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If you’ve never traveled alone, you haven’t experienced the feeling of complete freedom. Business trips don’t count. Sure, you’re getting away from the routine, and you may even have a few spare hours to explore a new city. But you’re there by someone else’s choice, and the bulk of your schedule is their schedule. Traveling solo means taking the time to pick a place that you’ve always wanted to see.
Whether it’s exploring Italy or hiking the Appalachian trail, it’s your choice. It’s about indulging yourself. It’s also about discovering who you are when nobody’s looking. We spend our lives compromising in our relationships, careers, schedules, and plans, all the while clinging to that bucket list that we’re afraid to admit will never materialize.
Whatever the circumstance that established you as ‘single’ shouldn’t be a reason to postpone venturing out and seeing the world. Your bucket list doesn’t need to wait until you have the perfect travel partner.
Trekking to an unfamiliar city or country on your own forces you to rely on your own instincts for everything from asking for directions, figuring out a menu, bartering a price or just striking up a conversation.
When there’s nobody to tell you, “turn here, this is the way” or “I’m tired, let’s go back to the hotel” or “no, I don’t want to learn windsurfing”, you have the opportunity for more self-discovery and growth than you’d ever have sitting on your local beach.
Where to Go
That’s the biggie. Once you’ve decided where to go, other choices will start to fall into place. Chances are, there’s a handful of places you’ve wanted to see for years. If you need a few suggestions – there’s a reason why business conventions happen in certain cities.
Plenty of local attractions, great hotels, and cheap air fares make places like New Orleans, San Diego, Las Vegas, New York City and Washington DC great places to visit. Washington DC also has some of the most low-cost and free things to do anywhere. And the Metro subway system is one of the cleanest, easiest modes of transportation anywhere.
If a huge city isn’t your cup of tea, check out places like Austin Texas, Savannah Georgia, Stowe Vermont, Myrtle Beach, North Carolina, Nashville, Tennessee. They all have great restaurants, pubs, and plenty of history and local culture.
If the outdoors is your thing and you want a physical challenge, the USA has hundreds of awesome hiking trails of all abilities and distances.
Cheryl Strayed is a perfect example of someone who took this to the extreme – in her case an 1100-mile solo hike on the Pacific Crest Trail. What started as a purely physical journey caused her to rediscover herself and is documented in the book and movie, Wild.
If you’re looking for inspiration America’s Great Hiking Trails is one of the best books I’ve seen on hikes in the US. It covers all 11 routes in the National Scenic Trails system, from the Appalachian to the Pacific Crest and the lesser-known Florida Trail. It shows the history, highlights, maps, and tons of photos. It details the difficulty, tips on when to go and what to bring. I bought it for my daughter who loves it.
Don’t let international travel scare you away. Sure, the airfare is more expensive to get there – but once you get to places like Thailand, Viet Nam or Costa Rica, you’ll pay a fraction of the cost for lodging, food and anything else you want to do.
Getting out of your comfort zone can be transforming. Experiencing other cultures, cuisines, customs, music, and people will give you a new perspective on your own life.
The language barrier may be a deterrent to traveling to some countries, but Google Translate can be a lifesaver. Scan a menu in almost any language and Google Translate will show it to you in English. Scan a street sign to make sure you’re headed in the right direction, and when you get there it can show you how to order a glass of wine.
What to Bring
In two words – Pack Light.
You won’t need as much as you might think. You don’t want to come home and unpack 3 pairs of unworn PJ’s and 4 pairs of shoes that never saw the light of day from a bag twice the size that you really needed.
Take a cue from the average weather in your destination and if you really need something else, pick it up there. The clothes you bring will be determined by the anticipated weather, but there are a few considerations about what not to wear.
We may wear jeans around town at home, but if you’re going to a tropical location, think about something lighter. Denim can get heavy and doesn’t breathe well.
If you’re traveling internationally, it’s wise to blend in a little rather than scream tourist! You may want to leave the Dallas Cowboys t-shirt home. Things like bright white sneakers and baseball hats are a calling card of tourists.
If you’ll be traveling anywhere in the Middle East, you’d want to dress conservatively. Leave the tank tops, mini-skirts and bright pink t-shirts in your suitcase. Some travel agents even recommend ladies having a shawl just in case.
Shorts are perfect for traveling in warm climates, but keep in mind that in some countries like Viet Nam or Indonesia, they’re not usually worn around town. Shorts are usually reserved for the beach or a hike.
Just like toning down your wardrobe enables you to blend in with the local population, you may not want to be flashing expensive jewelry in unfamiliar areas. Some people choose to wear a cheap wedding band while they travel rather than loose an expensive wedding band or diamond engagement ring. Even if you’re not married, wearing a cheap band can deter unwanted attention. These bands are much less conspicuous and at less than $10 wouldn’t be a catastrophic loss.
Tips For Eating Solo
Eating alone isn’t all that bad. Just because you’re alone doesn’t mean you should hole up in your hotel room with a vending machine hot dog.
