The first time that you travel alone can be a challenge. Where should you go? Should you think about taking an organised tour or should you travel independently? Will it be safe? And will it be a terribly lonely experience?
I feel your pain because I have been there many times before. As a solo traveller for nearly three decades, I have travelled alone to many of the 70 countries I have visited. But the rewards that these solo travel adventures have brought have far outstripped their challenges.
I have made some fantastic new friends, one of whom was from that first solo trip in 1989. By stepping outside of my comfort zone, I have felt empowered to do things that I never would have contemplated. Ultimately, these solo adventures have created very special memories and have transformed my life.
Over the years I have developed a process to plan my travels with the aim of getting the very best experience from that destination, whilst mitigating any personal risk. After making the case for and against solo travel, I break this process down into seven easy steps to solo travel. By following this step-by-step guide you’ll be travelling alone for the first time sooner than you could have dreamt of.
Within each of these steps to solo travel, there are links to further reading to help you on your way. However, if you would prefer to jump straight to these resources, scroll to the end of the page for a list of blog posts.
Why should you travel alone?
Perhaps you have niggling doubts about whether solo travel is really worth it? I understand why you would ask that question, so let me make the case for solo travel.
Firstly, you will meet great new people. Yes. Really. Even you introverts out there. I’m not exactly a screaming extrovert and if I can do it, so can you. Some of my most enduring, close relationships have been formed with those I have met whilst travelling alone.
Secondly, you can be totally selfish. Hang about, you are saying, isn’t that a bad thing? In many parts of life, yes. But when it comes to travel, you can to go where and when you want and to change your plans at the drop of a hat. You have nobody to please but yourself.
However, the greatest benefit of solo travel is the empowerment and self-determination it brings. Stepping outside of your comfort zone and navigating unfamiliar cultures in unfamiliar territories is an instant self-esteem booster. Moreover, this benefit of travelling alone endures long after you have returned home.
Why should you NOT travel alone?
Another great question. I’m not saying that solo travel is always a breeze. Far from it. Loneliness on the road can suck, as can eating out alone. Because you are faced with paying a single supplement when staying in a hotel and cannot share the cost a taxi, it can work out to be more expensive, particularly if you are a flashpacker like me.
Let’s talk next about safety. Whilst travelling alone is not inherently unsafe, you do not have the advantage of someone else watching your back. But, for me, the biggest drawback to solo travel is not having someone to share that spectacular sunset or perfect panorama with.
However, you can overcome these disadvantages of travelling alone. Following these seven easy steps to solo travel will help you do just that.
Steps to solo travel: Before you go
STEP 1: RESEARCH AND CHOOSE YOUR DESTINATION
This first step is the most important and most time-consuming one. I’ll start by saying that there is no such thing as a perfect travel destination. There is no magic formula, and making this essential decision is a case of weighing up the following considerations:
- Amount of time
- Preferred activities
- Preferred climate
As with many other life decisions, it boils down to balancing competing priorities. Having said that, it’s good to have a few ideas and inspirations.
STEP 2: DECIDE IF YOU WANT TO TRAVEL INDEPENDENTLY OR WITH A SMALL GROUP TOUR
You’ve chosen your destination. Now, as a solo traveller, you have two choices: travel independently or on an organised tour.
In recent years, I have opted for visiting a country on an organised tour on a dozen occasions. In 2004, I went on my first group tour, which was with the now-defunct Bales Worldwide to India. It was a pretty upmarket trip with a luxury air-conditioned coach to whisk us from one 5-star hotel to the next. Subsequent group tours have been more modest, largely travelling with Explore and Exodus Travel and, for the most part, great experiences.
There are pros and cons of taking a group tour, so when should you consider one? For me, it’s all about convenience and logistics. A group tour takes a lot of pain out of the organisation as someone else makes most of the arrangements for you. And as the itinerary has been put together by someone in the know, you can be reasonably assured that you will be hitting the highlights of that destination.
If you are a working person, the time efficiency of a group tour is a huge bonus. As your transport and transfers are taken care of, you hit the ground running and are able to cover larger distances and see more things in a shorter space of time.
For some countries, because of visa requirements, an escorted tour is the only viable option. For this reason, I visited both Iran and Libya on group tours. There are also softer advantages to group travel such as ready-made travel companions, and safety in numbers.
