HC's Guide to Traveling Solo

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Put up your hand if you love to travel. Now, raise your other hand if you’re an independent woman. Yes to both? How can it not be? You’re a fierce collegiette—fearlessness practically runs in your blood, and you are so not the kind of girl to let a little thing like lack of a travel partner hold you back from a wild, frivolous, and occasionally illicit adventure.

That being said, travel is so much more than simply going. To travel solo the right way, you need to know how to go, and how to go about going. The fun part of mapping your journey is determining the what, when, and where—but being fully versed on the how will prepare you for what to expect when the ‘who’ is you, and you alone!

So whether you’re still in the dreaming process, or you’ve already booked your single ticket, or you have been there, done that, bought the kitschy souvenir shop t-shirt long ago, Her Campus has got you covered on how to fly solo (literally).

Pre-Trip

girl with passport

Find the right (-for-you) hostel

Contrary to what the mediocre 2005 Eli Roth horror film might have you believe, hostels do not, in most cases, feature a subterranean torture chamber. So while safety is obviously your number one priority while traveling alone, you shouldn’t let that cause you to fall into the belief that you’re better off just booking the Hilton. On a collegiette’s budget, staying in a hostel is often your best bet, and you’ll be able to find reviews for any that you’re considering online. Hostelz.com has an excellent comprehensive and uncensored review forum, so you can base your decision off the stories of those who’ve trekked before you. The website also features over 47,000 listings in more than 9,100 cities, including price comparison between places and each hostel’s contact information. Bookmark this database on your browser!

When comparing accommodations, though safety and price should always remain two pillars of your choice, Veronica, a collegiette at McGill University, recommends booking hostels that also feature a communal area for guests. “Traveling alone, I found that the very best hostels were the ones that had bars or good common rooms. Obviously, it was nice to have it right there, but mostly, it’s the best place to meet people. With a common room or bar where people actually hang out, it’s so much easier to sit and chat with someone for a while, and then go out together!"

Before leaving for your trip, create a shortlist of three to five potential hostels to check into in each city you visit. Your first choice may not always be available due to full occupancy or temporary renovations, so it’s wise to have a couple back-ups in place. Also, just because a hostel markets itself nicely online doesn’t mean you should necessarily trust the rating over your instinct if the place looks questionable upon arrival. Veronica learned that while the safe choice may not be the economical one, it’s always the best to make. “Don’t be afraid to change up your accommodations if they’re sketchy! I lost maybe two nights’ worth of money by changing one of mine after checking in, but it just really wasn’t cool.”

Determine how you’re getting around

When we’re all wildly successful international business women, we’ll have black Lincoln Town Cars and chauffeurs idling outside the airport for us upon arrival and our business trip stipends will include the cost of Rent-A-Porsche. While you’re still on the rise to this status, however, you’ll need to procure another way of getting around. If you’re really lucky, an attractive and eager local boy will offer to carry you around bridal style wherever you request, but when Casanova gets tired, you’ll need to find a back-up mode of transpo.

In most cities you visit, you’ll have multiple options of public transportation all for comparatively minor fees. Depending on the length of your stay, it may be wise, if the option is there, to purchase a week pass for whichever public vehicle you decide on, be it the subway, the bus, or the tram. Laura, a student at Carleton University, sees another benefit to forgoing the rental car or taxi. “I love paying a few dollars and hopping on a tram in a big European city and seeing where I end up! You can see so much of the city this way for a lot less than it would cost on a tour. I also love people-watching while on public transit. You can learn so much about a culture through its people!”

Overall, while most cities will provide you with myriad transportation options, arguably the best, (and fee-free), way to get around is simply hoofing it. And when it comes to powering your own way around the city with the ol’ 1, 2, Step, Veronica sees nothing but advantages. “Walking gives the huge benefit of having the freedom to get lost—(which is exciting), go at your own pace—(there's no stress), spontaneously change plans if you pass something interesting—(which you definitely will), and stay in shape—(after delicious filling meals, or all the nights out, depending on who you are).”

Consider a tour

So maybe you’ve decided to “go it alone”, but that doesn’t mean you have to remain alone constantly when you skip off to your destination du jour. Au contraire, if you’re dreaming about getting lost along the cobblestoned streets of Paris, but are a little intimidated by the thought of actually getting seriously lost and winding up so far from where you started, the people aren’t speaking French anymore, maybe a tour is the option for you! The great thing about a tour is that it allows you to enjoy all the fun parts of traveling without the headache of logistics like where you’re sleeping that night, how you’re supposed to meet people, and how you’re getting to that place everyone is telling you you positively haaaaave to go—(“Collegiette, meet the rest of your tour group. Tour group, fab collegiette.”)

