Solo travel is a growing and compelling mode of travel in the 21st century. As our daily lives become more fragmented and sometimes isolated, it may seem counterintuitive that solo travel can be an antidote to how alone we find ourselves in many ways. But the very fact of being alone forces solo travelers to burst their own solitude to find companionship among strangers in a strange land.
In the past, we've outlined some of the important safety considerations for solo travelers, as well as advice for saving money, finding deals and eating alone without feeling awkward (see Single Travel: Tips for Going Solo). But solo travel can offer rich rewards that are both different and sometimes more expansive than those found when traveling with other people; with a little thought and care, it can be a life-defining or life-changing event. To help you get the most out of your solo trip, check out these 15 mistakes to avoid.
It seems that the most common advice you will find when researching solo travel online is to stay in a hostel or other communal living establishment, as these lend themselves to meeting people quickly and relatively easily. I agree to an extent, but also find value in the occasional more traditional lodging. These can offer a safe zone when needed, a bit more comfort when you are tired, and a place to unwind and desensitize from hard travels or constant sensory input. It can also be a more secure place to leave your belongings while you're out exploring.
What hostels and guesthouses are great for is meeting other folks doing the same thing that you are -- true fellow travelers. But you don't have to commit to them unrelentingly; your choice of lodging is just another tool in your solo traveler bag. When in need of comfort, safety and convenience, choose a reputable hotel; when in need of companionship, think about hostels and other alternative lodging options.
A lesson I have learned after many years of travel is to reel in my ambitions on the first and last nights of my trips. At these times, you need things to go well; you are at your most vulnerable when you are just arriving in a place (and most laden down with luggage and stuff), and at your most stressed when you are trying to get on a plane or train on time. On these nights, take it easy on yourself; you might stay near the airport or train station, or splurge on a well-known hotel, or take a cab when you might otherwise save money by taking public transit.
Having no money in your pocket and no way to get any is a problem for any traveler, but even more so when traveling solo. Asking strangers for help, sleeping on a bench or any number of last-ditch tactics may be doable when traveling with others; traveling solo, you definitely don't want to be asking for free rides and crash pads with no one to watch your back. I used to put a $100 bill under the sole of my shoe on all my trips; I used it only once, but man, did it save me.
Many solo travel tips focus on how to meet people, but this can be counterproductive -- there was a reason you chose to travel alone, after all. Many folks who travel in big groups yearn for a moment or two by themselves; you don't have that problem, so enjoy it!
As an extension of the item above, even if you have met some great people, there still may be things best done on your own. These might be things that relate to niche interests of yours that not everyone will appreciate (an extended visit to a specialty museum, perhaps), or physically demanding outings on which not everyone may be as goal-oriented as you might be (such as surfing lessons).
One tremendous benefit of traveling alone is that you can change your plans without consulting anyone else about anything. This is a luxury you should not resist, as it is almost non-existent in regular day-to-day life; if you like an idea, go for it.
Similar to keeping some cash on you, keeping a tab on your bar tab is probably a good idea as well. If you are not in control of your facilities, you become a mark for thieves and other bad people, and with no wingperson to help you out, you could get in trouble. Teetotaling is not required, but getting hammered might not be your best option.
As is becoming clear, there are potential risks when traveling alone that might not be as prevalent when traveling with other people. A good rule of thumb: If your internal alarms are going off, listen to them.
Overscheduling can be a trip killer under almost any conditions, but as a solo traveler this can really leave you wrung out. You are responsible for all the planning, all the execution, and all the mundane and tedious tasks as well -- finding a store to buy a razor and toothpaste, figuring out train schedules, searching for an ATM, waiting out a bout of traveler's tummy. Even without considering these small hassles, the ability to go with the flow is part of the reason to travel alone, and overscheduling can make that impossible.
Standing in long lines is a drag, but standing in long lines alone is almost unendurable. If you are going to popular attractions, museums or anywhere else that will require some waiting, get online ahead of time to see if you can make reservations or purchase tickets in advance.
Traveling alone can be as grueling as it is exhilarating, so I recommend choosing your battles well. Some simple but carefully chosen times to take the easy way out might be to get rental cars at on-airport counters to avoid hauling your stuff around on multiple shuttles; to go for hotels that don't require long commutes to your preferred attractions; to book direct flights or at least avoid tight connections; and to take some of the tips mentioned above like the occasional hotel upgrade and unscheduled afternoon.
Another great benefit of traveling solo is that you alone set the pace and schedule. This might be one of very few times in your life that you decide what time to get up, what time to eat, what time to go to sleep, when to hustle and when to dally. Get up early, get up late, take a nap midday -- whatever. Your time is yours; make sure you make it yours.
If you want to meet and talk to people, to find out who they are and how they live, traveling alone is going to require some courage. Most people have a bit of a shy streak, and in many of the types of people inclined to travel alone, this trait might be even more pronounced. To get the most out of your travels and encounters, you are going to have to suppress your shyness once in a while.
One way to get started on this might be to refrain from ending casual conversations that spring up in shops, when asking directions, in a restaurant, in a line. Instead of cutting short these unexpected exchanges, ask a simple question about someone's family, or the neighborhood, or almost anything really; this can often lead to a longer conversation, and you are under way and getting some practice talking to strangers. As you go along, it will become easier all the time.
Many big cities have expat bars or even folks offering lodging who might have an accent like your own. Don't feel like you need to avoid anyone from back home, as sometimes these brief interludes with the relatively familiar can energize you as you venture back out to find folks and customs very different from your own. TravBuddy.com and CouchSurfing.com are good places to start on these, and many guidebooks offer information about where the local "American bar" can be found.
Having a fallback plan if things go sideways is a good idea in general, but an even better one when traveling alone. Most importantly, it can be helpful to have someone who knows where you are, where you are headed and what you are up to. Internet kiosks, smartphones, email and social media make this very easy to do today; leave some breadcrumbs as you go along to let folks know when to start worrying -- and when just to be jealous at the great adventures you are having while they are stuck at home staring at Facebook.