I’ve traveled to Paris, Budapest, Prague, Brno, New York City, Chicago and southern Africa by myself. People are always surprised by this, as if it’s a brave or subversive act. To me, it’s an act of slight desperation because I want to travel as much as possible, but cannot always find people who have that same drive…the drive that says, don’t buy expensive clothes or an expensive car because you need money for plane tickets and hostels and Czech beer and museum entrance fees and postcards.
How to travel by yourself? TL;DR: Just go.
1. Get used to being by yourself. It baffles me when people say can’t stand going to the movies or eating in a restaurant by themselves. I’m not sure what sets their nerves ablaze with this prospect. Boredom? Bring a book. People watch. Stare at your phone like you do when friends are around. Loneliness? Chat up a neighbor. Social anxiety? No one is looking at you and no one cares that you’re eating a taco plate alone. There. Go out alone. Eat tacos. Watch movies. Dance your pretty little ass off at a show. Try to find hot people in the crowd to ogle. All by your lonesome.
2. Get tired of waiting for other people to do the things you want to do. In a perfect world, we would have a gaggle of friends who accompany us to every movie, every concert, every foreign land that we have a passing interest in. For a while, we do. It’s called our twenties. Then people get mired in work, babies, families, gardening, video games, whathaveyou, and gathering a group to go to a foreign land becomes a Herculean task of organization and compromise.
What’s that sound you hear? Tick-tock. Tick-tock. We’re all getting older. Do you really want to wait for the perfect time and perfect traveling companions to see the world? There are a lot of countries out there and, as Americans, we only have so much vacation time each year. Get crackin’.
3. Buy a plane ticket. Do not buy a guidebook first. Commit. It’s so easy to say you’re going to do something…someday. But once you spend more than $500 and request vacation time? You are going.
One of the big drawbacks to traveling alone is not having someone to share hotel costs with. Hostels and guest houses are your friends. Sharing a bathroom is not a big deal when you are saving $50 a night. If you’re worried about bunking with strangers, many hostels have two-person rooms you can book alone that are cheaper than a typical hotel. Hostels are also full of extra features: Free internet access, piles of used books (ask me how I finally read Eat Pray Love, an embarrassingly poignant book when you’re traveling alone as a woman), tons of local touristing info, and a kitchen. For brave, friendly souls, Couchsurfing is an extremely cheap option. AirBnB is less cheap, but offers a similar live-like-a-local vibe. (I stayed at a great guest house in Pretoria, South Africa, through AirBnB.)
5. Consider your safety. I haven’t traveled to “dangerous” places, but there are general travel tips one should abide by no matter your destination. Keep your cash, credit cards and passport somewhere impossible to pickpocket. Don’t flash tons of cash. Leave the fancy jewelry at home. Make at least two copies of your passport; carry one in your luggage and leave one at home. Even better: Scan it and email yourself a copy. Keep loved ones at home abreast of your whereabouts (hello, free hostel internet!). Don’t get blazing drunk or diminish your faculties in other manners. Vaccinate yourself if necessary. Watch that local water, if necessary. (Wish I was sharing this tip not from experience.) Read up on local tourist scams and watch yourself.
I went to southern Africa earlier this year. Part of the time I was with a tour group, but sorrowfully parted ways with them at Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. I crossed the border alone into Zambia for the chance to briefly visit another country and see the Falls from the other side.* During my actual outing at the Falls, a cab driver attached himself to my side. He said he was bored and just wanted to give me a tour and didn’t want money. I was partially weirded out, traipsing through a nearly empty park with a strange man, having worrying mom-type thoughts: “This guy could pull me off into the foliage, rape and kill me, and no one in the world really knows where I am.” And partially irritated: Of course, he’d want more money that I now felt obligated to give. But you know what? He was really nice. I got the insider tour. We had some great conversations about how much it costs to rent our homes ($100/month vs. $1,200/month), whether WWF is “real,” and why so many entertainers become politicians in the United States. And I gave him extra money because, jeez, why be a cheap jerk when I had a nice day.
Lesson: Yes, be careful, but sometimes you need to just relax and it’s worth the extra bit of money to do so.**
6. Talk to people. I’m still working on this one, not being known for striking up conversations with strangers or being forthright and getting to know locals. But I’m trying. I smile every time I think of the Botswanans I met who shouted “Obama!” joyously when I told them where I’m from. One of my fondest memories from Prague was sharing a dining table at a monastic brewery with a girl from Colorado, fresh off Okotoberfest; a young Quebecois who was traveling the world after saving for two years; and an older couple from the Midwest. Meeting people is fun and staves off the lonelies.