I’M A 26-YEAR-OLD, 5-FOOT TALL, blonde-haired girl and I’ve backpacked solo everywhere from South America to the Middle East, and now I’m traveling through Southeast Asia, India, Nepal, and East Africa — alone. But this isn’t an article about how backpacking solo is actually really safe; this is just about how to enjoy so much time on your own.
I admit, there are periods of time where traveling solo drives me crazy and I wonder why I’ve chosen to go it alone. Moments where I’m struggling to carry all my stuff for several kilometers, or I want to go swimming at the beach without risking my stuff being stolen, or I’m having a brief walk through a neighborhood that suddenly turns unsavory. Or when I see couples traveling together and I feel jealous of their constant companionship.
Then there are the wonderful serendipitous moments that happen on the road, when you team up with other travelers and hit the road together. In Laos, I traveled with a French girl who was spending two years raising money by running marathons in every country she visited. I hitchhiked in central Myanmar with a group of German guys. I spent another two weeks taking slow boats and trains across northern Myanmar with a guy traveling the world and building his own software company at the same time. The best part? You’re still on your own, free to join up with others when you want, and free to part ways when you want.
Undoubtedly those experiences meeting and traveling with other backpackers have been some of my favorite memories on the road. So how do you get to that point? How do you go from dinner by your lonesome to road-tripping across Southeast Asia with new friends?
Here are my top tips and tricks for making the most of traveling solo:
1. Stay in the most popular hostels.
The rest of my suggestions inherently rest on the idea that you’re staying in hostels where you’re likely to meet other travelers (since you wouldn’t follow tip #6 just walking down the streets of Paris). I usually use hostelworld.com and sort options in a given geography by “overall rating” and look for the most and best reviewed options. Most backpackers use a similar method so you’re likely to find a place with good atmosphere and like-minded travelers this way. If you’re an advanced backpacker who may need intermissions off the beaten hostel trail, Couchsurfing.org is a great way to travel solo by letting you stay with locals…for free!
2. Opt in.
The most important thing I’ve learned from traveling alone is how to say “yes” more. There’s the option to go on a boat trip, to go diving, to join a tour, to sleep in a temple, to learn to rock climb. Yes, yes, and yes. As they say, you’ll never know until you try, so try everything you can. Some of my favorite travel memories have happened when I just went with the flow and jumped into something new.
3. Know when to say “no.”
Just as important as readily saying “yes,” is discerning when you’re actually going to be happier doing something else or opting out of certain activities. For instance, I recently participated in the infamous (and highly controversial) Full Moon Party in Koh Phangan, Thailand. Contrary to my instincts, I absolutely had the time of my life, but here’s the shocker: I didn’t have a single alcoholic drink or drug the entire night. I wanted to be fully in the moment and fully aware of my surroundings for the duration of the insanity, so I said no to everything except red bull and coffee. It was the best decision I could have made for myself and one that I could have made only now as a strong and self-assured veteran traveler.
4. Offer the first introduction.
When you’re sitting around a hostel or restaurant with other travelers (or locals) around, be the first one to smile and offer your name. It’s SO simple and it makes all the difference in the world. Often the typical opening line is “where are you from?” so when someone at least ventures that far, I’ll respond, “I’m from New York. My name’s Elaina, by the way. And you?” I accepted their gesture of friendliness and took it one step further. This almost never fails.
5. Include yourself.
This is a bit different than just opting in. With opting in, there’s an invite being extended to you, you just have to accept it. Including yourself is when there’s a group of people at the hostel talking about going swimming in a lagoon and you pipe in and say, “Oh hey, are you guys headed to the Blue Lagoon? I heard that’s supposed to be an amazing picnic spot! Mind if I bring a bottle of wine and join you guys?” It takes GUTS, let me tell you, but if delivered with confidence and a big smile, rarely goes wrong.