Contiki, a Her Campus favorite and the leading youth travel company, offers hundreds of tour options specifically designed for 18-35’s so you can stop worrying about inadvertently signing up for that Senior-N-Single tour of the Riviera you mistakenly thought meant senior year. Close call. In addition, booking with a company like Contiki is great for the cash-strapped collegiette looking to travel solo, because there are zero mandatory single supplements—a nasty little fee many travel companies attach to single bookings to account for the partner you aren’t bringing along. It sounds ridiculous because it is. Why be penalized for going solo?

Michelle Murray, director of sales and marketing at Contiki Vacations, points out, “Tours make it really easy to meet and make friends with other like-minded people from around the world. You’re traveling together, sharing amazing experiences and bonding while having a fantastic time. Tours also take planning headaches out of the equation by taking care of accommodations, transportation and other details so travelers can enjoy the sights, activities, local foods, and amazing cultures without any worries.”

Have a contingency plan for emergencies

Hope for the best, but plan for the worst. The more you prepare ahead of time for the absolutely cataclysmic, the better off you will be in the moment if or when something does go wrong on the road, and you have no hand to grab onto but your own. Murray encourages collegiettes to “take it all in [because] traveling is a journey filled with unexpected moments, great adventures, and life lessons. Don’t let any of it go unappreciated.” But that being said, “Use your street smarts, be safe, and show respect for the local culture and people.” While you can’t prevent the unexpected, you can prepare for the chance of it ahead of time, so before leaving, make sure to:

  • Make copies of your travel documents: As a precaution against loss or theft, leave copies of important travel documents with your family back home. If possible, scan all of your important travel documents and send them to yourself at an e-mail address that you can access abroad anywhere you go with internet.
  • Organize travel insurance: Ensuring you have travel health insurance that covers all medical expenses for illness and injury is crucial before departing for another country. Your basic comprehensive plan will include loss or theft of valuables, damage to baggage, and flight cancellations or interruptions.
  • Register with STEP: STEP, which stands for Smart Traveler Enrollment Program is a free service provided by the government to U.S. citizens who are traveling to, or living in, another country. After creating an account with the program, you can enter all of the details regarding your upcoming trip so the Department of State can assist you better in the case of an emergency while abroad be it legal, medical, or financial. If you’re from outside of the U.S., your country will have a similar program, so do a little research to find out where to register.
  • Carry an emergency contact card: Create a contact card to carry on your person at all times which includes the coordinates of the nearest American embassy or consulate in your destination country, in case you run into trouble. Also list two emergency contacts back home to be contacted should you be unable to make a call yourself. Keeping all of your emergency contacts in the same place is key to dealing with an emergency effectively and efficiently.

During Your Trip

Stay safe

Wherever you are in the world, be it Dublin or Da Nang, appearing confident while wandering the streets will help you stay safe while still getting the most out of your experiences. It’s a common mistake to think that advertising your tourist status will garner you assistance from accommodating locals. To the contrary, a displaced tourist is a prime target for crime, from pick-pocketing to something more serious, like identity fraud, or worse—(so keep a gorilla grip on your passport at all times!).

Kayla from the University of Maine remembers the experience of being alone at night in Paris and how she dealt with being lost. “I got a little lost on the way back from the Eiffel Tower at night, and though I speak a little French, it was scary. The metro stopped running and I ended up having to take a taxi back to my hotel, but if I’d looked as lost and freaked out as I was feeling, I would have been a major target. Criminals tend to prey on women, particularly those who look like they’re out of their element. Know where you’re going before you head out, and if/when you do get lost, play the part of a savvy city woman and walk with your head up and a strong stride.”

Take cues from the locals regarding local customs and manner of dress. No matter the dress code, keeping your valuables protected is always is always fashion, so opt for a crossbody bag instead of a shoulder bag, which can be snatched easily. That being said, wearing shorts, a fanny pack, and sneakers will highlight your tourist status in glaring fluorescence—not to mention the mortifying fact that you’ll be wearing a fanny pack and sneakers. Believe me, you’ll regret that duo when the photos are developed.

Tap into the international travel community

As soon as you lose your solo travel V-card, you’ll come to comprehend the enormous and dynamic international travel community. It’s both incredible and humbling to realize how many people like you have similarly embraced an instinctual urge to get up and go, regardless of whether anyone else goes with them. And just like you, these independents are going to want to experience all the joys and secrets of your chosen destination, and may be interested in some tandem touring.

