12 Ways To Kick-Start Your First Solo Travel Experience
Did you imagine the start of your travels to be somewhat like this?
A regular family is eating dinner quietly, when all of a sudden, the youngest of the family, the mousiest of the lot, suddenly drops her fork with a clatter, announces to her parents that she’s going to globetrot, her parents cheer and then, the next thing you know, she’s wandering into the heart of Patagonia, with a backpack and saucepans clanging on the side.
Yes, you did and worse of all, you truly believed in that little story that you’d made up. You haven’t started your travels because you’re waiting for that one-size-fit-all-sure-fire-formula that will turn you from an ordinary being into an extraordinary adventurer. While waiting for this formula to drop from the sky, you thought perhaps it’ll be just be easier to travel vicariously through your favourite travel blogs.
Am I right?
Well guess what, there is really no such formula. No traveller steps out into the world, fearless and bold. No one bought a one-way ticket somewhere after they’ve got their shit all figured out.
I did not start kick-start my travels with confidence, neither did I start it with plenty of money in my bank account. There were no fanfare nor farewell parties, my dad did not give a speech nor gave me his blessings, and no pinned blog posts that marked any particular departure as significant. I was shy and spoke only when spoken to. I feel awkward mostly, like the sort of girl-next-door that no one gives a second glance to.
My orientation skills were bad. I gave up reading maps and what the hell; I couldn’t afford the Lonely Planet guidebooks that the maps were in anyway. There were also no jobs waiting for me anywhere—so I free fell when I left. Like literally, I-don’t-know-what-I’m-doing-but-I’m-going-to-do-it-anyway-because-you’re-only-young-once.
And yet, 7 years later, I’m still very much alive. Well. Happy even.
So the question that has been lingering in most of your minds is, how the f$%k can you do the same? If there isn’t a sure-fire way, perhaps there are some tips that might help you kick-start your first solo travel experience?
1) TAKE ADVANTAGE OF THE FACT THAT YOU HAVE IT BETTER
Yes, you really do. Back then, no one I knew, travelled the world. Travel blogs were rare. Backpacking wasn’t trendy. It belonged to the crazies, right next to esoteric religions, hippies and hobos. But now, you can read the thousands of blogs that tell you how you can/should/must quit your job and travel the world. You can read at least up to 100 different articles on how you can travel for less than RM100 a day on the Internet-for free! Most of them offer very precise information on how and where you can travel to with that sort of budget.
I used ThornTree Forums and CouchSurfing forums but really, you can find almost everything on google these days.
So, there’s absolutely no excuse here. Make use of every resource you have—time, youth, information, high-speed Internet. Don’t spend your time watching cat videos or stalking your ex-boy/girlfriends.
If anything, it should be evident to you by now, that I started with no added advantages. If I could have done it, so could you.
2) SAVE, SAVE, SAVE MONEY
I know you don’t want to hear it but I’m going to say it anyway. Save your hard-earned money! Stop reading articles mentioned in point #1 while sipping an Iced Cappuccino in Starbucks. Stop going to Starbucks or to some hipster joint to do your college assignments. I have nothing against cute cafes or mega coffee chains but clearly, money is not going to save by itself if you keep visiting places like that while you rake in less than RM3K a month as a fresh graduate.
But, but, I’ve got a lifestyle to maintain! It is necessary!
Well friend, you can’t have everything. To really want to get travelling started, without much money, you’ll have to give up some things in life. Do you really need that new phone, that daily latte macchiato or that new dress? Imagine every RM25 or RM100 saved a week, you can get another day in somewhere cheap like Laos or Peru.
When I started travelling, my phone was a freaking brick of a Nokia. 4 years down the road since my departure, when everyone was having the iPhone 3 or 4, I was still going strong with my Nokia 3xxx. Sure, my friends teased me about it but to me, it was clear. Affording my travels was my top priority. So I gave up being chic for travelling. But no one called me cheap anymore because the photos of my travels had made them envious of my lifestyle.
