April 4, 2010
Solo travel has really taken off in a big way over recent years. Whether you're fresh out of college or in the throws of a mid-life crisis, the 'gap year' has become something of a de rigueur rite of passage, and you can't always wait around for someone to go with you.
For some intrepid folk, jumping on a plane to somewhere new without a partner, friend or family in tow is about as scary as a trip to the corner shop. It doesn’t phase them at all. They relish the freedom, independence, the ability to change their mind on a whim and not having to compromise on a single thing. But for others, the thought of travelling independently in an unknown place is completely overwhelming. The majority of us probably fall somewhere in between these two extremes, but the truth is that travelling on your own can be a completely life-changing experience. It can build your confidence, teach you to be more resourceful, help you to appreciate your own company, put your life into perspective and show you a good few things about yourself that you might not have realised before – so we urge you to try it at least once! Here are a few dos and don’ts to help ensure your solo trip – whether it’s a week-long city break or a year’s sabbatical – is a happy one.
When you’re travelling alone there’ll be times when you just want to be by yourself – but there’ll be other times when you really will crave the company of other people. Before arriving in a new country or city, find out about the kind of places that make meeting other people easy, so you’ll have somewhere to head for when you arrive. If the bar scene in any given place is not really your thing, then find out about coffee shops that host events, communal eateries or walking tours and so on. Better still, make some friends before you go. There are a number of long-established travel forums on the web where you can hook up with other solo travellers who are heading in the same direction as you. I did this before I embarked on a round-the-world trip and found people who were following a similar itinerary to me. We arranged to meet in various cities along the way, and we’re still friends five years later…
For some people, this will seem like a blindingly obvious piece of advice. Others will simply not consider it, but it has to be said that there is no better way of meeting people on the road than staying in hostels or backpacker hotels, if meeting people is indeed one of your aims. For those who might have a pre-conceived idea about what travellers’ hostels are like, be prepared to have your notions shattered. Yes, you can find a dirty, smelly fleapit in pretty much any city you choose – but you can also find places with single rooms, women-only floors, ensuite-bathrooms, pools, wi-fi, gyms, cafes – you name it. One of the best places I ever stayed at was Gilligan’s in Cairns, Australia. I slept in a comfy non-bunk bed in a huge, spotless 4-person female room with balcony and ensuite bathroom. There were two pools, a launderette, cafe, a tour desk and outdoor deck on site. Another great, super-friendly hostel was the Base in Christchurch, New Zealand, which has an on-site bar, nightclub and BBQ deck. You simply can’t help but get to know people in places like these, especially if you use the services of the hostel for booking activities and tours. Check out Hostelworld.com for an enormous selection of hostels across the globe.
One of the traps that is very easy to fall into when travelling alone is to over-rely on the companionship and advice of other travellers who you meet along the way. There is nothing inherently wrong with this of course, but everybody knows that it’s the local people you meet and interact with who really leave a lasting impression. These are the people who will bring your destination to life, who will infuse an enormous city or rural village with genuine soul, and who will give you an insight and a perspective that you simply won’t get from another traveller. Take every opportunity you can to talk to strangers, even if it means stumbling through bits of a barely-spoken language, communicating by pen and paper, or just sharing a smile. In the town of Hue in Vietnam, I met a restaurant owner whose entire family was deaf and mute. He drew me a picture of his family tree with the ages of all his many siblings, nephews and nieces, and scrawled a huge cross through his father to indicate that he’d passed on! He’s a pretty well-known guy on the Vietnamese tourist trail, but meeting him still put my own life in context and made me look at my surroundings in a whole new way.
