18 to 30s Solo Travel-Insider Tips: My travel worldwide started early. If I had to summarize it, I would say it has been from “Crocodiles to Cholera”. More on that later! In elementary school, my older sister and I would take a bus to visit relatives in a neighboring state. By the time I was twelve years-old, I had begun to daydream about exotic places with towering palm trees. I have a vivid memory on a bright sunny day at that time of gazing out the window deeply dreaming of foreign travel. Unfortunately, I was not aware than my eighth grade teacher was calling on me at that very moment!
By age thirteen, my sister and I had “graduated” from our interstate bus sojourns unchaperoned to our first plane trips. On our maiden voyage, I recall seeing smoke (steam) coming from the prop jet’s engine. I quickly feared that the plane must be on fire! (While I have since had an emergency landing on two commercial flights, fortunately my fellow passengers and I made it safely back on the tarmac!)
By the time I was a teenager, I had become an “accidental” solo traveler. I found out that at any age it is hard to find friends or family members free at the same time to travel to the same place. Years later this has been even more so. Why is that? Most adults find the need to work full or part-time to balance the budget. As a result, I began to travel both through the United States and abroad as a “solo traveler”. With youthful enthusiasm, I relished each and every adventure.
By the time I was sixteen, I traveled from the Deep South to Boston to look at schools. When I arrived, I checked myself checked into a Sheraton Hotel in Cambridge and had a great time. I then made my first subway trip on the fabled MTA. I had just enough time to sample clam chowder at the famous centuries-old cafe, Durgin Park, and then to follow-up that night with a lobster dinner. I polished off the day at a double feature in the local movie theater. While that “preparation” for my interviews may not have been wise, I did have a great time.
At eighteen, I was set to test my wings as an international solo traveler. I filled in an application to join a YMCA summer project in the dual island nation of Trinidad and Tobago. At this point in my life now, I do lots of research and plan ahead. Not so much at that point in my life! I was very excited to have been accepted and received a partial grant or feed reduction for the program. There was one surprise. I had surmised that I would be heading off the coast of Florida. In reality, with a little research, I found out I was heading much farther south. In northwest Trinidad, on a good day, you can actually see Venezuela just about ten miles off the Boca del Dragon. That raised yet another possibility: taking a boat to Venezuela for an informal stop-over. Unfortunately, I learned that Venezuela had a dim view of such casual immigration. Without the right documents, such would-be visitors could end up arrested.
By the time I was twenty, I was anxious to “see America”, my home country. I had no car and a very small student budget. Undaunted, that summer I spent five weeks as a solo traveler riding Trailways and Greyhound buses from Washington, DC to Los Angeles. With only an overnight bag, I spent many nights sleeping on the bus between visits with school friends along the way. In the interim, I toured the Art Institute of Chicago, saw a calf being born at a Wisconsin Dairy Farm, toured the Denver State Capitol at sunrise with the cleaning crew, swam in the Salt Lake and marveled at the Golden Gate Bridge.
From all those adventures and misadventures, I discovered that it is possible to travel solo even as a teenager. Although I still make mistakes, every time I go on the road I learn something new. Here are a sampling of my personal tips from those early days as a young solo traveler.
What to Consider Before You Travel Solo: 18 to 30s Solo Travel-Insider Tips:
If you are new to solo travel, ask yourself these questions:
- Have you traveled often at home or abroad with family, friends or school groups?
- Do you like to explore new cultures, places and languages?
- What is your travel budget after you consider all your school or living expenses?
- How long can you be away from school or work?
- If you get delayed abroad, what would be your “plan B”? After I had been a long time solo traveler, I was stranded abroad for 8 days after 9/11. It was very hard even with my long-time experience traveling alone. Since a “ground stop” prevented all flights to the United States, I focused exclusively on flying to Canada. However, as 40,000 Americans were stranded in small towns in Canada’s eastern provinces, no more US passport holders were allowed to buy a plane ticket on any airlines arriving in Canada. I was so set on that sole plan, I completely overlooked the obvious. I should have flown for a second visit to Mexico. I could then take trains and buses north to arrive at home in Washington, DC. This was a real life lesson for me. The bottom line: In a real emergency, when one exit plan fails, you need to have a Plan B to move forward with as an alternative.
- What is your reason for traveling solo? For example, do you relish the adventure? Alternatively, are you keen to “see the world”, but you do not have a travel mate?
- What are your goals for your trip? To learn about a new culture? To study a language? To have a real adventure or a relaxing vacation on a beach?
18 to 30s Solo Travel-Insider Tips: Ways to Stay Safe(r):
- Never eat or drink something offered by a stranger.
- Be sure you have a safe place to sleep with access to reliable local transportation.
- Divide your money and credit cards up, and put them with your passport in a money belt. I wear one under my waistband out of view.
- Always have a way 24/7 to get to outside funds in an emergency.
- Trust your sixth sense if someone seems off or the situation does not feel right.
- Know how to get back safely to the place where you are staying. When I leave my B&B or hotel for the first time, I snap photos of landmarks and street signs. That way I have a street map how to get back whether or not I have local GPS.
- Stay away from political demonstrations.
- Money changing: Use an ATM inside a shop, your lodging or a well-lit place.
- Spoil the fun for pickpockets. Do not fall for this old trick: One person distracts you with questions like asking for directions. Meanwhile, the unseen accomplice swipes your wallet or purse.
