Whether you're thinking of setting off on your very first solo travel adventure or are gearing up for your fifteenth, we've got some tips from the experts—four entrepreneurs who have made a living traveling around the world and writing about their experiences. Here, in our first-ever Solo Travel Panel, we'll discuss everything from how to meet other like-minded travelers to important safety tips and essential things to keep in mind when exploring a new destination on your own.
Meet our panel of solo travel experts:
• Julia Dimon Founder of TravelJunkieJulia.com, Julia Dimon is an adventure travel writer and TV host who has been to more than 80 countries across all seven continents.
• Beth Whitman A world traveler for more than 25 years, Beth Whitman is the founder and editor of Wanderlust and Lipstick, a website dedicated to sharing stories, inspiration, and travel advice from experienced travelers.
• Amanda Pressner Co-author of The Lost Girls, an epic tale of three friends who quit their hectic full-time jobs and traveled the world. Visit LostGirlsWorld.com for more information about their inspiring journey.
Which places would you recommend for first-time solo travelers?
Christine Maxfield: If you're traveling on a budget, I'd recommend visiting Southeast Asia first. Not only is it one of the cheapest regions in the world, but it's also a tropical paradise with a ton of historical sites and natural attractions to see, the people are friendly, and the food is tasty. What more could you ask for?
Julia Dimon: Southeast Asia is great for first-time solo travelers. Thailand in particular has a great tourist infrastructure, with tons of English speakers and locals who are accustomed to foreigners. The country is extremely diverse with hilltribes and elephant treks through jungles in the north, the wild cosmopolitan city of Bangkok, and beautiful beaches and crazy parties in the south. Food, activities, and domestic flights are very affordable and it's safe. It's a particularly great destination for young people since there are so many backpackers passing through Thailand.
Beth Whitman: That's a very personal decision. A destination like Asia might be very comfortable for me but might be really uncomfortable for someone else. Someone else might prefer England or even the Middle East (which wouldn't be as comfortable for me). The key is that for a first-time solo trip, you should be comfortable and confident because you're going to have a much more enjoyable (and likely safer) experience.
Amanda Pressner: I would recommend Peru or Argentina—there are tons of solo travelers who start out in Lima or Cuzco and move on through other parts of the South American continent. Check out Loki Hostels, which are large, clean, fun, and an amazing place to meet solo travelers, especially if you're not fresh out of school. I also love Australia and New Zealand for anyone traveling solo, as they're extremely safe and there's an amazing infrastructure for travel. So do Thailand and all of Southeast Asia really, but Bangkok is a really easy and inexpensive way to start your trip and meet other like-minded travelers. And, if your daily budget is a little higher (or you're older, and don't want a super-young crowd), you should check out any major city in Europe—Eurorail passes and a plethora of clean, safe lodging makes Europe a no-brainer for the solo traveler with a bit more money to spend.
What was your first solo travel experience like?
Beth Whitman: My first "real" solo trip was a three-month trip from New Jersey to California that I took in college (I took a semester off). Along the way, I stayed with friends and in youth hostels. In the youth hostels, I met people from all over the world and was hooked. I wanted to meet more travelers and also experience the destinations where these fascinating people came from.
Amanda Pressner: When I decided to go solo, I was already traveling, so no one found it that weird. I was in Australia, so in fact, people were like, "Way to go! Great decision!" It was only after I returned, and realized how many other travelers there were who traveled solo (especially as women) did I realize it was far more unusual to stay in a group of three for a full year. Note the number of blogs written by three women...not many!
What is the best way to meet new people on the road?
Christine Maxfield: Staying at a hostel or bed-and-breakfast is a great way to meet other travelers, since the proprietors tend to organize group outings for guests to local hotspots or restaurants that they might not know about otherwise (or feel comfortable visiting on their own). At the very least, the property should have a community board where you can post your contact info to meet up with other guests and check out the surrounding sites together. Whenever I want to get to know a culture better and make local friends quickly, I join a work-exchange program like WWOOF.org, HelpX.net, or WorkAway.info. Work exchange is a little different than volunteering because you barter your time for food and lodging with a host rather than spending money for the opportunity. I've learned the most interesting jobs that way, from black-pearl diving to working at a sea-turtle hatchery, and it only cost me my hard work! It was a very fulfilling way to travel, and I also made lifelong friends with my hosts so I was never lonely.
