While on my great adventure, I learned quite a few lessons about myself, other people, the world, and, of course, travelling! I recently received a question from a girl asking if I had any tips for travelling and sightseeing alone in foreign countries, and while I am still a travel novice at best, I thought I’d throw my two cents in about what I learned on the road. This list covers a few different topics from safety and security to handling loneliness, and I’ve tried to aim it at all solo travellers, not just us female ones!
1. Stay in smaller hostels
The idea of meeting more people when you stay in smaller hostels sounds counterintuitive, but it’s absolutely true. My very best experiences – the places I met the most new friends, felt the most comfortable and the least lonely – were at smaller hostels. I loved places that felt more like apartments, with just a few rooms and a kitchen where people would cook and hang out. Whenever I stayed in a place like this, I would end up meeting lots of people to sightsee with, go to dinner with, and go out at night with.
In bigger hostels, ironically, I met far fewer people. The common spaces are so big (more like a bar) that it can be a bit more intimidating to hang out there alone, and even if you do, the atmosphere isn’t conducive to making friends. While the facilities are usually great at hostels like these, the tradeoff is that you’ll be spending a bit more time alone (in my experience). Sometimes I was more than willing to make that tradeoff, other times I wished I was staying somewhere smaller.
If you use a site like HostelWorld (which I used for all my bookings and highly recommend), the smaller hostels will usually have good reviews but not be “HostelWorld Recommended”. I liked to take the time to read through reviews – look for ones from solo travellers that talk about ease of making friends, and friendliness of staff. Some great small hostels from my trip were Olga’s Place (San Sebastian, Spain), Victoria Meublé (Nice, France), and Hostel Brikette (Positano, Italy).
2. Join group activities
More often than not, hostels will run group activities: usually walking tours and pub crawls at larger hostels, and informal outings (usually led by the young surfer dude who works at the hostel) like group dinners or going out at night at smaller hostels. Not all of these will be a fit for your personality, but stay open to all activities that might be suggested to you.
Some of my favourite things to do were to take the Sandeman’s New Europe Free Walking Tour my first day in a new city. Not all cities offer them, but a good number do, and often I made a friend either before the tour or during it. If not, it was an interesting and educational way to spend a few hours. In Amsterdam, they offered a nighttime walk through the Red Light District, which was an awesome way to explore the area at night without having to walk around by myself at night. Finding tours or group activities can be a great way to get a sense of a city’s character by night if you’re not comfortable exploring it on your own.
3. Be smart and alert
I don’t think that travelling alone in a foreign country is as scary as people make it out to be, and fortunately, nothing bad happened to me on my trip. I had a few truly uncomfortable moments, usually when oblivious (or not so oblivious? hard to tell) men tried to talk to me, follow me for a short time, or approach me when I was walking home alone at night. Fortunately, nothing dangerous or scary ever happened.
But whenever I was out on my own after dark, I made sure to be careful and smart. Apart from my first ever night of solo travel in Paris (when I hadn’t expected to be out late and got off at the wrong subway station and was terrified because I was lost), I never went out late if I wasn’t familiar with the area and/or didn’t know how to get back to my hostel. I never walked if I could take public transportation close to my door. I took a taxi if the alternative was finding a night bus in a place I didn’t know very well. I was always very alert and aware. If I had been spending time with friends, they were usually kind enough to walk me home, or at the very least insisted that I send a message when I had arrived safely. I never took any risks, and was always careful when I decided how and when to get home at night. I always made sure to listen to my gut impression of a city – in Lisbon, for instance, I simply didn’t feel comfortable being out after dark, but in the smaller town of Montpellier, I felt more at ease. The times I was out after dark alone were usually truly lovely times, like listening to music at a street festival or riding a water bus.
Often when I was out at night it was with new friends – it’s ideal if you can find people to spend the evenings with! And many times, I simply chose not to go out too late, usually because I was exhausted from sightseeing, wanted to catch up with family or friends, or just because I didn’t feel like it.
Don’t be afraid. In general Europe is not some horribly scary place where bad things happen – no more than the rest of the world, anyway. As long as you’re smart, don’t take too many chances, assess rewards vs. risks, and don’t be afraid to taxi home, I’m sure you will have a wonderful time.
4. Travel light
I’ve explained this one in some detail here, but I think it’s worth repeating. Not only will travelling light save you stress, it will also make you feel more independent and in control. In my whole three-month trip, I don’t remember getting help with my bag once, except perhaps from friends or family who insisted on carrying it after meeting me at the train station. It was heavy, it was my own little monster, but it was manageable and I could handle it myself. This was very important to me.
I never wanted to feel or look vulnerable. I didn’t want to struggle with my bag and have my attention be split. Having a backpack allowed me to navigate new places with my hands free which is wonderful for looking at maps or reading directions. I think travelling with a backpack of a manageable size and weight also means that you won’t be preyed upon – you’re moving fast, and you’re alert and aware. Plus, it’ll save you a few headaches when it easily fits into luggage compartments and under hostel beds.
5. Befriend the solo traveller
Most likely, this will happen naturally, but in case it doesn’t: solo travellers are the best kind of friends for other solo travellers! Keep an eye out for people in your room or hostel who are travelling alone, especially other solo female travellers if you’re a girl. They are great travel buddies because they understand the struggle of taking selfies in front of important monuments and the occasional (though not always!) boredom of eating alone. They tend to be game to join up for the day and are usually very interesting people with very interesting backstories.
