I’ve been traveling solo for so long that I don’t even remember what it’s like to plan a trip with someone anymore. Though I frequently meet up with people and make friends along the way, there is nothing more liberating for me as a woman than being able to venture out into the world on my own. A few months ago, I decided to take my solo traveling to the next step by quitting my job in New York City to pursue a personal passion project of circumnavigating the globe by couch-surfing through my social network. Here are some valuable lessons I learned from traveling the world solo.
1. Solitude is something to be embraced.
Though I meet a lot of people on the road, it’s unreasonable to assume they’ll be spending all of their time with me (nor would I want them to). The downside to traveling the world alone is that company is not always guaranteed, which is why learning to genuinely enjoy spending extended periods of time on your own is an absolute must.
Solitude is the most important quality you can develop as a traveler. When alone in a foreign place, stripped of familiarity and routine, we have little choice but to inhabit ourselves — as the saying goes: wherever we go, there we are. Solitude teaches us to feel unencumbered by the presence of our own company, ask questions about our life’s purpose, and more importantly, listen to the answers.
2. You need to remain open-minded.
This one may seem obvious, but even as an experienced traveler I sometimes have to remind myself to keep an open mind. There will be many times, especially as a woman, when you will find yourself in downright weird or uncomfortable situations. For example, when I was in Cuba, I was taken aback by how many men would cat-call foreign women in the streets. Sure, I’d experienced cat-calling before, but this was on another level — I couldn’t walk a block without a few men saying something to me.
It initially made me angry, so I began asking both Cuban men and women why such disrespect was accepted. Many were shocked that this was how I perceived it. In Cuba, they explained, cat-calling was a huge compliment because it meant a woman was pretty and desirable. Once I realized these cat-calls were largely harmless (albeit annoying), I was able to get closer to the locals. My fondest memory was when my bike broke in the middle of the street in Trinidad and a man who had just cat-called me rushed over to help me resolve the problem. More surprisingly, he did not hit on me.
We won’t agree with every culture’s behavior or way of being, but if we are visiting their countries, we need to stay open to understanding their ways.
3. You can’t be married to your schedule.
This was, perhaps, the hardest lesson I had to learn. Years ago, I used to plan my travel itineraries weeks in advance. When traveling with someone, it’s almost necessary to agree on a plan ahead of time so that you don’t run into disagreements on what to do on the road.
The more I’ve traveled solo, however, the more I realized that plans are futile. Now, I have very loose schedules: I have a general idea of where I’m going to be and around when so that I can notify my hosts, but I don’t buy tickets ahead of time. If I do, I make sure they are flexible.
There have been so many times when I’ve fallen in love with a place and decided to stay longer, or spontaneously traveled to an unplanned location. For example, I found out a night before I was supposed to leave Vienna, Austria that Bratislava, Slovakia was only an hour train ride away. I quickly shifted my plan to visit Budapest and made a quick stop there. Similarly, I enjoyed Romania so much that I decided to skip my trip to Serbia so I could stay longer.
You can’t anticipate how much you’ll like or dislike a place, so give yourself the flexibility to adjust as you go along.
4. Be prepared to feel uncomfortable — and deal with it.
I grew up in a first-world country, so personally speaking, becoming comfortable with being uncomfortable was one of my primary challenges when I started traveling. The perk of having a travel partner is that when you feel out of your comfort zone, you have someone to panic to, commiserate with, or resolve the issue with. When you’re by yourself, however, you just have to… deal with it.
It’s important to train yourself not to be easily fazed — I call it the art of being unflappable. Be prepared to probably get diarrhea when you visit third world countries; to seriously struggle finding tampons in Southeast Asia (and use pads instead); to squat over a hole when you have to use the bathroom; to spend hours in a hot, dirty bus playing super loud Montenegrin folk music (I’m traumatized). It’s not always easy dealing with this stuff alone, but trust me, you come out better for it.
5. You’ll need much less than you think you need.
It took me YEARS to learn this lesson. I used to travel with suitcases so big I could fit in them. Today, I’ll be damned if I take anything larger than a carry-on with me.
The truth is, we don’t need nearly as much as we think we do. I’m traveling with a carry-on for over 6 months, and I am perfectly content with six shirts, two shorts, three pants, two dresses, a cardigan, a jacket, a scarf, and three pairs of shoes. The key is making sure that each item serves multiple functions. For example, my leggings can be worn as pajamas, exercise clothes, and under tunics, and my black tank can be paired with any bottom. The same applies to makeup and toiletries. Rather than pack sunscreen, moisturizer, and foundation, I have a tinted moisturizer with sunscreen included.
Since there is no one to carry your bag for you, you’ll be grateful to have fewer items in your “closet.” Light luggage makes you more flexible to move around (read: run after buses), and will teach you to prioritize what you need in both life and travel. Also, make sure to leave some extra room to pick souvenirs up along the way.
6. Life is too short for uncomfortable underwear. And shoes.
This may seem like strange advice but bear with me. I have a lot of underwear and a lot of shoes. Needless to say, narrowing down which ones I’d take for a 6+ month journey was tough. An important lesson I’ve learned on the road, as silly as it may seem, is that those are the two items you can’t compromise on when it comes to comfort.
Sure, I want to feel cute, but trust me, that sexy thong is NOT worth the wedgie when you are trekking through a jungle in 110-degree humid weather. So please, ladies, pack comfortable, wedgie-proof, sweat-friendly underwear and have enough so that you’re not always looking for a laundry mat (I packed 15 pairs for 6 months).
This also goes for shoes. I packed three pairs: super lightweight running shoes for hiking, exercise, and long walks, ankle boots for both rain and fashion purposes, and cute rubber sandals that I can use on the beach, during the day, and for a night out. Needless to say, heels are pretty useless when it comes to practicality and suitcase space.
7. Being low-maintenance is a must.
I’ve met women who, even while traveling, take an hour to do their hair. Or they must put on a full face of makeup before entering the outside world. The good news is that when you’re traveling solo, you can take all the time you want to get ready. But, I’ve found that being low-maintenance makes life significantly easier.
First, being low-maintenance teaches you to be comfortable with who you are. You are beautiful — you don’t need makeup to tell you that. Second, it’s a convenience thing. Even though I like to take the time to pamper myself if I’m going somewhere nice, I also have to be prepared to roll out of bed and go within 15 minutes when I have a 4 am flight or 6 am meditation class to catch. It’s also useless to put on makeup when it will melt the second you step into hot tropical weather.
Lastly, being low maintenance frees up time to do other, more fun activities. As I mentioned, traveling solo involves a lot of spontaneity. Often, I’ve been caught completely off-guard by invitations from people I just met to join them on adventures. Since I just met them, they’re not going to be as patient or tolerant of my beauty routine. It’s nice to feel that I have the freedom to do anything and go anywhere without worrying about how I look.