The Ins and Outs of Solo Travel – A Detailed Guide to Getting Started

I assume if you’ve ever contemplated solo travel, you’ve been met with a flurry of conflicting reactions when telling others of your plans. As a woman, these reactions tend to be more negative than positive, frequently pertain to safety, and, more often than not, are very discouraging. I’ve been traveling solo for more than a decade and I still hear the same comments. It’s hard to put aside the reactions and opinions of others, especially if you carry some of the same concerns yourself. But, by being armed with knowledge, equipping yourself with the right tools and resources, and being prepared, you are taking an important step toward easing your loved ones’ worry and fulfilling your solo travel dreams. Whether it be a short weekend away, a solo camping adventure, a backpacking trip, a long international journey, or even just a local hike, keep reading to hear more about the ins and outs of solo travel!

It’s good to keep in mind every person is different. Your friend might have had a miserable time on their backpacking trip through Europe, while you would have had the time of your life on that same trip. Much of the enjoyment of travel comes from managing your expectations and being prepared for anything. I’m an introvert, so I naturally thrive being on my own, and I need a lot of time to myself in order to recharge. I’m also on the less spontaneous side and feel more comfortable when the majority of my plans are made in advance. These characteristics help me when deciding how to plan for my trip. But, of course, not everyone is built the same. If you’re a spontaneous extrovert that likes to fly by the seat of your pants, you can still travel solo safely and happily by adjusting your preparations. If you like the idea of buying a one-way ticket to somewhere new with no set plans, my advice is to at least book your accommodations and transportation for the first place you’ll be visiting. You should also research the surrounding areas you’d like to travel and follow most of the below recommendations.

There is very little I change about how I plan and prepare for a trip regardless of whether I’m solo or not. If you can take a trip with a group, there’s no reason you can’t take that same trip solo. With so many pieces that go in to trip planning, I know how overwhelming getting started can be. I will break it down in as few categories as possible below, but it’s going to be a long post so buckle up or skip ahead to whichever sections pertain to you most!

Know What Type of Traveler You Are

Knowing the type of traveler you are is the first step to planning a successful solo journey. Are you someone who wants to spend your time in the lively tourist areas chatting with and meeting new people each day? Or do you want to spend your time relaxing in solitude? Do you want to be near all the action in the heart of the city? Or do you want to get off the beaten path and see things most tourists miss? Do you want to stay in hostels making new friends? Or do you need your own room and peace and quiet? Do you want to stay in one place for most of your trip? Or do you want to move from place to place? What is most important to you while you travel? Food, culture, shopping, site-seeing, lounging, nightlife, beaches, outdoor activities? Do you like spending time in tropical locales or bustling metropolises? Is it important to you that you only travel somewhere that your native language is spoken? Are you comfortable traveling in places that are less developed than what you’re used to? Once you can answer all of these questions the rest of the trip planning falls in to place quickly.

Location Planning and Costs

You’ll likely have a destination in mind before you begin planning your trip. Once your mind is set on that location start researching the area. Use sites like wikitravel.org to learn about the destination and search for blogposts on the areas you’re interested in. If the destination you have in mind is a broad area, like an entire country, start researching the different towns and try narrowing down your favorites. I find that other traveler’s blogposts are the best way to get a feel for an area. But people have vastly differing opinions, so be sure to read as many posts as possible to really understand what travel to a particular spot is like. Cost will usually play a big role in deciding where you want to travel. If you have a limited budget, some destinations will be more suited to you than others. Traveling through south east Asia, for example, can be much more cost effective than hopping from city to city in western Europe. If traveling a long distance, some places are very expensive to get to, so it’s a good idea to look at flight prices before deciding on where to go. That’s not to say that you can’t travel through expensive places on a budget, but traveling to places where your money will take you further might be a better option for your first time out.

