“Hi Natasha, I am planning to go on a solo trip.. first time I’ll be travelling alone. So I’m kind of confused on how it will be or what to expect. Any pointers on travelling solo? I have mixed feelings.. don’t know how it’ll go.”
This is just one of many similar messages I get from my female readers on a weekly basis: women who’re either in their 20s or got to their 30s, sometimes to find they’ve actually taken a step as ‘adult-ish’ as getting married but have never ever traveled alone. Not even a weekend alone to a nearby city.
Heck, some of them have never enjoyed a sit-down meal at a nice restaurant and a glass of wine by themselves, convinced they will look pitiable and lonely.
It boggles my mind that women have made it to space, yet some of us are still worried about how we are perceived when out and about by ourselves around the world (or at that fancy neighborhood restaurant that none of your friends want to go to). But on some level, I do understand (and completely disagree)- ours is a world that doesn’t place enough emphasis on women’s identities primarily as their own– a reflection of who they are as individuals rather than the roles of wife and mother and sister and daughter and daughter-in-law and what have you.
I believe as women, it’s our duty to ourselves to figure out who we are and which version of ourselves gives us the most self-worth and confidence, then fight strong and hard, woman-style, to hold onto it.
Luckily for these readers, something changes and I for one, am glad it does. They begin to wonder what if they got over the hesitation of traveling alone for the first time? What if they never had to wait for someone to join them, what if they could go on their own and have an amazing time by themselves? How freeing that would be, to need no one but themselves to see the world and be happy doing it?
My answer, based on years of traveling solo, both when I was single and now married, is solo travel is empowerment like nothing else.
Nothing compares to the feeling of owning your life and happiness and finally understanding that you’re in control of what you want life to be. It’s not your family, relationships, roles, or society’s expectations that govern your life but the only important question: What do you want as an individual?
If you want to get on a flight to go see a new city for a week, hike a trail for a month, learn to cook your favorite foreign cuisine, or learn a new language, just do it. Not even if, but especially if you’ve no one who wants to go with you.
Today, traveling alone as a woman is far easier than it has ever been- you can research and plan your trip, book your accommodation and tours, seek advice and support, and find a travel buddy online from the comfort of your home even before the trip begins.
There really is no excuse not to travel alone when you really want to travel, so put on your big-girl panties and use these tips as a woman traveling alone for the first time.
Tips for Women Traveling Alone for the First Time
I cannot stress the tip ‘pack light’ enough, especially after having made the mistake of not packing light at all during my first few years of travel. But trust me, you do not want to be the girl looking ridiculously helpless as you try to drag a suitcase that is half your size up and down cobblestone streets or a backpack that you clearly cannot carry for more than a few hundred meters. Regardless of the duration of your trip, the size and weight of your luggage should be something that you can easily carry up and down a few flights of stairs.
Image by Sara Lowgren via Flickr
Packing light doesn’t mean looking like a hobo, you can still bring clothes that are cute or pretty or elegant or sporty or whatever else your style is but balance is key.
For long trips, you only ever need enough clothes for five days after which you can always wash them and repeat. Pack a mix of clothing and shoes suitable for activities, adventures, city breaks, and nightlife and bring pieces that you can mix and match and wear more than one way. Ask yourself if you really need those pair of heels? Wouldn’t elegant flats work just the same (and be easier on your feet)?
Roll your clothes rather than fold them and use packing cubes to organize and save space. Don’t carry a lot of toiletries- shampoo and conditioner and soap and all of that is available everywhere and it’s simply not worth it to add to your burden.
Last year, I followed these packing rules and spent three months on the road with a small suitcase that I could easily carry in both hands. During this time, I attended several press trips with formal dinners, official concerts, and castle stays and a blogging conference (where I had to look nice and semi-formal), went hiking, and spent time in stylish cities like Florence, Milan, and Stockholm. And I managed all of that plus a trip to Iceland in summer with a week’s worth of clothing (except a warm sweater that I bought in Reykjavik). My suitcase also contained my beloved tripod for landscape photography and my hiking shoes.