Eating by yourself is the bane of the solo traveller’s life. It’s universally recognised as being one of the less enjoyable aspects of travelling alone, but it doesn’t have to be. One of the best ways to take the edge off the conspicuousness you can feel when seated alone in a restaurant is to either eat at a table outside, where you can just blend in with the streetlife, or my personal favourite – find somewhere where you can eat at the counter. Street markets, Italian-style espresso bars, department store food halls (the basement of Takashimaya in Tokyo is incredible for this) and best of all, the American-style diner are all examples of the types of place where you can eat and feel as invisible as you like, or strike up a conversation with a neighbour or counter staff. Those diner servers certainly have some stories to tell…
Sounds like an obvious one, this – but it’s easy to lose sight of when you’re on your own in a strange place and just want to experience as much as you possibly can. It’s important to remember that the same rules of thumb apply as much when you’re away from home as they do on a night out in your home town, if not more so. There’s nothing wrong with taking risks – as long as you feel comfortable with them – but if that niggly little voice is telling you something might not be a good idea then perhaps it isn’t. A while back, I spent some time on the island of Rarotonga in the Cook Islands and while I was there I regularly hitched my way around the island. The first time I did this I was a bit nervous as I’d never hitched before, but when I got picked up by a bunch of smiling septuagenarians in the church minibus, I felt ok. Over the next few days I sat in a local family’s pig trailer (minus the pigs) and in the back of a coconut truck. All good fun. But when I got to the much smaller, even more rural island of Aitutaki, I remember a strong feeling of unease as I hopped onto the back of a local farmer’s tractor. And with good reason – he very quickly veered off the road, drove through some thick jungle to a clearing in the middle of nowhere, took out a bottle of rum and asked if I wanted to share it with him – at 8.30 in the morning! I remember thinking “there’s not a single person in the world who knows where I am” and I’ll admit I was pretty spooked by it all. Though he probably meant me no harm, I was highly relieved to get back to the road. If I’d listened to my gut, I would’ve just carried on walking…
Sometimes, being alone brings out our bold side. We decide to throw caution to the wind and do things we’d never dream of doing at home, like chucking ourselves out of planes or jumping off bridges. At other times, we’re naturally more restrained when we’re on our own – especially when we’re in a place where we don’t know the ropes all that well. Occasionally, fear of looking like a fool can stop us participating in something that we’d really like to try. There was a time in Kyoto, Japan when I missed out on partaking in a traditional tea drinking ceremony because I was really self-conscious, I didn’t know what I was supposed to do, and I felt like an idiot. What a wasted opportunity! I’m sure the exquisitely-kimono’d hostesses would have helped me find my way. And if I’d been with a friend, I’d have leapt at the chance. But on my own, I passed it by. The following week in Hiroshima, by which time I’d found my feet a bit, I visited another teahouse and – of course – everything was fine. The entire etiquette-laden ritual was completely surreal and one of my fondest memories of Japan. Don’t let fear of embarrassing yourself prevent you from having a genuinely authentic experience. If you’re anything like me you’re bound to embarrass yourself in lots of other ways throughout the course of your trip, but that’s for another blog-post!
Now, this is not to say that you should get all narcissistic and insist on having your photo taken in front of every single mountain and monument you come across, but as a solo traveller you will regret it if you come home and find that out of the thousands of pictures you’ve taken, there’s absolutely zero evidence that you were even on the trip at all. Let’s not forget that the majority of people (sadly) will not be that interested in looking through your travel photos, but they’ll be especially uninterested if they’re only shots of buildings and scenery. People bring photos to life, and that includes you. Many people, myself included, don’t really enjoy having their photo taken at all, but I do regret that in some of the best places I visited, like Hanoi and Vancouver and Memphis, there’s simply no proof that I was ever there. So turn around and ask the nearest person to snap you. There’s always the delete button if it’s really terrible.
When you’re travelling with a group of friends or family, the last thing you’ll probably want to do is hook up with a bunch of strangers and spend anything from a day to a couple of months holed up with them on the same tour bus. Even if you are on your own, that still might be your idea of hell. But don’t write off the idea of travelling with a group. They can be excellent, cost-effective ways of ensuring you get the most out of your destination. There are a few companies in particular that I highly recommend for this: Intrepid Travel and Trek America, and Magic Bus in New Zealand. I travelled up the entire west coast of the US from Los Angeles to Seattle with Trek America and through Vietnam and Cambodia with Intrepid. They were two of the best experiences of my life. There is no way I would’ve been able to see as much as I did in the time that I had for the price that I paid, on my own. Both companies offer a truly extensive range of tours so check them out. Magic Bus in New Zealand is more of a hop-on/hop-off bus pass, with a completely flexible range of add-on activities.
If you’re a long-term solo traveller, then there’s no doubt about it – you may very well come down with ‘traveller-fatigue’ at some point. The great thing about travelling on your own is that you can do exactly what you want, when you want, and so taking the odd day here and there to do absolutely nothing at all is a bit of a delicious treat. After months on the road, sometimes there’s just nothing better than a day spent catching up with laundry, clearing out your backpack, writing a few postcards, leafing through a local paper over coffee and generally taking it very easy. It clears the head in time for the next round of adventures.
If there is one genuine downside to travelling alone, it’s that you often don’t have anyone to relive your memories with. You will undoubtedly meet people on your journey, and if you’re lucky they’ll develop into lifelong friendships. But the chances are these people will not be part of your everyday lives and you may only see them once in a blue moon. One of the best things you can do for yourself while you’re away on your own is to write down as much as you can.
Consider keeping a blog on the road, or just a journal that you can scribble in whenever the feeling takes you. In years to come you’ll look back at your entries and be amazed at the little details that you’d have forgotten if you hadn’t made a note of them. Most travel journals have inbuilt pockets and envelopes for keeping reminders of special days and journeys and along with your photos, these will help bring your favourite memories back to life.