Depending on your locale, you can relax at an outdoor café, take a seat at a counter, a bar or a booth. Bring some reading material, your phone, or just chat with the help. They can be a great source of tips on what to see around town.
Don’t scrimp on meals just because you’re alone.
One way to save a little money is to make lunch your main meal of the day. You’ll see a cheaper menu and you can always save a bit for later. And having more time to walk off the calories can’t hurt either.
For some more tips on dining alone in various cities, check out Solo Dining. They offer strategies and tips on how to increase your comfort and options when eating alone. They also suggest places in various states as well as throughout Europe.
Females traveling alone may want to check out the site Invite for a Bite. They’ll match you up with other females who want to sit and eat with someone else. Sorry guys, it’s females only so as not to confuse it with any dating site.
Staying Safe While Traveling Alone
Probably your biggest concern about traveling alone is safety. Sure, a partner always has your back but there are some precautions you can take to reduce your vulnerability.
Traveling solo can be a great feeling of independence, but let a friend or family member know where you’ll be. Give them your itinerary and check in periodically.
In a populated place, just like in your hometown, it’s safer to walk with purpose and confidence. Be alert and aware of your surroundings. Don’t walk with your head buried in your phone.
A single person can blend in with the crowd in a city a little better, but as I’ve said, in some countries, you probably want to avoid the loud colors and team hats that scream tourist!
Spend some time going over your map before you go out. Someone standing on a street corner pouring over a map is an easy mark. If you need to check your map when you’re out, try to do it more inconspicuously, like while you’re sitting down for a bite to eat.
When you’re booking a hotel and there’s a chance you may arrive late, make sure they have a 24-hour front desk. You don’t want to be sitting on your bag for hours.
And when you’re in your hotel room, the door is only as secure as the hinges and lock. This 8-ounce Door Jammer can secure any flimsy door and let you rest assured. It sets up in seconds and transfers any outside force on the door down to the floor. It adds an extra layer of protection and hardly takes any space in your luggage.
If you’ll be taking a cab from the airport or to a destination, it helps to know about how far you’ll be traveling. You don’t want to pay to circle the entire city.
Plan your outing so that after dark you’re in an open and populated place.
You’ll probably have your passport, but it’s a good idea to have at least another piece of ID in another place.
Though we hope to never use them, sometimes a compact self-defense gadget may be wise to carry. If you’re in an unfamiliar city walking back to your hotel, it may give you some peace of mind to carry a small pepper spray canister. This small, inconspicuous canister can be concealed in one hand or clipped to a purse and would fend off any threat within ten feet of you. It’s very inexpensive and would protect you against any threatening human or animal.
If you’re flying, check with the airline because some don’t allow pepper spray canisters. If that’s the case and you still want to carry a small protection device, this survival whistle can be carried inconspicuously if you happen to find yourself walking home in a dark, unfamiliar area.
We don’t like to think about it, but medical emergencies can happen to any of us. And if you’re alone is an unfamiliar area it could be a lifesaver to have a medical alert on you. Something that clearly notes whether you’re on any medications or are allergic to anything. This medical card can be filled out with a permanent marker and comes with a smaller tag that can be clipped to your bag.
If you’re traveling internationally, enrolling in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) would be wise. STEP is part of the US Department of State. It’s free and once you enroll, you can register your itinerary.
Then the nearest US Embassy or Consulate would alert you of any traveler advisories, civil unrest or other safety concerns. Or they can assist in getting you in contact with family members in an emergency.
Another online resource that could be helpful if you’re traveling anywhere South America, is Nomad SOS. They’re headquartered in Mexico and provide travel, medical and security assistance. In an area of 48 countries and dependencies, all with their own laws and cultural considerations, it may be helpful to keep them in your contact list.
Don’t Just Stick to Your Guidebook
Guidebooks are great for figuring out a destination and checking on some of the attractions that appeal to most people. But maybe you’re not “most people”.
In San Francisco, most people want to see Fisherman’s Wharf. But maybe you’d enjoy renting a bike and riding over the Golden Gate bridge into Sausalito. Or instead of eating the same seafood combo served to 400 other people that night, maybe you’d rather check out the tacos at one of the food trucks.
If you can, ask a local person for suggestions and you may just find the best off-the-beaten-path food or things to do.
Getting Your Feet Wet
If you’ve never traveled alone and you’d rather get your feet wet by going solo with a group of other single travelers, there’s plenty to choose from.
Road Scholar has been around since 1975 and specializes in taking adults on planned trips – they call them “learning adventures” to almost anywhere in the world.
G Adventures specializes in all types of tours usually based around a certain theme. Choose from rail tours, various water tours, local living, National Geographic, or ‘active tours’ which feature everything from biking, hiking climbing, whitewater rafting. Or just a good old sightseeing tour. Their motto is “Travel Solo, But Never Alone”.
