I recently wrote a post called ‘Why I travel solo’. In it, I talk about being scared, lost, uncomfortable and vulnerable — and how important this is for living fully.
I continue to hear from budding travelers saying they’re thinking about taking off on their own but are too afraid, or that they recently booked a trip alone that they’re now dreading.
Over the years, I’ve figured out how to ease the discomfort and minimize the vulnerability — never banishing either, but finding small ways to feel grounded so I can make the most of being in a new place alone.
Below is a summary of my responses to the various questions and comments that were sent my way. While they don’t guarantee complete sanity and safety, I’m sharing them here in case they’ll be of use to other solo travelers—first-timers and veterans alike. And I’d love to hear your tips — scroll down to leave a comment.
First up: some super basic, ‘just-do-this-if-nothing-else’ safety groundrules. Because part of being happy is being in one piece.
1. Keep security simple.
Contrary to what might seem sensible, it’s wise not to chain/wire/padlock your rucksack up within an inch of its life. It makes it look like you’ve got good stuff in there, which you ideally haven’t. Leave expensive stuff at home — if only because minimalism always feels awesome.
2. Avoid getting totally lost.
My life changed forever when downloading offline maps to your phone became a thing. Without it, I might still be driving through winding Bosnian mountain tracks with a taxi driver who was as lost as I was. (Do plan to get a little bit lost though — it’s far better than seeing nothing because your head’s buried in a map).
3. Know the deal.
Check your destination on this website. If you’re going to a threat area alone, get wise to the specific risks and be smart about them. Knowledge is power.
4. But… keep a balance.
Constantly worrying about what could happen makes it difficult to be fully present in your exciting new surroundings. Do the basics, but know where you draw the line. A little bit of trust and instinct go a long way.
And here are some less obvious but equally important things I’ve learned through trial and error that keep me smiling, grounded, and, well, less inclined to freak out.
5. Get orientated: find food.
Find out where the supermarket is. It is your priority and first adventure.
On my first day alone abroad, I learned that — psychologically — it’s the most important thing for me to do. It’s a reliable anchor, a shortcut to feeling grounded and ready to explore. (Not to mention that hunger is the number one enemy of the alone and afraid).
I’d landed in Sydney, arrived at my hostel, and the only thing I wanted to do was sleep. Once I’d indulged my jet lag, and had just enough time to get totally inside my head and start freaking out about not knowing anyone in a 9,000 mile radius… I was starving. By then, I’d lost sight of my comfort zone — I’d stepped firmly outside it, then leapt and bounded to the place where malfunctioning and paralysis starts to set in.
The turning point came when I dragged myself half a mile down the road to the supermarket. Already feeling slightly more alive and capable, and now having some semblance of my bearings, I wandered back to my hostel and sheepishly entered the kitchen. Half an hour later I was drinking wine from a mug with 10 other travellers and wondering why I didn’t do this sooner.
Supermarkets are also a great way to get to know a place. Less so in Sydney, granted, but if you’re in Budapest or Nairobi or Havana, then they’re a wonderful whistle-stop tour of the weird and fabulous local food, and an excuse to practice navigating your new currency.
6. Give yourself a mini-mission.
Without structure, rules, expectations and all those other guidelines I’ve happily left behind at home, I have a tendency to not know what to do with myself. I’ve made a habit of choosing two or three things in advance that I want to do when I arrive (once I’ve found the supermarket, of course). Fill your first day with wandering to the top of that tempting looking hill, checking out a farmers’ market, or taking a photo from the local harbour. A small sense of purpose when you feel totally groundless is a wonderful thing.
Then, after the first 24 hours, the days seem to have a way of working themselves out.
7. Communicate, even if you don’t know how.
Not knowing the local language can feel crippling sometimes, and very lonely. But I’ve learned that communication is always possible, because people will always want to understand you. Trust in the universality of hand gestures and facial expressions — we all speak the same language really. Miming can feel a bit silly, and make you keenly aware of your language handicap; but the joy and relief of connecting with someone else casts that into shadow.
This was never more clear to me than when I found myself alone in Montevideo at midnight, with no cash and therefore no bed. All the banks were closed and an hour of walking through the city centre made it clear there were no ATMs on the street. Now close to tears, I found a kindly shopkeeper who explained to me, with wild hand gestures, that to get to an ATM I simply needed to swipe my credit card on the bank door (who knew?!). Naturally, I hugged him.
There’s no need to wait till you’re in crisis mode — it’s amazing how many people want to get to know you, even if that means both of you waving your arms around a bit, drawing pictures, and pointing a lot. Turns out words are over-rated: they might be more efficient, but they’re certainly not more real or meaningful than our universal language.
8. Bring a journal.
My notebook is where I record and observe what’s happened, and consolidate thoughts that have had the space to arise since I’ve been on my own. It’s a valuable practice in itself, but it’s also wonderful to read back later: the written-down inner workings of my mind capture and revive individual moments so much more fully than the sunset photos that I mindlessly snapped.
I often take my journal when eating alone at restaurants — a scenario oft-dreaded by prospective (or seasoned) solo travellers. It’s my mini-me companion, that I can share reflections and ideas with. Plus it seems there’s something disarming about someone who’s scribbling in a notebook — I tend to make new friends when I get my pen and paper out in public. Whether it’s Cusco, Krakow, Melbourne or Berlin, “what are you writing about?” has proved to be an unexpected icebreaker. Journalling is a great way to connect with yourself — with the added bonus that you might end up connecting with someone else as well.
9. Follow your nose to find your bed.
When it comes to accommodation, I like to let instinct be my guide. My needs change, so my choices change too. If I want to hang out with other travelers, I’ll go with hostels; if I want some alone time, I’ll have a look on Airbnb; and if I want to spend time in nature, I grab a tent or find a cabin. The glory of it all is that there are no rules: the choice is yours, and you don’t have to compromise with anyone.
I like to know where I’m sleeping the night I land somewhere, so tend to book my first night or two before letting instinct take over; others prefer to let things happen when they arrive. Either way — your bed is your little temporary home, your small private safe space: give yourself freedom to arrange what you want, when you want, and mix it up if you need.
10. Guard your independence (when you want to).
Sometimes, others may want to tag along with you to your next destination. They’re at a place in their trip where they’d like some company — but that doesn’t mean you are too. I’ve learned that it’s cool to say ‘hey, thanks for wanting to join me, but I’m actually pretty keen to do this next bit on my own.’ Saying it is uncomfortable, but totally worth it.
Travelling anywhere — or indeed just getting out of bed in the morning — is never without its risks or occasional discomforts. But that’s certainly not a reason to hide from the world — a world which is much safer and more welcoming than it might seem. Exploring our big beautiful planet, and doing it on your terms, is an important and empowering gift to give yourself. I hope this helps make it seem a little less daunting.
Here’s to the next adventure.
This article originally appeared on Medium and is republished here with permission.