A First Timer’s Guide to Solo Travel
A First Timer's Guide to Solo Travel
By Esme Benjamin
If there’s one genre of travel that facilitates deeper self-exploration it’s the solo trip. Without a companion you’re not beholden to anybody else’s preferences, allowing you to explore your own way, in your own time. But more importantly, solo travel will almost certainly push you out of your comfort zone, changing your perceptions of yourself and the world around you in the process.
“For me, solo travel has been so important because it shows me that I have the ability to figure out anything, anywhere, at any time. And that's really led to an unshakable confidence boost,” explains Kelly Lewis, solo travel expert and founder of the Women’s Travel Fest. “Regardless of whatever shame or guilt or insecurity you carry around, regardless of what kind of environment you were raised in, or who told you that you couldn't do things, traveling by yourself gives you the opportunity to reclaim that narrative and do things that you didn't think that you could do.”
Because planning your first solo trip can feel intimidating, we turned to Kelly Lewis – who traveled alone for the first time at age 22, on a visit to New Zealand – for tips and advice on how to prepare and get the most out of the experience.
How to pick a solo travel destination
While a quick Google search will turn up plenty of lists proclaiming “these are the best places to visit as a solo traveler,” Lewis doesn’t subscribe to the idea that any one place is better than another. That being said, there are some practical things to consider when narrowing down your choices. Firstly, budget – your currency will stretch much further in certain places than others, so plan accordingly. Secondly, the local language. You might want to visit a place where your native language is widely spoken. Or perhaps it’s the opposite, and you want to be able to practice your foreign language skills while on vacation. The most important thing is that your chosen destination calls to you. “Sometimes we feel pulled towards a place and we don't know why it keeps coming up for us,” says Lewis, “but there's a reason for that, right? Just sit and think about a place and how you feel about it. If you can see yourself there, then start there because there's really no right or wrong destination.”
How to meet people as a solo traveler
Any seasoned solo traveler knows, just because you left home alone doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll remain that way for long. Most countries have a well-trodden backpacker circuit, and by staying in accommodations like hostels or bed & breakfasts as opposed to larger hotels or Airbnbs you’ll be more likely to cross paths with other travelers. Get comfortable with approaching strangers, asking questions and staying curious. If you want to seem approachable to others, put your phone away and start with a smile.
One of the biggest benefits of solo travel is getting space for introspection, and if you find yourself overcommitting socially, it might be time to carve out some alone time. “You know, you don't have to say yes to everything,” says Lewis. “You might meet people who are like, we're going horseback riding. Do you want to go? And you're like, I think I'd rather take the bus to the coast by myself. You always have the option to choose between being alone or being social.”
How to overcome loneliness as a solo traveler
As a solo traveler there will inevitably be moments when loneliness strikes. You’re enjoying a memorable dinner or watching an exceptionally gorgeous sunset and suddenly wish you had a companion to share it with. “I always journal in those moments to give myself some kind of a distraction,” explains Lewis. “But I also feel like, if it's getting to the point that it's too much, change your environment. Try a new place, try a new city, try a new accommodation. Be adaptable to what you're feeling and switch it up.”
Staying safe as a solo traveler
While Lewis is a big believer in the general goodness of people everywhere, she still takes safety very seriously, and so should you — especially if you’re traveling alone as a woman, a person of color or a member of the LGBTQ+ community. “Honestly, the biggest tip is always listening to your intuition and spidey senses,” says Lewis.
It’s smart to be more guarded when sharing information about your solo status and where you’re staying, and to make sure you have emergency funds in case you need them – for getting home late at night using a reputable cab company, say, or checking into a more upscale hotel if you feel unsafe in your current accommodation.
“And I think the other thing, and this is a uniquely female experience, is being put in positions where we don't want to say no, because we don't want to come off as rude,” says Lewis. “We as women will sometimes allow interactions to go past the point that we feel comfortable, so be rude! Get up, stand up, make a scene, walk out, change your seat! Don't entertain conversations knowing they're headed in a direction that you're uncomfortable with just for the sake of being nice.”
How to plan for a solo trip
Solo travel is an outside-the-comfort-zone activity for most of us, so it’s tempting to try and lock in all the details of your trip. Lewis suggests resisting the temptation to book everything in advance because being open to serendipity is the best part of traveling solo. “I don't personally like to book so much that I can't be flexible,” she explains. “I like to make a friend on the bus and be like, hey, I'll stay where you're staying. That sounds fun.”
To help you feel comfortable during the first couple of days, Lewis advises booking a hotel and an airport transfer. Once you’ve got the lay of the land you’ll feel bold enough to start meeting people, asking for recommendations, and going with the flow to get the most out of your experience.
Start small for your first solo trip
For many first time solo travelers, the thought of hopping on a plane somewhere and figuring it out on the fly can feel intimidating. Especially for those who aren’t used to spending time alone on a regular basis. ‘If you're feeling really nervous, start with small day trips around where you live,” suggests Lewis. “Get yourself out of your comfort zone, just experiencing what it's like to eat alone, or walk around alone.”
Dipping a toe into solo travel with day trips or staycations will build your confidence and give you a taste of what you’ll gain from the full experience: self-confidence, self-trust, freedom, and a deeper connection to yourself and others. Next step: Book that flight and never look back.