With age comes wisdom. I’ve been traveling – not always, but very often solo – since I finished high school. Back then I just grabbed my backpack, which was usually too heavy, stuffed some naiveté in a tote bag and just went for it. It was a rocky path of travel fails, missed opportunities, a few small regrets and sometimes just sheer luck. To travel itself is quite easy – all you need is a ticket – but to travel well is a different story.
Over the years I’ve picked up lots and lots of tips, learned from my own mistakes and also took other people’s advice. I’m by far not a perfect traveler – packing is still my least favorite thing in the world – but to make your life of travel easier, I thought I’d share with you 10 things I wish I had known before my very first solo trip!
1) Double check your passport
Luckily I never had a massive passport fail – except for that one time when I took the train to Germany, but booked a flight home and realized at the airport that my passport was still at home in Vienna… Seeing that I was flying within the Schengen area, and maybe cried a tear or two, the friendly airline crew still let me board my plane – what a lesson!
So, make sure you have your passport to begin with, but also check your destination’s visa regulations (embassy websites usually have correct information). Some countries require a certain amount of free pages left in your passport, while others need it to be valid for a certain amount of time after your trip. Your passport should fulfil all these requirements!
2) Make sure your bank cards work abroad
When you leave the country, you should let your bank know about it. If a bank notices several payments and withdrawals from an unexpected country, they might shut down your cards for security reasons. This happened to me once when I was traveling in France while working for a film festival as guest coordinator. I was booking several flights for guests of the festivals and had completely forgotten to tell my bank I’d be abroad – three flights in, my card was declined and I received an automated phone call from my bank making sure I was still in possession of it.
In Costa Rica it took me several days to find a cash machine that would let me withdraw money and even then it would only accept my credit card and not my debit card. This meant paying additional transaction fees which I hadn’t budgeted in… Since then I always try to have at least a basic amount of foreign currency exchanged at home, particularly when I’m traveling somewhere in Africa, Asia or South America.
Finally, it is always advisable to make sure you know which currency to use at your destination and look up the conversion rate. Do you know which European countries use Euro, and which have their own currency?
3) Pack only as much as you can carry
This is a no-brainer… You’re on a solo trip after all, so there is no one to help you carry your load. And yet, I set out on my first big solo trip to Canada with a massive backpack, only to acquire a second smaller one for hiking drips and filled it with an unholy amount of vintage clothes that I didn’t really need…
Don’t forget to leave some space for inevitable souvenirs.
4) Don’t be afraid to be yourself
Staying true to yourself and finding your own travel style to match your personality is one of the foundations of Travelettes.
If you don’t like the comfort wear of backpackers, travel is no reason to give up on make-up and dresses, if that’s your thing. Travel should be a cultural exchange and you communicate about your home and background as much as the locals you meet communicate about where they are coming from.
Solo travel is the ideal opportunity to learn more about yourself, your strengths and weaknesses – and the best thing: no one will judge you for who you are when they meet your for the first time!
And most importantly, go where you want to go and do what you want to do – not what you think others expect from you.
5) Stay active!
Yes, you are going to explore the world and inherently that means eating all the local delicacies and delicious foods, but try and maintain a normal exercise cadence.
Maybe try finding local yoga classes, try tai chi on the streets of Vietnam, walk everywhere rather than taking public transport – hike, surf, swim, or go for a jog in every city you land in. Whatever keeps that adventure bod healthy!
Related read: The lazy girl’s guide to keeping fit while traveling
6) Leave some space for spontaneity
It’s easy to fall into the trap of planning every day of your solo trip to the last detail; better safe than sorry, right? Well, no – while having a rough plan (particularly how to deal with worst case scenarios), solo travel is also about letting things unfold as they happen and going with the flow. Leave some room for spontaneous activities or detours from your itinerary – you never know which local insider tip you pick up at the next hostel!
7) Bring tiny (and lightweight) giveaways
Bring something typical from your country (like sweets or such) to thank locals for help or just be nice to someone and share a bit of your culture. A little gift can go a long way! If you’re into photography, an instant camera might be a great investment to take photos of locals and give them a copy to keep.
However, be sensitive about the culture you are visiting with your gifts – don’t bring a bag full of pork gelatine sweets into an islamic country for example.
8) Write things down, take photos, record the sounds
You’ll experience so many things, it might be hard to remember all the details. What was that restaurant called again with the vegan raw salads? And our guide on that brilliant kayaking tour? What were my first thoughts when I touched down – what did I notice most?
Journaling, taking photos and even recording sounds, street noise or short interviews with people you encounter can really help to remember as much as possible. Maybe you could even start a travel blog?
9) It’s OK to be lonely
You’re not a failure if you find yourself in your hotel room and all you want to do is curl up and cry because you miss home – which happened to me on a whirlwind trip to the Brazilian Amazon. Feeling down is not a reason to give up traveling – it’s just a phase that will pass soon enough.
Homesickness happens to the best, but there are ways to fight it!
10) Trust the friendliness of strangers
Staying safe on the road is the most important rule of traveling – but that doesn’t mean that you have to stay away from all the strangers you encounter.
Switch on your streetwise instincts and trust your guts to stay safe, but when you have a good feeling accept the friendliness of strangers. I accepted lifts, couches to crash and experiences to share from strangers all over the world. I made some friends for life by simply letting them come into my life and helping me in one way or the other – it makes you see the good in people!
Do you have anything to add? I would love to hear your top solo travel tips in the comments!