When I was a teenager, I would daydream about travelling alone. It was ultimate sign of ball-busting independence: Going to bars and restaurants alone and talking to strangers, taking risks, making friends along the way, lounging in a park and sketching in my notebook, and spending countless hours of wandering and walking and looking.
Growing up in New York in a tight-knit Italian family where there was always someone to help you or do it for you (whether that’s cooking, washing the clothes, choosing friends, or how to wear your hair), I knew that in order for me to learn how to be on my own and have a cool life the way I dreamed it to be, I needed to go far enough away so that when things got difficult I wasn’t tempted to go back home. I dreamed that one day I could be the type of person that could travel alone, to go to strange places and try to speak their language, to be free and mobile with just a backpack on my back. Hah! When I went away to college, I chose one that was nearby and by the end of the first semester, I had left the dorm and moved back home. I was so angry with myself! But then I got the chance to spend a year abroad at Oxford for my junior year, I knew that was my chance!
It was a difficult year since it was my first time away, but I pushed myself and by the end of the year I had gotten enough confidence in myself to spend the summer travelling on my own. I went to Paris, Amsterdam, Florence, and Athens and after that I spent most of my 20s travelling and living on my own in different countries and learning languages.
Travelling solo is a great way to learn about yourself and even if you’re scared about being lonely or put into uncomfortable situations, do it! The great thing about travelling alone is that the cultural differences will have a greater impact on you as you experience them on your own and you’ll be able to notice more subtleties and nuances and learn more about yourself along the way.
Tips on Travelling Solo:
- PACK LIGHTLY: Bring as little clothes as possible. (Easy to do in the summer). Wear a backpack or push around a little trolley. You’re on your own so you won’t be able to leave your bag with a friend while you run to the toilet or check out the newsagent while you’re waiting for the train. Don’t worry about not packing enough underwear to last you the trip. Do your laundry in the laundromats.
I’ve always liked doing my laundry in strange cities, it made me feel like I was part of place and it was a great place to people watch. Just bring a book.
- MAKE SURE WHICH HOTELS OR HOSTELS ARE OPEN LATE: If you arrive late in a city and you haven’t booked a place to stay, make sure you know which places are open. You don’t want to be searching alone late at night for a place to sleep.
- BE SAFE: I don’t mean to sound like your mom and don’t avoid visiting a place on your own just because it seems dangerous (Naples, Mexico City, Bangkok). But you can set a few rules for yourself to keep yourself out of harms way, while still enjoying your freedom to travel.
- Trust your instinct. I once took a self defense class and the instructor said that of all the stories she’s heard from people who have gotten mugged, raped, and assaulted happened because they didn’t follow their instinct. So, if going down that alley feels wrong, even if it’s in the middle of the day and there are people all around, listen to yourself. Don’t do it.
- Stay in open and public spaces, especially at night. Use your judgment. When I lived in Mexico City, I never ventured out alone in the city after 10 pm, even if there were people around. That said, if you’re in Rome hanging out in the piazza that’s full of people at 12:30 at night is a pretty good place to be.
- Walk with confidence and purpose, like you own the place. When I was 21, I spent 4 months living in Florence. In the beginning, I was shy and I got lots of unwanted attention from men on the street. I kept my head down and walked quickly, but some would follow me or shout after me. But as I got used to the place and started to feel more comfortable, I started to look at the annoying men in the eye. If they said hello, I brightly and exuberantly said hello back, which made them run away.
- Moderate your drinking. By all means have a glass of wine or two, but make sure you keep your wits about with you, so you can travel home safely. And if you need to, spend the money on a cab home.
- Keep your wallet close to you. Carry cash and cards in separate places. Keep copies of your passport. If you sit down at an internet café or a restaurant, make sure your bag stays on your lap or next to you. Even better keep a small cross-body bag on you at all time with your most important things. I once made the mistake of putting my bag under my chair and when I got up to leave, it wasn’t there anymore.
- EAT, EAT, EAT: I love taking myself out to dinner with a notebook and trying new foods. But it can also get tiring always eating alone. If you’re uncomfortable eating alone, you can get some nice picnic foods and sit in a park. It’s also cheaper. Also, travelling alone doesn’t mean you’re always alone and it’s easy to make friends along the way. And if that’s difficult for you, too, you can also check out this website Invite for a Bite http://inviteforabite.com/. You can organize or join a meet-up group for a meal in whatever city you are visiting. It’s a great way to both travel solo and have some company.
- DOCUMENT: Take photos and keep a notebook. Selfies are great, but also take snapshots as little souvenirs and reminders not made for social media. Keeping a notebook is a great way to remember and place to paste all those ticket stubs, maps, and flyers that you’ve collected.
- KEEP AN OPEN MIND: Say yes to meeting someone and travelling together on a whim, take a chance on a taking part in a guided tour that you know nothing about, push your boundaries and go on that diving exhibition even though you’re afraid of sharks (maybe).
That’s what’s great about travelling. You allow yourself to be open and vulnerable and you can get some great experiences from it. Of course, you follow your instincts and say no when it feels bad and you’ll know when to say no.
- CARRY A DICTIONARY: Make an effort to learn a few words in the language. Even if it’s just please and thank you. Natives will admire you for making the effort and it’s a great way to break down some barriers
- TAKE YOUR TIME: Even if you prepare yourself beforehand, there are going to be long queues, flight, bus and train delays, and cancellations at the last minute. Relax and try to take it for what it is, you’re on holiday and no one is expecting you to be anywhere. Put on your headphones and open your book and sit back and wait.
- YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE ALONE: If you get tired of being alone, don’t beat yourself up for it. Join a tour group for a day trip, look up online for a an expat-meetup group in the city, linger over breakfast in the hotel and talk to some other guests, pick your head up from your book and look around the room. If you’re feeling lonely, don’t beat yourself up for it, but realize that you have the advantage of meeting people because you’re travelling solo.
- DO YOUR OWN THING: There’s no right or wrong way to travel. If you feel like crossing off every item listed in your guideback, go for it. If you want to sit next to the Acropolis finishing your Danielle Steele novel, that’s great! No one’s testing you on this shit, it’s all about you and your stories.