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

Budget Travel: A Note on Haggling

It’s important to note that budget travel, especially when haggling, does not mean getting the cheapest possible deal on everything.  Saving money is the aim, but saving money at the expense of someone else is not.

The aim of a budget traveller should not only be to save money but at the same time, promote the economy of the country.  And although it may seem counter-intuitive, going somewhere and just spending loads of money is actually not productive to the overall economy either.

It needs balance.

shop

Haggling

Let’s take tuk-tuks for example since they are prevalent in almost any travel story.  Tuk-tuks (or rickshaws, moto-taxis, jeepneys, etc) almost never advertise their price.  They know their customers come from all walks of life and a rich person might happily pay $10 for a ride that should cost $3.  However, due to the nature of haggling, some people might try to get a ride for $2 or even $1.  If it’s a quiet day, the driver might accept that just to make some money.

This doesn’t mean you should try to get a ride for $1 that should cost $3.  This is not productive to the local economy.  While he might take you at that price, he’s losing money and you’re giving travellers a bad name.  At the same time, it’s equally as bad if people are all paying $10.  If all tuk-tuk drivers are earning far more than they should, locals in other businesses will quit their jobs and all start buying tuk-tuks. The result?  WAY more tuk-tuk’s than required and not enough business for any of them.

For any economic system to work, the price must be right. Not too high, not too low.

tuk-tuk
Tuk-tuks: Everything else blurs in comparison

So what is budget travelling?  It’s about knowing what the price should be and aiming for that.  Of course in certain situations, supply and demand will affect your bargaining power.  A shortage of tuk-tuks and influx of customers might mean you’ll have to pay more but this is where the responsibility of the driver comes in.  He might make a quick buck overcharging you but in the long run, he’s not doing himself any favours.  Unsatisfied customers will find other means of transport and he’ll put himself out of business.

Sustainable Saving

When you are looking for ways to save money while travelling, don’t do it at the expense of the local community.  You wouldn’t go to a hostel and try haggling on the price.  If it’s £5 a night it’s £5 a night, no question.  But you can save money on accommodation without ripping anyone off – by housesitting, Couchsurfing or camping.  Even sleeping in a hammock on a beach or in an abandoned building is fine – as long as you don’t make a mess or upset anyone.

hammock
I wouldn’t have pitched it so high up over rocks, but hey – yolo!

You can also save money on things like transport by hitch-hiking.  This is not costing anyone anything – the person giving you a lift is usually going that way anyway.  It’s still nice to offer them something, especially if they’re going out their way.  Nine times out of ten they won’t accept it because they genuinely just wanted to help you.

hitch hike
Arm wanted to see the world.

Pay it Forward

Haggling, or bargaining, is great.  It’s part of the travel experience and an important aspect of the economy, even if it is unregulated.  However, it shouldn’t be seen as a way to get something as cheap as possible.  The people you are buying from work long hours to provide these goods or services.  One-off tourists have no interest in the future of a country’s economy, but for travellers, this might be a place you end up living or working in the future.  If people can’t put their kids through school, next time you visit, crime could be worse or the quality of services deteriorated.

Spending that little bit extra is not just an investment in them and their country, it could also be an investment in your own future.

They didn’t teach you this at school kids, but this is how you invest money!

Read more on  : Travel Tips

Travel Smart : Safe Banking on the Road

Smart banking while on the road doesn’t just mean looking over your shoulder at the ATM.  There are a number of other concerns and problems that may occur when you aren’t within the safe borders of your home country.

 

cash
Don’t forget your mini-globe!

Inform your Bank before leaving.

Card fraud is more common than ever these days and, as a result, banks are getting more and more paranoid.  If suddenly, out of the blue, your debit card is used to draw £500 from an ATM in Vladivostok, alarm bells are going to ring.  More often than not, if your bank doesn’t know why this is happening, they’ll instantly block your card.

Always let your bank know where you are going, and for how long.

gone
Actual note

Make a note of your details

Use an online program like Google Drive, or a secure password app on your phone, to keep a note of your sort code, account number AND the three-digit security code on the back of your card.  This way if you lose your card, at least you can still book accommodation online (or if worse comes to worst, a flight home!)

