These expert tips will take the worry out of taking a solo gap year and give you all the tools and information you need to travel the world solo and on your own terms.
Solo travel is an amazing adventure and has a wealth of experiences and opportunities for those with the courage and the adventurous spirit to take it up. Taking a solo gap year can in fact be an almost spiritual experience, but it isn’t without its challenges either.
For those of you who have taken that brave step of venturing out on your own, but are still a little worried about the logistics of solo travel – especially if this is your first trip – then don’t be, it really isn’t as difficult or as scary as you think it is.
In my last article I explored just a few of the reasons why you should take up the chance to travel solo at least once in your lifetime. In this article I want to give you just a few of the best hints and tips to make your solo trip run that little more smoothly.
Consider pre booking your first nights accommodation.
Pre booking accommodation isn’t something that I would normally recommend, given the fact that it is often easier, cheaper and much more beneficial to just turn up and find where you want to stay once you arrive in a new place. But there are a few exceptions to this rule and this is one of them.
The very first day of your new trip will be filled with wonder, awe, acclimatisation and exhaustion from your long flight. Travelling alone will mean that you will have to think on your feet, negotiate the sea of touts and get from the airport all on your own without the security of having someone there to watch your back.
If you arrive at night or in the early hours of the morning or your trip coincides with a national or public holiday, then being on your own can make it difficult to find and negotiate a place to stay, especially with a backpack on your shoulders and everything about you screaming ‘target’ to every tout, thief and con artist in miles.
That is why for your first night or two, it can be a good idea to pre book a nice private room before you get there. This gives you the advantage of hopping in a taxi and getting straight there when you get off the plane, as opposed to searching for the right place to stay, and will give you the opportunity to get a hot shower and a soft bed to help you rest, beat the jet lag and acclimatise to your new surroundings before you check out and settle into the nomadic lifestyle.
Once you have settled in and acclimatised to your new climate and surroundings, the backpacking norm of looking for places to stay once you arrive, even on your own, is infinitely easier.
Spontaneity is a huge and important part of backpacking, it defines that spirit of independent adventure and allows you the freedom to go where you like on a whim, but researching the basics of your destination before you arrive in a new place is important as a solo traveller and will allow you to get your bearings much more quickly, as well as keeping you safe.
You should know before you even arrive what you need to look for, where you need to go and how you need to get there, that’s it. You don’t need to know and understand everything about your destination, that is what exploring is for, but a little pre trip reading and knowledge can go a long way. That way you can look and behave much more confidently and in control as opposed to standing in a new destination looking lost with a guidebook and a massive map in your hand, which will make you a huge target for all sorts of undesirable characters.
Take full advantage of hostel amenities.
Whether it is meeting fellow travellers in a dorm room or having a conversation with those you meet in the communal areas or hostel kitchen, hostels are fantastic places to meet up with other backpackers. Often the smaller hostels of six to eight beds are better for meeting new people than the larger ten to twelve bed dorms, as they can be a little more intimate, but this isn’t always true providing you are confident enough to just say hello. Sharing tips about the destination you are in, learning about new destinations or experiences that aren’t in guidebooks, or even finding new travel buddies to join up with for a few days of travel and exploration, there are more advantages to staying in hostels than just sticking to your budget.
But don’t be afraid to upgrade once in a while.
Backpacking isn’t just about hostels and sleeping in airports. One of the benefits of solo travel is that you can enjoy your own company and have a bit of time to yourself every now and then. Spending all your time in hostels and backpacker hangouts – as fun as it is – kind of defeats the object here, and can sometimes get a little wearing after a while.
Sometimes you just need or want a bit of privacy.
Getting a private room in a guesthouse, boutique hotel or any one of the hundreds of unique accommodation options, is not beyond the realms of most backpacker budgets providing that you don’t go overboard and spend every night in one. The only time you will need to limit yourself to hostels realistically is if you are travelling through the more expensive Westernised countries or regions such as Europe, Japan or Australia, unless you have significantly upped your budget of course.
