25 years ago, I was landing in Paris on my first solo trip.
After 15 years of dreaming, working hard, and saving, I was finally making it happen, even if nobody else wanted to come with me. People always find excuses, and I was sick and tired of waiting for them to make up their mind.
I had managed to get three weeks of vacation (not easy in North America) and I was going to visit France, Switzerland, and Italy. I knew some people in France and Switzerland, and had booked a tour in Italy, in order to make things less daunting. Still, I was a bit of a wreck when I settled on that plane for my first trip across the Atlantic!
Since then I’ve been on dozens of solo trips, and traveling alone seems just as natural as living alone.
Here are 25 things I’ve learned in 25 years of traveling solo:
25. You can communicate a lot more than you think through gestures.
Miming goes a long way, even if it means you have to flap your arms like a chicken, or sign an imaginary credit card slip.
24. The first day of a trip is usually the most expensive (and the worst).
Blame this on fatigue, jet lag, and unfamiliarity with the customs and the lay of the land. It will only get better from here on. Promise!
23. You make friends faster when you’re traveling than at home.
It could be the “vacation mood”, or being less afraid of being judged by people you may never see again. Or it could be because you instinctively know that you’re more dependent on others in a foreign environment.
22. “Do you have hot water?” is not always a strange question.
Many budget or even mid-range hotel rooms in tropical countries don’t have hot water. If you require a steaming shower, make sure to ask before you book.
21. Locals who are “too friendly” can have ulterior motives.
People who approach you on the street and start chatting to you like they’re your best friends are rarely good news. Don’t feel bad if you don’t want to converse. But do be open-minded and aware that most people are kind-hearted and want the same things as you do from life.
20. Sticking to vegetarian food doesn’t mean missing out.
If you have a sensitive stomach and are worried that food handling and hygiene are not what you’re used to back home, try going veggie. I ate only vegetarian food in India, had a lot of delicious meals and didn’t get sick – despite everybody’s predictions!
19. In the tropics, even one crumb of food left unattended will attract bugs.
I’ve found that it’s best to always eat over a plate. It’s not worth spending your stay fighting off ants or cockroaches. In hot climates, even upscale properties aren’t necessarily sealed tight.
18. Always look where you’re stepping.
Sidewalks in less developed countries are sometimes used as parking space, tree planters, extra floor space, and sleeping pads for dogs. Often they’re also broken, uneven, or have holes big enough to swallow a person.
17. You should jump out of a plane once in your life.
Jumping out of a plane is easy(ish). Making the commitment by handing out your credit card to the tandem skydiving company is harder. I tried it in New Zealand and it was probably the craziest thing I’ve ever done.
16. The concept of punctuality is unknown in some parts of the world.
In Japan you can set your watch by the arrival time of your train. Elsewhere, not so much. The hotter the climate, the less punctuality seems to be a “thing”. Well, at least in my experience!
15. Organized tours are not all made equal.
On my first trip to Italy, I shared a packaged tour with people of my grandparents’ age, staying in suburban hotels, and eating hospital food. On the other hand, small group tours like Intrepid’s are more akin to traveling with friends, and bring you closer to the local culture. Check out some of Intrepid’s top trips here.
14. Many toilets don’t accept toilet paper.
Many old plumbing systems are not built to accept toilet paper. Always check and heed the signs. I have experienced this in Mexico, Cuba, Argentina, Thailand, and even Spain.
13. Always double (or triple) check your information.
You will usually get more accurate information from your accommodation or the tourist office than from someone on the street. But try to also check online and ask more than one person.
12. Don’t let motion sickness ruin your trip.
I’m a lifelong sufferer, so I know that getting motion sick on a bus, boat, or helicopter can be dreadfully unpleasant. Bring your favorite medication from home and make sure to have enough supplies, as you may not find it overseas.
11. Carrying too much stuff will make you miserable.
If you’re solo, carrying more than two bags is unpractical. Having to drag around heavy luggage every time you change destination will get old really quickly (and risk injuring you).
10. Serendipity can be a good thing.
Some of my most interesting travel adventures have happened when plans got re-arranged at the last minute. Sri Lanka (nicknamed the “island of serendipity”) is especially good for this.
9. Learning a bit of the local language goes a long way.
Learn at least “hello” and “thank you”, to be polite. Download a translation app (Google Translate will do), or even better, take a language class at your destination.
8. Have more than one way of getting at your money. Don’t keep all your cards in the same place.
You never know when a bank machine will refuse or even swallow your card. And if all your cards are in the same wallet, and that gets stolen, you’re in mucho trouble.
7. Always use the toilet when you have a chance, and avoid diuretic food/drinks before a long bus journey.
This includes coffee and fruits, especially together! Not all buses have toilets or make bathroom stops. And if they do, the bathroom stop may be a ditch by the side of the road.
6. You can do a lot of things for free in most destinations.
Always do a bit of research to find out what you can do for free. Keep your money for those few top attractions you really want to see.
5. It’s easier to meet people in small guesthouses and hostels than in expensive hotels.
In my experience, people’s sociability seems to be inversely proportional to the price of the accommodation!
4. Always recharge your devices when you have power. Don’t forget your adapters in the wall outlets. Bring more than one adapter!
In the developing world, power outages are common and random. As well, forgetting your only adapter in a hotel room, when you’re traveling with multiple devices, may induce a panic attack.
3. Develop patience and a sense of humor.
You won’t have a long travel career without both.
2. You’ll grow more confident and resourceful with every solo trip.
Traveling solo is one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself. As problems arose, I became more resourceful in order to solve them, which in turn gave my self-confidence a boost.
1. It’s all about the people.
Above all, it’s the people you meet that make a trip memorable. Whether it’s a local who took you to her favorite restaurant, or a new traveling friend who shared part of your journey, the connections are what you’ll remember most.
Ready to take the plunge? Intrepid Travel have a range of trips for solo travelers only. Check them out!
Image credits from top to bottom: Marie-France Roy, Marie-France Roy, Marie-France Roy, Intrepid Travel, Marie-France Roy, Intrepid Travel, Marie-France Roy, Marie-France Roy, Intrepid Travel, Marie-France Roy.