way. I have a TD Bank account and a TD Visa credit card, so I mistakenly thought that informing TD Bank of my movements was all I needed to do. Turns out the credit card company, despite being affiliated with TD Bank, was actually still Visa, and I needed to notify them as well. I discovered this after multiple embarrassing attempts at paying with that card, several panicked e-mails to my mother asking if she could get in touch with the company (spoiler alert: they wouldn’t give her any information), and one very expensive phone call from me. Luckily, I had my debit card as well, which functioned with no problem, but it was stress that I could have easily avoided. So if in doubt, call each number on the back of your cards, plus your bank, before you plan to travel.
- Related: carry cash.
This is good sense no matter where you go in the world. Even in big cities, small, independent businesses and mom-and-pop type places may not be able to accept card payment. Cash is also convenient and quick, which means you’ll spend less time waiting around in a restaurant for the waiter to bring your card and receipt back (wait, did they forget about me?) and more time running wild as you sightsee.
- Ask locals for help.*
*OBVIOUSLY be safe when you do this. But many people are more than happy to help a clearly-not-from-around-here tourist who is hopelessly lost. From the receptionist at your hotel/manager of your hostel to your bartender, these folks often know the quickest way for you to get where you’re going, and can offer insider recommendations that would otherwise take you hours of scouring the internet to find.
- Carry your most important documents with you, but don’t store them all in the same place.
It’s always recommended not to keep your documents in one place (i.e. your handbag) in the event it gets stolen and you lose every piece of identification you had on you. So I thought I was being smart when I carried my driver’s licence in my handbag and put my passport in my suitcase. Until I had to put the luggage on a rack at the front of a train, promptly fell asleep, and woke up disoriented as (unbeknownst to me) the train had actually reversed the direction it was running in during the course of my nap. When the train got to my stop, I panicked because I couldn’t find my suitcase. I missed the stop and was forced to pace up and down through the cabins looking for the bag. (Naturally I felt incredibly stupid when it dawned on me what had happened.) Luckily I found it before the next platform and averted the crisis, but it taught me a valuable lesson. No, don’t keep your documents in one place. But do carry them with you- perhaps store one in an inner coat pocket, or keep a money belt on you. May you never panic as I did.
- Be flexible.
Yes, you might miss your train stop. (See previous.) The museum you planned to go to might be closed on Mondays. The Instagram-worthy restaurant you wanted to eat in might be reservation-only. These things will happen. Expect them to happen. In the moment, the rush of anxiety or disappointment at these things might seem overwhelming, but your trip isn’t ruined. The important thing is to be flexible and be able to accommodate these unforeseen changes; of course, no one wants to lose out on money they’ve already spent on something, but sometimes you just have to chalk it up as part of the travel experience and make alternate plans. Rather than fretting about the things you’re missing out on, embrace the new opportunities afforded you and make the most of your situation. It’s better than being bitter.
- Give yourself downtime.
It’s tempting to want to cram every free space in your itinerary with activities. When you’re travelling by yourself, the last thing you want to feel is lonely or be made self-conscious of the fact that you’re on your own. But it’s important to give yourself downtime because a.) all that running around will wear you out and b.) some discomfort and lack of structure will allow you to learn a bit about yourself and possibly about your destination. Trust yourself to be able to handle it.
- Look to tour operators to access remote/off-the-beaten-path places.
This is especially true if you’re not planning on renting a car. I was averse to tour groups when I first started planning my trip; I cringed at the idea of someone holding up a large pennant and yelling in a megaphone to a gaggle of tourists, but as it turns out, there’s an entire spectrum of tour operators in the business. Yes, if a tour of the aforementioned variety is what you’re after, that’s certainly available. If it’s not, there are also plenty of other options. The ones I signed up for were small group tours- a maximum of ten people- led by a guide who provided information on the destinations during the trip and then, upon arrival, set us free and told us what time we had to be back at the bus. It was convenient, not outrageously expensive, and allowed me to see places I would otherwise not have been able to get to via public transit.
Wishing you all the best on your solo travels! Let me know if you have any tips you’d add!