Timing, Length of Trip, Weather

Once your location search is narrowed you’ll want to nail down the time of year and for how long you want to travel. If you have a set amount of time off at a particular time of year you’ll build your trip around that. If you have no limitations, try looking up sample itineraries for the areas you’re interested in on Google. These often give a good idea of how long you’ll need to spend in the place(s) you want to visit. If you have a limited budget, consider shortening the length of your trip or visiting less stops on your journey. You’ll want to check the average weather conditions in the places you’ll be visiting. Traveling to certain areas during the mild rainy season can be pleasant, but if you’re planning a trip that requires clear sunny days you’ll need to take that in to account. Traveling in the off season to some destinations can mean monsoons and flooding, so be sure to do some thorough research. If you want to avoid the largest crowds, you might want to consider traveling during shoulder season. This is usually during the Spring and Fall. Whenever you’re able to travel, be sure the location you’ve chosen possesses the weather and crowds you’re looking for.

Transportation

Unless you plan to spend all of your time at a beach resort (and there’s nothing wrong with that!), you will need to consider modes of transportation in the area you want to stay in. In some places public transportation is everywhere. You can find local busses, trains, or taxis quickly and navigate the area easily. In other places, public transport is non-existent, and in order to get around you’ll need to rent a vehicle or motorbike or hire a private driver or guide. If one of the locations you want to stay has limited transportation options, you may instead stay in a neighboring town or city that has more options. From the neighboring locale you can visit the place you originally wanted to stay. Do as much research as you can to make sure the available transportation falls within your budget. If you do decide to stay somewhere with limited transportation, scheduling a private driver in advance helps to ensure you’re not stranded. Trip Advisor is a great site to check for reviews and recommendations for guides and drivers. If you’re traveling somewhere that has readily available public transportation either book tickets or look up schedules prior to travel. If you’re renting or taking your own vehicle, be sure to map out your routes (and back-ups) ahead of time.

Accommodations

Choosing the right place to stay is so important to the success of your trip. Once you know where you want to go and have researched all available transportation, it’s time to book accommodation. If you’re traveling somewhere far off the beaten path, you may have limited options, so book as far in advance as possible. Most of the time, the places you’ll be visiting will have an overwhelming amount of options. The site I use most often for booking my accommodations is booking.com. On booking.com you can filter your search to only show you accommodations with the amenities you’re looking for in your price range. You’ll be able to find hotel and motel rooms, B&Bs, hostels, homestays, guesthouses, and other unique accommodations on the site. There is an option to narrow your search to only see listings that offer free cancellation and require no advance payment. I frequently book only places that have high ratings, good reviews, and do not require payment before I’ve seen it. Use the map on each listing to see precisely where the accommodation is located. If you want to be in the heart of the city so you can walk everywhere, don’t accidently book a place on the outskirts of town. For camping trips I use Recreation.gov, Hipcamp, and state park websites to find the campgrounds I want to stay in. I also use Campsitephotos.com to look at reviews and find the best sites in each place. Many of the best campgrounds are fully booked within days of their release, so being ready to book more than 6 months in advance is ideal. There are, of course, dozens of other sites to search for and book your accommodations. Be sure whatever site you use, you read the fine print closely. Know your cancellation and payment options and read reviews on other booking sites (Agoda, Trip Advisor, The Dyrt etc.) before committing.

Activities

Sometimes the most popular thing to do in the area you’re visiting is wander around on foot either hiking or exploring local shops, eateries, and the surrounding scenery. But other times an area is known for a certain activity. In Grand Cayman it’s swimming with stingrays, in Napa Valley it’s wine tasting, in Cappadocia it’s a sunrise ride in a hot air balloon. For these activities I book in advance based on reviews (Trip Advisor is a good place for this). If you prefer to wait until you get there, it’s a good idea to at least know what the cost should be before arriving. In other places you travel you’ll want to spend your days visiting museums, temples, palaces, waterfalls, and beaches. Some places and activities require a permit, so securing one ahead of time will limit missed opportunities. If you’re visiting a town or city with numerous places of interest that are not in walking distance, it might be worth it to book a driver/guide for the entire day in order to get to everything. Having a local guide is helpful when it comes to navigating the roads, knowing about spots most tourists miss, and learning some history about the places you’re seeing. If you want to use local transportation or are driving your own vehicle, be sure to research driving routes and bus and train schedules prior to your travels.

