You have done it. You have taken the first step and booked your tickets for your first solo trip. It might be due to all the crazy solo travel stories you recently read in the media, it might be because of your friend or family who talked you into it, or it might be a thing you have just always wanted to try out. It doesn’t matter, really. The only thing that matters is, you are going.
In another post I had talked about “Do we really need to travel solo?” and I clearly mention that one of the greatest gifts of solo travel is that you learn to live with yourself and love yourself. But here is the real deal: you get as much out of any journey as much you really want to. Solo travel is no different.
You can go on a solo trip and spend it holed up in a five star resort being hooked to your phone and return learning nothing out of your solo trip. You can also really put yourself out there, be open to new ideas, and go out of your comfort zone every day to try something new and come back with a head full of memories.
So here are a few tips to follow on your first solo trip (or really trip) to get the best out of it.
1. Stop looking at your phone
Seriously, just stop it already. You took this solo trip to learn more about a new country and to learn more about yourself. Your phone is not helping you accomplish either. Social media can wait and so can the countless pictures. Use your phone only when absolutely necessary.
Now this is tougher than it sounds. Whenever we are alone in a private room or in a public place and have nothing to do, our first instinct is to take out our phone and look busy. When you travel solo, you will almost always be in public places alone. Sitting alone in a restaurant, in a bar, in a hostel’s common area and so on. You can spend this time glued to your phone and living in your comfort zone, or you can choose to look up and smile at the first person you see around you.
Not everyone will smile back. Some will only smile back and pass by but one or two of them will not only smile back but also appear eager for a conversation.
You don’t always have to make friends either. Sometimes, you just have to be present, fully present.
Observe and soak in every bit of the new place you just arrived at. Marvel at the scenery or the architecture or just observe the locals and their daily lives.
2. Choose your accommodation carefully
A common misconception is you have to stay in a hostel on your solo trip. Hostels are great but that’s not the only option.
Some of the best memories I have are of staying with local hosts in homestays. Sometimes in a village far from the city and sometimes right by the beach at the heart of the city. If you truly want to understand a city or a country, who better than locals to discuss it with?
Choose a homestay where the host actually stays in the homestay and is happy to guide you around. Make sure you spend enough time with your host and ask him questions. Questions about his life, about the city, what do they do in their free time, what are their challenges, what does he love about the city and so on. Leave your host with a small gift if possible as a gesture of gratefulness for helping you out.
Today online websites like Airbnb, Homeaway and Homestay.com can help you reserve a homestay within minutes.
Having said that, hostels are definitely a great way to experience the backpacker life as well as make friends. They have common areas where a lot of people tend to hang out. If you choose a bed in a dorm, you might just make friends with some of your roomates as well. Quite often, you will end up exploring the city together and if you are travelling long term, you might even end up planning your next destination together.
Remember, a lot of hostels are party hostels. They will have party buses going around town, and late night parties in the hostel itself. If you are a party person, this is your jam but if not, stay away, unless you want to ruin a good night’s sleep.
Moreover, I would suggest that if you ever fall sick during your trip, check yourself into a nice hotel and order room service. Pamper yourself, at least till you get better.
3. Leave some flexibility in your schedule
You are travelling solo for the first time. You don’t want to get bored, so you went ahead and planned every minute of your day for the entire trip. Great adventures could happen to you but now, where would they fit in? Give yourself a chance to be surprised.
One of the best trips I took was a impromptu solo trip from Singapore to Penang (Malaysia). I booked the tickets one week before the trip, booked a hostel and just took off. On my way, I was googling things to see in Penang because I had no clue.
I ended up going out for dinner with a roommate from my hostel. We met a bunch of other expats and travellers who stay in Penang and hung out with them till late night. Not only did we have a great time but we also went to a national park together the next day. I didn’t even know that national park existed but ended up having having a wonderful day. Today, don’t even recall all of their names but I clearly remember all the great times we had together.
I remember hearing about their journeys and thinking maybe one day I could be like them: a young British girl who was going around the world for a year, a French guy who was living in Penang and working in a bar, a Mauritian girl who was doing an internship there and was deciding her next destination, a Malaysian guy who lived there and a semi-hippie who had no idea how long he would be in Penang for.
All of this would not have been possible if I had every minute of my day mapped out. That said, I did take off by the next day evening because I really wanted to explore a Peranakan museum before it closed. They had plenty of time in Penang but I did not. Be flexible, say yes to new plans but also decide your own priorities.
4. Do as the locals do
You want to really learn about a place? Don’t just talk to locals but try putting yourself in their shoes. Use their public transport, eat their food, go to their night markets and experience their struggles and their conveniences. Try to figure out, given a choice, would you ever live in this city?
As you attempt to do this, you will get lost on the streets, you will get tired of people trying to scam a foreigner like you, and you might even get food poisoning from the street food. That’s okay. That’s how you learn.
Next time you will figure out public transport system in a new country a bit faster. Next time you will not get scammed. Next time you will know how much your stomach can take and prepare for it. Next time, you will pack light so that your don’t have to drag around your heavy luggage. Next time you will know what to do if your passport gets stolen.
