Traveling solo for the first time? Here’s what you need to know
In the age of travel blogs, Tripadvisor and budget airlines, solo travel has never been easier. Advice on how to take your first trip abroad is now just a mouse or a swipe away. You no longer have to spend time in bookstores trying to memorize pages from the Lonely Planet guidebooks or hunt down that elusive family member for a chat, just because that uncle or aunt once backpacked Europe in the 70’s. Traveling tips and hacks are longer rare. Brick-and-mortar travel agencies are slowly becoming irrelevant in the digital age.
At least, that was what I thought until a friend approached me on Facebook, asking me how does one travel solo. Wait a minute, but didn’t I just say–? Okay, never mind. Maybe people do still have questions. Maybe precisely because there’s just so much information out there that one can’t help but get confused. I can see it now–I mean, where do you even begin, with all this barrage of information?
Interestingly, the Germans have a saying for this: Wer die Wahl hat, hat die Qual, which roughly translates to the agony of choice. When one is faced with so many choices and options, one will suffer. Especially when it concerns decisions that would make or break the outcome of something. Now, who would have thought Germans are so wise? I digress.
So for all those out there, who’s still in the state of analysis paralysis or seeking clearer answers to their first-ever solo trip preparation, this step-by-step blog post is for you.
But before we start off with the nitty gritty, remind yourself of this:
WHY ARE YOU TRAVELLING SOLO
Yes, the prospect of solo travel can be scary. You might get lost. You might run out of money. You might end up in some village with an unpronounceable name and not know how to communicate with the locals. You might miss your train. You might forget to remove your credit card from the ATM machine. And goodness gracious, you probably even have to eat alone! Gasp! What would people think?
Yet despite all those fears, you’ve decided to give solo travel a try. Why? Because you want to challenge yourself and move outside your comfort zone? Because you want to build confidence? Because you’re tired of being fearful and would like, for once in your life, do something scary?
All those are great reasons to travel solo but don’t forget, it could also be enjoyable. You get to decide where to go and how you spend your day.
Remember those hectic family vacations or those trips with friends which you’ve taken, where you get dragged from shops to shops, or museums to museums, when all you wanted to do instead, was to enjoy an ice-cream on a charming square somewhere and people watch? Then you’ll know how relaxing it can be when you’re left to your own devices. You can plan your travel exactly the way you want it to be. No more compromising!
SET YOUR BUDGET
It’s no surprise that your financial wealth will dictate how your trip will look like. If you have loads saved up, then you’ll have lots of options. But for your first solo trip, I do recommend against splurging. The last thing you want to do is to spend all your hard-earned salary on a pricey trip to Paris or London. It’s not worth it because you don’t even know if you like travelling solo just yet! You’re merely just testing water, trying to find out if you’re cut out for more solo trips in future.
My advice is to dream big but start small. Save up your bucket list destinations for the future, when you become more seasoned.
Travel within your means. Give yourself a X-a day budget (excluding flights or other forms of transportation that get you in and out of the country) and make it work. Don’t let lack of funds turn you off from your solo adventure. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. There are plenty of destinations out there which are ideal for solo budget travellers.
Now, what is a good budget? To be honest, it really depends! You’ll just have to pick a country that matches your budget and take into account, how much you’ll need for 3 three meals a day, your accommodation, transportation (if any) and your sightseeing activities.
When I first started out, I had no extra money to spend on sightseeing activities. So I did things which didn’t cost anything, like visiting markets, walking around, joining free walking tours, hanging out in parks or by the beach, that sort of thing. I also traveled past Siam Reap without visiting Angkor Wat. That was how little money I had.
Lastly, make sure that your funds are easily accessible while you’re traveling. I’ve always just taken debit/credit cards with me and would withdraw the local currency the minute I get into the country. To be safe, you might also want to have some local currency in cash at hand before leaving. You can just exchange a small sum at your local money exchange.
IDEAL DESTINATIONS FOR FIRST-TIME SOLO TRAVELERS
You’ll be surprised how important it is to address this issue properly. To put it simply, your destination depends on your budget and how open you are to different cultures and changes. In my opinion, first timers shouldn’t be too ambitious. Don’t go too far and not for too long if you’re not sure how of things will pan out. A period of 10-14 days would be a good starting point.
If you live in Southeast Asia, try neighbouring countries. Countries like Thailand, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar and so on, are best if you’re starting out. It’s very affordable, you can get there overland (if you want) and if you prefer to fly, budget airlines like AirAsia, Malindo or Scoot Air can take you there for cheap. It is a pretty well-trodden backpacking circuit, but there’s still a chance to find some interesting corners if you dare to venture a little deeper.