Beth Whitman: Global Freeloaders and Couchsurfing are great ways to meet people who live in the destination you're visiting. You don't even have to stay with them. Many people are available for coffee or to just show a person around their town—this is such a great way to connect with the locals!
Julia Dimon: I like to stay in hostels, B&Bs, and with friends of friends. If there's a way to stay with the local people (ie. Couchsurfing, renting a room with roommates, or doing a house swap) you'll often feel more connected to the local culture than staying in a hotel chain. Being friendly, smiling, and striking up a conversation in whatever scenario you find yourself in is the best way to meet new people. Asking for locals' recommendations on where to eat and visit can also spark a new friendship. Joining a group tour or day activity (say white-water rafting, wine tasting, or bike touring) is a great way to meet other travelers. Shared experience is a great way to bond with your fellow travelers.
Amanda Pressner: You can do it the digital way—using your blog and social media connections to find others around you—or you can do it the old fashioned way...just getting out there and seeing the world. There are a few ways to make breaking the ice a little easier though. Asking someone to take your photo is a time-tested conversation starter (and healthier than bumming a cigarette in the hostel bar!). Sign up for a cool tour or a volunteer opportunity while you're traveling so you're thrown in with other locals and travelers and have something to talk about. Take public transportation (overnight trains are awesome for meeting other people, since you're often grouped together in shared cars). If you're intimidated about saying hello, just remember that this isn't high school, and you're not the only new kid—this is traveling, and everyone is the "new kid!" Be friendly...people will be friendly back!
What can solo travelers do to NOT attract the wrong kind of attention in a new place?
Christine Maxfield: When women travel alone, they automatically draw some attention to themselves, but keep in mind that you can get catcalls in your own country as well. The key is to dress modestly, never go out alone at night until you learn the rules of the area, and never get drunk or visit the beach by yourself. If you're traveling in a very conservative region like the Middle East or in a Muslim country, cover your arms and legs, wear sneakers or closed-toe shoes, and wear hair on top of your head (loose hair is considered rude!).
Beth Whitman: Women can often be seen as an easy target. It's therefore very important to be vigilant whenever we're on our own. We need to protect our personal items and also be aware of not putting ourselves in situations that could get dangerous (taking a taxi by ourselves, for example). Assuming this is more geared toward women, the best thing a solo traveler can do to not attract attention is to avoid conversations with single men and not put themselves in situations where this might happen. One thing a woman might do is join a group of people walking down a street if she thinks someone might be following her.
Amanda Pressner: If you're a female traveling solo, be a little more conservative about your dress than you might be at home. Don't go out alone after dark, even if you think you know where you're going and how to get around. Take a taxi, even if you have to spend more than you want, to get you from point A to point B safely. Ask someone in the know (ie. a front desk clerk or a waitress) if you're heading out during the day to an area that you're unfamiliar with, and ask them if it's safe to walk. Make new friends and travel with them whenever possible. I believe that Jen, Holly, and I did not get into much trouble during the year we traveled because there were three of us in a group at almost all times.
What about safety?
Christine Maxfield: I always carry a pickpocket-proof bag and combination locks from the safety company PacSafe, an LED flashlight called the SureFire Defender that temporarily night-blinds an aggressor, a safety whistle, and a rubber doorstop to slip underneath my hotel door just in case it tends to be a little less safe than I would've liked. One of my favorite tricks is to slit the seam on the side of my bra, stash some $100 bills in the lining, then close the makeshift pocket with a little Velcro. It's much stealthier than a money belt!
Julia Dimon: As a young blonde women who has always been drawn to more taboo locations (I've traveled through Rwanda, the DRC, Mozambique, Jordan, Turkey, Palestine/West Bank, and to Chernobyl), I often get strange looks from people. I feel like they are surprised that I've returned in one piece. But truly, in my experience traveling through 80 countries and to all seven continents, it's not a big, bad, scary world out there. People are far more likely to help you rather than harm you. In terms of safety, it doesn't matter if you're in New York City or Nairobi, you can stay safe by trusting your instincts. If the little voice inside of you feels like something is a bad idea, really listen to it. Don't be afraid to say no or extricate yourself from an uncomfortable situation. Trust your gut.
