Solo travel is a trend increasing in popularity. According to the U.S. Travel Association, solo travelers make up 23% of leisure travel. My solo travel career started with a whim after my fun-in-the-sun spring break plans fell apart, leaving me on a deserted college campus. I couldn’t bear the strange dining hall hours, so I called my cousin—an accountant in the middle of an incredibly busy tax season—begged for use of her couch for a week and booked a flight to San Francisco. Since that auspicious beginning, I’ve traveled throughout the United States and to twelve other countries, frequently alone. Here are a few tips from my experiences to help you start your own solo travel lifestyle.
As a solo traveler, you don’t have to meticulously plan your days or set specific meeting times with your group. There’s no push and pull to figure out how you’re going to visit everyone’s preferred attractions, especially when the Honolulu Museum of Modern Art is on the opposite side of the island from the cove your travel partner is dying to snorkel at. Even though the solo traveler can change his or her plans readily, don’t forget that some activities require advanced purchase or there won’t even be room for little old you. Must-do activities, such as a visit to Alcatraz Island in San Francisco, can often sell out weeks, if not months, in advance. Failing to plan ahead, you may be able to find last minute tickets to certain events on websites like Craigslist. As a solo traveler, you may even be more likely to score incredible last-minute deals on single tickets to sporting and theater events.
Rethink those cheap flights.
Consider the time of year during which you’re traveling. The impulse flight you booked to Stockholm was really inexpensive… because everything in the city closes at 4 p.m. in November. Skansen, the world’s oldest open-air museum, was practically deserted, with far fewer displays than in the summer, and I spent more time in my hotel reading Girl with the Dragon Tattoo than wandering the dark streets of Gamla Stan—Stockholm’s old town. If you’re a more social type, you might consider staying at a hotel in a bar district where you can meet locals or people watch. But stay aware of your surroundings. As the solo foreigner, some unscrupulous people might find you an easy target for theft or worse.
Have back-up plans.
It’s one thing to take a taxi to a small UNESCO World Heritage site outside of Sofia, Bulgaria. It’s another thing to figure out how you’re going to get a taxi back to your hostel without a cell phone, number for a taxi company or any skill in the Bulgarian language. Luckily, when you’re done admiring tenth century frescos, you can hike down the mountain until you happen upon a taxi stand. Always try to have a plan for where you will go if your destination is closed and how you will get back to wherever you’re staying.
Learn a little language.
There are plenty of podcasts and websites to teach basic, essential phrases to the global traveler. While most international tourist destinations have plenty of English-speakers, a little language can go a long way. When a souvenir vendor near the Eiffel Tower tried to convince me that he didn’t speak English, I pieced my question together in broken French. Maybe not everyone needs to learn, “Do you sell snowglobes,” but “hello” and “thank you” make a huge difference, especially if you step off the beaten path.
Eat like a foodie.
I’m the food-apathetic traveler who wants to eat at the Oldest Restaurant in Europe (Piwnica Swidnicka, Wroclaw, Poland), regardless of the Yelp reviews. However, on a trip to Barcelona, I took recommendations from a friend and dined on the best food of my life. Sagrada Familia and the Gaudi architecture were amazing, but if I go back to Barcelona, it will be for the tapas. It can be awkward to eat alone—like when I entered a nearly-empty restaurant in Stockholm and they almost didn’t seat me because, despite their perfect command of English, the staff could not comprehend that I really didn’t have anyone to eat with. If you really can’t bear to eat alone, browse traveler forums for dinner dates. In Budapest, I met up with a friend of a friend in the evenings for delicious meals and to explore the famous “ruin pubs.”
Embrace your experiences.
Some activities are harder to do alone than others. Bathing in the Szechenyi Baths of Budapest is an iconic experience for the visitor to Hungary. When you have those opportunities, don’t back out when you encounter a nearly incomprehensible check-in process or because you don’t think you’re rocking your speedo as well as the elderly locals. Get in, find a good vantage point, people watch and focus on the being in the moment. And—whatever you do—don’t be that guy who cannonballs in, splashing everyone, then yell, “Sorry! I’m an American!” You know who you are.
Let someone know your general itinerary. Do your research about the location ahead of time. If you’re traveling abroad, consider purchasing a phone plan that works internationally. Look up the local equivalent to 9-1-1, and register your visit with your embassy in that country. When I was traveling abroad frequently, I used my Kindle’s free 3G connection and experimental browser to access my Google Voice number so I could text occasional updates to family back home. Finally, consider booking through a travel agency so you have someone on your side in the case of an emergency.
Ready to make the solo-travel leap? Call one of our experienced travel advisors to find a trip suited for you. Already an adept solo traveler? Share some of your tips and stories in the comments below or on Twitter.
- Hanauma Bay – taken by Ben Ferenchak – used with Creative Commons License
- Alcatraz – taken by blogarazzo – used with Creative Commons License
- Piwnica Swidnicka – taken by Klearchos Kapoutsis – used with Creative Commons License
- Szechenyi Baths, Budapest – taken by Karen Blaha – used with Creative Commons License