A solo traveler taking in the view overlooking the smog-covered hutongs of Beijing, China. (Photo: Chelle Roberts)
By Chelle Roberts
“To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world. You are surrounded by adventure. You have no idea of what is in store for you, but you will, if you are wise and know the art of travel, let yourself go on the stream of the unknown and accept whatever comes.”
When Freya Stark penned these words, it was 1932. She was in her late 30s and had just finished a four-year adventure, exploring Iraq and other parts of the Middle East. Nearly 90 years later — with the internet, mobile technology, social networking and other ways to stay well informed and connected readily available to us — many female travelers are still too intimidated to follow in Freya’s solo travelista footsteps. Fears about wavering confidence, loneliness, and cultural barriers often stand in the way. Here are some of the practical tips that I’ve learned on my own solo adventures that can help even the most hesitant traveler take the leap.
Gaining the Confidence to Go Solo
1. Don’t let anyone get in your head
Eleven years ago, I’d just returned home from my first solo international trip and was recounting my adventures through Britain and Italy to my best friend and her family. When her aunt realized I’d been traveling alone, she asked with a sense of disbelief and a facial expression bordering disgust, “Why would anyone want to do that?” She literally could not fathom being alone on the road or the sanity of anyone who’d consider it. She explained why she’d never travel this way and walked away shaking her head at my apparent stupidity.
I’ll never forget that day, not because she shook my resolve to travel solo in any way, but because I felt an overwhelming sadness over her close-mindedness and the things she’s missing in life as a result. In a situation like this — where the objections are so strong and seemingly absurd — it’s easy to protect your dreams from naysayers. But, when the opposition is masquerading as a gentle warning from concerned parents or curious questions from friends, it has a way of getting into your head and feeding on your own fears. Promise yourself you won’t let that happen! Your dreams are too important and life-affirming to entertain anyone else’s doubts.
2. Get inspiration from other solo travelers
When you meet other women who are out there “doing the dang thing,” you’ll be fired up for your own adventure. This is part of the reason Crystal and I created the Traveling Brown interview series. We were looking to kick our travel game up to the next level and wanted to relish in the success stories of other travelistas. Here are a few ways you can surround yourself by inspiring stories.
• Find two to three blogs by solo women travelers that you like and read them regularly. If they’re based in or traveling through your town, invite them out for a bite to eat and pick their brains.
• Search for a Meetup group or a local chapter of Meet!Plan!Go, or the Go Girl Travel Network. Their travel-centered events are great ways to meet liked minded folks and get tips, ideas, and general inspiration.
3. Start small, then build up to something bigger, bolder and more adventurous
One great way to get started with solo travel is to choose a destination that’s less intimidating. Take a weekend road trip down the coast of California, or a mini-vacation to Canada or the US Virgin Islands. These are locales where people speak English and the cultural differences are less drastic, but that still offer a nervous travelista a chance to go solo and gain a little confidence.
Next, try “gateway destinations” on other continents where the locals speak the same language that you do. For a North America native, destinations like the United Kingdom (Europe), Hong Kong (Asia), Guyana (South America), Australia (Oceania) and South Africa (Africa) are culturally very different from home, but the common English language make it a little easier to navigate.
Then, once your confidence is high, go bold. Try Nepal, Russia, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, or Lithuania. Pick a place you’d never before considered and jump in!
Preventing Loneliness on the Road
The Selfie game is a great way to stay entertained when traveling solo. How many interesting places can I snap a photo of myself? Clockwise: in Seoul (Korea), San Juan (Puerto Rico), Athens (Greece), flying over Honolulu (Hawaii), in Kyoto (Japan), in Prague (Czech Republic), under water and in Lucca (Italy). (Photo: Chelle Roberts)
4. Stay where other travelers stay
During my Round-The-World trip a few months ago, I visited Japan for the first time. While I loved the Airbnb apartment that I’d rented in Tokyo, after a few days in a massive city where I didn’t know anyone, couldn’t understand the language, and couldn’t figure out public transportation, I began to feel disconnected and out of sync. Toward the end of my time there, I realized that I should have stayed in a hotel where I would have had the benefit of front desk staff or a concierge to interact with, or better yet, a hostel where I’d find other travelers in the same situation. We could have swapped stories and shared advice. Next time, I’ll anticipate my need for human connection, when traveling through a region that might be culturally disorienting. As they say, lesson learned!
5. Find a Meetup group in the city you’re visiting
Meetup groups aren’t just for finding other travelers while you’re still at home, they’re a fantastic way to connect with people who share your interests in the destination you’re visiting that share. You can find groups of runners, yoga practitioners, artists, poets, musicians, theater goers, foodies, anime fans — you name the affinity — that hold events around the world. Since you’ll share common interests with the other attendees, you’ll naturally have something to talk about.
6. Find ways to have fun with yourself
Even if you connect with other travelers, you will still have plenty of time to spend with yourself. One of the tricks I use to make the solo time enjoyable is to play games or set challenges for myself along the way. It can be something simple like indulging in a bit of people watching and trying to guess where they’re from, or picking a local food and trying every version of it that I can find in town, or picking a theme and taking photos throughout the day that fit. Along those lines, one of my personal favorites is to master the art of the selfie and take photos of myself in as many interesting places as I can. Whatever works for you, pick a few mental activities that’ll keep you entertained and engaged while you’re wandering through town.
Navigating Cultural Barriers
When traveling alone, you’re more likely to connect with locals in a deeper fashion. I met this woman while I was watching the sunset from the village of Firostefani on Santorini in the Greek Isles. Neither of us spoke the other’s language very well, but we shared a wonderful connection in the glow of the setting sun. (Photo: Chelle Roberts)
When you travel solo, you’re up front and personal with the people and the culture. While these interactions can make travel a bit challenging at times, they’re also what make it interesting, life-impacting and memorable. So instead of fearing it, jump in with everything you have. Here are a few ways I’ve learned to prepare for a trip, especially when I anticipate being “lost in translation.”
7. Learn a few key language phrases before you go
Knowing the language basics will give you a confidence boost, may save you from a crisis and usually will help break the ice with a local who appreciates your effort. Start with important phrases like these and consider Google Translate or another language app for anything more complicated.
• Hello and goodbye
• Please and thank you
• Where is the bathroom?
• How much does it cost?
• Help me
• I’m allergic to …
8. Understand the critical cultural practices
Beyond a language barrier, the next biggest cause of communication mishaps is a misunderstanding of local practices. Hand gestures, greeting styles, clothing restrictions, when to wear shoes, holiday traditions, public bathing practices, even which hand to eat with can all have significant meaning within a culture. Read up on the must-dos and must-avoids before you arrive.
9. Read a book that’s set in the local culture
A travelogue or even fictional novel can be a fun introduction to a locale, its people and its culture. Once you arrive, the scenery that you imagined while reading will come to life and you’ll be more engaged as you experience the destination firsthand.
Armed with a few of these tips and greater confidence, go experience firsthand the pleasant sensations of solo travel that Freya Stark esteems.
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