How to Travel Alone (Without Being Lonely)

I’ll admit:  I have a complicated relationship with solo travel.  On the one hand, going solo allows one the most freedom, the most time for reflection, the most opportunity to meet new people (because, really, you have to) of any travel experience.  It also means you can, whenever you’re ready, just go.  No working around other travelers’ schedules, no begging potential travel partners to see the value of an adventure.  Just hop on a plane, leave tomorrow, and never look back—right?

On the other hand, as a 24-year-old woman not versed in hand-to-hand combat, the idea of solo traveling can be terrifying.  Without getting into it too much detail here, I’ve found myself in some sticky situations abroad—and that feeling of vulnerability has been a very hard one to shake, especially in unfamiliar surroundings, leaving me somewhat grounded on my own.

Still, in the last year, I’ve started to reconsider solo travel as a real possibility.  I’m becoming more impatient to explore, and more aware of the fact that not many other people in my life are as willing, able, or eager to do the same.  Plus, in this day and age, are you really ever solo?  You’re just an iPhone away from connectivity in crisis, or loneliness.

That said, I’ve been exploring how to travel alone without being alone, and most importantly, how to do it responsibly.  Here’s what I’ve got, take it or leave it.

1. Recognize the possible dangers and limitations of being on your own. Not to be a downer from the start, but I honestly believe this is the most important thing you can do before heading out.  Traveling on your own can be dangerous—and it probably will be at some point.  The “It Could Never Happen to Me” mentality will not actually protect you, so use your head.  Don’t walk home from that club by yourself, leave a rough itinerary with someone you trust, don’t get into an unmarked taxi at the airport.  Simply:  Think and be aware.

A work exchange lodge in New Zealand. Photo by Darcy Boles.

2. Don’t be afraid to do a little work (exchange). This, for me, has been one of the key factors in my attitude change about solo travel.  Help exchange is a potential godsend to apprehensive solo travelers, not to mention a huge money saver and a great way to meet new people.  Help out at a bar, restaurant, lodge, orphanage, organic farm—you name it—in exchange for room and board.  Often your hosts are fantastic travel guides, and you’ll get an inside look at the place you’re visiting.  For someone who doesn’t like the idea of being alone, this is a great alternative, and a good option for safety.  The website allows you to browse for free, or pay a small fee to create a profile and see reviews and contact information for each posting.

3.  Hire a private guide. Most solo travelers cringe at the thought of a tour group, but hiring a private guide allows you the inside scoop without the sterile megabus experience. Most of the time, a guide can be arranged way ahead of time, meaning you can sculpt your own itinerary and have the peace of mind of a stress-free day before you even land.  For-hire guides give you the chance to explore a new place off the beaten tourist path, and will have great local advice on where to shop, eat, sleep, etc.  Also, since the day is yours, you can be fluid with your itinerary, exploring an interesting spot longer than you planned and ditching others that aren’t as inspiring.  Some guidebooks will suggest guides to hire, but most guides are discovered through word-of-mouth from fellow travelers or from online travel forums like Trip Advisor or BootsnAll.com–or here on Travelhoppers.com–and then arranged via email (which allows you “meet” your guide virtually before agreeing on anything).  Make sure you set something up early, as popular guides are booked quickly.

4. Do your research. Yes, I harp on research a lot, but it’s important.  At the very least, study a map.  Looking lost while you’re on your own is the same as wearing a target on your back, asking for trouble.  Learn a few key words and phrases in the host language of wherever you are, so you can communicate the basics and not appear completely clueless.  Confidence is a key part of being safe.

5. Meet fellow travelers and make use of local contacts. I’m a firm believer that you’re only really alone when you choose to be so, especially while traveling.  You might start out solo, but you never know who you’ll meet.  Stay open to meeting local people and other travelers who are almost sure to provide good advice, inspiration, and company.  On the same note, keep in mind anyone you may already know in the place you’re traveling, be it a long lost friend or a friend of a friend, who may be willing to show you around.  For safety purposes too, having someone local you can contact can be invaluable if you’re solo.  Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

6.  Keep a cell phone on you at all times. This might go against the whole “leave the world behind” idea that often comes with solo travel, but it ties back into the safety deal.  A cell phone saved my life once (I think) and I can’t stress the importance of being able to connect if you need to.  Since your international roaming charges will likely be insane anyway, you probably won’t use the phone all that much (or, if you want, buy a cheap phone when you get to your destination, with a country SIM card, which you can change as you change locations).  But, believe me, you’ll be glad you have it when you really need it.  Not only that, but you can keep in contact with all those new people you meet.

On top of all of this come the basic rules of prepared travel like making photocopies of all your important documents (your passport) in case you lose anything, and keeping a back-up credit card with you in the event of theft.  (My dad once had his wallet stolen over Christmas in Berlin, forcing us to cancel the only family credit card during the busiest holiday season of the year.  I learned a valuable lesson in back-up finances from that–the first four days of our trip were spent on the phone with Visa and FedEx, while my brother and I maxed our personal debit cards on hotel rooms for the family.  I can only imagine what it would be like if you were traveling alone.)

Bottom line:  Solo travel requires a little more planning, bravery, research, smarts, and faith than touring with a group, but it’s also a huge opportunity for personal growth.  While I still might consider taking a self-defense course or two prior to departure, I’ve stopped mentally equating solo travel with near-death experiences and vulnerability.  Instead, with a little forethought, confidence, and sense of adventure, I’m convinced it is possible to experience all the perks of traveling alone without feeling lonely—and you can post it all on Facebook from your iPhone along the way.

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About the author: Kat Lonsdorf

Originally from Verona, Wisconsin, Kat has a degree in Diplomacy and World Affairs from Occidental College, with a focus in Journalism. She started learning Japanese at the age of six, lived in Okinawa, Japan in high school, and spent a year living in Amman, Jordan in college where she attended the University of Jordan, studied Arabic, and traveled throughout the Middle East. She currently lives in Los Angeles, and is a producer, blogger, and on-camera host for projectexplorer.org, a non-profit that creates online educational travel series for kids and families. Follow her on Twitter @lilkat_bigworld

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