3) EARN, EARN, EARN MONEY
When I started my first job as a PR Consultant, I knew that I didn’t want to work for four years just to save up enough for my globetrotting dreams. I was young, naïve and hungry. The call of wanderlust felt so urgent that I started devising ways of how I could earn more money. I realised that it wasn’t about not earning enough money but rather, the weak Malaysian currency had put me on a disadvantage. While most Australians or Japanese could work for a year and save up enough to travel the world, we, as Malaysians, have to toil four times longer just to make the same amount. Hence, I looked outside Malaysia for the sort of jobs that I could do. I was prepared to do anything. I started knocking on all the doors that I could find.
Opening of one door led to another and then another. Eventually a contact on CouchSurfing pointed me towards a right door, the golden door. A year later, I found myself a job on a cruise ship as an English teacher to the crew and was earning lots of Euros!
Am I lucky? No. I’d put in a lot of effort researching, meeting new people, and basically, scratching all surfaces for potential opportunities. Did I wait around to have this ‘job’ before my starting my journey?
No—I started travelling before this ‘break’ happened. In fact, I was so close to being broke before this opportunity surfaced.
Did you need to get this sort of job before starting? Absolutely not.
You can most definitely find a cruise ship job now and work a contract to save up the money you need, or you can be a little more creative.
Freelance whenever you have time. Sell nasi lemak over the weekends. Do a Working Holiday Visa in Australia or in New Zealand. Sell cupcakes to family and friends. Make café lattes or bartend somewhere.
The point is, just freaking do something about it.
4) WORKING AND TRAVELLING
This is the best way to extend your travels temporarily. If you can’t bother to earn or save up that much money, then maybe you can work and travel instead. I worked on cruise ships and travelled in between ship contracts. I’ve also worked and holidayed in the UK and Australian Work so that I could save and travel more.
As a Malaysian, you are eligible to apply for both Australian and New Zealand Working Holiday Visas. It’s a marvelous way to fund your travels. By doing casual but well-paying jobs, you’ll get to save faster and be on the road longer. I’ve got friends who backpacked Europe and South America for a year, from the money they’d saved up from toiling away in Woolworths or in a farm.
You can also work in exchange for food and accommodation. Plenty of travellers sign up for WorkAway and HelpX as apart from helping them to save, the websites also allow them to experience a foreign country differently. There’s also the new Working Traveller website to check out.
Working in a winery in France—isn’t that way cooler than just taking a selfie in front of it?
5) TRAVEL CHEAPLY
Stay for free
Ever heard of CouchSurfing, BeWelcome or GlobalFreeloaders? These websites allow you to sleep in people’s homes for free so, why haven’t you signed up for any one of them yet? I’m not advocating that you should only be part of the network just to get a free sleep, but it’s really a great way to stretch your budget and learn the reality of the living conditions of the country that you’re travelling in. Aren’t you at least curious—to know how someone in Seoul or Maldives truly live? Isn’t it a little more exciting and cost-efficient to be staying with a crumbling Parisian apartment than an international Hotel?
Being a CouchSurfer has also led me to making great friendships. For example, Nithin, an American CouchSurfer, had become one of my dearest friends over the years. We’d hung out again and again in Singapore, Malaysia, Florida and soon, perhaps in Germany too!
But do be smart in choosing your hosts. If a potential host has a dodgy profile, especially one with less than 10 awesome personal references, then do not send them a Couch Request! And if you’re a girl and feel uncomfortable in staying at a guy’s place, you can always choose to stay with a family, a couple or just with another girl.
But if you’re still weirded out and would really rather not bunk in a stranger’s house, then stay in dorms. Hostels around the world offer dorms beds with affordable prices. This means, staying in a room with 3 or 6 or 10 other travellers. Dorm beds can range from RM20 to RM 100, depending on the countries that you’re in. The cheapest dorm bed that I’d slept in was RM10 in Hanoi Spirit House and I stayed for almost 3 weeks.
Once you step away from Asia and into Europe, food prices immediately double. But don’t let that put you off. So long as you don’t eat in restaurants everyday, you’ll be able to stretch your budget.
Make your own food instead. I’ve had lots of fun, making my own meals in Croatia, Macedonia, Italy, Albania and even the Philippines! It also taught me a lot about what locals eat daily and the kind of groceries that supermarkets around the world stock. You can make sandwiches out of fresh ingredients from local markets and find a nice spot somewhere to sit and enjoy your view. The best experiences are sometimes free!
