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10 Tips from a Seasoned Solo Traveler

How to Make the Most of Your Travels Abroad

Solo travel in Ecuador in a hotel
The author stays in a hotel in Ecuador for a very good price.

Backpacking, adventure travel, solo travel — whatever you call it, flying to a new country with no plan, knowing little of the local language, bringing along just a bit of money, and having lots of time available is a much different experience than your week at the beach on vacation from work.

I’ve made plenty of mistakes. In Europe I carried the huge external frame backpack that I used for wilderness backpacking, complete with a sleeping bag and tent that I set up maybe three times in as many months.

In Bolivia I had only one functional ATM card, which I lost and then spent two weeks without money. In the Philippines I got off the airplane after midnight with no plan, no map, no hotel, no taxis, and no idea where I was.

You live, you learn. You make mistakes. But you must learn from them.

You might find some of these tips obvious, but I have to admit there was a time when each wasn’t so obvious to me.

1. Slow the heck down

You can tell a lot about a country by how fast people walk on the street. And you can tell a lot about the person who pushes by in a hurry, and while on vacation!

Slow down! What are you in a hurry for? You’re not going to see it all in one day, three weeks, six months, a year, or a lifetime. You’re never going to see it all.

Don't plan activities every day. Don’t plan anything. Put on a good pair of shoes, put some water and a sweater or raincoat or whatever into a small backpack, and hit the streets.

In Beijing, after a day and a half of endless palaces, temples, and walls, all amazing and wonderful, I ditched a 5-day all-inclusive guided tour. I took a cab to the hotel — the driver drove in circles and overcharged me like crazy — where I lay in bed for about 30 minutes. Then I changed clothes and I left the hotel. I picked a direction and just started walking.

I wandered through a sprawling street market built over dusty grey-dirt roads, with all the weird stuff on sale that you’d imagine from China: live animals great and small, roasted scorpion on a stick, and bags of dried seahorses.

Then after crossing a brief takeover of modernity, with Kentucky Fried Chickens and hotels like mine, I stumbled into a hutong, an ancient Chinese neighborhood of cramped cobblestone streets, communal toilet-less bathrooms, curious friendly locals, delicious cooking smells, and 10-cent 40-oz beers.

It was the best day of the trip.

Market in China as a solo traveler
Enjoying a local market in China as a solo traveler.

2. Less is more

I believe if you try to see more places, to squeeze in every highlight of a country or even a region, you will end up seeing much less.

You know what I’m talking about. Central America in three weeks. Europe in three months. Or the dreaded year-long, round-the-world trip.

I can spend two months only in Guatemala, easy. Mexico? Give it half a year, at least. When I had three months free in Asia, I went to five places in the Philippines, no more.

You have three months free? Why not study Spanish in Guatemala? Or learn to scuba dive in the Philippines? Volunteer in Ecuador? Teach in Europe? Or just really get to know one country, one region, one city?

I figure that if you end up somewhere far off in the world, for each place you visit you should stay for either less than two days or more than two weeks. If it’s great, it’s worth at least two weeks — maybe more — and if it’s not, or if there’s only one thing you wanted to see or do, then two days is enough.

Learn scuba diving in the Philippines
Learn scuba diving from a divemaster in the Philippines.

3. Learn some basics of the local language

Everywhere I go I learn how to say Do you speak English? in the local language.

That’s the most important thing to learn. It’s completely pointless to speak to someone in English unless they understand English. Don’t even say thank you. What’s the point? You’re better off smiling sheepishly and shrugging your shoulders.

Even if it’s obvious the person speaks English, asking them first in their local language is the right thing to do. It shows respect, and it will win you respect. You are, after all, guests in their house or country.

Of course, it’s a little awkward when they say no and keep talking. So then learn hello, goodbye, nice to meet you, thank you, bathroom, how much? and all the rest.

Encounter in Vietnam
A typical street scene and daily encounter in Vietnam. Try to say "hello" if you can learn how to do so. It will open up a new world of hospitality and respect.

4. Understand ATMs

Managing your money while traveling can be complicated. You should learn about exchange rates, international banking, border crossings, and ways to keep safe. Read this (it could apply to anywhere): How to Manage Your Money Safely on the Road in Latin America

At the very least, know how to use your ATM card. Turn it over. See all the little symbols on the bottom below your signature? Cirrus, Interac, the Exchange. These are the money networks that your bank has access too.

Look for an ATM that has the same symbols as your card. If they match, you can use the ATM, and if not, maybe you can still use it — though probably not, and the fees will certainly be higher.

By the way, for some reason Visa and MasterCard are different, and some ATMs that have Visa or MasterCard symbols still won’t work with your card.

Follow the magic symbols. And if your card doesn’t have any, get a new bank.

5. Hotel or hostel?

Ah, the hostel. Instant friends. A kitchen. Access to a computer, a book exchange, lots of local information.

And the noisy, insecure room of snoring drunk people (present company included). The filthy bathroom. The days on the hostel roof chatting and drinking instead of going to the museum.

Hostels can be really fun, but I usually avoid them in favor of small hotels. At least here in Latin America, small hotels in the center of town are almost always cheaper than a hostel.

Hostels get coverage in Lonely Planet and have a never-ending supply of foreign backpackers, so they can overcharge. The local hotel is for the locals. So if you’re staying in a hostel, don’t claim that it’s just to save money. You want to meet people.

Even when I stay in a private room in a hotel, I always end up meeting people, but my bags are secure, there won’t be a wait for the shower in the morning, and if I really need to go to bed, I can, and no one will stumble in drunk at 4 a.m. and fall into the table like Chris Farley.

