Travelling alone for the first time can be a daunting proposition for many people. Maybe you’ve purposely chosen to go alone because you want to experience the benefits of solo travel for yourself, or maybe you are forced to do so through lack of available companions.
In either case a little foreknowledge can go a long way on the road. Below are 25 practical tips for people preparing to go travelling alone for the first time, put together from years of mistakes and lessons learnt by myself and other experienced backpackers.
25 Essential Tips for the First Time Solo Traveller
1: Don’t over pack
It always causes many rolls of the eyes and smirks when someone walks into the hostel with a giant backpack that is taller than them and probably just as heavy.
What you pack is obviously very location dependent but unless you are planning on doing a lot of camping or other outdoor activities then you should be able to fit everything into a pack no more than 65L.
For most things you can hire gear and there are shops in every country if you end up needing more. Bring the minimum and work it out later.
2: Don’t blow your budget on transportation
Your transportation can be one of the biggest costs of the trip. New travellers often aren’t aware of the cheapest ways to get around and can end up spending a lot more than necessary.
3: Don’t book too much in advance
One of the best parts of travelling alone for the first time is the ultimate freedom it can provide. When planning ahead try not to book too much. The place you’ve booked might end up not being in the best area, you might not like the destination or maybe you meet some cool people who are staying somewhere else or moving on and you want to follow. Most of the time you can extend your stay if you are happy and most tours or activities can be booked on the day or the day before.
4: Find out the best/cheapest way to access your money before you travel
The modern world has made it so much easier to access money and make payments when travelling. Most destinations have ATMs and so many businesses now take card. The days of travellers cheques, wire-transfers and exchanges are thankfully mostly over.
All cards however are not created equal and the fees can take a huge chunk out of your funds. See here for tips on the best way to access money while travelling. (This isn’t to say everywhere has easy access to ATMs/card payments, make sure to always research your next destination).
5: Get involved!
Your first few nights in a hostel can be intimidating, not many people are used to living in such an environment. There are some people who have been travelling for a long time and people of all different ages, backgrounds and experiences. Don’t worry about it, travellers tend to be super friendly and welcoming!
Don’t pull out your phone or laptop, it is like an impenetrable social shield. Go to the bar/common room, get a drink and introduce yourself to random people, let people know it is your first time travelling or first time travelling alone and you are sure to make some friends who will show you the ropes and take you out for a good night.
I learnt so much about travelling from just sitting down next to people in the common room and saying hi.
6: Meet different people
Following on from the last point, it can sometimes be much easier to just slide in with the group of people from your own country where the conversation and interaction is familiar. This can be awesome sometimes when you have been travelling for a while, but you should try to branch out.
Meeting people from different cultures and backgrounds massively widens your perspective on the world and you can learn a lot, not to mention making friends and having meet ups all over the world in years to come.
7: Don’t sweat the small stuff, inconvenience will happen… frequently!
When you are new to travelling it is common to see people getting super frustrated over delays, procedures, red-tape and all the myriad of other things that can happen in a foreign country. Time is perceived differently between cultures and if you happen to be from a western country you likely have keen sense of time and efficiency.
If you can’t learn to let go and just go with the flow then you might find yourself annoyed and upset far too often. Just have a smile, always carry a book and try to remember that sometimes the hardships and obstacles are an integral part of the experience and may even make great stories one day!
8: Learn to take good photos
A lot of people think that their hastily snapped phone pics are masterpieces, but unfortunately that is often not the case from an objective point of view. I’m not saying everyone should rush out and buy a super expensive camera, some mobiles take amazing shots these days.
What I mean is that you should invest some time learning about shot composition and browsing professional travel photography to see what kinds of things make a great shot. Memory is so fallible and one day all you will have left are your photos, so make sure they’re good!
Since there may not always be people around to take your photos, make sure to bring a compact tripod with you so you never miss a good photo op!
9: Protect your photos
Leading on from the last point, I think this tip is the most important of all. It’s always tragic and heart-breaking to hear of or meet people who have lost months’ worth of memories due to a stolen or lost camera. There are a number of ways to ensure your photos are safe, see this post that details all the best methods to keep your precious memories protected.
10: Chat to hostel staff and listen to their advice
Hostel staff are often a fount of knowledge, whether they are local or foreign. They’ve often been in the area a while and have seen many travellers come and go, they will have heard all the stories of woe and wonder and will usually be happy to pass their knowledge along.
