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Traveling Solo as a Student

A Guide to Navigating Your Own Way Abroad

There was little I could do. The Eurail passes had been purchased, the guidebooks studied, the rough itinerary sketched out.

I had been studying abroad at St. Clairs in Oxford, England, for two and a half months, and I was gearing up for a 2-week spring break trip that I had already decided would be the pinnacle of my education to date. Together with my boyfriend, who had decided to accompany me in my studies abroad, I had planned to visit seven countries during our hiatus: France, Spain, Italy, Austria, Germany, Hungary, and Switzerland.

Three weeks before the trip, however, I found myself single and companionless, thanks to a messy break-up. I had saved for months to purchase my portion of the trip, and I had little hope of finding a travel partner so close to spring break; all of my friends had finalized their plans weeks ago. I could forfeit the money and stay closer to Oxford, but I hadn't come all this way to hide in the Oxford library. If I wanted to "see the world," I was going to have to do it alone.

In my newfound confidence I largely neglected any real preparation for solo travel. As a result, I was pulled off the train in Slovenia because of an invalid Eurail pass, spent the entire night in Florence huddling in a corner of the train station in 40-degree weather because it was Easter weekend and every hotel was booked, and paid far too much for hotels in France and Spain before I learned the value of a hostel. And more than once I had to avoid thieves who targeted single, unsuspecting tourists.

The following lessons on solo travel were learned the hard way:

1. Stay in a hostel. Hostels offer dorm-like settings accommodations, as well as private rooms for those who hate the thought of bunking with strangers. Hostels also offer a diverse, community-like atmosphere rivaled by few hotels. When I finally did learn about hostels (thanks to a congenial Aussie who was headed to Munich on the same train I was), I found that the convivial atmosphere forges instant bonds and provides you with many willing day-trip companions. Web sites such as www.hostels.com and www.hostelworld.com provide a wealth of information on hostels in virtually every city.

2. Know your home base. Traveling alone raises greater safety issues since you don't have someone to turn to if something should happen. When you arrive in a city, locate the local police station and the U.S. embassy. The embassy web site, usembassy.state.gov, offers links to each of its locations throughout the world as well as important travel tips for the country you're visiting.

Consult a travel guide or a concierge to determine which places you should avoid in your destination city. Don't take unnecessary risks; no place is worth seeing if it means jeopardizing your safety.

3. Be informed. Ask others about the places you'll visit before you go. Visit web sites like www.virtualtourist.com and www.travellerspoint.com to get advice from seasoned travelers. Web sites tailored specifically to the independent traveler include Connecting Solo Travel Network (www.cstn.org). For articles devoted to single travel, see the U.S. Bureau of Consular Affairs section on traveling alone (travel.state.gov/travel). Nothing beats first-hand information.

4. Keep a journal. A detailed log of the places you visit, the people you meet, and the things that happen to you along the way will be the most valuable souvenir you bring home. Memories fade, pictures don't come out the way you want them to, and places become more distant as time elapses. You are the sole witness to your travels, so preserve your experiences and share them. Visit www.travelblog.org to see what your journal entries can become. If you have access to the Internet during your travels, you can even keep your blog updated so that your family and friends can follow your adventures.

5. Stay in touch. Connect to family and friends back home as often as possible. You will be glad to recount your stories to an eager audience. Keep them close to your travels by leaving your itinerary, contact information, and a photocopy of your passport and other identification with a trusted individual back home in the event that such information is lost or stolen. You will feel more secure if you have someone to contact in the event of an emergency, or when you want to share just how good a real Italian food meal can be.

If you're still not convinced that solo travel is best, the Travel Companion Exchange (www.travelcompanions.com) connects single travelers with partners.

I am immensely thankful for my impromptu solo adventure. I had the freedom to visit sites only I would find interesting (not many fellow travelers would want to spend six hours in the Sigmund Freud house), and I gained a sense of independence I believe would have been difficult to acquire any other way. Yet better preparation would have saved me from worry and hassle.

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