Travelling on your own can seem a scary prospect – but it can also be the most enriching way to explore. Here’s how to take those first solo steps, without a tour group in tow, says Lyn Hughes
Where to stay, how to meet the locals and how to cope with eating out alone
Feel daunted at the thought of going it alone? One compromise, especially if planning a longer trip, is to start off on an organised tour (see Part one of Wanderlust's guide to solo travel) before striking out on your own. You’ll have built up confidence, got street-wise and maybe met some travel companions too.
Another option is to find a travel companion before you go. Plenty of travel forums, including Wanderlust’s, can help you find someone. Try a short break together first, to get an idea of how compatible you are. And don’t be surprised if you end up going your separate ways at some point.
If you’re heading off completely on your own, you could make local contacts in advance. Friends of friends, social networks and hospitality sites (see below) can all lead to some rewarding contacts.
Here are a few pointers…
Eschew impersonal chain hotels and resorts – unless you’re happy to spend your trip without company, look for a more sociable form of accommodation. Hostelling is a good choice. Take a look at Hostelling International; you may be surprised at the range of accommodation on offer, with private rooms available at most – though staying in a dorm can be a fun and friendly experience.
There are several of these networks of hosts and travellers offering and seeking accommodation. Servas is the granddaddy of them all, set up in 1949 as a non-profit organisation to promote world peace. Travellers must go through an interview process before being accepted. It tends to attract a more mature, educated type – typically retired teachers, professionals and also medical students. Servas is very protective about its host list, which is confidential; hosts are often retired ex-travellers who now relish having interesting visitors. One reader who has tried it commented, “There seem to be more hosts than travellers at the moment. But it makes you feel wanted!”
The internet has allowed a number of other hospitality-exchange sites to set up. Although they don’t have the interviews and formal structure of Servas, they usually encourage comments and recommendations by both travellers and hosts. Couchsurfing is the best known, and has the most extensive profiles; it holds events too. “It’s increasingly becoming a social organisation for travellers to meet each other,” said one fan.
Warmshowers.org is a hospitality site for touring cyclists. User Jill Lundmark says, “I’ve hosted quite a few people via Warmshowers. I live 20km out of Auckland, which is out of the way for most visitors but fine for cyclists.”
Jill, who has used several different sites, is a fan of hospitality exchange in general: “I enjoy the people more than the places. I’ve seen plenty of places but there’s always new people to meet. I’ve never had any bad experiences, but I’ve had plenty of great ones.
A lady in Germany took me parapenting over the Black Forest; she then passed me on to a friend of hers who took me down the Rhine.”
It’s often said that the more you spend on a hotel, the less likely you are to meet the other guests. Certainly in many hotels the emphasis seems to be on preserving privacy rather than encouraging social interaction.
Solos should look for friendly owner-run guesthouses and B&Bs. This doesn’t mean you have to slum it – there are plenty of five-star establishments that have a personal touch. You could also try staying in someone else’s house: sites such as airbnb.com offer rooms for rent in people’s homes, as well as more standard self-catering options.
Whatever level of accommodation you choose, look for places that offer communal meals, evening drinks or organised outings as well as having social areas where you can hangout/read/mix with other guests.
Having a local guide or joining an arranged activity can enrich your experience and offer insights you probably wouldn’t get exploring alone.
Tripbod profiles local guides and enthusiasts who can help visiting travellers: they might take you mushroom-picking in Estonia, bar-hopping in London or rappelling in Rio; they can even plan you a bespoke itinerary.
Cities can be more daunting than small communities. Urban Adventures offers day tours with a local guide. For instance, its Hanoi Sunrise Tour includes t’ai chi, a pho breakfast and a Vietnamese cookery class; in East End Uncovered, you explore London’s markets, go to a clown school and scoff pie and mash. Triptrotting.com matches travellers to like-minded local hosts who show them around. It uses an algorithm to find compatible matches – a bit like a dating site but without the romance.
Several cities have ‘greeter’ programmes – networks of locals who volunteer to show visitors around, for free. The Global Greeter Network is a loose affiliation of some of these, covering destinations as diverse as New York, Melbourne and Belgrade.
The most difficult aspect of travelling solo? Eating out alone. Ease the problem by staying with locals (homestays, couchsurfing etc) – you will often eat with your hosts. If you have to eat out, casual restaurants with communal seating are less daunting than formal restaurants, or choose a restaurant with counter service. If you have your own table, pick a nice position, with your back to the wall, so you can people watch. Take a book, journal or smartphone for distraction.