5) ALONE BUT NOT LONELY
The best thing about using websites mentioned in #4 or hostelling is that you’ll get to meet locals, or just people that you could hang out with if you were travel to a city solo. No one says that solo travel has to be lonely. No one says that you have to eat in restaurants alone and pretend to be perfectly fine with it.
The idea of speaking to random strangers used to petrify me. I just wasn’t that sort of girl who could speak to anyone, anywhere.
Maybe it’s the Asian part of me who taught me to keep to myself but the ultimate paradox was, I was actually dying for some company!
I wanted to share my thoughts, exchange ideas with someone else over beers and to laugh off a bus ride from hell with someone. But I just couldn’t bring myself to talk to the other only backpacker sitting in the bar or in the bus. Naturally I later learned the art of talking to strangers. But before I got to that shameless stage, CouchSurfing and talking to my fellow dorm buddies helped me to make friends in a sane way that I could relate to.
Connecting to other people, who love travelling just as much as you do via CouchSurfing forums or by sending them private messages before getting there, was easy and definitely not creepy. After a few messages exchanged, it seemed almost natural to meet the other person in person and say Hi!
People who stay in dorms are normally solo travellers as well. They usually make great sidekicks and an amazing meal-time partner. And since you both can bond over cheap travelling, there will be lots to share and to learn from each other.
6) TO QUIT OR NOT TO QUIT YOUR JOB
I suppose this is the scariest part. Many of you already travel whenever you could afford some leave days. You pounce on cheap AirAsia deals, you visit a country for a week or two, and then you return back and wait for the next time you can do it all over again. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. But you wouldn’t be reading this post if you were more interested in those sort of short spurts of vacation.
To experience wanderlust’s ultimate sense of freedom and call to adventure, is to wake up in a foreign country, not knowing where you’ll go and how your day will turn out. All you know is that you’ve got all the time in the world to figure that out.
That sort of come-what-may feeling may only be experienced when you travel for long periods of time. ‘Long’ is relative, but at least long enough for you to challenge your beliefs, take yourself out of your comfort zone and enough to throw all certainty out of the window. That’s when the fun starts.
Maybe you have that sort of job that allows you to take a sabbatical but I didn’t. My option then was to quit my job and carve my own path.
7) HOW TO TELL THE PARENTS/FAMILY/FRIENDS
There is no easy way to do this. Naturally, they will all think that you’re crazy.
Especially when you’ve worked so hard for a certain position in a company, or that you’ve incurred so much debts from studying for a degree in a foreign country or you risk being called ungrateful by your family who’d supported your expensive education.
And finally, they all are probably concerned for you and have the best intentions in mind.
What do you say to these people then? Whether they all cross-examine you judgementally or lovingly, dare you break their hearts or turn against them in defence of your dreams?
When I first started out, my naïve instinct was, to hell with them. I’m living my life, not you. People encounter danger everyday anyway-they probably are more prone to accidents in parking lots and the highway then I, in walking around in Myanmar.
However, as I grew older (and yikes—wiser) I realised that resisting your concerned family and friends isn’t the best idea. They genuinely care for you anyway.
The best way to break it to them is to share with them, your exact plans. Rope them into your planning. Make them feel like they play an important role in your journey. Some rough routes and perhaps some sort of backup plan when things go wrong.
You can also persuade them that it’s an investment. Education on the road, lessons from real life. Show them well-written articles about why you cannot afford not to travel. Preach about how many successful entrepreneurs out there who travelled. Or how being well-travelled may help you bump up your CV.
If they all still go all Asian on you and say, “You’re not ang-moh or mat-salleh. This nomadic lifestyle is unacceptable,” then just assure them that you’re not going to travel forever. See if you negotiate yourself for a 3-month escapade at the very least.
8) HOW SAFE IS SAFE?
How do you keep your valuables safe? How do you keep yourself safe? For me, this is a question of perspective. Where do you feel safer? In the dark parking lots of Mid Valley mall or in Taksim, Istanbul? Both places are just as safe and just as dangerous as the other. I’ve been hassled by vendors in Alexandria, and in Petaling Street. I’ve fought with taxi drivers in both Kuala Lumpur and Phnom Penh.