- Travel to arrive in the daytime if possible.
- Always have your own way back to where you are staying.
- Think about security when you are booking a place to stay. There may be safety in numbers, but a group house can have its own issues if people come and go at all hours. The larger the group is keys may have been lost. In any case, no one may lock up if there is a lot of traffic back and forth.
- Have a daily check-in via text, email or phone with a friend or family member at a set time.
- While remote places can be special, take a reliable local friend or guide with you.
- If you are having a day tour or special outing, meet where you are staying or in their office. By mistake, I once road off on horseback into the setting sun at the Pyramids of Giza with a stranger. I had been booked with a trust-worthy stable, but unfortunately, there was a mix-up. A man on horseback appeared leading a second horse. I jumped on mistaking him for my pre-arranged guide. When we were riding alone in the desert after sundown, it became apparent that I had followed the wrong man! I made it back in one piece but had some concerns once I realized the mix-up.
- Pack light to be able to move away quickly in case you need to. You can always buy local items in outdoor markets, and donate them before leaving.
- Wear a referee’s whistle on your wrist. In an emergency, the really shrill noise will quickly cause a crowd to gather.
- Even if you are young and healthy, Before you leave home, make an appointment with your doctor or a travel clinic. Get vaccinations. Learn how to protect yourself against special diseases like malaria. (If you travel in 2021, be sure to follow CDC.gov guidelines, and review with your doctor any extra precautions you might need to take.)
18 to 30s Solo Travel-Insider Tips-Special Activiities:
If you plan to go scuba diving, sightseeing via a small plane or riding in a hot air balloon, check out the vendor and their safety record.
If you are taking an independent sports trip, such as skiing, find a buddy at your level of expertise. I had good luck with this approach in ski lessons in both Norway and Andorra. Whether you are a novice or an expert, it is better to have someone with you on the trails in case of an injury. Even hiking alone can be hazardous for those travelling alone.
Be extra careful if your destination is having civil unrest or political upheavals. This is not always obvious. I did find this out once after arriving abroad. Our host informed us that he thought he was being watched because of his political dissent. As one guide advised elsewhere, if a political demonstration breaks out, walk away. While it might be interesting to watch, crowds can turn violent. Police or military forces may make a wide sweep arresting anyone who is even mistakenly viewed as being part of a protest.
18 to 30s Solo Travel-Insider Tips: Creative Ways to Work with a Tight Budget:
- Volunteer on a summer project abroad. As mentioned, I started my international solo travel at 18 on an international Y project.
- Be a nanny.
- House sit.
- Dog sit.
- Study abroad. Some scholarships are available.
- Be a substitute English-language teacher while full-time staff is on vacation.
- Teach a sport like skiing. Be a summer ski instructor in Latin America.
- Be a junior leader of a home town community group sending students abroad.
- Find an online or “traditional” publisher to pay a stipend for your travel posts.
- Check with your school to see if you can get credit for a thesis written on an aspect of your travel.
How to Solo Travel without “Going it Alone”:
- Join an escorted tour with no single supplement.
- Book a river cruise with no single supplement! You will have a ready-made team for meals and sightseeing. Many have single cabins, or offer roommate sharing.
- Sign up for a cooking, language or other class.
- Find work or school groups that match your own interests.
- Look for local biking or hiking groups at your destination.
Practical Ways to Save on Your First Solo Travel When You Get There:
- Find a grocery store, and have a daily picnic in a park (or even your room!)
- If you must eat out, find neighborhood cafes. Skip the appetizers, desserts and drinks. As a student, friends and I found a cheap way to eat out was to order spaghetti with only tomato sauce! (Hold the meat balls! Meat tends to drive the price up.)
- If you are of legal age and want to sample wine, buy local vintages at a grocery store or liquor store. Sign up for a free wine-tasting at small shops or with free tours of vineyards.
- Always ask about student discounts, standing room tickets and last-minute discounts.
- Hostels and university dorm rooms are generally the cheapest lodging so check them out.
18 to 30s Solo Travel-Insider Tips-Additional Advice for Women Traveling Alone:
1. Learn about the culture and local customs at your destination. As I found in Cairo, there are some restaurants or other public places abroad that are primarily for men rather than single women and families. In parts of the Middle East in the past, you could ask if there was an area for families and women. International hotels at all price levels are a good alternative. (For a budget meal, see if they have a sandwich shop or coffee shop.)
2. In some airports, such as in Amman, Jordan, there is separate security screening for women. Unfortunately, that means your carry-on bags are left unsupervised on the conveyor belt moving through security without you. I could not see parting with my wallet and passport after I left my purse behind. When I went through the women’s security check, I held them both out, and there was no problem.
3. While being friendly at home can be natural, in a foreign culture it might be misunderstood.
4. Although the weather in the tropics can be steamy, in SE Asia, South Asia and the Middle East, dress codes can require more modesty than a hot day at home might allow. In temples, other houses of worship and royal palaces, both men and women may be asked to cover up. In some spots, there are loaners you can use during your tour inside.
See our free Solo Sherpa app for budgeting, tracking expenses and packing tips and lists to tailor to your own trip and style. It is available at the App Store and for Android devices at the Google Play Store.
For more tips to send you on your way traveling alone around the world, see our guide, “25 Tips for a First Solo Vacation Abroad“, available at Amazon. Start planning your adventure today!