(Just a note: I originally wrote this article on my old blogspot, and have edited and reworked it for this site)
I always get told by family, friends, and coworkers that I’m seriously brave for travelling abroad on my own. This is usually followed by the question “But aren’t you scared?” and the honest answer is no. Most of the time, I’m far too excited about exploring a new place to be scared. Sure, I get nervous before I leave for the trip, but once I’m on my way, I feel great. I have developed a good set of street smarts from my travels (and lots of reading), and I think I’m very aware and alert, without being overly paranoid about perceived dangers. I understand being called brave – I’m a woman in her 20s, and the fact is that we have to be very switched-on when we’re alone anywhere. This should not stop young women from travelling alone, if that’s what they want to do!
I only travelled abroad on my own in 2014, when I spent two months in the United States. It was also my first long-haul flight. Before then, I hadn’t been further than Tenerife (only a four-hour flight from London). It was a huge step. I think it was a good thing that I was thrown in the deep end for my first lone adventure. Sometimes you have to run before you can walk.
I decided to make this post because of the frequency that I get told how ‘brave’ I am for travelling alone, and my belief that you needn’t be afraid of going abroad by yourself as long as you plan sufficiently, organise yourself, and be sensible (without sacrificing fun, of course). I’m including tips and advice that I always tell people who ask me how I travel alone; these are all things that I stick to, that have been effective, and that may help people to feel more safe and comfortable on their own.
Before Your Trip
Write down your travel itinerary – things like flight times, travel durations, and directions. Being prepared for your journey there and back, and knowing what you’re doing before you set off, takes a lot of stress out of travelling. Another useful thing is to plan alternate routes to airports, hotels, etc. That way, if there are diversions or you go the wrong way, you will be able to right yourself. Make sure you have travel planned to get back home from the airport; the last thing you want is to get back from your holiday and then scramble around trying to get transport back to your town.
Plan to get to the airport with more than enough time before your flight. You will feel a lot less stressed out if you can check your bags and go through security at a steady pace instead of being in a rush. If possible, check in for your flight online and print your boarding pass (sometimes there are options to pick up your boarding pass at the gate, if that’s easier for you), so that you have one less thing to worry about.
Do the research on your destination – first and foremost, for reasons of safety. Find out if there are any areas that you need to avoid, particularly at night. A simple google search will usually provide plenty of information about a city, and quite often locals chip in to the discussions with their personal experiences and advice. Also look up the city’s customs and culture, to give you an idea on how you will be expected to act (and for simple things like which way to look before you cross the road!). You don’t want to be making a social faux pas as soon as you get there. On a lighter note, this research can also clue you in to cool places you didn’t previously know about. Again, reading what the locals have to say can be really helpful, as they have a lot more knowledge about places that are off the beaten track and less “tourist-y”. TripAdvisor is a really great place to start if you want to find out how good or bad a place is.
Check the weather forecast – give yourself a general idea of what the weather will be like, and how warm/cold it might become. It also helps to know the weather forecast as you plan your itinerary. For example, if the forecast says it’s going to be rainy, you can plan to go to museums or inside attractions on that day.
Plan your days – I don’t mean make a strict timetable that you simply must adhere to. Make a list of all the things you’d like to do on your holiday. Use Google Maps to find out the distances between all of the things you want to do, as well as the distance from your hotel/hostel. Group together things that are near to each other, and put each group to a day of your holiday. That way you can get to places more quickly, and hopefully fit more into your days. Take this outline with you on your holiday to refer to, but remember that you may see things that interest you on your travels, so make time to stray a little bit from your itinerary.
Give yourself a rough budget for every day – make sure you have a little extra money for unforeseen pitfalls. Also bear in mind that your bank may incur charges for using your debit card abroad, so convert some cash before you leave to carry on your person. Find out what the charge is to use your card, if there is one.
Stay in a hostel – I highly recommend HostelWorld for booking a place to stay. If you don’t fancy being in a dorm with strangers, you can pay a little more for a private room. Hostels are far cheaper than hotels, and are often full of lone travellers. Most hostels have common areas which are great for meeting people, or just having some company. I find that people staying in hostels are usually younger, and open to being approached and conversed with. There’s a kind of ‘all in this together’ atmosphere, which personally made things a lot more relaxed for me.
Public transport is pretty much the best, cheapest way to get around any city. Download a copy of the public transport map for your destination to keep with you, and research the kinds of tickets you can get and how much they cost. I took a cab once in New York City, and that was only to get to JFK airport when I was leaving – the rest of the time, I used the subway or walked. Remember, even if you’re only going for a few days, it will sometimes work out cheaper to just get a weekly pass for the public transport so compare all ticket prices before making a decision.
