Written by Jenny McWhirter on 10 / 03 / 2015
Gap Year Advice
In December 2012, I set off on a three-month independent trip spent travelling around South America. I ended up living in Argentina, a country I hadn’t even planned on visiting, for almost two years.
I can hands down say that venturing off on my own was the best decision of my life and would highly recommend you do the same, be it now or a few years down the line.
I'm not alone in thinking that, either. According to a recent study conducted by Booking.com, more travellers are striking out on their own, and feel more fulfilled from a solo trip. The study found that women are now 51% more likely to be the master of their own itinerary than they were 5 years ago, while 23% of men think real adventure only comes from traveling alone.
But if you are going to throw caution to the wind, how should you play it? Are there certain behaviours or strategies you can employ that will make sure you have a good time? Yes there are. And it works both ways - there are things you should try not to do too.
So that’s the topic I’m going to look at with you today: the things you should do and the things you shouldn’t when travelling the world on your own.
There are plenty of tips I could give solo travellers, but my number one piece of advice would have to be do talk to strangers.
I know, I know, I’m telling you the complete opposite of what your mum’s probably been trying to drill into you from the day you were born. But by not talking to strangers, how can you expect to meet people on your travels?
In fact, per this article on solotravelerblog.com, when you travel solo the ability to talk to strangers safely is a skill that makes for some of the most interesting travel moments. The more people you start a conversation with, the more doors that will open for you, so don’t be afraid to approach the guy sitting next to you on the bus and simply say: 'hi, I’m new to this city, could you tell me what I ought to see and do here?'
People love to brag about their hometown, so this question will undoubtedly be well-received.
When I went to Mexico a couple of years ago, I asked this very question to a guy on the plane and he provided me with an endless list of interesting things to do, some of which weren’t in my guidebook. He even invited me to his father’s birthday the following weekend, where I met all his family, ate delicious home-cooked Mexican tamales and helped decorate their house with Christmas lights.
The following day, we went down the river on a boat with giant plastic cups full of beer, and I taught my new friend and his buddies the fateful drinking game, ‘Never Have I Ever’. Needless to say, it became quite an interesting weekend…
My point is, had I never spoken to this guy on the plane, none of this would have happened. When you travel alone, it’s easier to make friends with the locals and you’ll find it’s not long before you’re chatting and laughing away with them, or planning to attend their family gatherings (in my case).
Did you know that you can now meet fellow travellers at the click of a button? There are several apps that enable you to do this, like Skout, where travellers can meet people wherever they are - be it a concert in London or a football match in Barcelona.
Another app, Tripr, allows backpackers to maximise the social side of their trips by introducing them to people who will be in the same place, at the same time, before they even get there.
There are some pretty handy apps you can use to save money too, which you can find more information about in the post How to Travel When You Have No Money.
The wonderful Couchsurfing website was founded in 2004 and now has approximately nine million members. Why? Because it’s a great way to meet fellow solo travellers and locals, as well as find free accommodation.
On top of this, cities all over the world hold Couchsurfing gatherings, where you can tour art galleries, go hiking, share a meal or simply sip cocktails with other members of the community. Be sure to do a little bit of research into the person you’re planning to couchsurf with, as you might find you have very little or nothing in common with them - which could make the experience more awkward than enjoyable.
People leave reviews of those that they’ve either couchsurfed with or hosted, so you can find out whether they’re a good egg or not by giving these a read. Personally, I’ve only ever had good experiences couchsurfing, but it’s always best to err on the side of caution.
If this is your first time travelling solo, chances are your parents will be feeling a little shaky, so help keep their minds at ease by sending regular texts and emails when you can.
Don't be like the 14% of Brits abroad who refuse to speak the local language. You don't need to be a born linguist like polyglot Matthew Youlden (check the video about) to get by in a foreign language. By making just a little bit of effort to learn the local lingo, you’re showing respect to the local people, which can only work in your favour. When travelling through Latin America, I found I was treated less like a tourist when I spoke Spanish and people were impressed with the amount I could say (even though it wasn’t an awful lot).
Once again, it opens doors for you, as you’ll be able to converse with more of the locals, rather than just the ones who speak good English. Having a few stock phrases up your sleeve is also a surefire way to avoid culture shock.
If you do nothing else, make sure you memorise a few emergency terms like ‘help’, ‘police’ and ‘fire’ in the language of the country you’re in, just in case!
No travel buddies = no need to make any hasty decisions. This is a wonderful thing, as it means you have the freedom to decide what you want to do and when you want to do it.
You’ll no doubt find that there are a few places you want to leave almost immediately, whereas there’ll be others (probably the majority) that you won’t quite be able to tear yourself away from. Does this matter? Not at all.
Stay for an extra day/week/month if you want, and try new things whilst you're there - Neuroscientist and bestselling author David Eagleman explains in the video about that it'll last longer that way. You have no obligation to abide by anyone else’s itinerary, so don't!
Remember that travelling solo is more expensive, as there is no one to share costs with. Things like food, accommodation and transport, which can normally be split between two or more people, will be left for you and you alone to fork out for.
For this reason, it’s important to be careful with your money in other areas and ensure that you budget a little more before embarking on your trip.
If you need inspiration for ways to save up for your trip, the Gap Adventure Blueprint has a brilliant section on fundraising, which covers what you need to in order to raise the funds, along with sponsorship and job ideas.
I feel almost hypocritical saying this, as I got myself into plenty of sticky situations when I was last on the road. But you live and learn and now I certainly know what to avoid when travelling alone.
You don’t want to put yourself or your belongings in danger, so don’t venture into dodgy neighbourhoods or wander the streets alone at night. Remember to keep an eye on your bags and hold your valuables close to you, especially if you feel yourself drifting off on public transport, as there’ll be nobody to watch them for you.
Finally, be sure to learn the local emergency numbers, just in case you do find yourself in one of these situations. That way at least you can call for help.
Go with your guy feeling says successful entrepreneur Magnus Walker in his TED talk (above), so so you should In fact, you should never go against it – if it’s telling you that the street you’re walking on isn’t unsafe, get off of it. If someone’s making you feel uneasy, then calmly move on.
Don’t take risks that aren’t worth taking, like accepting a lift from the dishevelled man who’s trying to lure you into his unmarked car rather than waiting an extra twenty minutes for the bus!
Whether it’s before or during your trip, you’re bound to feel a little nervous about travelling by yourself. This is perfectly normal.
You just have to remind yourself that other people have done this before, and are continuing to do it, which can only mean they had a positive overall experience that they’re keen to repeat (I know I certainly am). There really is nothing to be afraid of.
So there you go, you now know the dos and don’ts of travelling solo, and hopefully I’ve encouraged you to leave it all behind and begin your very own adventure.
If you have anything to add to this list, or if there’s anything you’re unsure of and want to ask, feel free to let me know by posting in the comments box below.
on 10 / 03 / 2015