6. Extend the invitation.
Another way to go is to make up your mind about what you’re doing for the day and invite the people around you to join. Be the party-planner, the adventurer, the leader of the pack. You’ll be surprised at what people will go along with when someone sounds excited about what they’ve got planned.
7. Watch your body language.
If you’re sitting with your arms crossed, folded inward, and frowning, you’re definitely not looking approachable. Smile more than you normally would, face other people, keep your hands down in your lap or at your sides, and be mindful of the word “open.” Look open. Look happy. Look like someone who’d be ready and willing to talk to another human being. Drop your device/defense mechanism. I mean this both literally and figuratively.
8. Wait around.
Unfortunately this part isn’t very exciting, but try it out for a day or two in a place where you have a little bit of extra time to see everything. After breakfast at the hostel or guesthouse, just sit (practicing the above two recommendations), join in the conversation, introduce yourself, and see if a group gathers to go do something — and then opt in! Oftentimes by being less in a rush to go march out the door and do your own thing, you can link up with other travelers pretty easily.
People make fun of the concept of “small talk,” but the reality is people need to start somewhere with one another… Go beyond the “where are you from, how long are you traveling for, where have you been, and where are you going” conversations. People will appreciate it and many of those questions lend themselves to what sounds like a competition over who’s traveling more instead of sharing experiences and getting to know each other. I try to lead with “What’s your name? What’s your story?” or start with most recent history, “How was your day? Do you like it here so far? What have you enjoyed most about this place?”
10. Get better with names.
Science shows during first introductions, many people get distracted by the anticipation of saying their own name that they instantly forget what the other person said. It takes a bit of practice, but when you meet someone new, shake their hand, look them in the eye, and repeat their name. Remembering names is an easy way to impress new friends and can help you facilitate further introductions that will expand your travel posse: “George, meet Casey. Casey, meet George.” You’ll be a hero. It’s also handy when you run into the same people in a different location; nothing breaks the bond faster with someone you spent a week in Peru with than seeing them again in Bolivia and going, “Hey…man!”
11. Be (slightly) aggressive with adding people to Facebook.
If I spend more than a day with someone, I always wind up pulling out my phone and having them add themselves to Facebook. Or even if we only did a day trip together, I’ll add them so I can tag them in my photos later. The biggest advantage of this is: meeting up again becomes possible and very easy to do, your global network expands (I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wound up sleeping on somebody’s couch in like, Israel, who I originally met for a day in Japan), and you have the best sources of firsthand travel tips for future destinations (“Hey, Julie-I-met-in-Thailand. You’ve already been to Vietnam. Where should I stay in Hanoi?”).
12. Take extra precautions with your belongings.
It sounds very pragmatic, but nothing ruins a trip faster than getting all your stuff jacked. People laugh at me for taking my backpack with me to the bathroom, but that inch of precaution is so much better than the days, if not weeks, of suffering and emptying out my bank account that will occur if I have to replace everything. I always lock up my valuables at the hostel, and I don’t stay in shared rooms that don’t supply a locker. I don’t encourage paranoia, but managing your stuff is an important part of being a smart and happy solo traveler.
13. Get comfortable with solitude.
Perhaps not the best note to end on since our focus has been on helping you meet other travelers, but it’s important to remind you: you’re going to have times where you’ll be all alone. You flew out alone, you’re making all the calls, you get all the freedom and glory, and you also get the inevitable periods of loneliness. Sink into it, acknowledge it, and work through it. Learn to enjoy your own company — one of life’s great pleasures that few people ever master.
14. Take time for yourself.
Because the opposite of loneliness also happens: you get burnt out of traveling with other people. The best part is, you came out on your own, so you aren’t obligated to stay at anybody’s side longer than you want to. Take a breather from the hostel scene, too. Couchsurf, arrange a homestay, ask friends to set you up with friends of theirs in other countries. All of these help you get a different perspective and provide a more immersive travel experience when you’re ready to get off the beaten path.