The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of Solo Travel

Ah yes, solo travel, that thing I never shut up about.  Whoever you are and wherever you’re from, at some point you will find yourself out there on the road alone.  Whether it be a business trip, a visit to the parents, or simply a desire to just get away from all – at some point, everybody must brave the long, dusty road alone.

Let’s look at some of the benefits, pitfalls and general nastiness of solo travel.


THE GOOD:

1. Solo travel is cheaper.

If you’re like me, you will probably find you can travel much cheaper alone. I’m not very picky and don’t mind cheaper things. I can happily eat the cheapest street food without being bothered by the questionable quality of it. If I’m on my own I seldom go to restaurants, I usually just grab some bread or fruit from the local market.

When travelling with other people there is always someone who wants to go to a proper restaurant, someone who is vegan, or someone who wants meat, etc. Unless you are travelling with a person of similar tolerance who is happy to eat basic cheap food, you’re inevitably going to end up spending a lot more than you want to or need to.

I also don’t mind staying in accommodation of questionable safety or hygiene, or in an undesirable location. I don’t mind walking two kilometres instead of getting a taxi. I don’t mind doing a 20-hour train ride in 3rd class on a wooden bench. It’s very seldom I meet other travellers who are happy to sacrifice their comfort to the level I do just to save a few dollars – but those few dollars here and there add up to a lot over the long run.

2. You become more independent and brave.

brave

One of the main psychological reasons that everyone should travel alone is overcoming the fear of being out of your comfort zone. This may seem unnecessary if you have no desire to ever live anywhere other than your hometown, but there are still so many aspects of life that are potentially improved by this experience.

Confidence can be greatly increased simply by becoming aware of what you are able to endure and learning how well you react to certain situations. Your ability to socialise, think quick, make decisions, trust yourself – all these things benefit from the lessons learnt through travelling alone.

“Wandering is the activity of the child, the passion of the genius; it is the discovery of the self, the discovery of the outside world, and the learning of how the self is both at one with and separate from the outside world.” (Roman Payne)

When travelling with other people you tend to adapt and limit yourself, to what they want to do. You project upon them the things that scare you and instead of overcoming them you succumb to them because you believe those you are with would succumb to the same. You don’t test each other, rather limit each other, through a shared belief – or doubt – in each other’s abilities.

When alone you have no choice but to face challenges and frame challenges within your worldview and come to your own conclusions about what you can endure – without any outside noise to obscure your vision.

3. You can follow your own itinerary.

coffee

Travelling alone means never having to do anything other than exactly what you want to do, right then, at that moment.

You can change your mind at will, leave when you want or stay indefinitely. You can sit and watch TV in the local pub all day if it pleases you, or do a marathon visit to ten museums. You can make friends with some strangers and if they decide to do something that doesn’t interest you, you can abandon them with no excuses or guilt.

You have nobody to answer to, nobody to please, nobody to burden. Just you. Alone. In the big, big world.

4. You are more likely to meet people and make new friends.

There’s nothing better than arriving at a new destination with a bunch of mates, dumping your stuff in the hotel room and hitting the beach with a few beers.

But how often do you make the effort to meet other people in this situation, especially locals? Sure, you may have a brief chat with a guy at a local store or another traveller at the bar, but you don’t really develop strong connections because you are always distracted by the ease of conversation with those you feel comfortable with.

The fear of being alone can be an incredible motivator – especially for naturally shy people – to break through the mental constraints you have trapped yourself in and burrow into the reality of a completely foreign world.

5. Reality gets put in PERSPECTIVE.

beggar

This is dependant on where you come from, but let’s assume you’re a spoilt brat like me – because really, at the end of the day, most of us are.

I grew up in South Africa so for me third world poverty was something I was relatively accustomed to from a young age. However, moving to London in my early twenties and living there for ten years clouded my worldly immunity and made me soft to the rough edges of reality. Convenience and comfort can quickly change from things you appreciate to things you expect, and it doesn’t take long to forget your privilege.

Fast forward to the hot and dusty streets of some impoverished nation – amputee beggars grasping at your legs for change, war-deformed children plaguing your dreams, over-population, rampant pollution, nations bankrupt by corruption!  You will return to your hometown with a sparkling new appreciation of law, order and even the most basic of conveniences.