Local scams, tips on safety, best places to eat, drink or dance; have a chat and you get to socialise at the same time as getting some pearls of wisdom rather than mulling over old google reviews probably left by some package tourist.
11: Double check which bus you’re on!
This may sound like a joke, but once you’ve attempted to navigate a huge foreign bus depot with no English signs and make it on time to your bus, usually after leaving too late and still drunk from your hostel… then you will know the pain! Double check the bus and stand number at the ticket window and on the ticket.
Check the front window of the bus for a destination name, ask the conductor or driver, and just for good measure say the destination name to some locals and see what response you get. This isn’t for every station of course, some are very well organised and marked, but you’ll know the ones I mean.
12: Have a plan to get home and don’t go off alone
There’s an unhealthy level of caution, which is what stops some people from having great and adventurous experiences that are usually safer than driving a car back home. However there is a healthy level of awareness and caution that you should always have when travelling or even when in a new and unfamiliar place back home.
Let loose for sure but always know when and how to get home safely and have a plan, make sure you are always with someone you trust (and preferably met before getting annihilated in the bar!). This goes for guys and girls, most crimes are ones of opportunity, don’t be an easy target.
13: Say YES to new experiences
Most people travel because they want to have an ‘experience’, what that means is a rather esoteric and subjective concept and difficult to put your finger on. I will simply state my opinion that it is not about seeing things and being comfortable. You can do that with an armchair and the national geographic channel and save money on plane tickets.
The best way to grow as a person is pushing the boundaries of your comfort zone and shedding your shell; meet people, take part in activities and try things that you wouldn’t normally have a chance to do at home.
14: Follow people, not plans (but always maintain your freedom).
One of the biggest mistakes I made when travelling alone for the first time was sticking rigidly to plans I had made in advance. I was going to see this and go here and do that and never deviate from schedule.
I met some awesome people along the way who I was having a great time with but I would still just leave and follow the plan; sometimes it worked out alright, other times I was miserable and wished I could go back in time and keep travelling with them.
I learned that the people you meet are definitely the best part of the travelling experience and compromising your plans can lead to much more fulfilling adventures (this is actually how Ann and I met!).
In saying that, sometimes there are things you just have to do and places you just have to go, don’t lose your freedom. If it’s meant to be you will meet up again somewhere!
15: It’s ok to fall in love – but don’t let it ruin your trip!
Finding love on the road can lead to some amazing and fulfilling relationships. You will meet so many like-minded and adventurous people it might be hard not to fall in love (multiple times)! This is ok, explore it, cherish it, have an amazing time but always remember why you went travelling alone in the first place.
If your love affair starts interfering with the enjoyment or fulfilment of your trip then consider going your own way for a while. You might find it wears off quickly and if it’s meant to be you can always meet up later.
I once met a girl who flew in to South America for an amazing 6 month trip; 2 weeks later she met a guy and ended up staying in the same country for 5 months, spending almost all her money, just for the relationship to fizzle out.
16: Think twice about valuables
Nowadays we are flush with technology, most people in the west have a laptop, smart-phone, tablet, e-book, smart-watch, and the list goes on. The more you bring with you, the more stress you will be under to look after it all.
On my first backpacking trip I travelled with just an iPod and camera and was completely carefree. Admittedly smart-phones and e-books are just so useful it is hard to imagine travelling without them now.
If you don’t want the stress then consider what you can live without, if you have the latest top of the range phone then think about using an older one for travelling. Most hostels have computers and there are internet cafes everywhere so laptops aren’t essential.
17: Don’t be a dick to locals (unless you have to)
I once had the misfortune of witnessing the supremely ugly spectacle of a western backpacker screaming abuse at a poor shopkeeper in Bangkok. The guy was red-faced, saliva flying everywhere, hurling abuse at this poor unassuming local – and it was all over about 50c extra charged on a t-shirt.
This is disgusting behaviour is an extreme example, but you see people being dicks to locals all over the place in a variety of ways.
In a lot of places you have more money than almost every local you meet, this should make you humble and gracious, don’t let it make you arrogant and overly self-assured.
I have to add the caveat that unfortunately in some situations (luckily quite rare) locals can be overly forceful, there are always scam artists and some people can behave inappropriately; if you are uncomfortable or afraid then sometimes you just have to lose your shit and tell people where to shove it.