Preparations

*Much of the below information is geared toward international trips, but the same recommendations apply for domestic travel as well. For camping and hiking trips, there is some additional information in regards to preparation and packing. A more extensive post on that topic coming soon!

Travel Insurance

Purchasing travel insurance is the most important thing you can do to prepare for any trip.  It can protect you from something as minor as a piece of lost luggage or as serious as needing to be medically evacuated.  InsureMyTrip.com is an excellent comparison website that breaks down different plans and allows you to find the one that best matches your needs.  If you prefer an insurance option that allows you to cancel your trip for any reason, purchase your insurance within 14 days of your initial trip deposit.  If you plan to bring any expensive electronics or photography equipment on your trip, look in to single item insurance.  

Passport

You need to verify that your passport is valid for 6 months after the date of entry.  If your passport will expire before this or you do not yet have a passport, apply as early as possible to be sure your passport gets to you on time.  I recommend making several copies of the photo page of your passport to carry with you.  These can be used at hotels that require your passport or in case of emergency if your passport is lost or stolen. 

Vaccinations

Some countries require or strongly recommend vaccinations to enter.  Depending on your age, medical history, and what doctor you visit, you may be given varying suggestions on the recommended vaccines for you.  To better help your doctor, make let them know all of the countries/cities/towns you will be staying in, the length of your trip, and whether you will be spending time in rural areas or with wild animals for an extended period of time.  The advice of your doctor and your own research and judgement should help you decide what is best for you. If a country requires a vaccination, you will likely not be able to opt out and will need to show proof of that vaccination to gain entry. *The fluid situation around travel during the pandemic means country, state, and county requirements are constantly changing. Be sure to check all guidelines and requirements for the locations you’re traveling before embarking on your travels.

Medications

If you take any prescription medications check that they are legal in the places you are visiting.  It is recommended that you carry all medications in their original bottle with the prescription note from your doctor (especially for medications that are controlled substances like prescription pain relievers and anti-anxiety medications).  Over-the-counter medications such as Tylenol, allergy pills, sleep aides, and Tums are good to have on hand.  These too should be carried in their original containers.  Make sure to talk to your doctor before leaving to ensure you have all of the medications you will need for the entirety of your travels.  Though there are often pharmacies in the places you are visiting, it is not always easy to find the everyday medications you are accustomed to at home. 

Money

Check to determine if your travel destinations have easily accessible ATMs.  If they do, you can use your US debit card to withdraw local currency from the bank machines.  It is also a good idea to order foreign currency from your local bank prior to your trip.  Some US banks will have foreign currency on-hand; others will require a one to two week notice to order it for you.  The amount of money you carry with you is entirely up to you.  Carrying a small amount of US dollars regardless of destination is a good idea in the event of emergency.  However you decide to carry your cash, be sure to notify your bank of your travel plans.  Let them know the dates and destinations of your travel to avoid them putting a restriction on your banking card. It is also a good idea to carry one or more credit cards with you.  Visa and MasterCard are widely accepted and are good to have in the event of emergency.  Also notify your credit card company of your travel dates and destinations. I have discovered it is helpful to bring a list of the telephone numbers for the bank and credit cards I carry while traveling.  These can be found on the back of the cards themselves.  If your card is lost or stolen you will have the number to call to cancel immediately.

