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7 Tips to Get the Most Out of Your First Solo Travel Experience

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails.
- Mark Twain

Some, maybe even most, set out on their first solo travels not because they choose to go it alone but because, for varying reasons, it's that or nothing; I'm included in that number. This in turn perhaps leads to the supposition that solo travel is less desirable, harder and means settling for second best.

But here's the strange thing... reluctantly solo is usually something only experienced once because after you've done it you'll more than likely decide solo is the only way to go. These days I'm such a total convert to go-it-alone travel that when I am asked which are the best places to travel solo my instant answer is – everywhere!

So whether you're within days of departure, still at the planning stages or not yet moved beyond toying with the idea here are a few tips – the kind I wished I'd had before I set out that first time - which could help you raise the level of your first solo travel experience from simply lovely to life-changing.

Vaguely Nervous to Shaking in Your Shoes - It's OK and Perfectly Normal to Feel Scared

Like many contemplating traveling alone for the first time you are quite possibly thinking that solo fliers are an intrepid, confident and devil-may-care bunch and each of us has been since day one. I'd love to say I set out that first time with my head high and a relaxed air but that would be a big fat lie - I was terrified. I thought I was a wimp but it turns out I am just normal – anyone who tells you that they didn't feel anxious, nervous or even, like me, totally terrified the first time (or even the fifth!) has abnormal personal settings or is telling fibs.

Even today, after 12 years of non-stop globe-trotting I still get a bad dose of butterflies if I'm about to head into unknown territory. However, these days I embrace that feeling knowing it is the flip side of excitement. Feeling safe and anxiety-free comes from familiarity, the commonplace and routine which surely are the very things we are trying to escape when we travel. I get the way it works now and you will too.

And here's the thing... I've met very, very many first time solo travelers on my global meanderings and not once have I ever met anyone who is thinking of going home because it’s too scary – instead I hear time and again words along the lines of – 'I never thought it would be like this – I want to do it forever!'

So, by all means allow yourself the flutters, know that it is perfectly normal but also know that once you get out there doing it you will laugh at that former self and the things it was worried about.

Plane to Pillow – Plan Your Arrival

Do yourself a great big favor and have at least your first night's arrival planned to perfection. Part of the joy of solo travel is that you don't have to plan and can do what you want, when you want, but now is not the time to start experimenting with that freedom – there'll be plenty of opportunity for that.

Now however, you are going to be tired from the flight and disorientated when you step off the plane into a new and strange environment so you are hardly going to be in an optimum state to make smart judgment calls.

Book yourself a bed for the night and if possible book yourself the means of getting there too – or at least know what your options are.

So, how can you find out where the taxis are at Bangkok airport and how much they cost for example?

The Internet is bursting at the seams with travel forums peopled by those asking just such questions as these and as equally populated by travelers who have already been-there-and-done-that before you and can give you up-to-the-minute advice.

Lonely Planet has a comprehensive travelers' forum – as does Trip Advisor.

Communal Living or Private Retreat – Hostels Are the Solo Travelers' Oasis

Using hostels as you travel will place you right in the heart of fellow-traveler land, making them a great choice for solo travelers looking to mix and mingle. Further still, unless you are totally averse to communal living always book a dorm bed – almost always the cheapest option anyway - because mixing it up with others here isn't just possible but actually unavoidable.

If the thought of dorm living leaves you cold don't despair – many hostels have communal areas such as terraces, lounges, swimming pools and bars so you can opt for private room retreat and still have plenty of opportunity for socializing when you choose.

Do be aware that hostels come in a range of guises – some are where the party's at, some are geared to families, some have a whole bunch of facilities while others may simply offer a dorm bed.

Check out websites such as http://www.hostelworld.com and http://www.tripadvisor.com which give in-depth details and plenty of customer reviews for each property so you can be sure to correspond what you want with what you actually get.

If meeting the locals and cultural immersion is more your thing you might want to consider couch surfing. This vast travelers' utility, which is now spread all over the world, is an excellent short-cut to befriending locals whether or not you want to take advantage of the community's free bed for the night network.

Solo travel most definitely doesn't mean solitude and if finding company is a big issue for you believe me - you won't need to force it – it WILL happen. In fact, finding ways to be alone can actually be much more of an issue.

Occasional Guilt-free Splurging Is Not Just Allowed But Vital

If you are traveling for more than a week or two it is almost inevitable you'll have the odd period of travel weariness which can hit at any time and for no obvious reason. When you are traveling alone these can downward spiral a little so it's important to allow yourself a little of whatever will make you feel more comfortable or comforted at these times – a little self-indulgent splurge.