 



THE BAD:

1. In the event of accident or sickness, you’re alone.

This is the real clincher, the one thing that can overshadow all the positive of travelling alone. Nothing sucks more than being sick, miles from home and feeling like you might just die here in this hotel room and nobody would even know.

But you won’t. You will live on. You will survive. Today will be your independence day!

People, in general, are actually very quick to help the sick and injured and it’s highly unlikely you’ll ever find yourself in a position where you are suffering alone and without help. (Do get travel insurance though. For real, that shit’s important.)

2. You will be judged and/or targeted.

sadface

As a man travelling alone you may well be seen as some kind of weird social outcast or friendless loser, but fear not – a confident attitude, clear loud voice and good arsenal of politically incorrect jokes will quickly have you surrounded by a veritable gaggle of other unsavoury characters such as yourself.

Make sure you are well moulded into the group before attempting to drop your best pick-up lines on any fair maidens in the vicinity, as the only thing that will judge your loneliness more than the male of the species, is surely the female. Unless you have some mad good game, there are few things more creepy than a solo male traveller hitting on every girl in the hostel.

As a solo female traveller, you have an entirely different bag of challenges to overcome. A common one is trying to decipher whether a guy is being genuinely friendly or just wants to sleep with you (just to clarify, if he’s not gay then it’s the latter).

On a more serious note though, solo female travellers have to deal with a laundry list of problems so long that I could write an entire website about it, let alone a blog. Men with less than savoury intentions are more likely to target a woman on her own, and even in a safe space like a backpacker hostel or hotel, not everyone is an innocent tourist.

It’s a sad fact, but for women travelling alone life can sometimes be very tough. It varies greatly by country but for the most part even just trying to get a tuk-tuk or taxi can mean possible harassment, or at worst facing real potential danger.

 

3. Lack of confirmable knowledge.

alcohol better

Without anyone to question or get advice from, you must research everything yourself and rely on your own ability to make the best choices. Basic travel advice is always available from books, other travellers or the info desk.  However, some things you don’t want to ask strangers about – like why your poo is green, is porn illegal in this country, or whether that girl is actually hot or you’re just drunk.

If you’re a bad decision maker like me it can get very tiring constantly making mistakes, but then again – it is the best way to learn! At the end of the day we’re all clueless anyway so sometimes you’re better off alone.

4. Some things are more expensive.

money

If you do feel the need for some privacy (which I guarantee you will at some point), then renting a private room is significantly more expensive when you’re alone. Similarly, getting a taxi or any form of private transport will cost you at least double. Even eating at a restaurant can cost more when things like a bowl of rice could be shared.

If you have access to a kitchen, cooking for one usually ends up costing almost as much as cooking for two. If cash machines charge a flat rate to draw money, you can take turns drawing money for each other and save on charges. However, in the long run, I think this cost will be offset by the savings you can make from solo travel.

5. Nobody to share the experience with.

lonely sunset

This one is pretty self-explanatory. A beautiful sunset, while still enjoyable to watch alone, can be greatly improved with some company. Going out to enjoy the night-life can often be difficult to the point of down-right miserable if you have nobody to share it with. Life-changing experiences are often easier to understand when conveyed into words and bounced off the consciousness of someone else.

But in this day-and-age of social media – Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat – are you ever really alone? Just upload that perfect snap, check-in to some exotic country or post a status of how much fun you’re having and watch the likes rolling in – you’ve never felt more surrounded by friends!

Until your battery dies and the digital sun sets on your sad, lonely existence.


THE UGLY:

1. You. You are the ugly. Because you are travelling alone and don’t need to impress anyone, so after awhile basic hygiene and grooming fall to the way-side and you turn into a wookie.

 

For more travel bits and pieces check out : Travel Tips

Surviving Long-term Solo Travel

long-term solo travel

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.


Happy alone

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.

Zurich Airport
Zurich Airport

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.

Tuk-tuk

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.

istanbul bars
Istanbul bars

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.

offline maps
Off-line Google Maps

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.

stars


…..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

travel tips
Budget Travel Tips