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Traveling solo can be a life-changing experience, and there’s no doubt it’s a trend on the rise. But there are challenges inherent in traveling solo that you simply wouldn’t face while traveling with a partner, family or friends. That’s why we asked a number of travelers to share what mistakes they made, what lessons they learned and what things they wished they’d known before embarking on their first solo trip. From the totally practical to the philosophical, heed their advice and avoid these slip-ups when you travel solo for the first time.
1. Being Unprepared
No matter where you’re traveling, it’s important to remember the basics long before you leave. But this is especially crucial when you don’t have anyone with you. Remember, in addition to packing the basics (a safety whistle, luggage protector, external phone charger) it’s wise to carry a first-aid kit with anti-inflammatories, your preferred over-the-counter pain medicine, bandages, disinfectant and, depending on where you’re going, you might also want to take medications to help with indigestion. Leandra Beabout, a freelance travel writer based in Goshen, Indiana, learned this the hard way.
“My first solo trip was to Uganda (outside of Mukono Town) in 2005,” Beabout said. “When there’s no one else to run to a pharmacy for you, first aid basics would be handy. I was in a car accident and got food poisoning, both within my first week. People around me were beyond helpful, but when a new friend took me to a town health clinic, all the doctor did was give me painkillers for the bruising. I felt a bit silly for not having anything but antimalarial meds.”
Similarly, you never want to lose a passport or other important travel documents, but solo travelers need to be extra conscientious about bringing back-ups: And looping in contacts at home.
“I wish I knew to have scanned documents before I hit the road,” said Eileen Cotter Wright, owner and founder of Pure Wander, a travel blog. “The very first time I traveled solo to Spain, I lost my passport within three hours of landing. I should have sent [a copy] to my folks or a trusted friend so someone stateside could access [it] — getting a replacement would have been so much quicker! It’s good for safety, too, to have someone back home with copies of your IDs in case an emergency happens.”
2. Not Asking for Help
Luke Kingma, an avid traveler and head of creative at Futurism, had a rabies scare on his first solo trip — and he had lost his debit card the day before and had no way of paying for his onward journey. He was traveling solo in Bali and had no one to rely on in his time of desperation.
“I turned to the locals for help. And they were more helpful and more gracious than any of my friends could have been in that moment,” he said. “So the lesson is: Don’t hesitate to ask locals for help when you need it. More often than not, they will completely disarm you with their empathy and generosity.”
3. Letting Culture Shock Get the Best of You
Every traveler has experienced culture shock in one form or another, whether traveling within the same country or halfway around the world. It can feel more intimidating, however, if you’ve got no one to talk to. The trick is not to let it paralyze you or ruin your experience, the way it almost did for Toronto-based travel writer and communications consultant Michele Peterson.
“On my first solo trip to Hanoi, Vietnam (in the 1990s), I was unprepared for the culture shock of language, traffic, insects and food. I hid in my tiny room on Coffee Street afraid to even cross the street for three days and even tried to book a return ticket home,” Peterson said.
“I finally ventured out and signed up for a short, organized excursion, which helped me ease into the local culture and give me a few travel basics — and confidence. I eventually stayed in Vietnam for a month and it’s still one of my best travel memories. Since then I often book a short excursion when I travel solo to an unfamiliar destination. It’s a great way to meet potential travel pals, too.”
4. Not Researching the Local Customs
It’s always a good idea to research the local culture of the place you’re going beforehand, so you can pack appropriately. Religious sites such as mosques and Catholic churches are obvious examples of places where you should dress modestly, but there are more unexpected places where you might not think you’d have this issue. When traveling solo, there may be no one who can tell you what to expect or lend you a piece of clothing you forgot to bring.
“My first solo trip was to Zanzibar, off the coast of Tanzania, and I was 24. Since it was an island, I thought it was perfectly normal to walk around in shorts, but realized after I had gotten looks that it was looked down upon by the locals, who are deeply religious,” New York-based freelance writer Lavanya Sunkara told TPG. “Now I always carry a sarong so I can cover my legs when needed.”
5. Exceeding Your Limits
Especially if you’re a Type A kind of traveler, you might be inclined to squeeze as many sites or attractions into one day as possible. But that’s not always the best plan.
“Traveling alone affords you the opportunity to do exactly what you want, so in many ways it’s exactly the time to squeeze everything in. But going solo is also more challenging. You have to figure everything out by yourself, you don’t have a friend, family member [or] significant other to help you navigate and when you get lost, you’re on your own,” said Nina Stoller-Lindsey, social media manager at TodayTix.
“So while it’s totally exhilarating and something everyone should do at least once, it can also be more exhausting, which means it’s even more important to be realistic about what you can fit into a day and leave time for things to take longer than you might think.”
6. Mistaking Traveling Solo for Being Alone
“The misconception about solo travel is that you’re going to be ‘alone’ the whole time,” said Todd Kingston Plummer, a freelance writer who recently returned from a year of living the nomadic life and is currently holed up in Vermont working on a book.
“My first solo trip was to Paris in 2014 … When I got on the plane, I was sick with anxiety about being alone for 10 days. But the truth is, with the Internet and social media, I soon learned that you’re never really alone. Even when I was living in Manhattan I would go weeks or months without seeing my friends — is that any more or less ‘alone’ than when you’re traveling? So by the time I gave up my apartment to travel the world solo for a year, the idea of being alone on the road was less intimidating. In fact, I learned that in this day and age you have to go pretty darn far to be truly off the grid.”
In the same vein, many frequent solo travelers emphasize the importance of putting yourself out there and being open to making new friends. “When traveling solo, you have to open yourself up. And if you do, you never know who you’re going to meet — a lifelong friend, or your future husband or wife, like I did! And at the very least, you’ll learn expert tips from seasoned travelers,” said Michelle Young Pasquet, founder of the online magazine and tour company Untapped Cities, who met her husband, Augustin Pasquet, while backpacking in Bolivia.
7. Expecting Every Moment to Be Perfect
This applies to any trip, but especially when traveling solo, you might set unreasonable expectations for yourself. “One thing I’ve learned is that you won’t be out-of-your-mind happy the entire solo trip, and that’s OK. Sometimes, you’ll be exhausted or grumpy or frustrated or overwhelmed — even more so than on a non-solo trip, because it’s just you alone with your thoughts in unfamiliar territory,” said Andrea Bartz, a Brooklyn-based novelist and freelance writer who frequently travels solo.
“That’s part of the beauty of traveling solo,” Bartz explained. “It’s just you and your thoughts: A nice opportunity to look at your life and choices and think about the big picture. So don’t dread the bad moods or freak out when they hit! They will, and that’s part of what makes solo travel so special. Embrace them!”
Featured image by Andrew Loewen via Unsplash.
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