Packing

Luggage

One of the most important items for any trip is the luggage itself.  It’s hard for some people to hear, but I strongly recommend taking only carry-on luggage.  I know most people don’t think a carry-on bag will be able to hold all of the things they’ll need for an entire trip, but I have easily packed everything I need for more than 3 months of travel in one bag.  The type of luggage you use is up to you.  I prefer to carry a backpack, but others prefer a rolling suitcase.  They both have their benefits, so you’ll need to do what feels right for you.  When looking for the right luggage, make sure your bag falls within the proper dimensions (most pieces of luggage will specifically say “carry-on compatible” or something to that effect).  Double check the actual measurement requirements for the airline you will be traveling on. I have used an Osprey 46L bag ever since I started traveling, and think it’s one of the best backpacks there is for travel.  If you want to do some research of your own, there are many amazing brands of travel bags and articles written about them.  I suggest reading Amazon reviews or heading to your nearest REI or other sporting goods store to look around.

If you can’t possibly fit all of your stuff in a carry-on, I completely understand!  I like to be extra prepared and understand wanting to have everything you might need at your fingertips.  Just remember you will have to be comfortable carrying all of your luggage yourself, and there will be extra fees to check luggage on flights with the added worry of loss or damage en route. I recommend carrying a front-facing day bag with you as well.  By front-facing I mean that it is not worn on your back or loose at your side like a purse, but lies in front of you (cross-body).  I have never had a problem with theft on a trip, but having important items like your passport and cash in a bag that is always in your sight helps ease worries. 

Toiletries

Toiletries (and feminine products) are, of course, your own preference.  Many accommodations provide soap and shampoo and other necessities, but I always carry my own.  If you like to travel light, shampoo bars are a great way to go.  They look like a bar of soap and take up little space.  The things I recommend packing in a toiletry bag are; shampoo, conditioner, razor, facewash, body/face lotion, deodorant, sunscreen, insect repellent, toothbrush, toothpaste. Everything else depends on how often you use it.  I tend to wear my hair up every day while traveling, so hair products are unnecessary for me.  I do not recommend bringing a blow-dryer as they take up a lot of space in luggage and many accommodations provide them.  Travel-sized make-up and a mini/travel-size flat iron take up little space if you can’t get by without (like me).

Adapter

You will often need a universal adapter if you plan to plug anything in while traveling internationally.  If you plan to use it to charge electronic devices only, one of the adapters that has only USB ports and is smaller is ideal.  Don’t forget to bring chargers/charging chords for all of the electronic devices you bring along.

Phones

I carry my smart phone with me at all times.  It acts as my camera and computer when there is access to Wi-Fi.  For international travel I keep my phone on airplane mode and never use it to make phone calls (though it could be switched off of airplane mode easily if an emergency call becomes necessary).  It’s easy to set up apps such as Viber or WhatsApp in order to make calls back home through WiFi. If you would prefer to not rely on Wi-Fi and have access to your cellular data, I suggest talking to your cell provider about their international packages.  You can also bring a small inexpensive unlocked phone and purchase local SIM cards to make phone calls back home. 

Miscellaneous

Lightweight scarf – This has many purposes including use as a sarong or shoulder-cover for temple visits, as a hair/headband, a small towel, or to keep warm on a flight.

Packing cubes – These keep clothing organized and compact.

First Aid kit – It is a good idea to bring Band-Aids, Neosporin, hydrocortisone cream, allergy pills, antacids, pain reliever, eye drops etc.     

Eye mask and earplugs – I never go anywhere without these.  You don’t know when you might want to drown out the noise and bright light in order to take a nap/get a better night sleep.

Neck pillow – If you’ve never flown on a 10+ hour international flight you may not realize how much of a life-saver they are.  They can also double as an extra pillow in guesthouse rooms if the one on your bed is not enough.

Small Travel Journal or Notebook and a pen/pencil

Safety

Safety is probably the biggest concern your loved ones (and you) have when it comes to traveling solo. There are important easy steps you can take to make your trip as safe as possible. One of them you’re already doing. By researching and learning as much as you can about the locations you’ll be visiting, you’re already a step ahead. In your research you’ll be able to find information about crime statistics and the safety of tourists in the areas you’re traveling. Bloggers, when writing about a destination, will often touch on the topic, and Wikitravel has a safety section for each location it provides information for. The most common issues you’ll find in tourist areas are theft and scams. If theft is prevalent in one of the places you’re traveling the best thing you can do is be extra vigilant. Carry your bags on you at all times when traveling from place to place. Keep duplicates of your most important items like medications, cash, and copies of your passport in separate bags (one set in your luggage in addition to what you carry in your day bag). Don’t flash large sums of money or expensive items in public, and know how much transportation and goods and services should cost in order to avoid being scammed.