But travelling solo can give you the opportunity to enjoy some down time from the backpacking way of life and take advantage of the wide range of accommodation options that are out there, from plush en suite rooms and luxury hotels to treehouses in jungles and Buddhist temples and everything in between. There is a whole world of choice out there so don’t limit yourself.
Learn to people watch.
Sitting in a cafe or little street stall and watching the world pass you by while you enjoy a coffee or some local street food is one of the true pleasures of travelling alone, and taking the time to travel slowly too. Sometimes it’s nice to take a book or do a little writing in your journal or blog or whatever it is you have to pass the time, but other times it is nice to observe the people around you too. Soak up your surroundings and take it all in. This is what you’re travelling for, to experience new surroundings and new cultures. This does have a practical application beyond just stopping to smell the roses, if you listen and watch carefully you can pick up a little of the language, or the intricacies of how to use the metro, hail a taxi, or order food at a local street stall the way the locals do.
Do the walking tours, take a course or join an organised trek.
Just because you are backpacking independently, and solo for that matter, doesn’t mean that you can’t join the occasional organised trek or take a course or two. You can very easily shop around tour agencies when you are on the ground and sign up for any course or trek a day before, and there will always be a huge range to choose from. Most hostels, guesthouses or backpacker hangouts will have a list, or there are plenty of tour agencies knocking around. It doesn’t matter what you do, jungle trekking, horse riding, a course in yoga, cooking or Thai massage, they are all fantastic ways to not only enjoy yourself and gain new experiences and skills, but also to meet other travellers in the same situation as you. Being in the same situation makes it very easy to strike up a conversation and you never know, you might just meet a new travelling companion for a day or two.
Have a project.
A hobby or a project is a fantastic way to keep yourself occupied during those times where you do feel a little lonely, want to fill in a bit of time or you don’t want to make it so obvious you are on your own.
Many solo backpackers maintain a blog or take the time to write a book, maybe hone their photography skills or put together a photograph portfolio of all the places they have been. Some people travel with the aim of learning a specific skill, becoming a dive master while island hopping, learning yoga and meditation at various retreats or studying and training in the different martial arts around the world. It doesn’t really matter what it is as long as it interests you, the opportunities are as varied as the people who travel, but whatever it is, it can really add an extra dimension to your trip.
Take your time.
Solo travel really gives you the opportunity to slow down and explore a place properly. You can really take your time and enjoy the locations and sites you are visiting. You don’t have to worry about doing the usual tourist trail or whether or not your travel partner wants to move on somewhere else, you can do what you want, when you want, so slow down and smell the coffee. Drink a few cups too. Hell, go to the farm and learn how the damn stuff is made locally if you like! You have all the time in the world and no one to answer to but yourself!
Trust your gut.
Travelling solo is very safe and no more inherently dangerous than travelling in a group as long as you take basic common sense precautions and take steps to reduce the personal risk to yourself. But when you are on your own you have no one to watch your back so it is important to make sure you watch your own and trust your instincts. Have a good time and meet new people, but keep your guard up, if something doesn’t feel right, leave. It really is that simple. By sticking to reasonable safety precautions and using your common sense, you will keep yourself safe and have one of the best times of your life travelling in what many consider to be the ultimate way to travel, solo backpacking.
And finally, don’t worry.
Seriously. Not so much a tip as a general piece of advice. If you are one of the few people who find solo travel isn’t for you (it is rare but it does happen), then find other backpackers to travel with for a while and at least you can say you have tried it when you return home. If you find you enjoy it, you’ll have one of the best times of your life, so sit back and enjoy the ride!
Do all of these things and you will absolutely own solo travel. Travelling without a partner will no longer hold any fear for you and you will be able to go anywhere you want, any time you want and absolutely love it. In short, you will become stronger, more self confident and more comfortable in your own company than you ever have been before. You will be a solo traveller!
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