As I have mentioned in previous blog posts, traveling is a big part of my life. Since graduating college two years ago, I've devoted a considerable amount of time to travel. Almost all of my trips are solo adventures. Traveling alone can be daunting. It took me several trips to get comfortable with having fun by myself. Being comfortable with the process takes time. You'll get the hang of it with practice! Each trip brings new challenges but you'll soon learn what works best.
Today I thought I'd share the top ten lessons I learned from my two month-long solo adventures in Europe. Every tip featured is practical. No bulls**t faff about "learning how to love yourself" or "traveling is empowering" business here. (Seriously, I am so tired of pointless cheesy or vague listicles about this!) I'm talking actual, practical tips for those of you out there who are about to head off on your own adventures. Some of these tips are universal and not only relegated to solo travel. A note of caution, this one's a long post! I had a lot to talk about!
1. Hostels are your best friend
Growing up in the U.S. meant that I was unfamiliar with hostel culture. In Europe and possibly in other parts of the world, hostels are a well-known popular affordable accommodation option. However, in the States hostels are a foreign concept. Frankly, I think we have this old-school idea that hostels are gross and unsafe. I can't tell you the number of people who turned their noses when I mentioned staying in hostels. I, too, was a bit concerned before my first trip to Europe. However, now I fully endorse hostels. They are awesome, fun places where you can easily meet all sorts of people. Obviously, there are some shitty hostels out there but if you do your research, you can find some gems. My hostel in Berlin even had an indoor pool and sauna!
For solo-travelers hostels can be a godsend! The best social spaces! Everyone I met abroad I met through my hostel. You won't feel alone. There will be plenty of people like you who are traveling by themselves. Hostels are great, too, if you want to have a night out. Most hostels organize free pub crawls every night for guests. Another great way to meet people is to take a city tour, an activity most hostels offer for a small fee. I never went on one because I much prefer to sightsee on my own but I know a lot of fellow hostel goers that did.
I feel like I have so much to say so I might do an extensive blog post on hostels soon! If you're looking to book a room at a hostel, definitely use Hostelworld! It was the only website I used for my basic research and booking. The prices are the cheapest you can find. Never had any issues with my reservations.
2. Do your research
This is probably the biggest tip I can give. I know many seasoned travelers who might disagree with me. Some free-spirited people I met on my trips went to new cities with as little knowledge as possible. They felt it was more adventurous. I completely disagree with that.
When it comes to traveling on your own, it's better to be prepared. This goes for every leg of the trip. Before my trips I spent long hours pouring over as much information on each city as I could. I really like watching travel vlogs on YouTube to get a sense of the city and get some helpful tips. I also kept a folder full of copies all of my important documents, each hostel confirmation, flight info, and train or bus tickets. I didn't use any data abroad so I couldn't rely on my phone to help me out in sticky situations and let me tell you there will be many of those. Therefore, each day I did my research before leaving my hostel. I had a clear idea of where I wanted to go and how I was going to get there. Of course, not everything goes to plan but at least I had a game plan.
Researching is also important for major highly trafficked tourist destinations. For instance, if you want to visit the Vatican you should buy a ticket in advance because the lines are insane if you try to buy them at the door. Want to visit the Alhambra in Granada? You have to get tickets a month or more in advance. The tickets for the day I wanted to go sold out which is why I ended up in Seville. (Seville was still an amazing city, don't get me wrong! It just wasn't part of my plan.) See? Being prepared is a good thing. It doesn't lessen the sense of wonderment or adventure!
3. Google Maps is bae
Google Maps is my secret travel tool. Ok, maybe it's not that secret but I still feel like I'm the only one who uses it the way I do. Before I visit a city I research the top museums, monuments, restaurants, cafes, etc... I even take note of major subway stations. I then star all the locations of the ones I want to visit on my Google Maps. They recently updated it so you can categorize them into different lists like Favorites, Want To Go or Starred. Before they just had Starred locations, but it works the same.
When you star a location, it shows up on your map with a gold star icon. The best part is that these show up even when you're offline. It's perfect for someone like me who relies entirely on a data-less iPhone when abroad. Google Maps always has your precise location on the map even when offline. It's crazy! I don't know how they do it! All I would do was head towards any starred location. I always knew if I was going the wrong way by looking at which direction my blue dot was going. If I was ever lost or confused I would find the nearest cafe or hotel and use their WiFi.
Be warned, you do have to pre-load your map before you leave your hostel and its precious WiFi. You should save a map by downloading it beforehand. Find out how to download a map here. The downside is that you can't use the direction point A to point B feature without access to WiFi. I've used this Google trick in every country and city I've visited, even Santorini. It's definitely not for the directionally challenged but great if you don't want to hassle with physical maps.
4. To meet new people you have to put yourself out there
This tip goes along with my hostel tip. For an introvert like me it can be uncomfortable talking or meeting strangers. On my first trip to Europe I hardly met anyone. That's purely because I never pushed myself to get to know anyone in my hostels. Sure, I would chat occasionally with roommates but I never hung out with any of them. Instead, I kept to myself and put on my headphones. I also never did any of the social activities the hostels provided. As a result, I felt lonely and didn't feel like I was making the most of it.
My second trip to Europe I decided to do things differently. I pushed myself to talk to everyone I roomed with. I went to at least one social activity like a pub crawl. I showed up for most free breakfasts and dinners. I hung out in the lounges. Consequently, I met loads of people some who I still keep up with. Most importantly I had fun! It wasn't as terrifying either. Hostel goers are typically friendly, outgoing and never hesitate to strike up a conversation.
