Traveling was always something I fantasized about, but like many people, I was unsure of how to afford it and hesitant to go alone. I went to Morocco during an exchange program, but it wasn’t enough to satisfy my thirst, especially as a solo female traveler. There was so much of the world I wanted to see. But after I left school, as I was anxious about the future and feeling the weight of my student debt, I took a job in a field I was not remotely interested in. Yet, after a year of crunching numbers, I took a risk and left for a monthlong vacation that turned into a two-year journey. Through traveling alone, I got a taste of independence and although it bruised me at times, I left a much stronger and open-minded person.
What attracted me to solo adventuring was the simple fact that a woman traveling alone is a radical concept. Social norms will tell you that you are supposed to be accompanied by a man or at the very least, a group of girls. Which makes venturing out alone all the more freeing.
Traveling alone can be an extremely rewarding experience. You learn very quickly how capable you are and gain a tremendous amount of independence and valuable people skills. But it is not always filled with smiles and enlightening moments. It can be deeply challenging, scary, and often boring. Be smart, but don’t let the fear ruin your trip or prevent you from having fun. Check out these tips below to make your trip smoother and more enjoyable.
It’s probably your most important tool. Of course, confidence comes from preparation and experience, and nobody starts out as a very knowledgeable traveler. But confidence is more about having faith in yourself and your abilities to deal with obstacles. Every new place you go will bring in fresh challenges to deal with — even going to a different city can sometimes feel like you’re starting from scratch. Having the confidence to dive in makes all the difference. If you are feeling doubtful, walk with an air of self-assurance. If you are walking alone at night or unsure of your surroundings try not to let anxiety show on your face. Of course, no one is perfect. I’ve had my moments of crazy panic and mad anxiety — but you learn from your mistakes and grow. Confidence is your most powerful weapon.
2) Have an open mind
Having an open mind during your travels is vital. You will be coming in contact with many people who think differently than you. As a feminist, I struggled with this. I was surrounded by very like-minded people during college and I was disappointed to learn that not as many people shared my feminist viewpoints. But it is a giant learning experience. It will teach you to communicate across differences.
An essential part about traveling is opening yourself up to experiences and friendships you may not normally encounter in your day to day life. The best friend I made traveling was someone who I never thought I’d be friends with. I met her on a bumpy bus heading to Queenstown, NZ. She had a giant wheeled suitcase, I had a dusty backpack that towered over me. She had piles of cute vintage shirts; I didn’t pack a bra. She wanted to tan on the lake; I wanted to hike. But through those hours logged on the bus and a giggled-filled night riding the bull, we began a lifelong friendship. Traveling with an open heart will teach you over and over again that underneath opinions and differences, that we are all human and show you the value of human connection.
3) Learn to understand other cultures
It is also important to keep an open mind when you are confronted with cultural differences. I struggled with understanding the hijab during my time in Morocco and India. I felt that anything that restricted the body surely was wrong. But it was not my place to judge before I properly understood. And upon talking with countless women, I learned that some women viewed the hijab positively. When you travel, it is important to learn about cultural practices before placing judgment.
4) Make time for self-care
The road can wreak havoc on your body. You will be surrounded by yummy fried food and tempting local cuisine that may or may not be healthy for you (let’s be honest, it probably won’t). Combined with jetlag, stiff backs from train rides, and a few sleepless nights, you can find yourself run-down real quickly. There is a lot of pressure to see all the local sights but don’t hesitate to take a day to rest. I found that stretching in the morning and occasional exercise made a huge difference in my physical and mental health.
Traveling is not immune to anxiety and other mental health issues. If you’re someone with a history of mental health problems, like myself, then these issues may find a way to sneak up on you. Popular stories like Eat Pray Love romanticize the notion that travel can heal depression and anxiety. While that may have been the author’s experience, it certainly wasn’t mine. Treat mental health issues on the road as you would a physical illness by taking care of yourself and utilizing your own coping techniques (whether that be medicine, yoga, journaling…etc).
