I’ve been traveling solo since I was 18, fresh out of high school and wide-eyed at the world. Before going to college, my mother bestowed me with the best possible gift – a plane ticket to London, and nothing else. With that, I counted up my savings, packed my bags, called some distant relatives, and blindly set out to see the world on my first-ever solo trip.
Being a newbie to solo travel, it wasn’t all easy. No one had told me that I would get robbed in Paris, or that taking a roller suitcase into London’s tube would be a nightmare, or that train travel is so ridiculously easy in Europe. I was honestly not prepared to be a solo traveler when I left, and I was lucky to have spent most of my time in places that speak English. However, learning some of these things the hard way has helped be become a smarter and better traveler, and has given me some truly life-changing experiences along the way. Here are ten of the most important lessons I’ve learned throughout the journey:
1) Pack lightly.
Have you ever gone on a trip and realized you only wore half of the clothes you originally packed? And that you were just lugging around the rest of that junk the entire time? There is no better advice than to take as little as you need with you when you travel. Not only will this free up space in your luggage and make it easier to carry, but you’ll also just feel less bogged-down.
2) You can never be too cautious or alert.
Like I mentioned before, I got my passport stolen in Paris. Luckily, because I remained alert, I was able to get it back without involving the authorities. (Yeah, you’ll have to read the story to find out how on Earth I got through that one…) I also somehow made it through 6 months in Rio, a city with a significant amount of theft and crime, without once getting robbed. The point here is that being alert is a skill that every traveler should learn. This doesn’t necessarily mean you need to be paranoid or shelter yourself from all harm, but you do need to be vigilant, especially in areas notorious for crime.
3) There are often misconceptions about destinations that just aren’t true.
I’ve heard here and there that people in X places are not very nice. London, Paris, and Prague are some of these alleged destinations. However, when I visited these cities, I felt that the people really didn’t differ too much, mannerism-wise, from those in the United States. I am convinced that there are truly nice and caring people everywhere in the world, so always take the rumors you hear with a grain of salt. Not everyone is going to fall in love with every place, but that doesn’t mean you won’t!
4) Learn how to unplug.
Travel is all about soaking everything in. It’s pretty difficult to do that when you’re glued to a smartphone, a tablet, or even a camera. While you’re in a new place, the best way to see it is to do so without distractions, and leaving your electronics aside every so often can often be the best way to get rid of them.
5) You don’t need to make time for everything.
Not an art junkie? Skip the galleries. Don’t care about sports? Forget about the stadiums. Solo travel is about YOU, not about what you think you should see or do. While I was in Vienna, 75% of my time was spent in small, side-street cafes, and not in historic palaces or gardens. With that said, don’t feel like you need to make time for every single thing people have told you to visit.
When I went on my first solo trip, I had no “Emergency Budget.” Luckily, I did have a savings account I was able to dip into when I ran out of money (London is expensive!). Things like metro rides, afternoon snacks, museum fees, and other miscellaneous expenses started to add up. The lesson I learned here was to always have a few extra bucks factored into your budget so that you don’t run the risk of being strapped for cash while traveling.
7) Making friends abroad isn’t hard…if you know where to look.
It took me a couple of solo trips to learn that making friends abroad is actually incredibly easy. Hostels, cafes, and even bars and clubs are great ways to meet other young people – locals and tourists alike. All it takes is the guts to go up to someone and say hello (of course, while always following your gut)! Plus, once you start to make friends from your travels, your News Feed will never be boring.
8) People-watching is one of the best tourist attractions in any city.
Tourists sometimes discount the value and learning that takes place through quiet observation. People-watching is one of the best ways to soak in a city – it’s free, fun, and never-ending. Just simply walking instead of taking a train or a cab will expose you to more people and places throughout the city, and will save you money day-to-day. You’ll also learn about the customs of a city just by experiencing the people within it.
9) It’s okay to take some downtime.
Many travelers want to cram as much as possible into a few short days. This strategy definitely works for some people, but for me, I usually find that I need a little bit of downtime. “Downtime” doesn’t necessarily mean staying in the hostel doing nothing, it could mean camping out all day on a park bench or in a hole-in-the-wall diner. For the solo traveler, it is important to rejuvenate and refresh so that you’re ready to go for the next big activity.
10) Responsible risks are the key to memorable travel stories.
If you haven’t read anything else on this post, I urge you to take this one with you on any trip you take. Responsible risks are the reason why I have stories to tell after my trips. They’re the reason I got to meet Rupert Grint/Ron Weasley at the Harry Potter movie premiere, and the reason why I’ve seen the Queen’s throne in the Houses of Parliament, and how I’ve snapped so many beautiful photographs during my trips. It means taking a chance when presented with the opportunity, and weighing the potential risks and the potential outcomes thoroughly. Basically, when you have an amazing opportunity, take it. You’ll be glad you did.