Beyond the company, alone, hopping off the beaten path with somebody else can have its practical advantages, too. Perhaps you want to split the cost of a private boat tour around The Broads in Norfolk, England? Maybe you’d like to go halfsies with someone on that enormous empanada from a farmer’s market in Lisbon. Maybe you need another player for a game of pick-up cricket in New Delhi or else your team is definitely going to be at a disadvantage and wouldn’t that be the worst?

Several years ago, while lost in the Louvre with a friend, we stopped to check a museum map for a moment, and got chatting with some Norwegian students visiting Paris from a city just north of Oslo. Deciding that six heads were better than two, we embarked together in search of the elusive Venus de Milo, whom we found two hours and half the museum later, in all her armless glory. I’ve since kept in touch with several of them on Facebook and years later, I know that if I were ever to find myself on a Scandinavian tour, I could count on four friendly faces to show me around. Foster the friendships you make with the expatriates you meet on your travels because they’ll be ones to tap into in the future for companionship and couch-surfing when you’re on the road again!

Document everything!

As amazing as the experience of traveling is, it can sometimes be a bit of a sensory overload. So many experiences are packed into the numbered hours of each day’s itinerary, it may be overwhelming to take it on alone, however much fun you’re having. Make time each day to update a travel blog or scribble a quick entry in a travel journal. Veronica points out, “Not only does [journaling] give you something to do on train rides, but it is the best thing for the travel withdrawal you will have when you’re back home.” If you go the online route, Tumblr and Google’s weblog platform Blogger provide foolproof platforms for the amateur journalist, so you have no excuses not to get your blog on, girl.

Wear down the capture button on your camera. Take so many pictures you could put the stills together and practically make a film. While it’s important to document your journeys in writing, a picture really says a thousand words and when you’re tearing apart your vocabulary in attempts to describe to someone that je ne sais quoi of the view at the top of la tour Eiffel, you’ll be grateful you can just pull out a photo instead and be like, “See what I mean?!”

In addition, the art of taking a photo of yourself without cutting off part of your face or giving yourself maje’ double-chin is a skill to be mastered, pre-trip. When you’ve spent the last two hours hiking to the top of Mount Batur in Bali at four in the morning to watch the sunrise over Penelokan, taking a few selfies is not only forgivable, but necessary.

Embrace your newfound freedom

Whether you’re in Madrid or Marrakech, trekking on your own allows you to get chummier with the locals than if you were surrounded by a safety net of fellow travelers, so get to know some before you leave! Pretend for a moment that whichever city you’re visiting is a fabulous evening soirée and the locals of the destination guests at the party. If you’re traveling with a pack of fellow journeymen, just like if you go to a party with your entourage already in tow, you won’t meet new people like you would flying solo. Take advantage of your single status and mingle with the people who know your exotic locale best—the people who call it their hometown!

While linking up with other travelers is great, embrace the time you have to yourself in a foreign land as one of self-discovery! Alain de Botton, a travel writer and philosopher points out in his book The Art of Travel that “Our responses to the world are crucially molded by the company we keep, for we temper our curiosity to fit in with the expectations of others... Being closely observed by a companion can also inhibit our observation of others.”

Laura admits that while some elements of solo travel may be foreign at first, ultimately you get used to the alone time and come to love it. “One thing I didn’t like at first was going to restaurants alone. But when you are traveling solo, this is pretty much a non-negotiable. I have grown to love eating alone though. I don’t focus on the fact that I don’t have anyone; instead, it gives me time to sit and think, plan my next excursion, or read the tourist pamphlets they give you at the hotel.”

Being alone gives you the opportunity to shed the comfortable shell of your identity and see what kind of girl appears when you’re not locked into the expectations of the people you know to be, react, and think a certain way. Traveling alone allows you to connect on a deeper level to the world around you, and it may be a surprise to find the face reflected back at you in the River Seine while wandering the Left Bank by dusk appears different than the one you remember practicing selfie pics in your bedroom vanity before departure.

Never compromise

Go to sleep when you want. Wake up when you want. Eat when you want. Chat up that golden-bodied Spaniard Javier on the Barceloneta beach for as long as you want. No compromises. Ever.

This is the joy of traveling by yourself.

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About The Author

Kristen Pye just completed year two at McGill University in Montréal, pursuing a degree in Art History and Cultural Studies, which she will continue for the upcoming academic year abroad at Trinity College in Dublin. As well as writing for Her Campus, she is a fashion and culture editor and writer for Leacock's Online Magazine. When not writing, Kristen can be found rereading The Great Gatsby, vintage shopping, vinyl shopping, playing tennis, and spending far too much time deciding what to wear in the morning. Follow her at americanpye.blogspot.com or @kristenpye!