Hostal in Latin America Solo
There are also decided advantages to staying solo in the unique hostal in Latin America.

6. Pack right

Of course pack light. Bring as little as possible. Don’t bring anything irreplaceable — leave your favorite necklace, your laptop, and the book with a handwritten note from a friend at home.

You should be willing to lose or give away everything you bring. When I’m a few weeks into a long trip, my most precious items are notebooks full of bad writing and the memory card from my camera. And my frisbee — you can’t get a good one in Mexico.

Speaking of the frisbee, pack light but also pack what you want. Be prepared. Some things I carry on most trips are my guitar, flip-flops, tiger balm, Gold Bond Medicated Powder, a spare book to trade in a book exchange while I’m reading the current one, a first aid kit, an extra pair of sunglasses, earplugs, and swim shorts — even if I’m far from the beach. The hotel may have a pool.

Think about what you need and bring it. And if you find out that you don’t need it, give it away on the road and buy something else to take its space.

Pack appropriately when traveling solo
Some people just know how to pack appropriately. Photo by Simon.

7. Eat right

One word: markets.

Everywhere I’ve been, the market is the best for good, cheap eating. Buy fruit to eat for breakfast. Get ingredients. Get a meal. Take a look at all the little restaurants and food stands and what the people are eating.

Aside from markets, working people all over the world go out for lunch. Figure out where they go, and eat there — it will be cheap and good. In Mexico these small restaurants are called fonditas.

Choose the busiest food stand or restaurant you can find. Never eat in an empty place. That’s your best defense against getting sick, or at least having a bad meal. If it’s empty, it’s usually empty for a reason.

Eat well at markets
You can eat well and at a low cost at markets around the world.

8. Personal safety

Every part of the world is different. In Seoul, South Korea the bars stayed open all night and the subway started around 5 a.m., so I’d get on sometime after that to make the one-hour trek back to Shihwa, the satellite city where I lived.

Usually I’d fall asleep, backpack and guitar on the floor. Sometimes I’d wake up on the wrong side of town in the late morning, much farther away. Once I woke up inside some dark garage and I had to yell and pound on the doors so someone would pull the train out to let me off.

But no one ever stole my guitar. Some of you are laughing — in X City, you’d lose your shoes in two minutes!

What I’m saying is that you should figure out how to be safe wherever you go. Ask locals you meet, ask other travelers, and for sure ask the person at the front desk of the hotel about the neighborhood you’re in.

But besides that, here’s the most important rule for safety:

When someone gives you a bad vibe, when you no longer want to be around him or her, when he or she weirds you out or scares you, get out of there.

Don’t make an excuse. Don’t apologize. Just go. Do so tactfully, do so carefully, but just go.

People often get in trouble simply because they don’t want to embarrass or offend a stranger. Don’t worry about it. Your safety is much more important than your pride.

And when you say nicely that you have to go and they get weirder, then you know you’ve made the right decision.

Selling food in Korea mountaintop
This man selling refreshments at the top of a mountain in Korea was pretty laid back with a good vibe, but you sometimes meet others abroad who are more aggressive. Steer clear of people with bad vibes. You have to trust your instincts.

9. Travel alone or with only one other person

Never travel in a big group. If you have a big group, pick a beach or party town and stay there. Go at it, have a great time. Then when you’re sick of everyone, go off on your own or with one friend.

Decisions are much harder to make in groups. It’s hard to get anything done. It’s hard to leave the hotel in the morning.

Traveling alone is nice. There’s something about traveling alone that makes it easier to meet people, perhaps because you’re forced into situations where you must be more open.

If you’re worried about traveling alone, just give it a try, but stay close to home. Take a weekend trip in the nearest big city. Were you alone and lonely the whole time? Or did you enjoy the freedom and meet interesting people?

View of fishing boats and islands Vietnam
Some like the thrill of seeing remarkably beautiful locations, such as this in Vietnam, on their own, while others prefer to travel with another or in a small group. Obviously, go with what makes you most comfortable.

10. Embrace change — in yourself

You can learn a lot about yourself through travel. Be aware. Be mindful. Notice how people react to you. Notice how you react to certain kinds of people, certain situations, and certain places. And learn from it.

Don’t assume. It’s painful to learn your assumptions are wrong, but even more painful to hold onto them when faced with the truth of their falsehood.

Identify your preconceptions, your stereotypes, your prejudice, and your strong reactions. In many of the most beautiful and travel-friendly parts of the world you will witness prostitution, children begging in the streets, animal abuse, blatant racism, hardcore alcoholism, corruption, and environmental degradation.

You will also meet travelers and locals with different opinions and different ways of seeing the world than you. They will challenge your beliefs, and your beliefs will challenge them.

Don’t judge, don’t get upset. Like Bruce Lee said, human beings must be like water. We must flow.

Flow as you travel. Don’t paddle upstream. Let the current take you.

And pack extra socks.

Sunset in Philippines
A sunset with boats in the Philippines is one of many experiences that make solo travel all worthwhile.
Related Topics
Solo and Independent Travel
 More Articles by Ted Campbell
How to Pack Light for Independent Travel Abroad: Tips and Checklists
10 Tips for Cheap Immersion Travel in Latin America
How to Manage Your Money Safely on the Road in Latin America
How to Work Legally in Mexico
How to Teach ESL and Live in Mexico as a Freelancer
An Introduction to Latin American Music
The Ultimate Guide to Eating Authentic Food in Mexico
Witness to a Crucifixion: Semana Santa in Mexico
A Drinking, Smoking, Womanizing Saint
 
 
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