Perhaps surprisingly, a small group tour may actually save you money. All of the budget to mid-range operators allow you to share a room with someone of the same gender, eliminating the dreaded single supplement. On the other end of the affordability scale, some of the high-end operators have wavered the single supplement. Although the majority of small group tour companies charge a single supplement for sole occupancy, in many cases this is quite modest.
For all of their potential advantages, there are some disadvantages of group tour travel. Key amongst these is the loss of independence and opportunity for self-determination, which is one of the greatest things when you travel alonel. Also, you have no control over who your fellow travelling companions will be. As a friend who has been on many group tours remarked recently, “You’ll usually get the runt of the litter.” Just make sure that runt isn’t you!
But you may not need to take an either/or approach. Over the years a mix and match approach has worked extremely well for me. What do I mean by this? Well, I book a group tour to anchor the trip and then travel independently either side of this. The best of both worlds.
STEP 3: BOOK YOUR TRANSPORT
Now you know where you are going and how you are going to travel, you need to make the arrangements to get there, be it by land or air. This is where it starts to get real and you start to get excited! For many people, this will mean booking an international flight. If you are travelling solely on a flight-inclusive group tour, you can skip this step. Phew!
As most flights and rail tickets are non-refundable, or refundable for a hefty fee, you need to have firmed up your plans by this stage.
Bagging a keenly-priced, convenient itinerary, can take a lot of head-scratching and time. My advice is not to overthink it and just do it. Having said that. make sure that you double-check the following before clicking on that ‘Buy Now’ button:
- Dates of travel
- Airport or railway station. Note that some cities have more than one, and one of these may be far more convenient than the other.
- For flights, does the price include hold baggage?
- For flights, dimension/weight limit for carry-on baggage
Here are my go-to online resources for air and train travel.
- To explore flight routings, schedules and fares go to Google Flights. Or try ITA Matrix Flights, which is particularly useful for more complex routes including ex EU flights.
- Seeking out the best business class fares? Check out the excellent Turning Left for Less
- Want to know who offers the best premium economy product? Try this article The Telegraph, March 31, 2017
- Want to select the best seat in your ticket category? Go to Seat Guru.
- Want to know how safe your airline is? All you need to know is here
Being a true flashpacker, for the last eight years, I have travelled business-class on long-haul flights. If this is your style of travel, my post on choosing a business-class flight might be helpful.
- The king of rail travel resources is The Man in Seat 61. Mark Smith’s excellent website is an incredibly comprehensive guide to global rail travel.
- For booking European rail tickets and passes go to Rail Europe. It also lets you plan routes and check timetables.
Finally, when making your travel arrangements try to arrive during the day. I have made the mistake of arriving in a city under the cover of darkness and then trying to navigate my way to the hotel. This can feel at best intimidating and at worst threatening. In the light of day, finding your way to a hotel is so much less daunting. If you do need to arrive late at night, pre-arrange a taxi or transfer if possible. The peace of mind this brings is money well spent.
STEP 4: BOOK YOUR ACCOMMODATION
Once you have made your travel arrangements for your chosen destination, it is time to think about your accommodation. If you have decided to solely take a group tour, you can skip this step also.
I do like a nice bed for the night. Although not a deal-breaker, really good or really bad accommodation can impact on your travel experience. Where you stay will depend on your style of travel. The spectrum runs from hostels, in true backpacker style, through to high-end luxury hotels. If you are anxious about travelling alone for the first time, think about sprinkling your booked accommodation with a few hostels. As many hostels offer private rooms, you won’t have to sleep in a communal dorm room and you will be more likely to hook up with other travellers.
Here are my favourite accommodation booking sites:
- Booking.com is a clear, easy to use search engine. It offers a wide selection of hotels and apartments, often with refundable rates and special deals for returning customers.
- To view reviews of accommodation, amongst other things, go to Trip Advisor. If you plug in your destination and travel dates it will bring up a list of options, along with review ratings and prices sourced from booking engines and the hotel.
As I like to know where I am laying my head at night and want to make sure I bag a room in a great place, I usually book most, if not all, of my accommodation ahead of my arrival. Of course, the disadvantage of doing this is that what you gain in peace of mind you lose in flexibility. Even if you feel that you can’t book all of your accommodation in advance, take a little time to check the availability for your anticipated travel dates. Not every place is blessed with a wealth of lodging options and for all you know, there might be an event in town that means that rooms are in short supply.