Personally, I memorise these details, but a secure online backup isn’t a bad idea.

locked phone
“How did you crack your phone screen?” ” Don’t ask..”

Ask for a backup Debit Card

Losing a debit card while travelling can mean the difference between eating or not.  If you’ve done point two above, you should still be able to book accommodation, but there are few places where food can be bought with anything other than cash.

Most banks will give you a second debit card that you can keep securely at your hostel.  This means that if you lose your card while abroad, you won’t need to wait for a new card to arrive at Barbados Hostel in Vladivostok (a real place), especially after it inevitably ends up at Vladivostok Hostel in Barbados (hopefully not a real place.)

Enquire with your bank about getting a second card.

two cards
Try get a Mastercard and Visa if you can

Get a Card with No Fees

New online UK bank Starling is offering new accounts with NO FEES on any transactions or withdrawals while abroad, in any country.  Another good travel card option includes Travelex Cash Passport, a card that can be pre-loaded with foreign currency. Monzo seemed promising when they came out last year, but now have a huge waiting list and don’t appear to offer anything better than the Starling Card.

A no-fees travel card can save you tons of cash!

starling
Does your online banking app have an uber-cool green circle? Not likely…

Register with Online Banking

With no access to a bank branch, often online banking can be your only connection to your bank while overseas.  Sometimes setting up online banking requires a text notification, so if your local phone number is not working while abroad, you may have trouble setting it up.

Ensure this is all done and working before you leave.

phone
Where’s your banking app mate? Sort it out!

 

For more excellent travel tips check out: Travel Tips

 

New NO FEES Travel Card (UK only)

Starling bank is a new ‘online only’ UK bank offering debit cards that charge NO FEES for withdrawals or transactions, anywhere in the world!

They work with all ATM’s just the same as any other debit card, but don’t charge the usual 3-5%  per transaction that most other banks do!*

It’s the perfect card for frequent travellers.

starling

NO MORE ATM WOES

I know when I travel, drawing cash is one of the most annoying things.  Mainly because you need to plan ahead – if you are out one night and run out of money, you can’t just go and grab £10 out of the ATM.  Even though it’s advertised as only charging you a percentage, there is usually minimum charge of £2 – £3. 

So when drawing cash, you have to draw enough for at least a few weeks to make it worthwhile – the more the better.  But then you have a huge wad of cash on you, so you need to immediately head back to your hotel or hostel and put it in a safe place.

ONLINE APP

 

The Starling online app is also far more intuitive than most banking apps, providing you with accurate descriptions of purchases, correct retailer details, currency conversions and even spending patterns.

All it takes is three minutes to download the app and apply for a new account.  No need to go into a branch, since they don’t have any branches!

starling

Furthermore, if your card gets lost or stolen, you can instantly disable it from the app – no need to call your bank!  The app is secured with a PIN or fingerprint security, so if you lose your phone it’s still secure. The only issue is you will need to get another phone and download the app before you can do any online banking, but your debit card will still work.

JUST LIKE ANY OTHER BANK

Every account comes with the standard sort code and account number, so they can be used for online purchases, direct debits and EFT payments just like any other bank – but with no extra charges!

Currently, they are only issuing Mastercard debit cards, but I would imagine they will start doing Visa soon.  Either way, this shouldn’t be an issue, as in my experience Mastercard and Visa are equally prevalent around the world.

Click HERE to sign up now.

 


*Some ATM’s will still charge their built-in transaction fees if run by an independent company, but this is unavoidable no matter what bank you are with.

(Disclaimer: I am not a qualified financial advisor. This is an independent report about a product of Starling Bank, with whom I have no affiliation, and is published for information purposes only.)

Agra: India’s Holy (Cash) Cow

Agra, also known as ‘that place where the Taj Mahal is’ is, quite literally, that place where the Taj Mahal is. It also features the incredible Agra Fort which I didn’t go to because, like everyone else, I only went to Agra for the Taj.

taj mahal
One of those Taj hand pics

Marble Mausoleum

I must say, though, that unlike most tourist traps, the Taj Mahal is actually worth the time and money (Rs1000 entrance – about £11). It is a well pimped-out palace of note, made almost entirely of white marble. Imagine the number of kitchen counters they could have made with all that marble? Every Indian shanty from Kolkata to Kochi could be decked out with blinding white, glittering surfaces ready to smash any piece of crockery placed down too heavily. But no, instead, the good old Shah Jahan built the world’s grandest gravestone, because that’s really all it is – a big-ass tomb for the Shah and his wife. Nobody ever even lived there.

