Updated: Jan 3
One of the biggest things that stops people from traveling solo or starting a digital nomad lifestyle is the fear of being alone. Wondering how to meet people, how to find community, and how to stay safe as a solo traveler (especially solo female travelers) are all legitimate concerns, and although you do need to learn to be comfortable in your own company, there are also lots of ways to overcome these fears.
At the local market in San Pedro La Laguna, Guatemala
I get told all the time that I'm brave for traveling alone, or picking up and moving off to a foreign country. It's a great sentiment, but I don't really feel that brave. Maybe I don't know the language, or anyone living there, but the unknown is fascinating to me. And I know so many other independent, fearless people who do the same thing. I also know a lot of people who would love to do the same thing, but feel like they can't.
There's a lot of perceived obstacles that keep people from traveling. Money, time, obligations and responsibilities can all be factors. But one of the biggest obstacles people confide in me about is fear. Particularly women travelers - and rightfully so. Women do have a slight disadvantage over men for a few reasons. Not only are we deemed the weaker sex, but many countries are still working on equal rights for women. I can think of a few countries that I wouldn't want to be in without a male escort. Saying that, there are also plenty of places right here in my backyard (USA) that I wouldn't want to be in alone and/or after dark, as a man OR a woman. The key to staying safe is doing your research and making smart choices.
How to Stay Safe as a Solo Traveler
Learn About the Culture
There are so many misconceptions when it comes to cultures and countries, and safety is definitely a part of that. Learning about your destination is the only way to know what to expect. Some things you might consider are: How are women treated there? Is it safe to be out after dark? What areas, if any, should I avoid? If you are worried about safety at your hotel or hostel, make sure there is a security guard. Did you know that you can carry pepper spray in a checked bag? I often travel with pepper spray and a whistle. I feel like I shouldn't have to say this, but always be respectful of local cultural standards. Even if you don't agree with it, cover up if that is the social norm (this applies to men and women!). And be aware of who and what you are allowed to take pictures of. Finally, stay in areas with many people, try to know where you are going, and keep your phone charged - you'd be surprised where you can find wifi! The more prepared you are, the less likely you are to have trouble of any kind.
Travel With a Group
Well, how do I travel with a group if I am alone? There are often lots of activities, sightseeing, and excursions that you can do on your own, especially if you are a budget traveler. But for a novice traveler, going with a tour can highlight some top attractions and local fare without having to navigate on your own, speak the language, etc.
Staying in a hostel is also a great idea (in fact it's probably THE best way to meet people). You will almost always meet a variety of people looking to see the sights and explore the city, many of whom are also traveling alone. Most hostels also arrange tours, pub crawls, and other excursions. They will either take you themselves (often for free!), or set it up with a trusted business. You can find pretty much every hostel in the world on Hostelworld.com, read reviews, book, and even see who else is staying.
There's also so many other ways to book guided tours or experiences these days, in literally every corner of the world, like GetYourGuide, AirBnb Experiences, or Viator.
This entire group came from the same hostel, with the same goal in mind: Volcano boarding!
None of us knew each other to begin with, but I still keep in touch with several on Facebook. (This is Bigfoot Hostel in Leon, Nicaragua.)
Avoid Pickpockets and Theft
Don't be flashy. Of course you want to take pictures, or maybe you need to use your phone for directions. But there's always a risk when bringing out an expensive camera or the newest iPhone. Keep your camera close to your body and preferably on some kind of strap around your wrist or neck. If you want to ask someone to take a picture of you, look for another tourist doing the same, and offer to take a picture of them as well.
Phones are an easy target as we mindlessly scroll, not watching where we are going or being aware of our surroundings. It is incredibly common to get phones (and purses/bags) to get snatched right out of your hand, especially if you are on foot and the thief is on motorbike.
Never ever display how much money you have on you. Keep smaller bills in a separate pocket, away from your main wallet. This is helpful for bargaining in markets, avoiding being overcharged because somebody "doesn't have change," and even getting your way out of "fines"(*cough*bribes*cough).