5) Bring condoms
After a night of heavy flirting and drinking, I suggested to this hunky surfer that we walk down to the beach. After heavy kissing under a thin slice of moon with a spectacular mountain backdrop, I whispered to ask if he had a condom — “No, because I am a stupid, stupid man.” I walked back to my hostel, sexless. The next day, I went out and bought condoms. Don’t make my mistake.
6) Instagram and Facebook lie — let yourself experience all the emotions
Many people heavily publicize their travel experiences on Facebook and Instagram. You see spectacular photos of smiling, laughing people behind a jaw-dropping landscape that doesn’t even look real. People’s travel photos make travel seem amazing and wonderful all the time. But the pictures are only a very small reality of a much larger picture. You don’t see the hours waiting for buses, frustrated faces when you are trying to communicate in another language, and the awkward silences with strangers. So when you are actually traveling and experiencing difficulty, you have this nagging regret chasing you, wondering why you’re not having an amazing time.
I felt like I had to be happy all the time. How could I not be? I was traveling the world. Travel blogs that only discuss positive experiences drill this into our heads. But the reality is that travel can be hard work. It’s a worthwhile experience but it comes with ups and downs. You will have days of pure happiness and others of unrelenting boredom. Let yourself feel the emotions that you need to feel. Your experiences will feel rawer and when you do feel that amazing high on the road, it will feel sweeter.
7) Leave extra room in your budget
If you can, try to leave extra room in your budget for the unpredictable and for the moments when you want an added comfort of security. Occasionally, if I felt unsafe walking home, I’d spend a bit extra on a cab. Even if there was no reason to worry, the added room in my budget allowed me the choice to make decisions like this. Flexibility in your budget will help ease some anxieties.
The extra room in your budget will help you plan for the unexpected. I rented a motorbike in Vietnam and I embarrassingly crashed into a plant pot. Luckily, I walked away unscathed, but I had to pay for the damage to the bike. Accidents aside, sometimes you may want to go to a local site that is on the more expensive side. I heard about a music and elephant festival, one of the largest in the world, when I was in Mumbai, and I knew I had to go. I splurged and jumped on a train to south India. An extra bit of money gives you more freedom.
8) Stay in small, friendly hostels
Hostels will be your home away from home during your travels. If you are staying for an extended amount of time, the friends you make there will become your family. And, if you are only passing through, hostels are a great place to meet people as a solo traveler. I landed in Melbourne and arrived at a Victorian house redesigned into a hostel. A bit lonely and hesitant, I quickly made friends, fell in love, and ended up staying for eights months. There will be many people in hostels in your same position. When you’re alone it feels easier to bond with travelers.
There are many large chain hostels that often attract drunk, boisterous crowds. While the pub crawls at these hostels are fun for a night or two, smaller hostels offer a much homier experience. Use websites like hostelbookers to read reviews and book ahead of time.
But communal living may not be for everyone. Websites like Helpx provide travelers the opportunity to work for a few hours in exchange for free room and board. The jobs range from grape picking to child care and can be a good place to meet local people and have a sense of family and security.
9)Trusts your instincts
If a situation doesn’t feel right, trust yourself and walk away. As women, we are often made to feel bad for not blindly following along in situations. But don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself or so simply say no to invitations and unwanted attention.
Travel is about taking risks and exploring different opportunities but it is easy to loose your head when you’re caught in the serendipity of the moment. Try to make level-headed decisions. A friend of mine was a bit tipsy and forgot her hostel location and spend hours searching. Reserve your nights of partying for when you are in a situation that you trust and feel comfortable in.
Traveling is expensive and for many people, long-term travel is completely out of the budget. But young Americans are able to work in Australia and New Zealand on holiday visas. The jobs available range from farm work to sales positions. I took a job as a receptionist in Australia and it funded 5 months on the road and my student loan payments. Websites like Go Overseas provide more information about this.
Many hostels will also let you exchange part-time cleaning or receptionist duties for free board, which can be great if you find a city you want to stay in but don’t want to commit to a full-time job.
Movie photos from Wild, Eat Pray Love, Tracks, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, How Stella got Her Groove Back, How to be Single
More from BUST