Taj mahal in agra
Me, very excited about the giant tomb

Room with a View

Another great thing about Agra is that property conglomerates haven’t bought all the surrounding land and built 5-star hotels, so you can still get a £5 hotel room with a view of the Taj! Imagine you could get a hotel in Paris with a view of the Eiffel tower for £5? Imagine how terrible that hotel would have to be? Can you imagine it? Well, that’s how the cheap hotels in Agra are. But hey, for one or two nights, who cares? It’s just somewhere to sleep. And get bedbugs.

Room with awful wallpaper in agra
How’s that freakin wallpaper? Awful. So, so awful.
Taj mahal in agra
Not the worst view at breakfast

No Unicorns at the Taj Mahal

The security at the Taj is pretty damn tight, to say the least. They didn’t even let me take in my latex unicorn mask. I mean, seriously? I know it’s terrifying and mildly disturbing that a 35-year-old man carries around a latex unicorn mask, but what am I going to do with it? It’s not even flammable, it would just melt into an even more terrifying blob of bubbling goo. Books too, they don’t like you taking in books. Or food. Basically, just take your phone and wallet. If, however, you do decide to take your latex animal mask or a dog-eared copy of ‘50 Shades of Grey’, they do have locker facilities to leave your illegals in.

panorama of the taj in agra
Panoramotastic!

Picture Perfect

Once inside you will not be disappointed. The Taj Mahal is one of the few places I’ve visited that somehow makes good photo opportunities possible, despite a massive throng of tourists. We managed to take the prerequisite seven thousand photos of the palace from every different angle, and one or two didn’t even have a single other tourist in! It truly is an Instagram junkie’s heaven.

hand pulling thing at taj mahal in agra
Instagram Crack!

Super Secret Photo Hack!

If you do go to the Taj, make sure to visit one of the relatively deserted side temples so you can get an awesome arch-framed photo like the one below.

I mean, come on, how pro does that look?

amazing instagram worthy taj photo in agra
Look – I’m even meditating. Everyone loves meditating!

Any More to Agra?

As I mentioned above, other than the Taj and Agra Fort, there isn’t much more to Agra. We did, however, have a day to kill before our night bus the following day so we went to explore the ‘Taj Nature Walk’. This I do not recommend. It’s not so much a nature walk as a dry, run down park that made me think of the Pripyat amusement park in Chernobyl. Bonus points for finding the terrifying ‘zoo’ full of plastic animals that I can only imagine were placed there after all the real animals died of boredom from having to live in this park.

terrible park in agra
The fear is real!

Happy Travels!

Read more about my adventures in India here:  Splash Roll Stumble: India

Need somewhere cheap to stay? Stay India

 

panorama of the taj
The Taj makes for great panoramas

5 Fun Ways to Die in Vang Vieng

vang vieng river
Vang Vieng River

Disclaimer

Ok, so I know Vang Vieng got a lot of bad press a few years ago because of some deaths, but the local government has actually sorted it out a lot, and it’s (relatively) safe now.  This means that when tubing down the river you can no longer do 20-meter high, unsecured ziplines after five shots of tequila, or triple backflips off the crazy slide into the one-meter deep water.  So if you do still manage to die, it would be entirely your own, idiotic, fault.

With that said, let’s see if we can still find some fun ways to off-yourself in the party capital of Laos!

tubing vang vieng
Tubing in Vang Vieng is (surprisingly) still popular
Vang Vieng: River bars galore

Alcohol poisoning

Back in 2010 before young travellers started treating Vang Vieng like a euthanasia clinic, all the bars tried to outdo each other by having an hour of free drinks at the same time. Realizing this simply split the clientele up and didn’t really supply anyone with enough decent business, they agreed to each have an individual one-hour time slot.  This tradition lives on today and as a result, you can drink for four straight hours, every night, completely free – if you know in which order to visit the bars! This becomes considerably more difficult after bar number two, but I think I managed it once. Or not. Who knows? Not me.