Minimize the amount of jewelry you wear. If you've got diamonds on your ears you are a prime target for pickpockets or muggers. In my favorite book, Tales of a Female Nomad, Rita tells a story about her time in Antigua, Guatemala. A few local children approached her as she sat on a park bench. They were fascinated with her - hugging her, holding her hand, trying to sell her knick-knacks. All the while, they were removing all of her jewelry. Being adorable does not always make you innocent!
Be Careful About Your Consumption
Don't drink too much! Being drunk in a foreign country is the best way to get robbed, lost, or end up in jail. I don't know about you, but my idea of a vacation does not include a concrete floor and fish soup for breakfast (if you are even given breakfast!). Have a good time, but keep your wits about you. If you end up somewhere you don't want to be, have someone call a cab rather than hailing one (or use an Uber/similar app if it is available), and trust your gut. If something doesn't feel right, get out of there.
Starting Your Solo Travel Journey
So you're ready to start solo traveling... But how? Once people get over their fear of safety, the next big fear is literally the unknown. How do I get there? How do I use public transportation? How will I do anything without knowing the language? Where do I stay? What do I eat? When you don't even know where to begin, these kind of questions can be very overwhelming.
But fear of the unknown is not a good excuse to stay home. Conquering ignorance is so easy these days, with a plethora of information at our fingertips via the internet. Read articles, search blogs and forums, talk to friends. Showing up to a country without a plan or promise is only for the savviest of travelers, and even still, has the potential to result in disaster. Researching your destination will not only make you feel more comfortable, but can also answer many of your questions, PLUS some you didn't even know you had! Some of the things you want to think about:
Transportation can be tricky depending on whether you are in a city or rural area, and of course, what part of the world you are in. Be prepared ahead of time! Look up any buses or trains you'll need to take, the fare, and the schedule. Have local currency handy. If you're taking a subway, sometimes there are apps to download to help you navigate. Many major cities have subway systems and bus routes in English as well as the local language.
Things get more difficult when venturing out to rural areas or smaller towns. Taxis are fairly easy, as you only need to say the name of the place you are going (or you can show a map or translated version of your hotel/hostel name). Airport taxis are typically safe and hassle-free. Helpful hint: If there is no meter, always negotiate taxi fare ahead of time!
I usually try to learn a few key phrases when going to a new country. It can come in handy, and is just polite. Learn hello and thank you at the very least. Transportation is not that difficult – as I said above, many times all you need to know is the name of the city you are going to. If you cannot read the language though, it can be helpful to translate some things ahead of time, or have a pin saved on your phone so you can show a map. Know how to get not just from point A to point B, but point A to B to C, because you may not know when you'll have wifi again!
When it comes to ordering food, it depends on how experimental you are. There are plenty of times I have pointed to a menu, not knowing what I just ordered. But if you are a picky eater (bummer!) or have allergies or other food preferences, just be prepared. Know what dishes you can eat or stick to something simple. Don't expect them to modify your dish though – it's not Burger King!
Where to Stay and What to Do
This is the best (and easiest) part! Check out Tripadvisor for hotels, restaurants, and top attractions. What are you looking for? Sightseeing? Outdoor adventures? Luxury? You can find it all, just adjust the filters and search away. I'm also a fan of Hostelworld. Hostels are great for meeting like-minded travelers and exchanging tips. You might find a group looking to do the same excursions as you, or someone traveling from the city you're going to next. I often get transportation advice, hostel recommendations, and other tidbits of helpful information from fellow travelers in my hostel.
Now you are ready! Get on Skyscanner, book that flight, and start planning!
If you're not quiet ready to go solo, but have no one to travel with, join one of my group trips! No planning, no booking, and no going it alone - just get yourself there! Find out more about group trips here.
Where will you go? I'd love to hear about your next travel destination in the comments section below. Happy wandering!