6 Tips for Solo Travel Abroad
Great Reasons to Travel Alone
By Volker Poelzl
Resources updated by Transitions Abroad 7/4/2019
|Solo woman hiking in Europe.
Whenever I’m abroad, it is always surprising how many people I meet who are traveling alone, especially Europeans. Americans, on the other hand, tend to be a bit more reluctant to venture out on their own, perhaps because of relatively greater cultural isolation and less foreign-language skills. Europeans are surrounded by countries with different cultures and languages, and people get used to these differences early on, in addition to their training in 2 or more languages in school. But even with limited foreign language skills, traveling alone is a great way to explore a foreign country, and the language barrier should not discourage travelers. You will be surprised how gestures and facial expressions can make up for a limited vocabulary, and just how very hospitable the hosts in the country can be.
People travel alone for many reasons: Some prefer the heightened intimacy with their travel destinations, and others travel alone simply for the lack of a partner or friend with the same travel plans and interests. But unless you choose solitude, it is difficult to remain alone for very long. Even in remote destinations I have met other travelers and shared days of travel. Still not everyone travels well completely on their own. Some people crave company and have the need to socialize with others every day. Therefore, before planning a solo trip you should ask yourself whether it is the right time to travel alone and if you will be able to enjoy being on your own for several days at a time.
1. The Joys of Solo Travel
The greatest advantage of traveling alone is the fact that you are more flexible. You can stay in one place as long as you like and are able to change your itinerary on a whim. It is also very relaxing. You don’t need to make any plans for the day, and can take things as they come. In addition to this freedom, I have always savored unadulterated moments of solitude that have greatly enhanced my travel experiences. It is a great pleasure to explore a destination at your own pace and go where you please. On such solitary explorations, my camera and my journal are usually my companions. I can take all the time I need to take great pictures or wait for ten minutes to let a cloud move past the sun. I can also spend a leisurely afternoon at a sidewalk café writing in my journal, without anyone hurrying me along to the next museum.
2. Meeting People
Another benefit of traveling alone is that is easier to meet the local people. Naturally we are more inclined to have a conversation with others when we don’t have a travel. Many young people around the world speak some English, but having some knowledge of the local language will immensely enhance your travel experience.
Whenever I travel alone I team up with other travelers from time to time, sometimes for a few days and sometimes just for a day trip. Knowing whom to trust is of course left up to your intuition. Follow your instincts and pay attention to your impressions. I usually listen carefully in conversation to get to know the person a little bit before deciding to team up. One of the greatest differences found among travelers is their budget. Find out how much your potential travel partner spends on food, transportation and accommodation, before deciding to travel together. Unless you want to pick up the bill for your companion’s over-the-budget expenses, you might want to consider reducing your expenses while traveling with a low-budget companion. I have met few budget travelers who are willing to raise their budget for the sake of a new companion. Keeping expenses separate or tallying joint expenses at the end of each day is the best way to avoid disputes. While it is a good idea to get to know the person a little bit before teaming up, I have had mostly good experiences joining other travelers for a few days. You cannot expect a close friendship every time you team with other travelers. Sometimes it is just practical to join others to save on travel costs, or to visit places with another traveler instead of on your own.
If you travel alone and would like to meet other travelers, choose your destination and time of travel with care. A few years ago I was in Portugal during the fall, and the only other foreigners I met were weekend tourists from Spain, busloads of senior citizens, and retired couples in their RVs. Your best chance of finding some company on your solo trip is to choose a moderately popular destination and a time of year when other foreigners are likely to travel.
One disadvantage of solo travel is that single rooms are more expensive than a shared room. As a result, many solo travelers stay at budget hotels or hostels, where they can also meet other travelers. In Argentina I met as many Argentineans as foreigners when staying in hostels, a great opportunity to learn about their way of life. Of course for privacy you might prefer to look for a budget hotel instead, since hostels rarely have single rooms. By sharing a room with a new travel partner, you can often stay at a better hotel, since double rooms are always much cheaper than a single room.
Unless you rent a car, the cost of transportation for one person is usually the same as for several people traveling together. Traveling alone on a train or bus is also a great opportunity to meet the locals. Especially on long bus and boat rides people get bored, and I have always found it easy to strike up a conversation with other passengers. On several occasions this has led to invitations to stay at a local family’s home or to have a local show me around his or her city.
A few years back I ran into another traveler at the Hilo airport in Hawaii, who had just arrived with his five-year-old daughter. We both wanted to rent a car and when we found out that no low-cost rental cars where available at the time, we rented a larger car together and spent the next two weeks exploring the Big Island. We saved on rental cost and gasoline, and I had much more fun than I would have had driving around on my own. But if you share transportation expenses it is best to discuss the agreement a little more in detail to clarify expectations and avoid disappointment. Make sure you agree on how long you will be sharing travel expenses.
5. The Gender Factor
Needless to say, it is easier for a man to travel alone than for a woman. Single men just don’t get the same kind of unwanted attention as women. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that it is unsafe for women to travel alone. I have met single traveling women all around the world, and although I have heard stories about unwanted attention, these women obviously enjoyed traveling alone and they considered it safe.
Meeting the local people of the opposite sex depends very much on the country you visit. Since contact with the opposite sex is often subject to stricter social rules than meeting people of the same sex, it is usually easier to have contact with locals of the same gender. As a guy, most contacts I have made with locals where with men. Women travelers make contact with local women more easily.
6. Health and Safety
Traveling alone requires more caution than traveling in a team. You cannot leave your luggage unattended when you need to use the bathroom and when traveling on a bus, boat or train; you need to take extra precautions, especially on overnight trips. Some countries are safer than others, when it comes to petty crime, but solo travelers should always be careful, since they don’t have the extra eyes and ears of a travel companion. Baggage locks are a good idea on a bus, boat or train, and it is best not to reveal valuable items while traveling. I never carry my camera around my neck but always inside my backpack. I only take it out to take a photograph, and I put it back right away. This is a little tedious, but thieves are less likely to notice you. Strangers have sometimes asked very detailed questions about where I was staying and where I was going, and I always make a point not to tell anyone.
If you change money or withdraw funds at a local ATM, be especially careful. It is best to do this during daylight hours and to frequent a busy bank. Put your money away quickly, and if the area is deserted, make sure that you are not being watched.
Dealing with health problems is probably the most difficult challenge. If you get sick, you have to care for yourself or make arrangements to see a doctor. It is a good idea to bring a basic first aid kit and learn about health concerns at your destination ahead of time. Purchasing a traveler’s health insurance policy is a prudent way to protect yourself from high cost of medical treatment abroad, but you are still left alone to deal with your health problems. Your consulate can usually refer you to local doctors and hospitals, and you should keep the consulate’s phone number handy in case of a medical problem. You could even get a list of recommended doctors and hospitals ahead of time. Updating your immunizations is the best way to prevent health problems. If you develop a health problem while traveling alone and don’t know where to go for help,
don’t hesitate to ask the hotel or hostel manager for help. Most of them will be able to recommend a local doctor or clinic.
While some of the above-mentioned aspects of solo travel make it a little more complicated than traveling with others, solo travelers usually adapt quickly to the slightly different safety factors of taking a trip alone. And with a little sense of adventure and flexibility you will most likely enjoy traveling alone as much if not more than a trip with others.
Below I have listed a few resources and online articles. Since this article is intended to encourage people to travel alone, I have not listed organizations and websites that offer organized trips for single travelers.
Volker Poelzl is a Living Abroad Contributing Editor for TransitionsAbroad.com. He has extensively traveled in Europe and worldwide, mostly on a low budget.