Google Maps is your friend! Honestly, one of the biggest reasons that I never feel scared or overwhelmed in an unfamiliar city is thanks to Google Maps. Please don’t do huge bloody maps in the middle of the street; nothing screams tourist more, and can make you a target for thieves. Plus it annoys people. Have Maps open on your phone, or write directions in a notebook and carry it in your bag to refer to. I think here is a good time to talk about data roaming. Be aware of your phone network’s data roaming charges and remember to switch roaming off if you’re not actively using it – you’ll run out of data or, worse, incur huge roaming charges. Make use of free WiFi wherever you can find it.
Don’t be afraid to walk – a lot of cities may seem daunting when you’re researching them, but more often than not things are a lot closer together than you’d think. Make sure you have appropriate footwear, though – I learned this the painful way when I developed blisters from hell in New York.
Act like you know the city – Walk surely and with confidence, keep your head up and your wits about you. I find that trying to blend in and look like you know what you’re doing means that people generally leave you alone (I’ve even had people come and ask me for directions!). Street scammers and thieves are less likely to approach someone who looks as if they might be local.
Don’t get in other people’s way – This one can be hard to remember when you’re excited about being somewhere. Always move to the side of a path/sidewalk/area to check maps or your phone. It’s especially important to be aware of the people around you when you take photos. It’s easy to get caught up in the brilliant shot you’re taking, but it totally annoys people if you’re standing in the middle of the street to get it. Try to stand somewhere that won’t interfere with people’s walkway. Also, don’t be surprised when people walk right through your photo. It happens when people have to live and work in a popular tourist area; if they were to stop for every person taking a photo, they wouldn’t get anywhere on time. Another point – if you insist on having one of those enormous backpacks, be considerate. You may be out of the way, but your backpack could be obstructing someone’s path (this is especially important on public transport).
If all else fails, ask someone – Approach people that you feel comfortable seeking advice from (slightly judgemental, but if a certain person looks more trustworthy, they probably are) and politely ask which way [destination] is. 99% of the time, people are happy to point you in the right direction. I usually go to women with kids, people in business clothes, or older folk. Obviously, don’t approach people who are eating, busy, or clearly in a hurry.
Keep your eyes open – humans generally have good instincts when it comes to other people and situations. Never ignore your gut. Keep one hand on your bag/stuff at all times. If you start to feel uncomfortable or in danger, extract yourself from the situation as quickly and calmly as possible (an example: if there’s a dodgy person on a subway train, get off at the next stop and go onto another section of the train). On a bus or tram, sit as close to the front/driver as possible. Remember, it’s always better to be safe than sorry.
Going Out At Night
Be sensible with alcohol – I know it’s tempting to go out and get drunk when you’re on holiday, but when you’re alone you need to have your wits about you at all times. Have fun but make sure you’re still able to get yourself back to where you’re staying and recognise dangerous people and situations. I won’t say ‘don’t accept drinks from anyone’ – that would make me a hypocrite – but from the moment the bartender pours it until you’ve finished drinking it, don’t let it out of your sight. If anyone gets you a drink, remember to be clear that that doesn’t buy them any ‘privileges’.
Stick to well-lit streets and main roads as much as you can. Even if it means it takes longer to get to where you’re going. If you have to take a dark street, keep a good, quick pace while you walk and again, keep your head up and act as though you know where you’re going.
Public transport at night – I have personally not had any problems with using buses/trains at night, but always research the safety of public transport at night in the city you’re visiting. Travelling at night is totally common sense; observe your surroundings, use your initiative, trust your gut and don’t get lost in your phone/music (very easily done).
Don’t worry about doing stuff on your own. I know people who are embarrassed/wary of eating alone or going out to the theatre (etc) alone. Honestly, no one cares what you’re doing – it may feel like you’re being stared at, but everyone is busy with their own lives. It’s quite normal in a big city for people to do things on their own. Of course, it can feel uncomfortable at first but honestly, you soon get used to it. I like to people watch when I travel, so having a lunch date with myself is ideal.
Keep a diary or blog – this is just a random tip as opposed to making travelling alone easier. Documenting your trip can be really fun, and will be something nice to look back on once you go home and back to reality. It’s also a good way to be able to remember everything that happened, so you don’t struggle when people ask about your trip. Never stop taking photos – don’t ever be embarrassed about taking selfies at famous landmarks, or taking photos of things like graffiti and funny street signs. Millions of people visit cities and they all take daft selfies and random photos. The locals are used to it, other tourists understand it, and no one is judging you. This is your holiday, and you have every right to want loads of pictures to show off.
I hope these tips are of some help to people thinking about travelling on their own. Generally I find that places seem a lot scarier than they actually are. You always hear about the bad things that happen in every city, and many people will warn you about the dangers there. Don’t let that put you off. As long as you have your head on straight and don’t act like an idiot, you will be fine. The first day is always the scariest, but I find quite often that by the time I’ve had some sleep, I’m thinking ‘this isn’t so bad’ and I’m just excited to get out there and explore.
If we don’t do things just because they’re scary, we’d never get anything done. So enjoy yourself!