remember sitting in the boarding area of Heathrow’s Terminal 5, wide-eyed and 21 years old, trying to keep my breath under control. Having never traveled alone before, I was about to fly solo to Africa — a continent where I knew no one — for two months, where I would be living in a city affectionately nicknamed “Nairobbery.” What was I doing? I had clearly gone mad. Why hadn’t my parents tried to stop me?
The answer was: because I was already an adult. At least I was, technically, but it was this trip that marked the real.
Since that first jaunt I have traveled alone throughout Europe, Africa, Asia and North America. Each trip has been special and different.
Perhaps you’re embarking on a business trip, a city break or a six-month round-the-world adventure. I expect right now you’re feeling a mix of fear and trepidation — both totally normal. The fear the first time you do something like this will be very real, but it can be conquered and is so worth doing. Wherever you’re going and whatever you’re doing, these tips apply.
Don’t put all your dollars in one wallet
Perhaps my greatest solo travel “disaster” ended in me trying to explain to a series of baffled Ugandan policemen that I needed a report for my insurance company. They listened and transcribed as I explained my purse was stolen. In a way, it was my own fault — I briefly took my eye off the ball while I lingered over the breakfast buffet at a hostel, leaving my bag unattended. Within seconds, it was gone.
Fortunately, I had packed an emergency credit card in another purse stashed away in the bottom of my rucksack. So, the crisis was ultimately averted. In some countries, you may be able to get away with using contactless payments, like Android Pay or Apple Pay, but don’t count on it.
Don’t keep all your valuables in one place at the same time. You wouldn’t invest all your money in one stock, right? Avoid the same risk with your belongings. Wear a money belt if necessary or stash a spare card (I always carry at least two) somewhere on your person. Keep track of where all your stuff is and memorize a mental checklist that’s easy to run through whenever you arrive or depart a new place so you can be sure you have all your most precious stuff with you.
Take yourself out for dinner
You know who doesn’t really have to queue for fashionable no-reservations restaurants? Solo diners.
Go alone, go late (or super early) and use Google Maps to help you avoid peak times and dodge the line. The app displays a bar graph that shows you when the restaurant is most busy. It worked at Tim Ho Wan in Hong Kong, it worked at Momofuku in New York, it worked at Bao in London. If you’re a table for one, it makes you much easier for wait staff to squeeze you in, especially when there’s a bar or counter you can sit at.
Put all thoughts of stigma aside. There’s no reason you should have to hide in your hotel room eating subpar room service off a tray just because you’re alone. Take your Kindle or a notebook if you like — there’s no shame in reading and eating. Plus you never know who you might end up sitting next to. Speaking of which…
Be prepared to make friends
“But I’m an introvert,” I hear you whisper. Welcome to the party. I know what it’s like to wish I was at home with my cat as much as the next socially incompetent human. The truth is that traveling alone has been the best thing for my confidence I could have ever wished for, and it’s not half as painful as the other ways people tell you to boost your social skills (drama classes, networking events, debate club — eye roll).
People tend to be naturally relaxed and sociable when they’re on vacation or when they’re in bars. Often, when they realize you’re on your own, they just start talking to you. They literally do the hard bit for you and you’ll almost always be met with curiosity and admiration. That’s just the culture of solo travelers.
I haven’t met any lifelong friends this way (Facebook friends, yes), but I’ve had many unexpectedly lovely conversations with strangers in restaurants, bars and even once on board an inflatable river raft.