18: Don’t obsess too much over budget
A lot of travellers can be overly strict with their budget, I was certainly one of them! Setting a daily budget to try and stretch out those travelling days for as long as possible is great but you should also consider how much value you’re getting from your days.
You will go to places that you may never visit again, do you really want to miss the opportunity to participate in a unique experience or join a fun group on a pub crawl, just because it is a bit over budget?
On my first solo trip I pinched pennies and ended up travelling 2 months longer than expected. On my second solo trip I travelled one month less than expected, but I bet you can guess which one I had more fun on and remember with greater fondness?
19: Watch out for scams
The art of the scam is ubiquitous and you will encounter scam artists frequently on your travels. As mentioned in previous posts, many people in many countries are so much poorer than you are it is hard to comprehend.
While I do not tolerate people trying to scam me, I also try to have some forgiveness and understanding and I don’t let it affect my mood. You will inevitably get scammed for small amounts frequently, it’s just spare change for the most part. What you want to identify and avoid are the bigger scams; money changers, fake tours, vehicle rentals, fake fines/police, etc.
You can read about a lot of scams by googling scams and the country name and also by chatting to other travellers about things they have seen or heard. There are plenty of honest people and operators, arm yourself with knowledge and let your intuition guide you.
20: Learn to reflect
Running around to loads of different attractions, shooting hundreds of photos and then settling in to a good book on a bus journey to the next place is often the norm. This can however leave you with a feeling that the experience wasn’t quite real and the memories can fade away rapidly.
I made the mistake on my first overseas trip of spending way too much time with a camera glued to my face. Learning to reflect means taking the time at a destination to just sit and take it all in, feel gratitude and immerse yourself in the moment – this will lead to much richer memories.
Long journeys are also a great time to just put some music on and replay all the great memories, reflecting on what you’ve seen and learnt.
21: Find your travel style
When I first started travelling I had a short attention span, I just wanted to race around and see as much as possible, experience as many things as possible. The lure of the unknown was much stronger than the satisfaction of the here and now.
There was nothing wrong with this as I had a great time and met plenty of like-minded people to travel with. Nowadays however I like to slow it down a bit, spend longer in places I enjoy and just really take in a destination.
When you travel alone for the first time you will get the opportunity to try both and will naturally find your own style. The key is to be having a great time and not to worry about what anyone else thinks you should be doing.
22: You’re not invincible because you’re overseas
You see it all the time travelling, people land in another country and suddenly think that they can get away with anything. People with no experience will hire motorbikes (and likely ride without a helmet), do potentially dangerous activities while drunk, take substances given to them by random strangers and a whole host of other things that they would never do back home.
I have seen the results of this behaviour and it often ends horribly. The rush of endorphins you have when travelling makes you feel great and it can make you feel like nothing will ever go wrong. Before doing anything potentially dangerous, take a little step back and think ‘should I be doing this right now?’
23: Get travel insurance (and read the fine print)!
Following on from the previous point, you probably will do at least a few silly things when you are travelling, I certainly did! Even if you are the most responsible and safe person in the world, bad things can happen. Good insurance can be the difference between it being a horror story or an inconvenience.
Most travellers have heard the horror stories, but how many have read the fine print of their own policy? On my first trip I engaged in a lot of activities that I later learned weren’t covered on my insurance. Good policies often have an easily accessible activity list so you can scan it before you buy and take copy with you to double check before doing any activities.
Heymondo is great for backpackers and adventure travellers. As a reader of The Road Is Life, you get 5% off your Heymondo travel insurance by using the link below!
24: Believe in yourself
It is perfectly natural to be apprehensive before travelling alone for the first time. I put my trip off for a month after second guessing my decision and had all sorts of crazy ideas about what travelling alone was going to be like. Trust me, you will be fine, many people before you have taken the leap and they are no different than you.
Everyone feels some sense of trepidation and insecurity before plunging into the unknown but it’s often not until we take the plunge that we experience just how capable and resourceful we can be.
25: If you can’t take the leap all at once – start with a tour
If you really feel like travelling alone is what you want to do, but you just can’t quite push yourself to do it, then consider booking a short tour to start. Book a one way ticket and a one week tour, that way when you fly in you have someone to meet you, an instant group of companions and a protected realm in which to adjust to the world of travel.
If the thought of continuing on alone afterwards still terrifies you, you can always book a ticket home, but I have a feeling you will be anxious to ditch the guide and venture onwards!
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