5. Please have realistic expectations
I have often seen travellers going to a destination and trying to find something that it’s not known for and then criticise it. Singapore is not known for its natural beauty, it does not have volcanoes or mighty high mountains. Don’t come here looking for the same. Similarly, Seville (Spain) is not known for its beaches. Don’t go and try to find the same. You will be disappointed.
When you choose your destination, ask yourself why you are choosing this place. If you want a beach vacation, is this place known for beaches? Or are there a number of islands nearby that actually are known for better beaches?
Something as simple as this not only saves you time but also prevents you from appearing like a clueless and snobbish traveller.
6. Spend some time doing nothing
I know this sounds crazy. You are in a new country and the world is your oyster. Why should you stop even for a second? This goes back to falling in love with yourself. Spend some time with yourself.
You can meditate. You can just sit by the beach and watch a spectacular sunset. You can just sit in a cafe and enjoy a nice meal. The point is, give yourself a chance to calm down and sit still. A lot of memories will come flooding back. All your stress, your failures, your insecurities. Don’t ignore them. Live through them and you will come out stronger.
It’s hard to explain how much can come out of just doing nothing.
One of my fond memories from Indonesia is sitting on a beach cafe/hut in Gili Air (a gorgeous tropical island near Lombok) and spending about 6-7 hours with myself. After an amazing time in Lombok, I wasn’t really loving my first and only day in Gili Air but that sunset changed it all.
I sat there sipping a colourful drink and watching the sun go down behind the crystal clear green water. I read my book for a few hours and eventually had dinner. It started pouring but they were ready for it. They pulled down the bamboo curtains on the sides and I remained protected inside the mini hut. I sat there, just staring at the storm take over the island and the waves getting stronger. And then the storm disappeared, almost as suddenly as it had arrived.
7. Prepare for the kind of trip you are planning
While some of the planning is fine for last moment, some of it is not. Depending on what kind of trip you are going for, make the necessary preparations.
If you are going hiking, make sure you have good hiking shoes. Make sure you wear your new hiking shoes for a small hike before the trip to break into it. Carry some extra straps if you are going into the wild with a backpack. Think through different scenarios like what would you do if your backpack straps tear off? What if the sole of your shoes come off? What if your hostel does not provide towels? Pack accordingly.
If you are venturing to off-beaten places like Papua, do some more research and read blogs of other travellers. For example, many parts of Papua require special permits. Find out how to get these. You are also recommended to take malaria pills before, during and after the trip. Follow these guidelines.
It’s also worth reading up about the crime rate, the types of common crimes, and any particularly dangerous areas to stay away from. Always tell someone (your friend or family) about where you are going and where you are staying. All of these will ensure you have a safe and sound trip.
8. Always carry more cash than you will need
In the age of credit cards and apps you will be surprised how many areas still run on cash. Plus, it never hurts. Nobody is ever going to refuse cash, well unless you are in China, where you might run into some difficulties but that’s an exception.
What’s more, sometime you will come across certain activities that you did not plan for but now you really want to go for it. The additional cash helps. Sometimes one taxi ride can make you go broke (hint: Japan). The extra cash ensures you don’t have to spend a few hours looking for an ATM in a foreign country, where half the ATMs don’t accept your card and most of the people don’t even understand what you are asking for.
Spread out the cash in multiple places. Carry some in your daily backpack, some in your wallet. Keep a little in your pocket or in your money belt if you are wearing one. Stash away some emergency money deep in your backpack and never look at it unless it’s really an emergency.
The credit/debit card you carry, make sure to speak to your bank to enable foreign transactions.
9. Write down some important addresses and carry it with you
Your phone might run out of charge or you might lose your phone altogether. Don’t let your phone be the only source of information. Remember, you don’t have a travel buddy to fall back on.
On a physical paper, write down some important address and contact numbers like that of your hostel, some nearby landmarks, your emergency contacts, the details of your country’s embassy etc and carry it with you at all times.
Locals in most places are very friendly and happy to help out but they can’t help you if you don’t know where you need to go.
10. Be ready for disappointments
I can’t stress this enough. I really can’t. More than half the people you try to approach may not reciprocate. That’s okay. Don’t give up. Friendships occur in the most unexpected ways at the most unexpected places.
You might hate most of the new food you try. But you will never find that mouth-watering dish till you try them all.
You might and almost certainly at some point will feel lonely. Don’t try to push away the void. Learn to embrace it. Read a book, listen to some good music, pamper yourself with a massage, and remember you can always reach out to your friends and family. They are just a phone call away.
Your first solo trip may or may not be the most amazing thing that happened to you but if you do it right, you should have learnt a few things out of it. You should have grown a little as a person and that’s all that matters.
Learn to open up your heart. People in most places are wonderful. Learn from them and help them if you can. Trust your instincts. Most often than not, they are right. Most importantly, enjoy the independence, treasure the memories and don’t stop travelling!