In honor of just returning from my last solo trip of my study abroad experience, I thought I’d share some wisdom I’ve learned along the way—from London to Dublin to Paris to Yorkshire to Galway to Killarney to Glastonbury to Bath.
1. Plan ahead. Know where you’re going to end up, and how you’re going to get there. For me, what I do in-between I like to keep flexible—that’s one of the best things about traveling alone! But I believe in having a transport and accommodation plan. It’s a safety thing.
2. You can’t be shy. Another amazing thing about traveling by yourself is how open it makes you to the rest of the world. Because you aren’t tied to a group, you are less intimidating to approach. People will approach you. I have had truly inspirational conversations with people on buses, taxi drivers, store clerks, people everywhere. A smile and a genuine interest in the people around you goes a long way. Smile and the world smiles back, etc, etc, etc.
3. Be aware. When you’re alone, you need to watch your own back. There’s no one to keep an eye on your bag or your drink but you. It pays to be very aware—a wise man once told me that only someone who wants to get robbed pulls out all their money at once. You should think about the consequences of your actions.
4. Trust yourself. I always give people the benefit of the doubt. You never know where a friend can emerge. But sometimes you can tell if something is just a little off about a person—not in a humorous, non-threatening way, but in an unsafe way. It’s okay to remove yourself from a situation—just get up and move to a different seat on the bus. This is also when it pays to have chatted with everyone around you—that way other people can be aware of your discomfort and help you if you should need it.
5. It’s not like a plane taking off. Unless it is, literally, a plane taking off, most events don’t have to have a precise timeline. Things will happen, opportunities will arise, and if you get too stuck on a schedule, you will miss out on experiences. This was a hard one for me to learn, but sometimes it pays to chill out and follow whims.
6. Know your happy place. Traveling alone can be really stressful, especially in crowded or unfamiliar places. I’ve learned the hard way that I won’t enjoy the things I’ve come to see if I’m in the wrong state of mind. You have to know what calms you and makes you happy, and then take time to do it. For me, it’s having either a big hot latte or a really cold diet Coke and sitting still for a few minutes to sort out my thoughts. Even though these minutes in cafes or on park benches could seem wasted, they enable me to enjoy everything else, and are invaluable to me as a traveler.
7. Always have a pen. This one’s prosaic, but true. You never know what you will need to remember or take note of, so a pen and a little notebook (or at least the back of some receipts) is absolutely key for getting people’s email addresses, a phone number for a taxi company, the name of a book that looked interesting but you can’t afford right now…or if you’re J.K. Rowling, the plot of a multi-billion dollar book series that comes to you on a train.
8. Eat good food. Try to eat some vegetables and fruits, something with protein. You will be happier and your energy will last longer. Every time I have bottomed out while traveling it’s been because I realize I haven’t eaten in ages, and now I have a migraine and feel sick. Don’t let this be you—bring peanut butter crackers, an apple…something!
9. Take in the moment. You are by yourself. You can spend as much time as you want staring at the ruin, or that painting, or that crowd of people. Don’t let your internal critic tell you that you need to hurry up—there’s no one to please or consider but yourself. Take advantage of it.
10. Don’t listen to your friends. This is the key one. Everyone in the world will tell you that you can’t do this, or shouldn’t do that. They will judge you for traveling alone, they won’t understand it. They will mean well—but you absolutely shouldn’t listen to them. Decide what you want to do, and make it happen. There’s a huge world out there, and you don’t have to wait on other people’s convenience to see it for yourself.
In the past seven months, I have figured out the Parisian commuter train system at rush hour with no French. I have taken an overnight bus from London to Glasgow. I have gone on seven mile hikes. I have exhausted every type of public transportation known to man. I have done so many things on my own.
It’s not because I’m really special—it’s just because I’m lucky, in the right circumstances, and determined. Anyone can do this, really.
So go forth and adventure!