I won’t go as far as advocating for hitchhiking and sleeping on random people’s couches just yet, but it certainly worked for me…
I’m not sure why we’re still having this conversation at this point in time, when it shouldn’t matter if we have male genitalia or not when deciding whether to travel alone or not, but there’s still so many misconceptions about the dangers of upping sticks with your backpack as your only company that I feel compelled to wade into the debate.
I’ve done several stints of lonesome travel (Asia, the Baltics, Western Europe, America) and can tell you, I’ve only been inappropriately groped one (maybe two) times.
But seriously, all the cringeworthy quotes about traveling alone changing your perceptions, and really getting to know yourself, really do have an element of truth to them – and it does make for a useful exercise in “finding” yourself – unless of course you find that you’ve been an unenjoyable prick this whole time, in which case you should keep yourself away from others, too.
And while we have gotten ourselves into some dicey situations, we would have been in the same tight spot whether we had traveling companions or not, and it’s all about knowing how to get out of them. So we’ve compiled an unassuming little list of pointers to help deal with your own company if you’re on the road without compatriots.
#1. Seriously, just do it.
“Aren’t you scared?”, “won’t you get bored?”, “But – why?” – you’ll hear them all pretty early on when you tell people you’re off to explore the world alone, and maybe all at once. People simply do not understand why you would want to travel to exotic locations if you weren’t joined by someone to share a giant gin bucket with, talk to as you’re off on a hike up the mountain or snap your new Facebook profile picture.
But had you ever considered that maybe some days you won’t want to drink, climb a different mountain than your friend, or just lay off the photos? The best part of traveling alone is you don’t have to argue with anyone on what you want to do, or what to eat, or compromise on absolutely anything; you can do whatever you want.
The freedom that comes with all this freedom may be startling at first, but it’s also hugely liberating. Besides, hasn’t anyone ever heard of pub crawls, podcasts, and a selfie stick?
#2. Stop taking yourself so seriously
Let that guard down. Make that dorky joke at the communal breakfast table to earn you a few awkward giggles, and hopefully (unless it was a dad, sexist or racist joke) the start of an ice-breaking conversation or two.
The best thing you can possibly do is be the first one to smile at someone, or offer up a point of conversation – you’ll probably be set to visit the same landmarks and they’ll probably be keen to come with you rather than go it alone.
Don’t sit in common areas mindlessly scrolling your phone (unless you are in fact, completely alone in which case staring blankly at a wall when someone else walks into the room is probably not going to earn you any friends). Engage with people.
#3. Use your common sense
I don’t know if I’m the right one to advocate for this point, as I’ve got myself into several less than savoury situations (whilst being completely sober). These include jumping into a random person’s car who promised to take me to a vineyard, only for me to travel several dozen minutes into the night without a vineyard in sight; jumping into an unmarked taxi with more than one person straight off the plane to India – despite reading 45 minutes earlier never to jump in an unmarked taxi with more than one person in India – and trusting some strange characters while I was hitchhiking through the Baltics.
However, each time I learn from these mistakes and I know not to repeat where I went wrong. If you get bad vibes from someone – leave their presence. If you feel like you’re getting scammed – walk away. If you’re halfway through a hitching trip to Venice and a dodgy man gets out of the car to masturbate – get out of the car. Immediately.
Don’t put yourself in danger, and don’t get yourself into situations you’ll regret. But in that same vein – don’t be overly cautious. Sometimes you need to put your trust in strangers. Besides, I did eventually get to the vineyard.
#4. You are not the hottest person on the island
That guy who started talking to you at breakfast wasn’t trying to flirt with you. That dude that bought you a drink in that bar wasn’t trying to get you into bed. Sometimes, people just spot a solo traveler – and they want to be nice.
Quit looking for ulterior motives in every gesture from those of the opposite sex, and just embrace the kindness that people can show. Once you do, you’ll make a lot more friends you never know you needed. (Of course, sometimes a guy or two might be trying to get into your pants at a bar. We’ll leave you to make your own judgement on that one).
#5. Don’t judge a book by its cover
The long-haired, tattooed, chain-smoking and cursing-like-a-trooper older man who saved me and a hitchhiking companion from torrential downpour and stranding at an international border, was by far one of the nicest men I have ever met.
While we were hesitant to get into his rubbish-ridden, beat-up, Daihatsu Charade, after five minutes of jolly chat our minds were put completely at ease.
Thirty minutes later, we’d been dropped off directly to our accommodation’s door, with chocolate and a can of beer he’d bought us. And I will continue to tell that story until my dying days.
#6. Don’t spend too much time alone
It sounds counter-intuitive, but there’s only so much quality me-time one person can take before they border on solid hermit territory. Plus, how much fun can you actually have posing beside bucket list-status landmarks, not knowing what to do with your arms, and having to ask strangers to take your new DP?
Every now and again, throw caution to the wind and accept the offer to go sightseeing with that girl from breakfast. Awkward silence isn’t really a thing when you’re a solo traveler and both have tonnes of stories to swap.
#7. Let men be chivalrous
You’re going to encounter some guys who quite literally want to be your knight in shining armour. Sometimes it’s warranted, sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it’s welcome – sometimes it’s not.
The day I arrived into Plovdiv, Bulgaria, I walked off the bus and was swiftly greeted by a young lad who offered me his wi-fi, a cup of coffee, a ride to my accommodation, and a sightseeing trip around the city in the following days. I smelled a rat – until he informed me we just needed to wait for the girlfriend he was picking up, who would come along for a coffee too.
That same day, I’d swatted away a pro-Trump fellow who beguiled me on all the ways a woman would be a terrible idea as president of the US. Chivalry, masochism – we can’t be picky all the time.
#8: You’re not the only person who has ever traveled alone
Quit lording yourself over other people and face it: plenty have trodden this road before you, and plenty will after.
Sure, you might be slightly more ballsy than those groups of girls who won’t venture outside Mallorca, Amsterdam, Bali and Bangkok in their respective tourist-ridden countries, but travel has become such a thing nowadays that it’s hard to say with confidence that you’re doing something few others have.
Tourist or traveler, we’re all in it together – and it’s better to bask in the aura of mutual travel knowledge than try horde it all to yourself.
This might be the greatest thing I ever discovered on my solo traveling journey. Not only do you get a free place to sleep, but you get actual human company for long periods of time (if you’re lucky).
Best of all, the people you stay with are usually locals and know all the best things to do in a place, where to eat and how exactly to get there. Plus, as with most of the Couchsurfing community, they are usually welcoming, warm and wonderful people – exactly the type you’d expect to open up your home to a complete stranger.
Some of the people I’ve met couchsurfing I still keep in touch with to this day, and some have even made for excellent anecdotes for trips I hadn’t even planned on taking (accidentally hitchhiking through three countries just for a lunch date, anyone?).
Again, use your common sense here. I shouldn’t be seen to be campaigning for lone females getting in cars with strangers – but sometimes it’s a bit of fun to try get to a new destination with some locals. It makes for great chat – and even better anecdotes.