2. Dress To Blend In
While the opinions are divided on this one, I believe that dressing to blend in has more benefits than just the obvious one of not attracting unwanted attention for women traveling alone. Being dressed in a way that makes me fit right in and feel like I belong in a new city is oddly satisfying and makes it easier to break the ice with locals. In Georgia, Jordan, Italy, and Spain I was often told by locals that they thought I was from their city because of how unlike a tourist I looked. I took that as a compliment.
In new cities, I observe how locals dress and try to dress similarly especially when it comes to modesty and understanding what is and what is not appropriate. While I was traveling in Bangladesh, I wore loose-fitting clothes and carried a scarf to cover my head like the women in the villages- clothes that are completely uncharacteristic of my usual style but helped these shy women to open up and talk to me. That, to me, will always be more important than how stylish I look.
Not sticking out like a tourist because of how you’re dressed also avoids unwanted male attention or becoming a target for touts and scammers- all things that can take the anxiety out of your first time as a woman traveling alone.
3. Consider Hostels and Guesthouses
If you’re nervous about getting lonely and depressed and wondering how and where you’ll meet people while on your first time abroad on your own, then consider staying in places where it’s easier to meet them. Instead of standard hotels, look to hostels (that have private single rooms if dorms are not your thing) that can be modern and luxurious, guesthouses, and social hotels that encourage guests to meet and mingle in common areas and during social events.
Such places also organize free group walking tours, parties, cookouts, barbeques, and fun events where it’s easy to meet other people. Don’t worry, there are plenty of people traveling solo and they come from all around the world.
4. Leave Your Pre-conceived Notions Behind
Sadly, many seemingly well-traveled people return home after long periods of travel with mindsets that are completely unchanged from when they had never left because they never manage to fully let go of their prejudices. Don’t be that person and don’t hold onto prejudices, whether it’s about race, gender, nationality, or income class.
Use your first solo trip as a chance to head into situations with an open mind, even when it’s about getting to know people from diverse backgrounds and cultures. Be culturally aware and sensitive. Resist the urge to begin your interactions and conversations from a place of clichés; it can be irritating and disrespectful in ways you might not understand.
5. Be Aware, Alert & Stay Safe
It goes without saying that you need to be aware, alert and cautious when it comes to your safety. While I’m all for spontaneity, if it’s your first time traveling alone, doing a little bit of research to get your bearings in a new city goes a long way. I always say- do what you need to do to feel safe, whether or not other women do it. For example, I’ll never stay in a room where the window or balcony door is missing a lock, even if it’s on a higher level. I always have a mountain whistle and a small flashlight by my bedside at night, just in case I ever need to use it.
Have basic safety covered by booking accommodation in an area that’s safe, central and well-connected to public transportation, avoid neighborhoods that are known to have high incidence of crimes and don’t engage with strangers when your gut tells you not to. Don’t ever skimp on price over safety by getting cheap accommodation somewhere on the outskirts of the city or in lonely neighborhoods.
Always have a local phone number with emergency numbers saved and keep your family and accommodation informed of your whereabouts. Don’t divulge information to someone you just met about where you’re staying or being by yourself. Always get your own drinks at a bar and if you’ve left your drink unwatched even for a few minutes, leave it and get another one.
I wrote an entire post about what you can do to feel safe as a solo female traveller but most of it just comes down to common sense. Things like dressing appropriately and not displaying your valuables in busy areas are a no-brainer.
6. Try New Things
Back home, you might think of yourself as the person who doesn’t try new things because you’re usually bad at them or you can’t imagine doing them. I can relate because I used to be that person- even today when I’m in a situation where I need to try something new, I start with zero expectations because that’s how bad I believe I am at new stuff. But that, no longer, prevents me from trying.
The thing about travel, and solo travel, is that it is a chance to rewrite your story from the present moment; you can be more than who you thought you were and can do more than what you imagined you’d ever do. So say yes more often and accept the opportunity to try new activities and adventures, meet locals and other travelers, and believe that you’ll fit right in in unfamiliar situations.
If someone had told me just five years ago that someday I’d play golf in Italy, learn how to cook Thai food in Bangkok, go into a lava tube in Iceland, go rafting in Slovenia, paragliding in New Zealand, and run with huskies through the forests of Swedish Lapland, I wouldn’t have believed it. Simply because the Natasha of back then never did those things- she wasn’t outdoorsy or active and didn’t grow up with adventure or sports.