Beth Whitman: The most daring solo trip I've ever taken was a solo motorcycle trip from Seattle to Panama (yes, in Central America). I rode a BMW 650 for nine weeks and over 7,000 miles. Before I left on that trip, people told me I'd be raped, murdered, thrown in jail, or the bike would be stolen. I knew in my heart of hearts that if I treated people well, I would be treated well back and have a safe trip. And I did!
Amanda Pressner: If you're by yourself for the long haul, try starting your adventure at a hostel or guesthouse in a large city, where you're sure to meet like-minded travelers. Look for places that boast large common areas, cafe or activities rooms so you can cross paths with other people in a safe setting.
Why should someone consider traveling by themselves compared to with a group?
Amanda Pressner: It's often a good idea for women to stick together when traveling in unfamiliar or "higher-risk" places, but when it's safe to do so, don't be afraid to go outside of your comfort zone and fly solo for a few days. Jen, Holly, and I all traveled alone during specific points of our journey and we ended up meeting far more interesting locals and fellow travelers than when we'd been roaming in a pack. After traveling with two other women for almost 11 months, I felt a sense of autonomy and freedom when I traveled on my own. I got to make all the decisions, see what I wanted to see, and make choices to experience the destination in exactly the way that I wanted. Once I got past the insecurity and loneliness part (and yes, that happens) I was more willing—and in fact motivated—to open myself up to new people and experiences that I otherwise wouldn't have when sheltered by my group.
Beth Whitman: While group or organized travel definitely has its place, traveling solo provides you with an opportunity to gain confidence and to test your limits. When you're on your own, you're responsible for everything and that can be a really empowering experience, especially for women.
Julia Dimon: When deciding to travel alone or in a group, consider the following: a.) difficulty of the destination b.) your travel goals c.) time, and d.) budget. In my experience, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, North America, and the Caribbean are super easy to navigate on your own. It gets more challenging in destinations that have a history of political conflict or a less developed tourism infrastructure. In these cases, having a guide organize all the details and speak the language is incredibly helpful. If your travel goals are to see as much as possible in a short amount of time, a guided tour is a great call. All the administrative details are already taken care of, leaving you to just relax and take in the sights. If your goal is to really immerse yourself in local culture, challenge your problem-solving skills, and get off the typical tourist trail, you may be happier traveling solo. Typically group tours are much more expensive than going solo, so that's another consideration. What I've done in the past is start with a group tour (I did a two month camping overland excursion through South Africa, Namibia, and Zambia), then once I got my bearings and felt comfortable with my surroundings, I left the group and traveled solo through other parts of Sub-Saharan Africa. Doing the group-and-solo combo is a great way to get a feel for the country, the culture, and the vibe, then branch out on your own.
Is there anything you know now about solo travel that you wish someone had told you back then?
Amanda Pressner: Just that the loneliness, that weirdness that you feel the first few days tends to go away, but it can be pretty intense. If it's your first time solo traveling, you might wonder if you made a mistake, but you didn't! Give yourself a few days to feel out of sort, then make some efforts to get social.
Beth Whitman: Just to be open to new experiences and meeting new people. I would suggest that people not be afraid to spend money on adventures. You can always make more money but you might not be able to experience something again.
Julia Dimon: I wish someone had told me, "You'll be fine. You got this." It can feel a little scary to take off by oneself to parts unknown (especially for an entire year, like I did back in 2005), but once you get to the mystery destination, you quickly realize that all those fears that kept you up at night were unfounded. That you are, in fact, okay by yourself, and it's an extremely enjoyable adventure to be the conductor of one's travel destiny. I know now that it's not necessary to be afraid that you will be lonely or won't meet anyone. There are tons of like-minded solo travelers out there...you'll certainly cross paths with them, make friends, and have new experiences—so let the fear go. Solo travel is such a gift. Solo travel gives you the space and freedom to challenge your beliefs and philosophies, expand your horizons and really grow as a person.
Additional solo travel resources can be found on RickSteves.com, the official website of travel guru Rick Steves—here, he offers tips for staying street-smart in Europe. Check out GoGirlGuides.com for detailed travel advice and fun, inspirational articles and guidebooks created by long-time solo traveler Kelly Lewis.