I have always felt safe during my travels and a lot of that comes from being comfortable in the accommodation and locations I’ve chosen to stay in. I read as many reviews as I can find on an area and have a good idea of the general safety there. If you are still feeling unsure after reading reviews there are additional ways to stay safe. You can book a stay in a hostel that has separate female and male dorms if sleeping in a co-ed room worries you. Utilize door locks and room safes and stay at places with security guards. Stay at large popular campgrounds and spend a little extra money at nicer hotels in busy tourist areas.

This may be an unpopular opinion, but avoid going out after dark. If safety is a big concern for you, there is nothing wrong with staying at your hostel or hotel after the sun goes down. It may sound boring, but when you’re just starting your solo journey, it’s a good way to put your mind at ease. There is plenty to do during the day and you can use the evenings to wind down and go through photos or write in your journal. Many popular hostels and hotels have nightlife of their own. If you know that’s what you’re interested in, try staying at an accommodation with it’s own bar or nightclub. If you know you’ll want to be out after dark make sure the area you’re staying in is well-populated. Stay somewhere close to the action in order to avoid long walks or drives back to your accommodation. If you plan to be out drinking, watch your drink at all times. If it’s out of your site for any length of time do not continue drinking it. It’s not as common as it used to be, but in some places the alcohol may not be regulated and can be mixed with dangerous fillers. If you’re traveling in an area where this has been a problem, stick to bottled beer. Above all else, keep your wits about you and stay alert.

One of the most common injuries sustained as a traveler is from motorbike accidents. If you are unfamiliar with motorbikes, renting one in another country (or anywhere) is not a good idea. If you have experience on a bike and feel comfortable riding one in an unfamiliar place, make sure you know the laws where you are. Even if the place renting the bike to you says otherwise, you will need an international drivers license to avoid large fines and should wear a helmet at all times. Be aware of local driving conditions and expectations and never hop on your bike if you’ve been drinking.

Language

It’s a good idea to learn some key phrases in the local language if you’re traveling somewhere outside the country. The locals will always appreciate someone who is trying to speak their language whether they speak English (or whatever your native language is) or not. This also helps you in an emergency. Being able to communicate that you need medical help or the police is a good idea. I’ve never had any issues with crime, but I have needed medical attention while traveling in other countries. Being able to effectively communicate my medical need helped a great deal.

Medical

It’s unlikely you’ll experience a medical emergency on your travels, but if you do, being prepared can mean all the difference. Carry copies of your travel insurance and the phone number to call the insurance company. Have phone numbers for and know where the nearest hospital and medical facilities are in all of the places you’re visiting. If you have any serious medical conditions or allergies it’s a good idea to wear a medical alert bracelet. Carry a written copy of medical concerns translated to the local language. Always carry your epi-pen and necessary medications on you, and if you think at any time that you need help, ask for it.

Food and Water

Experiencing the local cuisine is one of the best parts of travel. Trying new dishes and flavors, going on food tours, and taking cooking classes are some of my favorite things to do while exploring a new place. Most of the time this will be an incredible experience, but it’s a good idea to be cautious when it comes to certain foods. Depending on where you’re traveling, food preparation may not be what you’re used to. Though locals can eat dishes with no issues, it can cause serious stomach troubles for you if you’re not careful. Foods that have been left sitting out (like at a food cart), haven’t been refrigerated (like eggs and milk), or washed in water that has not been treated (like fresh vegetables you eat without peeling) can all cause serious illness. If you eat at food carts eat only the dishes prepared fresh in front of you. If you want to enjoy a salad or some eggs go to a larger restaurant that caters to tourists. In many parts of the world it is not safe to drink tap water. If you have any doubt, stick to bottled water and make sure your drinks are made with manufactured ice from purified water. If you do get sick, hopefully it passes quickly. You can try using rehydrating salts and drinking fluids at the first sign of illness, but if you become severely ill seek medical attention.

