Travelling on your own need not be daunting or dull. In fact, it can be liberating, exhilarating and is the perfect way to gain confidence and discover more about yourself. In a time when career breaks and independent single women are becoming an increasingly common phenomena, there are certain tips which will help you enjoy a brave new world of independence.
As a female who has been travelling solo for 15 years, regardless of relationship status, I have put together this advice from my own tried and tested experiences in the hope that other women will find the courage to embark on their very own solo adventures. Why travel alone? because it is extremely rewarding, empowering and a great way to meet people.
1. Research your trip well, then let go of your plans
Planning and research is very useful, particularly when it comes to booking the first few days of your trip and when you are visiting countries with very different cultures. It can give you a good insight into the kind of experiences you can expect and to be able to have an idea of the kind of things you’d like to focus your attention on while away. Researching travel books and internet forums such as Trip Advisor or Lonely Planet Thorn Tree where you can engage with other travellers who may be able to give you the most accurate first hand tips.
But try not to live by itineraries and schedules too much. The opportunity to travel is a window into a life of freedom and the best thing you could reward yourself with is some spontaneity. You will meet people along the way who will be able to share their experiences and your plans may change for whatever reason. Being prepared but flexible will ensure you enjoy your adventures come what may.
2. Turn off the WIFI & Make Friends
It is a big misconception that independent travel means that you are always alone. The truth is that you will meet so many new people, some may just be fleeting encounters and others may turn into life-long friendships. But there will certainly be times when you will have to enjoy your own company and that’s a wonderful thing.
Don’t hide behind your smartphone screen. Youth hostels used to be such marvellous places to strike up conversations with fellow travellers, exchange travel tips and so on, but I’ve been saddened to see how people now often just spend all their time on their smartphones and missing on the opportunity to engage with real life, interesting people.
One of the most common things I hear women express their fears about is eating alone in restaurants. Take a notebook, diary, travel guide, magazine, novel or postcards with you. This applies to other situations as well. In my early days of solo travel I used to keep a diary, which was like my friend. Writing, drawing or reading will take your mind off your self-consciousness and before you know it, you may find yourself ignoring them and just enjoying the moment.
3. Talk to locals
One of the most rewarding things about travelling alone is that it poses the best opportunity for immersing yourself with locals. It’s another reason not to rely on WIFI, Google Maps and TripAdvisor all the time. Ask people for directions. It may lead to an interesting conversation. It might not. But the more you do it, the more adventurous your travels will feel.
Try to learn a few sentences in the local language. Even just trying out a few words with a local in a store can be fun. Ask them how to say a few words. It’s not about being fluent, people appreciate the effort you make. In most cases they will either find you funny or cute and this will break the ice.
When language is not an issue and you just feel shy, have a few questions to use as conversation starters. Being genuinely interested in other people and other cultures will naturally fuel your conversations. Keep doing it, even if your conversations sometimes go nowhere, because other times it will lead to new friendships.
4. Find travel organisations for solo female travellers
There are many travel companies and organisations all around the world who cater for the solo female traveller. Joining a group is a good idea on more challenging trips, such as trekking the Himalayas, both from a safety point of view and also because you will meet other like-minded travellers.
Three Sisters Trekking based in Nepal is one such organisation which hires and trains female guides and porters to take you on various treks through the Annapurna region. It is also a great way to support local women to become independent themselves.
5. Do something new or different
Travelling alone will take you out of your comfort zone and build your confidence. This is something to embrace. There’s no need to be reckless. Just try things you would not normally do or simply haven’t found the time to try.
Take cooking classes, learn to scuba dive, visit a yoga ashram or a writers retreat, go wine tasting, volunteer with a local charity or conservation scheme. You could also try out local traditions such as Japanese tea ceremony or salsa dancing.
6. Be brave enough to say ‘No’
Most of time, you will encounter the most wonderful people just like you and I. In all my years of travel, I have only found myself in uncomfortable situations once or twice. The biggest annoyances are usually the opportunists, touts and other characters who may try to either befriend or pester you. They is usually just want to make money from you, either by selling you something or taking you somewhere you might buy something so they can then claim a commission. These people will often be overly friendly and overly helpful and start making up stories about temples and other tourist attractions being shut. They will recommend somewhere else that is “better”.
