This past summer, I had the good fortune to spend most of my time traveling around Europe and for some of that time, I was alone. There’s a lot that goes into traveling by yourself, so I’ll start at the beginning.
Research. Research. RESEARCH. Make sure you learn whatever you can about where you are going. If you’re struggling to narrow down a destination(s), and you haven’t left the country before, it’s better to start simple. Start in Europe, and aim for places that don’t have a strong language barrier. This means you should really consider the popular ‘touristy’ places like Paris, London, or Rome before trying out a 3 day excursion through the forests of Thailand. Many of the people in the major European cities can speak English, or at least enough for you to communicate. Even if you choose places like Budapest, Munich, or Prague if you are courteous enough to learn the basics of their languages then you should be fine. Now if you are already a pretty well accredited traveler but just haven’t been anywhere on your own, let me tell you something. It’s much different. You have so much more freedom to do things but that is precisely the reason why you should plan your schedule out beforehand. In my experience, it’s always better to have a list of things to choose from rather than try and figure it out the day you get there. Of course this doesn’t mean you have to be on a schedule every second of every day. I gave myself a full 2 days in London towards the end of my stay just to do whatever I felt like. Sometimes that looked like visiting places I’ve already been or looking into a few things I had only heard about from the local once I had arrived.
My best advice for planning (and something I do before I go anywhere new) is to make a few lists. Just give yourself a few hours to hop on google and TripAdvisor (there’s an app…get it) and look up the best of what you like. For me it was looking up the cool ‘hole in the wall’ coffee shops and street food restaurants/diners in Soho. I made a list of a few pubs near my hostel and another list for cool activities/things to see in walking distance. In google maps there is a feature where you can flag or favorite where you want to go, essentially saving them to your profile so that the next time you go on maps you can see exactly where your flags are. This is a snippet of what London looks like once I am logged into my google account:
Make sure you research where you are staying. Read. The. Reviews. I know a pretty hefty number of people who don’t look up where they booked a stay and they almost always regret it or encounter a few surprises. Make sure your rooms (especially in some places in Europe) have A/C in the summer and heaters in the winter or you will probably be miserable. A sad trip isn’t a fun trip!
Don’t be afraid of hostels. Hostels are what I live by. It helped that the ones I stayed in were targeting young travelers usually under the age of 30-35 (and most have an all female dorm if you are bothered by sleeping in a room with men). I’ve stayed in 4 now and they were all fantastic. And it’s simple. All I did was google “hostels near central London” and you can pull up a list of them on maps to see just how close/far they are from where you want to be. I personally wanted to be in walking distance to the tourist sites like Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, etc.
Hostels are a cheap, fun way to travel on your own or even in a small group. My second night at SoHostel in London I was sitting in the lobby drinking a pint wearing a hat from my university back home in the states. Next thing I know, a guy taps me on the shoulder and is rocking back and forth with excitement. “Are you from North Carolina?!” And that’s how I met my travel buddy, who I’ll talk about later.
If you are going somewhere with a language barrier and/or a different currency, you need to learn the exchange rate or get an app that can do it for you. For the language barrier, when I was in Italy and France I used Mango Languages to learn the basics before I traveled and then downloaded Google Translate and actively used that while I was there. When you use Google Translate you actually have the option (on your phone) to download the language you are translating to. DO THIS. Wifi over there is not even close to how it is in the U.S. so if you are relying on a translator, chances are you won’t have connection right when you need it (this happened to me multiple times before I figured out how to download the full language).
Once you’ve researched the heck out of where you are going and have come up with a comfortably sized list of places to visit/things to do, then you are probably going to worry about what most do, safety. This applies for girls and boys but to the girls, I feel you. I understand. The news these days hypes up all of these human trafficking and sexual assault stories which can be scary and intimidating when we want to go out and do anything by ourselves.
First things first, I would just like to make it clear that yes, awful things happen everywhere. But they happen everywhere. And yes, some cities are safer than others. But honestly, it’s as safe as you make it. If you are getting black out drunk in a city where you don’t speak the language and don’t know a single person, you are clearly going to be more at risk. But believe it or not, a large portion of the people you will encounter while abroad are actually very nice and very helpful.
If you are looking into the nightlife scene, ask the locals where everyone else goes or try and make a friend. I made a friend on my second day in a new country and we ended up having each other’s backs when we wanted to go out at night. Even though we would both occasionally go our separate ways (he was really into the gay bars in Soho… which were awesome if that’s your scene), my safety net was that I knew we had each other’s information and that we were staying in the same place. And it even turned out that he left London the same day as me, at the same time, on the same train, to go to Paris, staying in another hostel only a few minutes from mine. I was very lucky I didn’t have to navigate the foreign train stations on my own.
If you are especially nervous about safety, it will likely comfort you to do more research and write down the unsafe areas, crime stats, etc.
!!!Also be on the lookout for scams!!! They are EVERYWHERE. Whether it’s people asking for money (try not to give in, although I did twice), people ready to swipe anything from your bag on the subway/metro, or anything else- just be very aware of your belongings at all times. I purposefully would turn my cross-body bag forward so that it was hitting my legs when I walked, and I could always see all my zippers/pockets. Don’t keep cash, cards, or your phone in an accessible pouch. Either keep it all shoved deep down in your purse/bag or stuff it in your front pockets (NEVER the back pockets). If you simply research your destination, you will see similar advice more specific to the scams and crime that happen there.
The Trip Itself
There is nothing quite like exploring a completely foreign country all by your lonesome. It is so comforting to see and do so many new things without worrying about what anyone else wants or their schedule. Personally, I hate waiting on others. My patience is completely nonexistent so when I could wake up and go to bed whenever I wanted, I almost cried tears of joy. If I wanted to spend the whole day walking around aimlessly and getting lost, I frickin’ did. I’ve gone abroad in a group and by myself and can honestly say there are pros and cons to each but being solo is an experience completely unique to you.
Enjoy the moment, live in it. I was so entranced and caught up in the moment for every second of my trip that I can truly remember each of those seconds. Study your surroundings, ask questions, take pictures and videos. The only catch I have for pictures/videos is that you don’t want to be one of those people who live through their camera. There was a lot I did not get on my camera while abroad, and that’s saying something considering I taking a photography class. Enjoy your moment, quickly snap your picture or take your video, then move on.
Something I did was wait until I was back in bed before I got out my phone/computer to edit and post everything from that day. I would occasionally take my computer to the local coffee shop around the corner during breakfast and work on photos I took for my class. But beware, Starbucks is everywhere, and if you are a coffee person like me I suggest trying the local cafes where you are instead of sticking with the familiar venti cold brew.
Try new things. If you’re in Italy try some gnocchi or panna cotta (I hated the latter but at least I tried it). For France, get you some good old snails. It’s what you are there for. If you are visiting a city, I suggest taking a day trip or excursion to surrounding areas. These are places that may have an even more dense history than the main attraction.
Regardless of where you go, how you plan, or what you do I can pretty much guarantee that if you make the most of your trip and truly enjoy yourself, you will get bit by the travel bug (and I don’t mean what you might catch on the plane).
Best of luck!