Traveling all on your own is awesome. It's also nerve-racking, tricky, lonely, and can make you more paranoid about your personal safety than Olivia Benson on a stake-out. As the kind of person who moved halfway around the globe on her own at the age of 19 (this kind of person is usually called "insane"), I'm an expert on the nomadic urge and how sometimes it just can't be pinned down to other peoples' schedules, budgets, or vacation times. If you want to go now, damn it, and you don't want a girlfriend/partner/tour group to cramp your style, buy that plane ticket with confidence: it's perfectly possible to keep safe, be cool, have a good time, and save money while traveling solo.
You do, however, need to be a smart traveler, because if you wake up and somebody's stolen your passport and all your shoes, ain't nobody there to fix it but you. Solo travel is a Very Adult Thing, and does, alas, mean that you have to be Very Adult about organization, logistics, language barriers, and all the other stuff you'd be tempted to hand off to a traveling buddy. If you're looking for carefree holidays, going your own way may not be for you, but the preparation involved can be absolutely worth it.
After all, how often in your 20s do you get to look at something significant and go "I DID THIS ALL MYSELF," aside from building a DIY cupboard or making a six-layer cake? Here are 15 tips for traveling on your own.
1. Remember: itineraries are your friend.
Traveling solo 101: know where you're going and when. Having an itinerary set up ahead of time, rather than winging it, makes life a lot easier as a solo traveler, because booking as you go is a hell of a time-waster. Trust me, you'll get bored of sorting out a new hostel every night if you're the one in charge of finding it every day. Pre-book popular museums and events in advance and research things thoroughly; that way, you're much less likely to grab a useless City Pass with discounts to 5 attractions you weren't going to see anyway.
Of course, you can still play most things by ear once you get there (see #15), but you'll be glad you made some arrangements ahead of time.
2. Make contact wherever you are.
This is the major safety check: if possible, be in contact with somebody whenever you arrive in a new place, so it's easy to track your movements. It doesn't have to be a daily "1300 HOURS: SITTING ON BEACH" thing; a smug Instagram from your current locations is perfectly acceptable, if likely to annoy people.
3. Try to connect with locals.
The pendulum in travel is swinging away from mass experiences to more closely tailored ones, and that opens up opportunities for solo travelers. Stay in an apartment with Airbnb, sign up for a scheme that invites you to dinner at locals' homes, and start up conversations. If you're extroverted, this especially will give you a social boost.
4. Enjoy being selfish.
The number one joy of going anywhere on your own? You don't have to listen to anybody. Skip the museum queues and go get ice cream; sit for two more hours on the beach; break off from a cultural walk to poke about in a shop. Consciously enjoy your freedom by doing things you've always wanted to do, and never feel guilty about what that is.
5. Keep an emergency kit.
Traveling on your own means you've got to take care of yourself, so pack a minimum first aid kit and get the contact details for embassies or places to go if you hit trouble. If things go wrong, it'll be a relief to know you've done the research already and can just hit the ground running.
6. Keep all your documents on you.
This is a personal one, but I hate leaving passports in hotels — it gives me the itches. I always keep it on me under my clothes (not in a bag where it could be nicked by pickpockets). If you're supremely confident in your hotel safe, keep it there, but otherwise precious stuff needs to stay with you.
7. Learn to enjoy eating alone.
Traveling on your own doesn't mean you need to avoid living the high life. If you've never eaten in a restaurant on your own before, now is the time to indulge, because it's a necessary decadence, particularly if your destination has some serious cuisine. No eating alone in your hostel room out of fear. Go out and get that table.
8. Trust your gut.
Unless you're the sweetest, most trusting person in the world — and if you are, please don't travel alone, because the results will be inconvenient for you — you will probably encounter situations you don't like. Catcalling, bad areas of town, invitations you don't quite trust: be aware of your instincts, stick to well-lit and populated places, and don't do anything with the gorgeous dude you've just met who needs to borrow $200 but he'll be back right away, he promises.
9. Pack light.
You need less than you think you do. Point one: nobody is judging your fashion choices. Point two: you have to carry all this stuff. Be sensible and prepared, but leave the hair straightener at home.
10. Respect your preferences.
I am an introvert with social anxiety. I like big museums, immense pastries, deserted beaches, waiters who don't try to talk to me, picnics in remote parks, bakers who don't try to talk to me, sandwich-sellers who don't like to talk to me, and so on. I know this about myself, and my solo trips are planned according to those needs: no big party towns, crowded hostel rooms, or tours.
Your needs on a solo trip can be surprisingly different from your needs on a family or group holiday, so get to know them, and yourself, in the process.
11. Avoid losing your perspective.
Look, get drunk or high or wigged out on mysterious funguses if you like. I'm not going to judge you or tell you it's a flat-out bad idea. Just try to remain conscious of a) where you are, b) where your belongings are, and c) who your companions are. If any of those things get hazy, go home.
12. Don't let loneliness scare you.
People get lonely. This is natural. But try to resist the urge to log onto an expat website and beg for company or go join a tour group until you've passed the first few days. If you do decide that's your jam, do it: it's certainly less of a responsibility. But at least give yourself a chance to wing it for a bit.
13. Enjoy your evenings.
Get dressed up and go to the opera, explore the local gig scene, check out the aforementioned restaurants. Evenings are the most challenging time for people who are used to traveling with company, because it seems like a lot of after-dark activities are designed to do with friends — but be brave and do at least one nighttime thing. (On a solo trip to Prague I snagged a student ticket to the opera and ended up sitting next to a famous Dutch conductor.) Make it happen.
14. Learn the lingo.
If you are not linguistically confident (I'm not: I lived in Berlin alone for two months once, and despite speaking perfectly OK German, barely spoke two words to anybody), you'd better brush up on your skills. Navigating peculiar cities on your own will be easier if you can buy your own food and tickets, ask about travel and opening times, and understand the answers.
15. Change your mind just for the hell of it.
You know how I said itineraries are amazing things? They are, but on one occasion throw them out the window and do something ridiculous. You're not tied to anybody else's plans; so go on a day trip to another city, stay out till dawn, decide to stay somewhere way longer than you'd planned because you like it so much. Why the hell not? You're the boss.
Images: Chris Sardegna/Unsplash; Giphy.