If you don’t trust yourself to tackle the local busses on your own, head down to the local tour agency in the city and get something arranged for you. Sometimes, they even offer you door-to-door services where you’ll be picked up from your guesthouse and get dropped off at a meeting point or a bus terminal or some sort.
The other best part about not venturing too far is that, if you discover that solo travel isn’t exactly your cup of tea, you can just turn back and go home easily. Remember, starting small is important. Small wins will lead to big gains.
When I first started backpacking, I chose Myanmar as my destination. But the adventure didn’t only begin there. It began at Pudu Sentral bus terminal in KL where I was due to take a regional bus to Butterworth (something which I’ve never done!) and from there, an overnight train to Bangkok. All these steps leading to my eventual arrival in Yangon, were part of my solo journey. I still recall this day, of how nervous I was when I was on the train, worrying that I’d miss my destination if I overslept. Or how the Thai lady sitting opposite me was trying to communicate with me in broken Hokkien. They now give me fond memories whenever I think about it.
If you’re adamant to go to Europe for your first solo trip (assuming that you’re not living there), then I suggest you to head east and check out underrated countries like Poland, Latvia, Estonia, Hungary, Croatia, Slovenia or Bosnia. These countries are still up and coming, relatively affordable for budget travelers and not as crowded. They are also rich in culture, locals are friendly and welcoming (residents in big cities like Paris or Rome probably view tourists as pests) and landscapes are equally just as stunning. Trust me, you’ll have an awesome time. They’re also safer and less crowded than the usual cities in Western Europe.
To find the cheapest flights, my to-go search platform is Google Flights. They not only offer a comprehensive range of search tools but you also get to track flight prices for that particular day that you want to travel or flight prices of that particular flight that you want to book. And if you don’t know where you want to go, you can just use Explore Destinations or take up their suggestion on Popular Destinations, where based on your dates, the best places to go to and their corresponding flight prices. Smart, eh? Learn how to make the best out of Google Flights here.
MAKE PLANS BUT STAY FLEXIBLE
It’s important that you have at least a rough itinerary in place. That way, you can work out a more detailed budget and not miss out on the main attractions you want to see from a particular place or country. List down what you like to see, or at least get to know the cities that you’ll be going a little bit.
Find out the essentials of each country, ie:
- Do you need a visa or a return ticket for the country that you’re going to?
- What’s the exchange rate and language spoken?
- How does the public transportation system work? Are there bus or rail connections between cities or other countries?
- Is flying the only way to enter the country or could you also go by rail/boat/bus/private car?
You can find all these information on the Internet these days. It’ll be wise to keep a notebook of your notes. They’ll at least provide you with a rough guideline of how you’ll shape your trip. Also, by doing a thorough research would help you minimise unpleasant surprises. You have no idea how many travelers have been turned away at immigration desks or find out that particular boat that they were planning to take don’t run on weekends, just because they hadn’t done any research.
Having said that, you don’t have to cling so tightly to your plans. Keep an open mind. Plans may change. And you’re always allowed to change your mind. You might meet another traveler who recommends Hanoi over Ho Chi Minh city. Or perhaps you didn’t think that you’ll stay in a certain place for more than two days but you end up liking the place so much that you now want to. There’s no right or wrong way to travel so have a loose plan and stay flexible.
WHERE SHOULD YOU STAY
Book your accommodation for at least the first few days. That way, you have at least less one thing to worry about. If you enjoy some comfort and privacy, book a private room in a hotel or in a guesthouse. Some hostels also provide the option of single rooms. However, if you think you could use some company or would like to try meet some other travelers, then get a bed in a dorm room in a hostel. Airbnb offers options for both private and dorm rooms.
Back then, I CouchSurfed a lot. It was the best way for me to keep my travel expenditure low and also get first hand experience on how locals live. But you don’t need to stay in someone’s home to participate in the platform. Instead, you can opt to just join CouchSurfing gatherings or use its forums to meet up with locals and other travelers and explore the city together. The last time when my husband and I were in Mumbai, a local Couchsurfer took us around to sample Mumbai’s street food. In the end, because we got along so well together, he even invited us back to his place just so that we could meet his family and share a cup of chai tea together. Our memorable experience in Mumbai wouldn’t have been possible (I’m sure we’d have ended up eating at the wrong places and got sick instead) if we didn’t have Vish showing us around.