Travelling always involves a degree of risk, but this risk extends to just about anywhere, including your home country.
If you want to be truly safe, keep your eyes and ears open. Don’t travel when you’re too tired, or don’t get too drunk. If you sense something awry, run. You’re gifted with an instinct to survive, use it well.
Unfortunately, danger and bad luck can happen anywhere. When something bad happens, don’t panic. Think yourself out of your problem. Seek help. You’ll be surprise to find how kind strangers can be.
Ultimately, be adventurous and stay mindful of your surroundings, but don’t let the fear of danger keep you in your glass palace.
9) WHERE CAN YOU GO WITHOUT A VISA?
According to this article, Malaysians can travel up to 166 countries without a visa. That’s a heck load of countries to visit before you retire.
If you haven’t been taking advantage of the 8th world’s best passport, then you really should do something about it. Pick five countries from that list and start packing now!
10) PACK LIGHT
Aspiring travellers always get this wrong. I know it can be very exciting to leave to travel for a year, but you don’t need to pack your house along. Lugging a heavy backpack can be a downer. You’ll tend to misplace and lose things, and you’re more prone to little mishaps like missing your bus or forgetting to pick up your camera bag when you hop off the mini-van. Why? Because you’re carrying way too much.
The best luggage anyone can bring along for their travels, both girls and guys, whether for a one-month getaway or forever, is a 40+10 L Backpack and a 18L Daypack.
Keep your valuables in your daypack and put everything else in your backpack.
You want to have ideally, less than 13kg in your backpack. For me, I usually have about 10 kg. This helps me navigate better and gives me a greater degree of flexibility in choosing transport options. In Europe, most underground stations have no elevators or escalators. In Myanmar, some busses require you to sit with your luggage as certain small town busses don’t have a separate compartment for them.
If you absolutely can’t leave home without a particular item, I say pack that ONE thing and leave the rest. For me, it’s my hair dryer and I’ve been travelling with it, around the world, ever since.
10) THROW AWAY THAT BUCKET LIST
The whole world wants to visit Bali, Paris and New York, including you. Everyone wants to have a glimpse of what have been much written and talked about but these places are expensive and full of tourists. If you’re just starting out, why not try somewhere less popular?
In 2006, the first country I backpacked to was Myanmar. Precisely the fact that it was closed off and mysterious, got me curious in the first place. Needless to say, the locals there welcomed me with open arms. Sunsets from the deserted Bagan temples were more spectacular to behold. I also, somehow managed to stretch my tiny budget of USD400 for 2 months.
Till this day, I still choose destinations that way. The less I know about the country or city, the more I want to visit it. It’s no wonder why Antarctica is on the top of my list.
More often than not, I end up with my mind blown by traipsing through these unknown places.
11) WHAT IF YOU’RE NOW IN YOUR LATE 20’s/30’s…
Well, if you are single with no dependants, why not? Age is just a figure.
You may perhaps find it harder to leave behind everything than your younger counterparts. Do remember however, if you find it hard to leave at 28, would you dare leave at 35? It doesn’t get better.
Let’s just say, it’s never too late. I’ve met so many travellers, some in their late 30’s, some in their early 50’s, and they all looked like their life have finally started once they hit the road.
What travelling can do to you, is it can provide you a fresh perspective, a change of scenery. If you’ve always been living your life one way, how about trying it another way? Life is meant to be experienced. Again, gift yourself with this time. Whether 6-months or 1 year is irrelevant. Just do it. Surprise yourself.
The amazing thing is, you can always go right back into the corporate world. I’ve done it. I never had problems looking for work right after my long-stints of travel. In fact, most employers were curious about my adventures and called me into an interview, just for that.
12) COLD FEET AFTER BUYING THAT ONE-WAY TICKET
Gosh. Now what? All of a sudden, you are overwhelmed by a nasty vision of the future: you lose your luggage, you get mugged, you are sobbing alone in an uncomfortable train ride, etc.
The best therapy against that is to open up your Instagram app and scroll through those beautiful places that you’ve yet to see. If you don’t take that first step out of your house, you’re never going to see them. Ever.
Remember. If you don’t like it, you can always go home.