With solo travellers, you also don’t feel like you’re interrupting something or intruding, the way you sometimes do when you befriend best friends, or a couple. Though I must say that I made friends with pairs of friends and really kind, lovely couples on my trip, so there’s no one hard and fast rule except: be friendly to everyone! But I did find that many natural friendships occurred with other people flying solo.
6. Be friendly
I know it sounds painfully obvious, but it’s not always. Travelling alone can be pretty lonely at times, and if you don’t make an effort, it can become a vicious cycle until you move on to the next place. You can help yourself out by staying in smaller hostels, where you’re more likely to be swept up in the friendly tide of people, but you also have to make an effort to be friendly.
Smile at people. Say hello. Start conversations. Ask where people are from and where they’re travelling and really listen to their answers. Ask what their plans for the day are, and if you can join them (see #5 – this is usually more comfortable with other solo travellers!). This is not my natural setting – I can be quite introverted – so I know it can be really hard, but on the road, things change. If you want to make new friends, you have to make an effort! I often had to remind myself to be open and say hello (the #1 thing you can do) because my knee-jerk response is to keep to myself and do my own thing. But the key thing to remember is that everyone wants to make friends, they’re probably just shy too.
So keep smiling! Be prepared to spend a chunk of time exploring on your own, and embrace that – I actually prefer being alone while sightseeing because I get to decide how long I want to spend somewhere, if I even want to go elsewhere, when to eat, when to rest, etc. But I think you’ll find that with a little friendliness, you can make some truly great friends.
7. Let someone know where you are
Not for every minute of every day, but I liked for someone to know at least the city and the country I was in. This helped me feel connected to home when I felt very far away, and made me feel a little more tethered and safe. This tip might not work for everyone, especially people who are more free-spirited than I, and who are planning their trip day by day. But I made various changes to my itinerary as I went along, and still liked for my family to have a loose schedule of where I was going to be when.
I also had the habit of sending my mom a text message or email when I arrived safely in a new city and had found my way to my hostel – she liked to know, and I liked that someone knew. I rarely told anyone which hostel I was staying at because I usually booked my hostel only a few days in advance of my arrival and it would have been more complicated to keep my schedule updated with all those details.
8. Book hostels in advance
I never arrived to a new city after dark, and I never arrived to a new city without having booked a bed in a hostel. Both of those things were non-negotiable to me, because I simply didn’t want to put that added stress on myself. I knew I would find it too stressful and tiring (my bag was heavy!) to walk around to different hostels asking for a bed, when it’s so easy and straightforward to book online! Especially since I was travelling alone and would have nobody to split the work with or strategize with.
That being said, I didn’t have all my hostels booked before I left on my trip. I was tempted, because I like to have things planned, but I resisted the urge and I’m so happy I did. It allowed me so much more flexibility to change my plans, and staying longer or shorter times in different cities. Like I said above, I usually booked my hostels about a week to a few days before arriving there. This sometimes became frustrating, especially when I got a great hostel recommendation from other travellers and the place turned out to be sold out when I tried to book it, but I always managed to find a good place. It gave me so much peace of mind to not have to worry about accommodation along with all the other mental chaos that comes with being plunked down in a brand-new city.
9. Connect with loved ones
When you’re on the move all the time, trying to soak up the culture and spirit of a new place, it can be hard to remember to take time to slow down and refill your tank with love and conversations from your loved ones. Before you know it, you might hit a low point and desperately need some of that love, but suddenly everyone is at work, or at school, or asleep (dang time difference!) or otherwise preoccupied with living their busy lives.
This happened to me more than once. I could be flying along, loving everything, making friends, and then suddenly I’d have a bad day or be staying in a bad hostel, and I’d be feeling the loneliness more than ever, but my favourite people back home were busy. This was not their fault, and it wasn’t mine either, but a better strategy is to try your best to keep in touch, keep reaching out, keep replying to emails and Facebook messages and making Skype dates. That way, if you come back to the hostel after a long day, you have replies to your messages and SnapChats that can perk you up, make you feel loved, and bring you back to your happy self.
It’s so easy to forget to reply when you’re constantly on the go, but that might leave your loved ones to think “hey, she’s totally happy and out having adventures! I don’t need to worry about her”, while you’re on the other end, craving connection.
10. Embrace being a solo traveller
My #1 tip for solo travel is to embrace it. Look for the positives, find the bright side, relish in your freedom and independence, truly enjoy your time alone. When you’re alone, you get to decide what you do, when, where, and for how long. You get to eat gelato at 10AM and not have anyone say anything about it. You get to take photos of absolutely everything and not have to jog to catch up with anyone. You can sit on a step in the drizzling rain and listen to classical music played by a 4-piece string quartet. You can have a 3 course lunch that involves sangria and lasts 3 hours. You can stop and sit on a park bench and read your book for as long as you like. You can stand in line for a food truck and eat on the grass in the park. You can wander a street festival or market as many times as you want (for me, it’s usually many times).
Of course, you can do most these things with other people, but embrace the fact that you don’t have to consult anyone – you can do what you want, when you want. Some of my very best memories from my trip are of times I was alone: floating on my back in crystal blue water, hiking a really difficult trail and rewarding myself with pizza and beer, watching the sunset over truly exquisite countryside, listening to French people play Celtic music while eating a sweet onion fritter at the best street festival in the world. So embrace your freedom and your independence, be brave, and enjoy this truly special time.
I’d love to hear your tips on travelling solo and/or being a solo female traveller, specifically. What have you learned? What would you do differently? What would you like to know? Let me know in the comments below!