Inviteforabite.com is a site for women who want to hook up with other women for a meal, in the UK and overseas. Socialfork.net books restaurant meals for set nights, which you can then register to join; it’s currently London only, but plans to expand.
If the worst comes to the worst and you don’t feel comfortable eating out alone don’t beat yourself up about it. Have your main meal at lunchtime, ‘picnic’ in your room at night and enjoy the opportunity to relax.
Marie Javins: Prolific traveller and Wander Woman blogger, gives her top tips
You won’t have anyone to watch your stuff while you go to the ticket hall/shared bathroom/train loo: your luggage, or at least your valuables, will need to come with you. Consider a rucksack so your hands are free.
Visiting a local salon gives you access into local culture – you’ll be chatting with people who aren’t in the tourist trade. (NB: get a hep B vaccine so you don’t need to worry about sterilisation standards.)
It’s easier for solos to squeeze onto sold-out trains or buses; buying tickets to events is easier when you don’t need two seats together.
Learn how to gently deflect attention when you feel like being alone. But don’t get so good at this that you forget to turn it off. Travelling alone is seductive because you can move quickly and do whatever you want. But remember to let the walls down sometimes too.
You may perceive yourself as being vulnerable on your own. Utilise strength in numbers: take public buses and shared-taxis rather than hiring a single driver. Use social media and a local SIM to keep friends and family up-to-date on your locale.
When you travel, you have to make spur-of-the-moment decisions. But don’t dwell on any mistakes. So you missed a bus and had to wait three hours for the next. Or you ended up giving over twice the fare. So what? Laugh, and learn. Beating yourself up only compounds the problem, making your bad day all the more miserable. Instead, relish the stories you’ll get to tell about how silly you were! Remember, you’re doing pretty well just by being out there alone in the first place.
For more from Marie see: www.wanderlust.co.uk/magazine/blogs
“Headgear, or other slightly unusual clothing, can provide a link. In the Greek Mani I briefly talked to a couple of Swiss ladies who were very envious of my map. A few days later, they gave me a lift (which avoided some very boring road walking), having recognised me by
a rather fetching straw hat I had bought, having forgotten to pack something more conventional.” ElusiveLand
“Smile and say hello – that’s all it takes. Be interested in other people too – ask questions, take recommendations, make recommendations. When you’re sitting in a bar dithering about saying hello to the traveller next to you, chances are they’re having the same dilemma. Be proactive, introduce yourself!” Woowaa
“Age is definitely a factor. Few 60-plus-year-olds travel alone, and I’m always cautious about getting ‘lumbered’ with those that do. Younger people share this apprehension, and are cautious about getting lumbered with me. If you can hit it off, it can be great; if not, a book (or Kindle) can be a great solace.” DenhamJ
“My best trips have been where I have been doing some sort of activity with others, usually a blend of locals and non-locals. For example, studying French for two weeks in Montpellier meant I met a lot of great people and, through them, was able to explore the city in much more detail than I would have on my own. Doing a five-day cooking course in Chiang Mai was rewarding not only for all the delicious food but also for the really interesting people who took part in the course.” Mooseontheloose
“I find it much easier to travel in a country where you’re able to speak the language to a passable conversation level. I’ve travelled on my own to a number of countries and have never had any problem striking up conversations in shops, bars, etc. I’ve only ever felt slightly lonely travelling in countries where no one spoke any English. You can pass a happy hour or so using sign language but a full day or night for a lengthy period becomes tedious and restrictive.” LS13
“First, most Latin Americans are outgoing so learn some lingo – you’ll get more out of a trip. Second, if you love solitude, travelling alone’s an advantage – Patagonia is best appreciated without the chattering crowds. Third, if you want to meet and interact with fellow travellers, choose a destination where like-minded groups naturally form, such as an Inca Trail trek or a Galápagos cruise.” Ed Paine
“Small-scale adventure cruises bring people together. A few weeks with 50-100 people and ad-hoc seating for dining means you meet a range of people.” ElusiveLand
“I enjoy solo travel because, in my experience, it is slower paced and I can be completely selfish with my itinerary choices.” Howellsey
“People have the same problems regardless of which country they are from, or colour of their skin. It isn’t until you stay with them that you realise that.” Jill Lundmark
“I find slowing down and spending more time in a place (not just sightseeing) opens up so many kinds of possibilities and memories.” Mooseontheloose
“I pick up local papers or newsletters to find details of events and groups. There are often local walking groups for instance – a great way of finding hidden places.” DenhamJ
“A book can relieve some awkwardness when dining alone, but it does send out ‘do not disturb’ vibes. I like a table with a view, so I can watch the world without isolating myself from it.” miralheti