5. Get to know yourself & how you like to travel
Ok so this sounds like one of those cheesy annoying solo-travel "lessons" but it's not. This is very practical! It's also a tip that you can't just learn in a day. You need some experience. Trust me, it's useful!
My point here is to emphasize how different people can be when it comes to travel preferences. For myself, I know that I'm an early-riser who likes to get the big sightseeing done as soon as possible to avoid the crowds. I hate sightseeing with people. In the afternoons, I like to return to my hostel to have a break or a nap. I don't always want to go out, out and party but sometimes is OK. I like being prepared but not so prepared that I have a strict, timed schedule. I know that I end up getting bored of cities very easily since I get a lot done in a short amount of time. I like to be active so I'd hate sitting around on a beach all day.
As you can see, I have things down to a routine. This wasn't always the case. It took me several trips to realize how I preferred to travel. My mom, for instance, is very different. She likes spending as much time as possible in each destination. I took her advice on my first trip to Europe. I spent 4 days in each city and ended up getting incredibly bored to the point where I was frustrated. My next trip I only spent 2 days in each city. Four days if it was a big city like Rome. I also took more day trips. As a result, I was much happier.
My advice to you all is to understand yourself a bit better. Think back to previous trips if you can. What worked? What didn't? It helps when it comes to planning a trip!
6. Invest in a good camera and tripod
My biggest travel regret is not having a good camera to take my photos on. Yes, iPhone cameras are increasingly better at taking clear, high-quality pictures but they still don't match up to a proper camera. Case in point, my trip to Japan in 2014. I recently flipped through my old iPhone 4S photos from that trip and was horrified. None of them looked good. They were grainy and dark. Of the hundred or so pictures that remain, only two turned out well enough. I once thought they were good photos simply because that was the best technology there was at the time. Since then cameras on phones have massively improved. I suspect that trend will continue. So even though I like my iPhone 6S shots I have of my trips to Europe I worry that in a few years time they'll look dated.
Another tip specifically for solo-travelers is to have a tripod even if you're just using your phone. Having nice photos of yourself on your travels is so important. On so many of my past trips I only have a handful of crap selfies. Selfies just don't cut it. Most people just ask strangers to take their photo which I do sometimes. However, holy s**t! It is hard to find a person who can take a decent picture! Even people my age I've asked have taken some piss poor photos of me. I quickly found out that the self-timer on my phone's camera was a lifesaver. Self-timer is bae. Though I wish I'd had a tripod because it was damn difficult to prop my phone up. I used rocks, my jackets, and my purse. Anything.
7. Bring some noise-canceling headphones
I cannot emphasize enough just how important noise-canceling headphones are when you're sleeping in hostels. Earplugs also work but I personally hate them. It blows my mind how many people are loud AF snorers. You might think, "Oh it's just this one guy at this hostel. The next one will be fine." NO! That's how I thought on my first trip to Europe. I even switched to woman-only dorms to avoid snoring. Turns out, women snore too. Every. Single. Hostel. There was always one person in each that disrupted my precious sleep. It got to the point where in Berlin I left my room to go sleep in the lounge. My second time in Europe, however, I was wiser. I brought along some cheap Philips noise-canceling headphones. I put those babies on as soon as I went to bed and cranked up the volume on my music. Zero issues!
NB: Some other small investments for a good nights sleep: Zzzquil and an eye mask.
8. Write it all down
Keep a daily journal when you travel. Even though you promise yourself you won't ever forget the little or big moments of your adventures, you will. It happens. Memories fade. This is even more important when you're traveling alone because there's no one else who can help jog your memory. I know I was never great at keeping up with my daily journal when abroad. I told myself I was too tired or too busy. As a result, I only have a handful I can re-read, which is sad. I regret not forcing myself to update it!
9. Bring a book or two
Restaurants are without a doubt the most terrifying aspect of solo travel. No matter how many times I do it, eating by myself is always awkward. People stare at and talk about you. You just kind of sit there and stare into space. When abroad without phone data and a limited battery you can't default to scrolling through your Instagram. That's why I always pack three or four books with me. Haul one to a solo meal out and you're set for a stress-free entertaining evening alone. Once I finish a book I leave it at the hostel for someone else to enjoy. No use lugging it around! If you don't want to buy your own books or have read them all, hostels usually have a lost and found bookshelf.
10. Pack light. Pack smart.
Another really important travel tip that definitely takes some trial and error to get right is to pack smart. You will not want to be that person hauling a massive suitcase that weighs a ton down some tiny cobbled street in Italy. This is especially important if you're planning on city hopping. Many opt for backpacking but I don't find that necessary. I only bring a small carry-on suitcase and a backpack whenever I travel even if I'm gone for over a month.
My biggest tip for packing is to find a few uniforms that you can throw on. My first trip to Europe I brought loads of useless trendy fashion pieces that I never ended up wearing. In the end, I stuck with two outfits that were simple, stylish and, most importantly, practical. I had a black turtleneck and a cream knit sweater that I wore on rotation. I just paired those with my black skinny jeans, a statement belt, my shearling biker jacket, and my Supergas. That was it!
Another tip is to bring items you can toss at the end or along the way. Also, just remember that you can always buy cheap clothes at stores like Zara or Mango if you really need to. In the near future, I plan on doing a big article on packing so I'll keep this entry short!
Whew! Sorry, folks. This ended up being a whole lot longer than I expected! I hope you found these tips useful. Any tips I missed? Let me know in the comments!