When choosing accommodation, as a solo traveller and especially a solo female traveller, you need to think about location. Your bed for the night needs to be in a good area of town and, where possible, close to transport and restaurants. Read travellers’ reviews on Booking.com and TripAdvisor. For the former, you can filter location reviews for solo travellers and there is a separate score for location. Be wary of too good to be true prices. I have found that if a hotel is cheap there is usually a very good reason for that.
I strongly suggest that regardless of how loosely planned the rest of your trip is, make sure you’ve booked your first night’s accommodation. Also, figure out how you will get there from the airport or train station.
STEP 5: CONSIDER PRE-BOOKING LAND-BASED ARRANGEMENTS
There are many different reasons for visiting a destination. For example, you might hold a lifelong ambition to see La Primavera at Florence’s Uffizi Gallery, want to visit that blockbuster exhibition at Tate Modern or see La Traviata at Milan’s La Scala. How disappointed would you then be if you reached your destination only to find that it is a case of returns only? The lesson is to book ahead.
Sadly, I don’t always follow my own advice. I have been to Amsterdam a few times but I have never managed to visit Ann Frank’s House. When visiting Vienna last Christmas, I was gutted to discover that tickets for the opera were all sold out.
The same applies to restaurants. Spend a few minutes doing an internet search for restaurants that will suit your style of travel. If there is somewhere that you would really like to try but gets booked up quickly, make a reservation for an evening when you anticipate being free. Even if your plans change and you have to subsequently cancel the booking, it costs you nothing except for a little bit of your time.
Some solo travellers find the prospect of eating out alone daunting. if this applies to you, check out this post to help you conquer your fear of dining out alone.
Steps to solo travel: Whilst you are there
STEP 6: STAY SAFE
Safety should always be a priority for travellers, and never more so if you are travelling alone. And, sadly, solo female travel requires extra vigilance.
The good news is that there are concrete steps you can take to keep yourself safe. There are a few things that you should do before leaving home. For example: share your itinerary with someone at home and photocopy or scan key documents.
When you are on the road, follow my nine cardinal rules for staying safe as a solo traveller:
STEP 7: HAVE THE TIME OF YOUR LIFE
Saving the best until last! Solo travel has the power to transform your life so relish every last minute. In my experience, even bad experiences can be character-forming, and they also make great stories in the pub back home.
Touch base with yourself every now and then. Most solo travellers experience loneliness on the road. Accept this as a possibility, have some tricks up your sleeve to deal with it and move on to have a great time. If you are yearning for the company of other people, seek them out at bars, cafes, hotels or hostels. Or why not book a day tour when you will get the chance to meet other travellers?
Finally, try not to be a slave to ticking off the ‘must-see’ destinations. Although a list of these can provide a loose framework for your itinerary, don’t feel that you have to visit that museum or that church just because it’s included in the ‘top ten’ list in your guidebook. One of the joys of travelling alone is having the freedom to direct your itinerary and to be spontaneous. And if you fancy chilling out by the hotel pool with a cold drink in hand that’s perfectly fine. You have no-one to disappoint but yourself.
An example of how to travel alone
Often it is better to show not tell. Therefore, as an example, let me share how I planned a two-week itinerary for Argentina.
Destination-wise, I knew that the Perito Moreno Glacier and Iguazu Falls would be essential stops. Other places, such as Bariloche and Colonia, were desirable. I also wanted a decent amount of time in Buenos Aires and that this would bookend the trip. This made sense to me for two reasons:
- Buenos Aires is the hub for domestic flights
- I prefer to travel with hand-luggage only. Using the same hotel at both ends of the trip allowed me to bring two small pieces of luggage with me for the UK, but leave one behind at the hotel when I was travelling around Argentina.
This gave me a very loose structure for the trip. From there, all was all systems go! Here’s how I did it:
In conclusion …
Although solo travel can appear daunting, it is a fantastic opportunity to tailor a trip to your own travel style and wishes. You have total freedom to do what you want when you want to do it, and you will learn a lot about yourself in the process. And don’t think that you will spend all of your time away without speaking to another soul. In all of my years of travelling alone, that has never happened to me and I am an introvert.
I hope that these seven easy steps to solo travel will help you to figure out how to travel alone for the first time. They have certainly helped me. Just take it one step at a time and you will get there. Sometimes our greatest enemy is self-doubt. So believe in yourself and, above all, have a blast! Let me know how you get on by leaving me a comment.
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