8 Things I Wish I'd Known Before I Traveled Alone For The First Time

Emma McGowan

I love solo travel. My first solo trip was when I was 19 and I explored Italy on my own. Well, sort of on my own. I met a man in within the first couple of hours in the hostel in Rome and we had a whirlwind, two-week romance that ended with me crying in a park in Milan after he left me to catch a flight home. Since then, I’ve traveled around the world both by myself and with friends and my now-partner. And I’ve learned a lot.

While solo travel can seem intimidating — or even scary — in my experience, it’s a time for incredible growth and freedom. It’s so rare in our lives that we’re totally un-beholden to anyone else. When you’re traveling by yourself, you get to decide exactly what you want — and don’t want — to do. Sick of that town? Go to new one! Think the hostel is gross? Don’t stay there! Hungry? Get food! It’s an amazing feeling to be able to completely follow your own desires and whims, without having to be concerned about anyone else’s.

And when you travel on your own, you meet so many more interesting people. When you’re with a friend or a romantic partner, you automatically have someone to talk to and hang out with. And obviously that’s great for a lot of reasons! But when you’re on your own, you’re forced to interact with the people at the hostel or the bar or the restaurant. You seek out new interactions that you might not otherwise — and that you definitely wouldn’t if you were traveling with someone else.

But solo travel also comes with its own complications. So, in the interest of encouraging each and every one of you to book a solo trip sometime soon, here are nine things I wish I’d known before my first solo trip. Hopefully they’ll help make yours as smooth as possible.


The Right Hostel Makes All The Difference


If you’re staying in a hostel, be diligent about doing your research before you book. The right hostel for you will connect you with amazing, like-minded people and experiences — while the wrong one will make you feel uncomfortable or, even worse, unsafe.

In addition to the aforementioned man I met in a Roman hostel, the hostel I stayed at in Buenos Aires introduced me to not only my very first friends in the city, but also my future roommates. On the other hand, the crappy one I stayed at in Spain led to my digital camera being stolen. So read the reviews, look at the pics, and choose wisely.


Say “Yes” To Everything


Even things you wouldn’t normally do. One of the points of travel is expose yourself to new experiences, so say yes! Obviously don’t say yes to things that you’re super uncomfortable with or seem like they might be dangerous, but also be open to pushing yourself to try new things and having new experiences.


Don’t Be Scared To Speak The Language


I was so, so scared of messing up in Spanish that I spent months basically not talking at group events and being terrified that the person at the store would ask me a question. But the best advice I ever got was when someone suggested that instead of seeing myself as the dumb American who didn’t speak Spanish, think of myself as the cute French exchange student who makes adorable mistakes in English. The shift in perspective helped me started trying more in Spanish, which boosted my learning process so much.

Also, in most places they appreciate it when you at least try to speak the language. People are both more forgiving and more grateful than you’d expect.


Airbnbs Are Comfy, But Can Be Isolating


While hostels were my go-to in my late teens and early 20s, I rarely (if ever) stay in them now. Airbnbs are my go-to for housing and they definitely have advantages, including cleanliness, privacy, your own bathroom — you get the idea. But the one downside of an Airbnb when you’re traveling is you usually don’t have the opportunity to interact with other travelers. If you’re feeling particularly introverted, this can be an upside, but know that staying in your own place can be really isolating.


You Probably Won’t Sleep On Overnight Bus Trips


When you’re trying to save some money, sleeping on an overnight bus trip seems like the perfect move. You don’t have to worry about paying for a room for the night and you get to a new place! But, in my experience, those overnight bus trips are never as comfy as you think they’re going to be. Even if you upgrade to the seats that go all the way down, you’re still sleeping in a tiny space with a lot of other people. Who are strangers. And if you’re traveling on your own, you might feel not super safe sleeping in that kind of environment.

So while, yes, overnight bus trips are a good way to save some money, don’t count on sleeping too much. But if you plan on chilling out during your first day wherever you’re headed, you should be OK!


Liquid Doesn’t Work Great As Shampoo

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When I was packing my backpack for Argentina, I packed liquid soap and was like, “I can use this for everything! Body, face, hair, laundry! What a great way to save space!”

It took about three washes before I realized that the soap build up was not going to work for me and I broke down and bought some Argentine shampoo and conditioner. Avoid my mistake and just bring your preferred hair products.


Some Places Are Safer Than You’d Think

Evgeny Glazunov/Shutterstock

I’ve lived in and traveled to a lot of places that locals describe as “dangerous.” And while it’s good to listen to what the locals have to say, it’s also good to take their advice with a grain of salt. In my experience, people are quick to warn women in particular that somewhere is too dangerous, when in fact using common sense will protect you the majority of the time.

So don’t speak loudly in English. Don’t wear flashy jewelry, clothing, or sport expensive handbags. Don’t carry a giant, expensive camera around your neck or take your smartphone out everywhere. Be aware, but don’t ruin a solo trip — or avoid taking one altogether — because you’re being overcautious.


You Don’t Have To Actually Be “Solo” The Whole Time


For me, one of the best aspects of solo travel is that you don’t actually have to be solo the whole time, if you don’t want. Travelers are some of the friendliest people you’ll ever meet because everyone is out of their normal environment and looking for people to connect with. So if you want to be totally solo, get your introverted travel on! But if you don’t? Say hi to the person at the bar. Join in the conversation at the hostel. You might end up making some lifelong friendships.