When people think of going off on a long-term trip to an exotic foreign country on their own, the majority of things they worry about aren’t actually the things you need to worry about. Crime and sickness are big ones, and yet out of the 40+ countries I’ve been to I’ve been sick and scammed more often in London than anywhere else. In this guide, we’ll look at some tips to survive long-term solo travel.
Nothing to Lose
I’ve (touch wood) never been a victim of crime in a foreign country, except in Monaco when I was much younger and my video camera got stolen from the train platform. Actually, once in France someone tried to steal my wallet but it had so little money in it they said sorry and gave it back. And one time while growing up in South Africa someone tried to steal my car but it was such a piece of crap they couldn’t get it started and gave up. Moral of the story – having nothing worth stealing is the best way to not get robbed.
Loneliness is another big one, and it’s something I was most worried about the first time I went travelling on my own. How wrong I was to worry – within two hours of being off the plane I was out partying with a big new group of friends, some of whom I’m still in contact with to this day. For the next six months, I didn’t spend a single day alone unless I specifically chose to. Of course, this may vary depending on where you are – if you’re cycling across the Australian outback you might find yourself conversing with lizards after awhile!
The point is – you have nothing to fear but fear itself. Developing a certain level of confidence while travelling is imperative to having a successful time and enjoying yourself. It’s far better than constantly looking over your shoulder and missing out on making good friends because you don’t trust anyone.
So here are some pointers to get you off on the right foot…
SHIT HAPPENS, accept it.
Things will go wrong. Flights will be missed. Bedbugs will happen. Phones will be lost. No amount of planning can account for every possibility, and in fact, over-planning can simply complicate things and also take the fun out of it. With long-term solo travel, you need to have a certain amount of lee-way and be ready to adapt to any situation.
In Thailand, I had an 11 pm train that was delayed for 5 hours! I was in a tiny village so there was nothing to do and nowhere to go other than waiting on the platform. I made friends with some other people there, we got chatting, they shared some of their beers, and in no time it was 4 am and the train was there.
In Berlin, I missed my flight home because I didn’t realise how far away the airport was. It was the last flight that day, but through a friend of a friend, I got hold of a lovely couple who let me stay the night at their place!
One time in Zurich every plane was grounded due to snow and all the hotels were full. So my girlfriend and I, along with another stranded traveller, built some beds out of a left-over Christmas display and ended up having a fun night.
In Kampot, Cambodia, I got back to my hostel too late and they had locked everything up, so I explored a nearby construction site and found a mattress on the second floor that provided a more-than-adequate bed for the night – I didn’t even get a single mosquito bite!
A few days later on a ferry back to the mainland from an island, the engine broke down and we were diverted to another island. Rather than wait on the boat for them to fix the engine I went to explore the island, ended up spending three days there and had one of the best times of my life. Everything happens for a reason.
“You can’t always get what you want, but if you try some time you just might find… you get what you need.”
Fear of things going wrong holds people back immensely in life, but reflect on your past I’m sure you’ll find that all those things you were afraid of happening, probably didn’t…. and the things that DID go wrong, you couldn’t possibly have predicted. Just roll with it.
DON’T STRESS, assess.
99% of the time whatever goes wrong is not that serious and even if it is, stressing won’t help. Staying calm will help you think clearly and assess your situation. Sometimes, if it is really serious, staying calm can mean the difference between life and death! (Okay, I’ve never had that happen to me but I guess if you’re lost in the desert with no water it could be applicable).
If you lose money or your phone, it’s gone – don’t even waste 5 minutes getting upset about it. Rather think how you’re going to rectify the situation. When I broke my phone in a tiny village in Thailand I just went without a phone for a week, and you know what? I didn’t even miss it! Back in civilisation, I bought a cheap replacement phone from 7-Eleven for £12 that got me along fine for the next few months.
In Sri Lanka, I accidentally gave a tuk-tuk driver the equivalent of £40 instead of £4 (which may not seem a lot but a long-term solo travel budget is often as low as £10 a day). So I just tightened my budget the next few days and made up the loss.
When arriving for the first time in India the airport had no ATM’s and I had no local currency! There was also no wifi so I couldn’t even google an ATM, but a friendly parking attendant kindly took me on his motorbike to an ATM a few kilometres away. Things have a way of working out, and staying calm will ease that process.
These aren’t even serious problems. In Vietnam, I saw a guy who had been hit in the face with a machete simply because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time – save your stress for when that happens (he was fine in the end).
TRUST EVERYONE, but trust your instincts more.