Customs and Laws

Learning about local customs and laws can also help you stay safe. Knowing that it’s illegal to feed pigeons in Venice or to chew gum in Singapore can help you stay out of legal trouble. Knowing that tipping at restaurants in South Korea is insulting and slurping your noodles in China is a show of respect can help you have a more successful trip. Learn the laws and customs of places you’ll be visiting to stay safe and out of trouble, and avoid insulting the people in the place you’re visiting. You will have a more meaningful and enjoyable trip.

Budget

We touched on some cost considerations earlier in the post, but it’s a good idea to have a general overall budget in mind before you embark on your journey. Running out of money while halfway around the world can be scary. It’s easy to avoid if you plan and stick to a budget during your travels. Before you leave you should already know how much your accommodations, transportation, and activities should cost. You can get a pretty good idea of food costs with a little bit of research as well. If you know you’ll want to spend time shopping or indulging in frequent massages, make sure to factor that in to your budget. Estimate how much you will spend each day and stick to it. If you spend extra money on souvenirs one day, adjust by eating at an inexpensive food stall the next. Whatever you estimate you’ll be spending, make sure you have a large cushion for emergencies. Emergencies can pop up at any time, and though your travel insurance should reimburse you in most instances, you’ll need to pay out of pocket at the time.

Photography

This may seem insignificant to some, but having beautiful pictures from places I’ve been lucky enough to explore is important to me. These pictures are often my only souvenirs and invoke strong memories of some of the best moments of my life. I love incredible landscapes and unique architecture, but I also like to be in some of the pictures. This can be a bit trickier when traveling solo, but not impossible. All of the pictures that accompany this post were taken with my iPhone and either done by self-timer or by asking a stranger or tour guide. I’ve found that most drivers and guides are excellent photographers and want to please you with the perfect shot. Strangers are also usually happy to help. If all else fails or there is nobody around, don’t be afraid to prop your phone or camera up on a nearby rock and use your self-timer. You’ll be rewarded with amazing pictures that last forever.

Back-Ups

I cannot stress enough how important it is to be flexible and have several back-up plans in place in the event that something goes wrong. Volcanic eruptions cause flight cancellations, sudden hail and lightening storms make tent-camping unsafe, your check engine light comes on the first day of a 3 week road trip, food poisoning makes an 8 hour bus journey unfeasible, flood waters make crossing the bridge to your safari camp impossible… Anything can happen when you’re traveling, and, apart from the flood, all of those things happened to me while I was on a solo trip. In all honesty, I was not entirely prepared for most of those situations, but I’ve learned from them, and being flexible and organized allowed me to deal with the most unexpected of events. It’s not possible to prepare for every scenario, but you can increase your chances of having an amazing trip by knowing that nothing is guaranteed. The guesthouse you can’t wait to stay at may close with little notice, but you can carry a list of nearby available accommodations with you just in case. Your flight might get canceled, but you’ll have an idea of what other airlines are flying to the same destination. And whether you’re traveling solo or not, there are always people around who are willing to help. Don’t be afraid to ask. Just know that the trip may not go exactly as you planned, and that’s ok! The unexpected situations often lead to an even better trip and an unforgettable story to take home with you.

If you’ve made it to the end of this post, congratulations! I know it was a long one, but hopefully it’s helped you feel more comfortable getting started on your solo adventure. If you have any suggestions or comments about tips I may have missed, let me know in the comments. If these tips and suggestions have helped you at all in preparing for your solo journey I would love to hear about it! You can drop me a comment below or shoot me an email.

Above all else HAVE FUN and TRAVEL SAFE!

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