The treat to yourself can be the blessed retreat of a private room after sharing a dorm with snorers or smelly sneakers, laying out a bit of extra cash on a more expensive meal or signing up for a horse trek. Allow yourself a little of whatever makes you smile because if there is one thing I've learned from traveling alone it is this – I would rather travel for a little less time and make it awesome than travel longer and have just an OK time or turn it into an endurance exercise.

Meals for One

Personally I love the peace of eating alone, watching the world go by and thinking about my day but I do remember when I first started traveling alone my solo status could feel very obvious and tender at meal times. One way of making this less of an issue is to always have a book to read or a pen and paper for jotting down observations or journal notes.

But should eating alone seem lonely to you there is something else you should know – the world of solo travelers has its own set of rules. Should you see another person sitting and eating alone ask if they wouldn't mind some company. This sort of thing might be considered creepy back home but is the norm once you're on the backpacking circuit. Believe me – 99 times out of 100 you'll be met with a sigh of relief and a smile to match.

Fly and Be Free (But It Might Take Some Practice)

Solo traveling is exhilarating, liberating and the time spent doing it will quite possibly qualify as the happiest days of your life. However, normal life is so restrictive and society so conditioning that it can sometimes take a while to truly learn how to let go and fly free. So, here are a few tips to get you on the fast track to breaking through the bars of the cages we build for ourselves.

  • Day-to-day life is made up of places to be at set times and knowing what is in store for the next days or months. When you travel you can throw that out the window because some of the most memorable times will come from going with the flow – the best plan is no plan… the most rewarding prizes come from spontaneity. A schedule written in stone means you can't just take off with that amazing new friend you've just made, attend the free one-to-one salsa classes you've just been offered or be available for amazing opportunities that pop up so suddenly all over the place. It can feel a little like flying without a safety net at first but just try it... and then know you have been spoiled forever for doing it any other way.
  • You don't have to book yourself onto every tour going or exhaust yourself with filling every day to the brim and it can often be tempting to do so when everyone around you seems to be doing just that. Doing very little when you feel like it is OK and not to be viewed as wasting your precious travel time – it's all about balance. Anyway, sometimes you'll launch yourself into truly genuine experiences just by wandering around, getting lost or, lazing over a long lunch at a street cafe.
  • Learn how not to take yourself too seriously – it's hard to maintain any personal dignity when you're miming a train on the streets of Thailand because you're trying to find the train station. Situations like these can be embarrassing beyond belief or add color, fun and adventure to your travels – which one is true for you ALL comes down to your attitude. Give yourself time to master this one though – personally it took me a while to learn how to turn vaguely awkward into hilarious but it will come the more you practice it. Slightly sickly cliché it may be but the saying that 'smiling opens doors' is so very true and applies ALL over the world.

Remember to Congratulate Yourself

All over the world are wannabe solo travelers who never get beyond their front door because they can't move beyond their fears. So, when you are on your journey, having experiences that no-one else has ever had before in this exact same way, soaking up the brand new raining down on you and daring to do what so many others don't – take the time to feel proud. You're out there, you're doing it and THAT deserves huge congratulations.

And you know the funniest thing of all... .the hardest thing about solo traveling is making the decision to actually do it. The rest is just mind-blowingly wonderful.

Have you already got your first solo travels under your belt? And if so did you set out in knee-knocking terror or totally blasé? What tips could you add for those yet to embark on this incredible experience or do you have suggestions for the best places to travel solo?

On the other hand, if you're yet to get going or can't quite make the leap into buying a ticket, what is stopping you?

Can we help? Feel free to join the conversation with advice or questions.

About the author

Deneice

In 2003, after a too-close-for-comfort brush with the Grim Reaper, I decided life was for living. So I sold my house, gave away my business as a professional gymnastics coach and divided most of my worldly possessions among family and friends. With my trusty surf board tucked under my arm and hefting my backpack I set out to explore the planet. I have been doing that ever since - the last few years as a go-it-alone female. My work as a freelance writer allows me to make my 'office' anywhere – from the middle of the jungle to a beach hut; sometimes I take on voluntary work too. No surprise that I now have a vast collection of adventures and travel experiences hard-wired into my memory bank. Hardly in the first flush of my youth I am often asked 'isn't it time to settle down?' That would be a resounding no! Never knowing what is around the next corner and choosing whichever nook of the planet I am in to call home, feeds the permanent nomad in me.