WHAT TO PACK
I’m not going to urge you to bring a backpack if you prefer to take with you a suitcase. Each to their own. But whatever you do, be sure not to overpack. Many newbies make this mistake, thinking that, just because they’re heading to three or ten countries, they need to bring their entire wardrobe with them. You really don’t. You want to be light and mobile so you won’t be exhausted dragging your luggage with you. My in-laws who travelled with us around Southeast Asia, were ready to swap their suitcase for a backpack if only they knew better. Their words, not mine.
Just bring a few tops and bottoms to mix and match. You might also want to include something long-sleeved like a lightweight jacket (presuming you’re not going somewhere during winter) and jeans/cotton pants for a religious monument that you may visit. Pack a bathing suit with you, flip flops and a pair of nice pair of shoes. A scarf or sarong is always a good idea because they could double up as a something to cover your shoulders and neck when you’re cold, your head when it’s too sunny and could also act as a beach towel or picnic blanket at the same time. Don’t have one? If you are going to Southeast Asian countries, then you’ll definitely find one there. Minimize your toiletries supply. If you’re staying in hotels, you don’t need a bath towel or soaps because they’ll be provided (even in some Airbnbs).
A small flash light is always good unless your phone already has one. A small bottle of hand sanitizer, a few packets of tissue papers and sunscreen could come in handy. But most of these things can be bought when you get there. Everything can be easily replaced (including your clothes) but not your passport. So, scan your passport so that you’ll have copies of it just in case you lose it.
Also bring along reading or journaling materials, or jam pack your phone with your favourite songs for those long bus/train/plane rides.
When I was a poor backpacker, I didn’t have travel insurance. I wasn’t proud of it but I didn’t think I’d have needed it. I also didn’t think it was affordable then. But at this age and time, travel insurance is important. I’ve had airlines losing my backpack or misplacing them and have plenty of flight delays but yet was not being properly compensated for those annoyances simply because I wasn’t insured. Thankfully I haven’t experienced theft or sickness, but just like everything in life, you never know!
I am now insured under a German company but if you’re living in Malaysia and are looking for travel insurance, here’s a list of what’s available.
WHAT TO EXPECT
Nothing. Don’t expect anything.
What you see on Instagram doesn’t always depict reality. Behind that postcard perfect beach, is perhaps a corner full of garbage. Someone sitting on a secluded mountain rock, looking into the horizon, doesn’t mean there aren’t thousands outside the frame, clamouring for the same photo opportunity.
But it doesn’t mean that there aren’t wow moments out there. Wow moments can happen just about anywhere–especially in the most unexpected places or with the most unimaginable person!
You might feel bored and lonely. But just because you started solo, doesn’t mean you can’t make new friends and travel together with them. If you do get lonely, use Couchsurfing or join day tours to meet people. Or speak to the person sleeping above you. Or that other single backpacker who seem to be waiting for the bus alone too.
If you worry about feeling shy about approaching another, I can totally understand your feeling. I am an introvert too. The thought of just plonking my butt in a bar and starting conversation with a random person next to me scare the bollocks out of me. That’s why Couchsurfing works wonders for me. At least I could contact the person in advance, read their profiles, have an idea of who they are before messaging them for a meet up. I find that helps a lot but over the years of travel, I’ve learned to be a little bolder. I’ve learned that you don’t need to wait for someone to approach you first. The best way to start a conversation is to find a common topic and start from there. For example, if you find another traveler in a queue or just hanging around the bus terminal, you can ask him or her where they’re heading to. Or if they have any idea why the bus is late. Or if they have any plans at their next destination. People will open up to you when you are genuinely curious.
I’ll be honest here. There were days where I didn’t find anyone to talk to or hang out with. So I ate alone and read books in cafes alone. I wandered around the markets alone. But these periods of aloneness don’t usually last for long. At some point, someone would eventually talk to me or I’ll end up finding someone. Writing or staying in touch with friends through chat or email can also help combat the loneliness.
Take nothing for granted. Things may not run as smoothly as you think but it’s okay. Always keep a clear head with you. When things get tough or shitty, breathe. Take long deep breaths and respond from a place of clarity instead of worry.
Stay safe and be cautious of your surroundings. Don’t put yourself at risk for no good reason. If your gut says run, do it and do it quickly.
Lastly, if you end up hating being solo in the first few days, you can always go home. There’s no shame in that. There’s also no shame in calling your best friends or parents, bawling your eyes out, wanting to go home but at the same time, trying to stick it out as long as you can. Again, it’s your trip, so do it however you want.
I can only assure you that whatever you end up doing, you’ll be glad to have at least experience how it’s like to travel solo.