So your girlfriends are planning a trip to Cabo — again. Might we ever so politely suggest ditching your friends and heading out on a great big trip all by your lonesome? Solo travel sounds scary, but it can be totally rewarding in ways traveling with friends just can’t be. If you choose to travel alone, you’ll probably end up learning way more about your destination — and about yourself, too.
Solo travel can mean more freedom, flexibility, and uncompromising adventures, instead of your typical tanning seshes by the pool (unless, of course, you happen to be yearning for some alone time with the sun. Nothing wrong with that). But planning and executing a trip all by yourself can also be pretty overwhelming.
I spoke to Zoe Balaconis of Misadventures Magazine, an online magazine by and for adventurous women, to get the scoop on how to carve out spectacular experiences — and stay safe — while traveling alone. With solo travel stints in Hong Kong, Kenya, and Hawaii (a girl’s gotta surf), she’s got some major trekking credentials. From the best apps for the lone traveler to the hardest parts of exploring new destinations solo (hint: you will get lonely), these 11 tips are must-reads before you book that single ticket outta town.
BE OPEN TO GOING WITH THE FLOW
The best part of traveling solo? You, and only you, are in charge. “You can create a whole day without having to make any compromises,” Balaconis tells Bustle. “When traveling with other people, you want everyone to have a good experience — whether that’s doing touristy things to check off a list, outdoorsy experiences, or more cultural experiences. But if you’re by yourself, you’re more able to just let things happen.”
That’s exactly what Balaconis did when she had just a few weeks left working and traveling in Hong Kong, where she was teaching poetry to ESL students at an international school. She took a short trip to Lamma Island — only a half hour away from the mainland — and fell in love with the fresh seafood, great hiking, and decidedly more laid-back vibe. So, she moved there.
“I lived out my last two weeks or so in a bed and breakfast on the island. It was such a good decision; I had found my pace and place and made great friends. Traveling alone allowed me to make that snap decision."
BE PREPARED TO FEEL LONELY
Sure, the whole point of solo travel is to go it alone, but that doesn’t mean you won’t long for familiar faces. “Sometimes amazing experiences are only possible because you’re alone,” says Balaconis. “But you’ll still miss having someone to corroborate your stories and reminisce with — mythical tales are hard to create when it’s just you.” Keep your “all good, all the time” expectations in check, and see it as a chance to sit with the discomfort of feeling lonely.
DON'T SCOFf AT THE BUDDY SYSTEM
As women, we’ve been inundated basically since birth with warnings to “always use the buddy system” and “never talk to strangers.” Don’t let these warnings worry you away from traveling alone — but don’t roll your eyes at them, either.
“The messages are exaggerated, but that’s because the point is to scare you — and you should be a little scared. When you’re aware of the dangers, then you’ll know how to be safe by yourself," Balaconis says. "Know when and where it’s less risky to be alone, especially at night.”
There’s a work around, though, for the solo traveler: “It’s easy to make friends with other women at a hostel, for example, who are also flying solo,” says Balaconis. “You could do things together, and that could be fun as well.”
TAKE CARE OF YOUR MENTAL Health
Traveling far distances alone would make Balaconis anxious and sometimes even trigger panic attacks. She said that keeping a journal with her at all times helped: “I could write what I was feeling so I could work through it, since I didn’t have anyone to ‘talk it out’ with.”
It might seem nerdy, but Balaconis recommends bringing a large, well-stocked first aid kit and a smaller one that you can keep on you at all times. Plus: “think about bringing medical drugs that might be difficult to get abroad, like general antibiotics.”
Balaconis also recommends erring on the side of caution by keeping others in the loop on your whereabouts. “Give a rough itinerary to people you’ve met or your family members back home, says Balaconis. “It’ll leave a breadcrumb trail if anything bad does happen — and it’ll make you feel better, too.”
consider an organized trip
Traveling alone doesn’t mean you have to be stuck in your own head the whole time — it’s a great way to meet new people, too. Going on a themed trip or program can help you find like-minded peeps. “I know women who have had great trips centered around activities like climbing or yoga that come with a built-in community,” says Balaconis.
or travel alone ... to meet family
If you're scared to do something as extreme as backpacking alone, a great way to test the solo-travel waters can be to visit a distant relatives you haven’t met before. How cool would it be to find your trademark freckles on the other side of the world?
TAKE ADVANTAGE OF TECHNOLOGY
Want to find the best pastries in Paris or the cheapest gas on Route 66? There’s an app for that. Technology makes travel easier, so do some googling to find what works for you. Balaconis recommends the travel app Yonder: “It’s a cool way to find good routes and places to visit, and the app makes it easier to meet up with other people.”
...But know when to unplug
When traveling alone, you may be even more compelled to blog, tweet, and post about your experiences. And why not? The sunset selfie of you summiting Mt. Kilimanjaro deserves all the likes. But try planning a quick solo escape that’s only a city or state away — and not posting about it at all.
“It’s rare to have an experience that’s truly your own, where there’s no evidence of it,” says Balaconis. “It’s scary to people to do something without proof — but it can be awesome and so refreshing. That experience becomes extra special — a little jewel that you can carry around with you for rest of life. It’s like a secret power.”
TAKE TIME FOR REFLECTION
Solo travel challenges us in unique ways, which often leads to some pretty big “ah-ha” moments about ourselves. Take some time to reflect on what you learned about yourself, and be sure to apply your new self-knowledge on your next trip. “I learned that I really enjoy being alone; I need that time,” says Balaconis. “Now when I travel with others, I know to carve out time to do something meaningful by myself.”
Images: Giphy (9); Luis Hernandez/Flickr