But here we are today and my life is better for it- only because I said yes. So should you.
7. But Ditch the Checklist and FOMO
On your first solo trip abroad, you might feel like you owe it to yourself to do everything there is to do, see all the sights, try all the famous restaurants, and experience everything there is in a new place- everything that you read about in a guidebook or online. But here’s what happens when you try to cram too much into a short period of time- you get stressed out, planning, organizing and running from one sight to another without really enjoying the whole experience of exploring on your own.
In my opinion, the most enjoyable thing about traveling to a charming medieval Italian town is the free afternoon of wandering around cobblestone streets to take in the historic architecture, then sitting in a quiet alley or lakeside, licking on swirls of gelato, people watching- not hopping from museum to museum on some kind of crazy mission. Those unplanned moments set the stage for conversations with locals and stories worth telling.
That brings me to another point- ditch the FOMO or Fear Of Missing Out. If you wake up on one of your travel days, and feel like all you want to do today is go to a park and read a book under the shade of a tree, then by all means, allow yourself to do just that. There’s always going to be something you miss out on anyway, even if you’re staying somewhere for as long as a month, so don’t worry about it.
Similarly, if you’re staying at a hostel and don’t feel like attending a pub crawl or party each night, don’t do it, even if all of your new friends are going and ask you to join. One of the best lessons you can learn while traveling solo is to recognize when you want to say yes or no and to act accordingly.
8. Meet The Locals
You know how they talk about travelers being different from tourists? While sometimes it might sound like pretentious bullshit, turns out there are some differences between people who travel with zero attention and awareness and those who do with the desire to learn about other people and cultures.
Sure, you could go to a beach town, lie on the beach all day, and pretend that the interactions you have with the servers who bring your cocktails is enough cultural immersion. But you know that isn’t true.
What’s amazing about travel alone, even as a woman, is that it makes it easier to talk to other people, even sometimes pushing you out of your comfort zone to do so, because everyone needs company at least sometimes. Take that opportunity to meet locals and ask them questions about their culture, art, architecture, cuisine and whatever else interests you.
While you can always meet people the old-fashioned way- just smile and talk to bar staff, waiters, people at parties or community events, thanks to the internet and social media, it’s also easy to connect to locals online before you arrive or while you’re in their city.
There are apps and websites that let you share a home-cooked meal in a local’s home, join a local on a tour of their city, sleep in a local’s spare room or apartment, or meet up with a group of locals and travelers with common interests. Figure out what you’re comfortable with, be cautious, and trust in people. I once toured a city with a local chef, tasting my way around street food and zipping in and out of markets, cafés, and home kitchens, only to discover a culinary trail that was far more interesting than touristy restaurants in the main drag.
If you join tours, seek out ones that are socially responsible and involve real cultural immersion- where you get to meet and talk to locals rather than get a surface-level view of life in that place.
9. And the Awesome Community of Travelers
I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that as much as I love being on my own, sometimes, it can get lonely. But that doesn’t mean you don’t go on your own; it just means that when you need company, you find it. If an introvert like me can, so can you.
People on the road, the kind that you meet in hostels or social hotels or guesthouses, or on group tours, already have something in common with you regardless of where they come from- and that is their love of travel. All it takes, in most cases, is a smile and introduction and conversations usually flow from there. Usually you’d end up talking about the city you’re in and what each of you already did there so far, where you’re going and what you’re planning to do next, or about your hometowns, or about big sporting or popular events on the horizon such as FIFA or Eurovision.
While some of these people might become friends for life, others might just be great company for one conversation, dinner, or a few days- people you won’t stay in touch with and most likely will never meet again, and that’s okay. Enjoy the present without thinking too much about what should or will happen in the future.
10. Put Down Your Camera
I know, I know, you really want to get those Instagram-inspired model-like images of yourself in picture perfect places, or maybe you’re a photography enthusiast who cannot get enough photos of waterfalls in Iceland. But remember, life through your eyes is far more beautiful and vibrant than life could ever be through a smartphone or camera lens. Put down your camera and pay attention; observe, breathe, smell, hear, taste, and converse with new cities and towns- photographing them is overrated.
If you’re a woman who travels solo, what other tips would you add to somebody going on their first solo trip?