On the Go Tours feature tours for solo travelers everywhere from Bangkok, Viet Nam, Egypt, Morroco, India, Nepal and the list goes on. They arrange for all your transfers, local tours and are flexible if you’d rather take a few hours to yourself here and there. They’ll pair you up with a roommate of the same sex or you can choose to room alone.
Under 30 Experiences specializes in, you guessed it – travel experiences for the 21-30 crowd (although their website says 21-35). Name any exotic destination and Under 30 probably runs a trip there. Interested in yoga in Bali, hiking in Machu Picchu, exploring the Amazon Rainforest, snorkeling in Belize, cooking with a French chef in Paris? If you’re interested in getting away to a cool destination but not being totally on your own, check them out.
Thelma and Louise has been around since 2006 and they advertise that they’re not so much a travel agency, but “more an online and real-world community for our members”. They cater to women of all ages and help with planning a trip, finding a travel buddy or just providing inspiration.
As with any seasonal destinations, the price can vary wildly in just the space of a few weeks around Memorial Day and Labor Day. So if you’re counting on laying on the beach in a seasonal place like Martha’s Vineyard, be prepared to pay more unless you schedule in May or September.
Saving on Airfare
When you’re looking for cheap airfare, if you just check the major online search engines you might be missing some of the cheapest fares.
One site to check is Which Budget, which specializes in cheap airfares. If you don’t happen to find a fare in your price range, try this – determine the starting and ending airports and then go to their websites. The airport site will probably show the airlines that fly in and out. Then go to that airline’s website (which may not be listed on the major search engines) and see what flights they offer. You may be able to save a bundle on your tickets this way.
Grab Hold of Your Wallet
One trap that a lot of people fall into is buying way too many souvenirs. Every destination has a tacky t-shirt stand and the people managing them know that shirt will probably be trash within a year.
Think of things that may last longer and have more meaning. Some sea glass, a seashell or a small bottle of sand. A small piece of inexpensive jewelry, or something that will encapsulate your memory of the trip without breaking the bank. If you can steer clear of the tourist traps, at least for the most part, your wallet will thank you.
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Need a place to stay?
Hiking and camping are pretty inexpensive but if you’ll be traveling in a city and need a hotel, there are ways to try and trim your costs.
Probably the main way to save is to go in the off-peak season for your destination. You can save as much as two-thirds off from the standard rate.
Staying mid-week if you can, is another way to save – unless the hotel caters to business travelers.
Check for online coupon codes for your desired hotel. If you don’t see any, check to see if the hotel has any social media groups where they sometimes post coupons or announce sales. Or just call the hotel directly and ask if there are any discounts for regular customers.
Definitely shop around, and use comparison sites like Trivago. Just make sure to clear your browser history between searches so your search history isn’t influencing your results.
Almost all hotel chains and rental car companies have loyalty programs. They should be free to sign up for and you’ll receive discounts or a free night after a certain number of nights.
There are also some alternatives to a traditional hotel stay.
Home Exchange is just that. You’d sign up and pay the $150 annual membership fee. Then you’d create a profile for your home, upload some photos and describe your local area. Now start browsing the 65,000 other homes in 150 countries and decide where you might want to stay. There are no hidden fees, you pay the annual membership fee and exchange as many times as you’d like.
Couchsurfing is about as cheap as you can get – Free. You’d sign up as a member, create a profile and note whether you’d like to be a host or a traveler. Couchsurfing has a presence in about 200,000 cities around the world. They hold get-togethers to learn about the particular city about once a week, usually held in a bar, or another public place. Once you determine a city you’ll be visiting, and check out some profiles, you can send a travel request. Or you can also list your own ‘couch’ if it’s available – if not, you can also list yourself as an available resource to provide info to a traveler.
You can become more familiar with a potential host through Couchsurfing’s messaging system. And you can read what they have to say about themselves and what others have said about them.
Take Your Time
You’ll probably have an idea of what you want to see and do, but don’t let a pre-determined schedule transform your time into a never-ending punch list. Remember, this is a time to relax. You don’t want to return home exhausted, with 300 photos but no real knowledge of any of the places you’ve been.
Sometimes the best way to soak in the local culture is to just sit in a café people watching or get some tips from a local employee. Renting a bike is a good way to slow down and take in a lot more than you can see from the window of a rental car. I had a great time seeing parts of San Francisco, San Diego, Santa Fe, and Key West on a bike.
Hopefully, the wheels are starting to turn and you’re getting some ideas for your next trip. Is there a place you’ve always been curious about?
Where are your ancestors from? Have you ever been there? Seeing where your family began and learning about their culture can be life changing.
Or is there a place you’ve always been curious about? The Great Barrier Reef off Austrailia, Paris, Bora Bora, Bangkok, Maui, Barcelona, Florence, Italy, Japan… the list is endless. Even a quiet week in a small town can be rejuvenating.
Forcing yourself to get away from your familiar surroundings and habits and exploring new areas is one of the best ways to jump start your life. Instead of accumulating more stuff in your home, try buying experiences rather than things. They’ll stay with you longer.
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