The vast majority of people only want to make friends, help you, or are simply curious. Yes, in certain busy tourist areas there are those who are always trying to sell you something, but these people become easy to spot and ignore. However every now and again a seemingly innocuous encounter with a friendly local or fellow traveller can turn sour, and if it doesn’t feel right – get out of there! In a recent trip to Istanbul, I was travelling alone and was invited to a club by a local. He seemed very friendly and we were getting along but something didn’t feel right, so I politely said goodbye and left.
I later found out I had been sucked into a common scam where they take you somewhere, serve you some drinks and then give you a huge bill at the end with loads of stuff you didn’t order. If you don’t pay, the bouncers drag you to an ATM and force you to draw out all your cash. However, stuff like this is rare (well, location dependent) and I still maintain a belief of innocent until proven guilty. I’ve made a huge number of friends and received an endless amount of help through trusting people in every country I’ve been too. Sometimes the scariest looking people have turned out to be the warmest and kindest, so don’t judge a book by its cover!
BE REALISTIC, but don’t be ripped off.
The best thing about travelling cheap is that wherever you stay, whatever food you eat or whatever transport you take, you know that it’s not going to be 5-star. Even if it’s really bad, it didn’t cost much so it’s no big loss. If your 50p noodle soup doesn’t taste good, well it was 50p – what did you expect? Wifi slow in your £4 hostel? You’re in a tiny village in a 3rd world country, it’s amazing they even have wifi!
Long-term solo travel teaches you the need to be realistic. I recently checked into a cheap motel in India, and the owner said the rooms are usually 700 rupees but he’ll give me one for 500 because I’m alone. I was very grateful. Just after, another couple came in saying they are on a tight budget and need a cheap room: he offered them a discount at 600 rupees, but the women took a look and complained there is no TV! Really, you expect a TV in a £7 hotel room?
But if there was no TV in a £50 hotel room – now that’s going to annoy me. The only times I’m upset or disappointed travelling is when it involves something expensive. There is nothing worse than deciding to spend a little bit extra on something to spoil yourself, only to find it’s nothing like advertised. So yes, every now again it’s nice to spend a bit more – but do your research, because the most expensive things are usually the biggest rip-offs!
ORIENTATE YOURSELF, or embrace getting lost.
What’s the first thing you do when arriving at accommodation in a new town? Get drunk at the bar! Well yes that too, but first connect to the wifi and save your location on Google Maps. When embarking on long-term solo travel, you need to know where you are!
In Vietnam, a big group of friends and I checked into a guest house and then went out for dinner, proceeded to all get a bit drunk and as a result got separated on the walk home. One couple who were lagging behind missed the turnoff to the house and proceeded to wander around for hours looking for it before eventually sneaking into a hotel and crashing in an empty room!
In the end, it wasn’t a bad result so sometimes getting lost can be fun, but it could have been far worse! I got lost once going home at a ski resort and for a brief moment had visions of freezing to death in the snow! Learning how to read maps properly is imperative to successful travel, and there are a few tips and tricks to help.
Firstly, download offline maps of the area you are going to (or download Maps.Me which works offline). Even if you have a sim card, often in places with bad signal, downloaded maps work better. Obviously having a backup paper map is a good idea but honestly, I’ve only ever relied on my phone and it’s never been a problem.
Secondly, learn to find north – just because Google Maps on your phone is pointing north that doesn’t mean you are! And uphill doesn’t mean north either – seriously I’ve met people who thought they were going north because they were going uphill. How they even got out of bed amazes me.
Most phones these days have compasses so this is largely redundant but it’s still good general knowledge if your phone battery dies. The obvious one is the sun – if it’s 4 pm, the sun is west, if it’s 9 am the sun is east. If it’s night time, you’ll need to know what hemisphere you’re in and a few star constellations – in the north the bottom two stars of the big dipper point to Polaris which is approximately north and in the south, the southern cross is easy to spot and slightly right of true south. (In reality, this gets somewhat more detailed, so research it if you’re really interested).
If you’re in a bright city you won’t be able to see stars so another neat trick is satellite dishes – all satellite dishes in the southern hemisphere will point somewhere north, and in the northern hemisphere somewhere south – but this is not exact. For example, in the US they all point south, but in the UK they point south-east.
…..and last but not least:
TAKE RISKS, or:
“become an old man, filled with regret, waiting to die alone”.
Sleep in train stations, eat food that moves, visit a war-torn country, hit on the flight attendant, play poker with the Yakuza, drive an unlicensed £80 motorbike across Vietnam in the pitch black pouring rain with no lights, stow-away on a cruise-liner, blag your way backstage, get naked on the dance floor, tattoo yourself while drunk…… but whatever you do, don’t take the biggest risk of all – don’t die without ever having lived.
For more useful travel advice check out: Budget Travel Tips