Funny bar vests. They never get old
alcohol better
(Alcohol better)

Get lost in a cave.

Up by Blue Lagoon 3 (or whichever number they’ve decided to call it today), deep in the jungle you’ll find a tiny hole that leads into a huge, pitch black cave that is entirely unguided, unlit and unmanaged in any way.  It’s just a big, long, black hole in the mountain – old school vibes.

Blue Lagoon 3
Blue Lagoon 3

Within this ‘Indiana Jones’ style death trap you can enjoy getting completely and utterly lost by forgetting a twist or turn on the way back out and running out of battery on your shitty iPhone 5.  I do not recommend this. I hyperventilated a lot.

Cave
Cave entrance

Overdose

Personally, of course, I would never touch drugs because they’re bad mmmkay, but I’ve heard from a friend of a friend that apparently there may be one or two things and thangs floating about old V-V.  I’m not sure how true this is but it was strange that the items on the back of my restaurant menu read like a Nirvana b-sides album.

Maybe ‘opium’ is just a type of pizza. Who knows?? (I do. It’s not).

menu
“Menu”

Break your neck playing basketball

The only remaining danger along the tubing route is an awesome wooden basketball court, which in practice would be entirely safe if it weren’t for an overhead sprinkler system which rains down on the court all day.  Admittedly, this keeps you nice and cool in the 40-degree Celsius weather, but also keeps the court as slippery as a naughty nuns noony – resulting in, at best whiplash, and at worst, a fatal head injury.

river bar
One of many river bars

Dying of starvation while trying to find “Blue Lagoon 2”

Just give up, it doesn’t exist, and the first free drinks hour is starting soon!

bluelagoon
Not blue lagoon 2

 

Disclaimer 2:  The information in this article is satirical and the writer takes no responsibility for injury or death resulting from partaking in or re-enacting any activities described.  Like, seriously guys, sort your lives out.

vangvieng
The surrounding natural beauty is stunning. Just don’t fall off that scooter!

 

Read more about Laos here: Laos

Cycling France, and falling in love with travel

How travel changed my life

This is the story of my first ever cycle tour in 2002. I was 19 years old and broke, but desperately wanted to see the world.

My friend Sean and I

A friend and I bought two second-hand mountain bikes for €40 each and planned to cycle from Paris to Rome. Neither of us had ever cycled further than 1 or 2 miles – to school and such.  We spent about two months working in London to save up a few hundred pounds, a large section of which went on the Eurostar ticket to Paris.

Putting a rack on the mountain bike
Day 1, Paris

Remember Mapbooks?

This was before mobile phones and GPS. Our only guidance was a map book and a compass. We got lost often, and it was awesome.  Eventually, we stopped using the map book for guidance and simply cycled into the wild.  We only looked back on it occasionally to track the route we had come.

Into the wild

Survival Food

We bought a tent, roll mats and a gas stove. In four weeks cycling we never once paid for accommodation and spent about €1 a day on food. Oats for breakfast, spaghetti for dinner.  We drank only water and black coffee, and invented some strange lunch options too, like bulk cheap croissants wrapped in budget salami.  I can still taste it…

Too much equipment!

No bike, no problem

Unfortunately, halfway to Rome, one bike was stolen while we slept on the beach in Cannes. Unable to afford a new one, we sold the other and continued on foot, hitch-hiking.  We crossed into Italy and walked for almost eight hours the first day without catching a single lift.

Sleeping outdoors on the French Riviera

After spending two nights sleeping at a truck stop and still with no luck, we asked a police officer if he could help.  He instructed us to hitch-hike on the freeway, and then promptly arrested us for doing so.  We had no money for a fine or bribe, so eventually, he let us go.

Hitching after the bike was stolen.

Penniless but free, we eventually caught a lift to Genoa, and continued from there by hopping trains to Pisa, Venice and Florence, sleeping in stations and on beaches.

Sleeping in a train station

Discover Life

That trip was the single greatest thing I’ve ever done in my life. It not only made me fall in love with cycling and travel, but it defined everything that I am as a person today. It imbued within me a confidence to achieve any goal I desire, to never give up, to see the beauty in the world and all the possibilities in life.

Cycle touring is not about the bike or the equipment. Travel is not about the route or the destination.

It’s about you.

Get out there and discover yourself.