How to bite the bullet and travel solo

four friends on a beach in darwin with the sun setting in the background

You know how it is, a destination takes your fancy and you really want to go there – like now! – but there’s no one to go with. Your friends would rather spend their money on going out or buying clothes, or they give you a vague “maybe” for a date well into the future. So what do you do? Do you wait on the off chance that someone will eventually say yes to travelling with you, or do you just go ahead and plan to go by yourself?

It’s not always an easy answer, especially if you find the thought of travelling alone daunting or you haven’t travelled before. But if you wait, then you may always be waiting, and fortune favours the brave after all. Intrepid’s Jacqueline Donaldson has taken off on her own more than once, and lived to tell the tale, so here’s her tips on travelling solo…

It nearly always turns out that travelling by yourself isn’t as scary as you think it will be. The stories of bad experiences are rare, even rarer when you consider how many travellers there are out there at any given time, and I have found that time after time the cliché about the kindness you meet on the road is very true.

Here are some of the things I recommend to solo travellers and do myself when I travel alone:

– For first timers, join a group, especially if the destination you go to speaks a different language. This isn’t a company promo, it’s honestly a really practical way to get your confidence up, meet some great people and have all the tricky things organised for you (ever tried finding your train in a crazy-busy Chinese railway station or ordered vegetarian in rural Russia?). You may find it’s the only way to travel, or learn for next time what you are comfortable and not comfortable doing for yourself. Even if you just want to do a tour when you first arrive, that will help you find your feet.

– Book your first night of accommodation and work out the ways to get there before you leave. If you get a taxi from the airport, take a prepaid or arranged taxi from the airport, as these taxis are usually only paid when the driver successfully delivers you to your destination. The extra few dollars you may spend are worth the peace of mind of arriving at your accommodation quickly and safely (especially after a tiring long-haul flight).

– Learn some of the local language. Knowing a few words helps break the ice and gives you the confidence to approach people to buy things or ask for directions or help.

– Act natural! It may sound a little silly, but there’s nothing more obvious than a tourist clutching their bag or camera with eyes fearfully darting left, right and centre. If you look like you’re carrying the crown jewels, then you’re more likely to attract unwanted attention. The chance that something bad will happen to you is minimal – it’s more likely you’ll meet some very kind people if you’re relaxed and open to the experience.

– Grab the business card of the hotel or hostel where you are staying at and keep it in your wallet. It’s amazing how many places have a similar sounding name or how it easy it is to get streets confused when you’re unsure of your location. If all else fails, you can give the card or hotel letterhead to a taxi driver to take you back!

– Trust your gut. If something doesn’t feel right or you are unsure of the person or situation, walk away from it calmly and firmly. You don’t have to be rude, but you don’t have to be polite and just go along with it if things aren’t to your liking. Go into the nearest shop or café and ask for help or simply take refuge in a busy area.

– For a female, one inevitable thing about travelling in some countries is curiosity and male attention. Wearing loose-ish tops that cover your arms and breasts, and skirts and pants/trousers that hang below the knee go a long way to shifting people’s attention. Flashing a fake wedding ring can also be a great deterrent 😉

Ever travelled solo – what’s your advice to people who are uncertain about going it alone?

* photo by Helene Etschberger  – Intrepid Photography Competition

About the author

Sue Elliot - Like many of us, Sue contracted a serious travel bug at an early age. She's visited over 90 countries in search of a cure, but her wanderlust just seems to get worse. Thankfully at Intrepid Travel she's amongst people who understand the affliction and since 1998 Sue has enjoyed being our blog and newsletter editor. Here you'll find helpful travel advice and inspiring tales from Sue and other Intrepid travellers.

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Am 56 and have travelled solo since 1978. You meet so many more people if travelling solo which leads to greater range of experiences. Staying in hostels is great to meet other travellers and get travel advice or company for a day out. This is great for novice solo travellers. I endorse the comments about sensible conservative dress which is even more important for solo women travellers, and knowing some lingo for each place really helps. I guess one major tip for novice solo travel is to take an inexpensive walking tour or day trip run by many of the hostels these days. This will help you get your bearings in a new place. Alternatively, a hop on hop off bus can do the same and you also get a good feel for places you may want to return to see in more detail. If taking the hop on bus, do a full circuit first, then the hop on hop off. I recommend getting off to see the places which will be hardest for you to get to on your own, leaving the closer ones for another day. After a few of these you will feel more confident to table a new place completely on your own.'

Going it alone is so rewarding. I agree that good planning really helps to calm the nerves and to ensure that things go smoothly while you’re still learning the ropes. If I’m heading somewhere where I think it might be harder to meet people, I always check out hostel comments on HostelWorld to make sure the place sounds sociable. It’s a lot easier than most people think to pick up friends to do things with. I travelled solo to South America for 7 months and only spent a few sporadic days by myself. Don’t wait for existing friends to come with you. Go off and make new ones or you might miss out all together!

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