Saying no is very important. Many women don’t like to be rude and will always do their best to be polite, but being firm from the beginning will save you lots of trouble and tears later on. Whilst not all friendly people have bad intentions, the truth is you have no way of knowing, so your first approach should always be with caution. Often the best way to deal with persistent strangers is to ignore them and if they continue to persist, politely just say ‘no thank you’ and keep walking.
Your personal safety is most important so follow general common sense, any local warnings and avoid putting yourself in unsafe situations. Finding a companion, such a fellow traveller, is a good idea if you are travelling through uncertain areas.
The Foreign & Commonwealth Office has more detailed and helpful advice on their website for women travelling alone.
7. Dress with respect to local cultures
There are many popular tourist destinations in this world that are much more conservative than western countries. Even countries such as Thailand and Indonesia, that see so much tourist traffic every year, are actually very conservative. Not only do they have different religions, but being polite and avoiding confronting situations is strongly embedded in their cultures. So just because no one says anything doesn’t mean they feel comfortable about tourists walking around in bikinis. It might be ok to sunbathe in the privacy of your beach resort in next to nothing, if you head out into public areas it’s usually a different story. And just because you see other tourists in short shorts and bikinis on Instagram or out and about doesn’t make it any more acceptable.
Ultimately you can wear what you want, but if you want to be treated respectfully, then you it will help by dressing appropriately. Even though I enjoy the freedom to wear what I want when I am at home, I can tell you that I have managed to avoid the hassle of unwanted male attention by following this rule. For this reason I always have a long sleeve shirt and a long skirt or trousers packed in my luggage no matter where I go.
8. Pack Lightly
And speaking of baggage, you will never need as much as you think. On my first big backpacking adventure I bought a 60L rucksack and loaded it with 30kg of clothing for all weather. I sent most of it home after my first week.
You will also be surprised to observe that the smaller your bags, the less hassle you get when arriving anywhere new. A girl with a brand new, colourful, large rucksack screams “I’m on my first ever backpacking adventure, I’m naïve and inexperienced so go ahead of and rip me off.” I was once that naïve girl, who lost out in bad negotiations in street markets, who took the taxis who overcharged me. After a week of being ripped off I cottoned onto what was going on and sent most of my new travelling clothes home.
These days I often travel with only a carry on backpack, so whenever I get off a bus or plane, people generally ignore me because I don’t look like I could possibly be a naïve tourist with such a small bag. You can’t really hide that you’re a traveller and that’s not the point. There just seems to be a correlation with baggage size and the perceived gullibility of a traveller. But that aside, you’ll feel more freedom having less to lug around.
9. Have an open and curious mind
The world is an amazing place full of fascinating people, places, history and cultures. There are so many differences no matter how subtle or great and you will get the most out of your adventures if you drop your preconceptions and expectations of what the world should be like. That’s what true discovery and exploration is all about.
You will meet people whose life experiences are not as broad as yours or are just different to yours. You may not agree with, or like, the way they live or what they say. Equally some places may simply not appeal to you. This is also a magnificent part of your adventures and it is courteous to show respect for the culture and people we are visiting. My most unpleasant or difficult travel experiences have often become my most cherished memories. Savour every moment you can.
Travel enriches and rewards us with wonderful memories and stories to share for the rest of our lives. When you return home you’ll feel empowered and will want to plan more adventures. What else is there to say? Getting packing ladies and follow your dreams.
- The Foreign & Commonwealth Office website offers a wealth of information about the practicalities of travelling. They cover topics such as gap year travel, women travelling alone, heath & safety, visas, political situations abroad and more.
- Lonely Planet Thorn Tree is a great internet forum where you can engage with other travellers and share travel information and advice. Some people use it as a way to connect with and find travel companions.
If you have any further questions or would like advice about anything I’ve not covered here, please feel free to send me a message and I will try to get back to you.