How To Travel By Yourself
I love to travel, and more than anything, I love to travel ALONE. While my first solo flight happened right after college, it wasn’t until my 33rd birthday that I went on my first solo adventure. Minneapolis first, Chicago second; I planned the trip around my love of baseball and the first-ever Internet Cat Video Film Fest, which was every bit as amazing as it sounds.
Returning home from my Jesus-year celebration, I vowed to never travel with anyone else ever again. I have since gone back on that promise and regretted it each time. This is not to say that good times cannot be had with others, just that I get way more out of a trip when no one else is involved. I absolutely detest being held to plans or timetables when traveling; taking other people out of the equation means every single second is entirely up to me. Take a nap? Go right ahead! Avoid all the “sights”? You bet. Wander around without a plan or protector? Absolutely!
Anyway, my best tips for getting the most out of a solo trip are:
Talk to strangers
Know your resources
talk to Strangers
Encountering strangers in the wild is my absolute favorite part of solo travel. Not only are they useful for taking pictures of you doing things which require both hands, they can lead you on fabulous and unexpected adventures. Take my trip to Oman; before leaving the states I posted a request on Couchsurfing for a local to take me into the desert for an overnight camp and then a view of the sunrise. I was inundated with responders, a 50/50 split between creepy and helpful. One of the helpful folks was a guy named Nassir, who advised that I avoid staying overnight in the desert during the summer because I might die. And also, if I wished only to see the morning light, I would need to leave my hotel around 3am and drive for 2 hours. He recommended that I visit Wadi Shab instead, and offered to be my guide. Well, Nassir didn’t rape or kill me (obvs), and a year later, I met up with him and two new strangers to drive around Jordan for a week. During that same trip to Oman, I spent my last evening visiting a busy souq [market] and wound up meeting two Iranian men while trying to figure out parking. I wound up getting into their backseat, leaving my own car behind, and having the most unexpected and wonderful night of any trip thus far.
Embracing strangers is often the safest way to get the most out of traveling alone. The key is to trust your sense of “stranger danger,” and by that, I mean your sense of whether someone can be trusted or not. If you don’t have this skill, then I recommend working on it now. Interact with strangers a little bit every week until you feel comfortable getting a quick read on a person without even speaking to them. I’ve gotten lost a number of times on a hundred different trips, and I almost always get back on track by simply identifying a friendly soul. Sometimes the language barrier makes finding a solution difficult, but that’s why smartphones and phrasebooks exist.
Even beyond safety, strangers know where to eat. Finding the best local food is quite definitely the most important part of any trip, and so getting the info from those on the ground can be infinitely more helpful, and certainly more efficient, than searching the internet for hours on end. To be clear, I also search the internet for hours on end looking for the must-have eats, but that’s only because I’m a little cuckoo about this sort of thing. The eating is the only thing I plan when I travel, and while recommendations from a real-life person are awesome, there’s a huge benefit to being able to calculate travel times, distances and availability while lounging in bed on my laptop.
My second favorite part of solo travel is the random things I see and experience just by walking. If I’m in a city and there’s a restaurant or a store I’m interested in, I walk there. Even if the travel time is estimated at two hours, I walk there. If the distance is really long, I may only walk one way and then take a cab or train back. The important thing is committing to the adventure of going somewhere new and stumbling upon all the random little things you would otherwise miss, all by relying on your own two feet. I get the most out of any location by immersing myself in it, and I do that by walking down the streets, wandering through all the neighborhoods, sticking my head everywhere I can.
While I was in Lebanon this past summer, I decided to go get my head re-shaved because my hair was getting weird. I saw parts of the city I would have never seen otherwise; weird bread hanging on a wire, a random vegetable market on the sidewalk, the way people hung sheets to make up for the fact their home was still missing walls from being bombed out years ago. I even came across a makeshift coffee bar at the rear of a rust-bucket truck propped up on cinder blocks. These are the memories that make a trip special, and they are the kinds of things you will only see if you get off your ass and walk.
Ok yes, I just told you to get off your ass, but it’s equally important to get your rest. As I mentioned, complete and total control over your schedule is a major perk of traveling alone. Maybe you took an overnight flight, maybe you spent six hours walking, maybe the time change is still fucking with you; TAKE A NAP. Not only will it help you enjoy the rest of your trip, but you might also just discover something new in the course of getting some shuteye.
For instance, while rolling around my bed in Jordan, still lazy from my afternoon sleep, I noticed something on the ceiling near the window. It turned out to be a marker indicating the direction of Mecca! A totally random little thing I would have never seen if I hadn’t been napping. On an earlier trip to the UAE, my nap upon arrival ran long and I wound up wide awake before dawn. While hanging out the window looking for the direction of sunrise, I heard the call to prayer from the mosque nearby. It was a beautiful and magical moment, and again, all thanks to my willingness to sleep.
Know your resources
Smartphones are the greatest resource of all and here are the reasons why: navigation, currency info, translation, and document backup, all in the palm of your hand. Did you know you can still track your location in Google Maps, even without a signal? Open Google Maps while using WiFi and allow the local map to load; this will later allow you to navigate without cell service. Pull up the currency exchange rate and make a note of the conversion so you won’t be caught off guard while eating out or shopping. Use Google Translate to communicate with strangers and staff; and to understand signs, prices, menus and ingredients on food packages. Use your photo library and email as a backup for your memory and documents: take a screenshot of your mapped hotel location as well as a pic of the address; photograph your license and passport and send them to yourself. If you get robbed or concussed, those pieces of info will prove invaluable in getting you back on track.
If you get lost and there are no strangers around, or the language barrier proves too great a challenge, find a hotel. The staff will surely speak English, the lobby will probably have WiFi, and cabs are sure to be nearby.
And finally, trust yourself. Not only will your intuition guide you with strangers, it will often guide you towards inspiration. It also comes in handy if you’re lost; sometimes just taking a moment to breathe and center yourself will stir a gut reaction to a specific direction.
I hope these stories and tips inspire you to travel more and to do it alone. There’s so much out there to experience — be fearless and roam on!