In 2007, I moved to Belgium for an internship, and discovered the joys of solo traveling. Since then, I've taken three major solo trips: One around Central Europe, one through Italy, and one in the Pacific Northwest. I regret only that time and money constraints have not allowed me to travel more frequently or to more exotic locations.
I've encountered plenty of people, especially women, who say they wouldn't want to travel alone, and I reject this notion. Solo traveling is a wonderful way to clear the mind and reconnect with oneself. I encourage everyone to try it at least once.
Here are some tips and thoughts to help make your foray into solo traveling easier (though many of these are also applicable when traveling with companions).
1) Make lodging and transit plans in advance.
The spontaneity comes in how you spend your days. Don't waste time looking around for a hotel or get stuck hanging out at a train station. When looking for a place to stay during your planning process, read traveler reviews on sites like Trip Advisor, and pay attention to notes about neighborhood safety. In hostel (hopefully not hostile) situations, opt for all-women dormitories. I'm a big fan of small inns or guest houses owned by female proprietresses or couples. I had a lovely stay in Victoria, BC, at the Carriage House B&B, a cozy home owned by Dan and Naoko, and their adorable son, Tom. At the B&B Dolce Maria in Cortona, Paola noted my travel fatigue and made me up a plate of biscotti to take to my room. Little moments add to a collection of memories.
2) Learn a few basic phrases in the native language of the country you're in.
I don't go anywhere without learning to say the following: Hello. Goodbye. Please. Thank you. I'm sorry, I don't speak your language; do you speak English, please? If you have medical or dietary needs, learn how to express those or have a hotel proprietor write it down for you. If you have another language at your disposal, offer it as an option. I didn't know how to ask about vegetarian options at a restaurant in Budapest, so I asked whether the waiter preferred I ask my questions in English or French. Gesture if necessary, but be extra polite about it. Please don't perpetuate that Ugly American stereotype. Be creative. In Florence, I didn't know how to ask for a few ounces of cheese in a shop, so I asked for two euros worth of cheese.
3) Ask questions. Observe.
The best way to experience a city is to ask people who live there where they like to go, what they like to eat. Guidebooks are likelier to lead you to tourist traps or overpriced, trendy restaurants. Ask hotel workers or people in shops where they like to go. Or just walk around and look to see what places seem to be occupied by locals.
4) Shut up.
I know, this is contradictory to "ask questions." But it's viable counsel. We spend so much time talking, communicating, just basically running our mouths. Take some time on your own to just be quiet, breathe, and appreciate what is around you. When there is a language barrier, my philosophy is to speak only when necessary. Last summer, I took my first big solo trip in North America, and in some ways, I didn't like it as much. I enjoy being compelled to silence. It's nice to actually not be able to understand the conversations around me. We spend our lives so overstimulated.
5) On which note, unplug.
Continuing with the philosophy of having quiet time to appreciate the environment around you, go offline. Stay off of email, Facebook, Twitter, the internet, what have you. I'm an active user of social media, but when I see people live tweeting from their honeymoons, or Facebooking about "I'm feeling so zen on my yoga retreat!" I want to toss their phones into large bodies of water.
6) That said, check in.
Designate a point person, or people. When I travel alone, I send a text to my mother, my father, and my boyfriend once a day to let them know all is well. As I like to move from place to place when I travel alone (each of my big solo trips have involved at least five stops), I also make out an itinerary of my hotels, trains and planes, and send it to my point people. In case of emergency, it's good to have people who know where you are supposed to be.
7) Plan one or two activities if you wish, but don't overdo it.
I ended up bailing out of my planned bike tour of Chianti, which was serendipitous, as it gave me time to explore the incredible Mercato Centrale in Florence, but I did fit in the Sound of Music tour in Salzburg, and a whale watch on Orcas Island. The best experiences can be the ones that you just stumble across. In Cortona, I wandered to a church up a hill, and discovered a series of mosaics depicting the Stations of the Cross. The simple moments, appreciating your surroundings are as important as seeing what's in the guidebooks.
8) Don't get picked up.
Look, I love Before Sunrise as much as the next person, but there are a lot of creeps out there. I, and several other women I know who also enjoy solo travel, wear rings that look like wedding bands when we travel to deter unwanted advances. Sit near families or other women to avoid
However, if you do strike up a flirtation, keep it to public places and daylight hours. Don't invite that hot Czech guy back to your hotel room, and for the love of God, don't go to the sexy Parisian's apartment. I know, I know. Who do I think I am, your mother? Look, your mother would agree with me.
9) Stay sober.
Traveling alone should be fun and an adventure, but it also requires a certain amount of smarts and awareness. I know very few people who become more intelligent and aware when they are inebriated. Enjoy a glass or two of wine, for sure. You're on holiday. But keep your wits about you. Besides, having a drink alone can be lovely. Getting drunk alone is not.
10) Pack wisely.
Take only what you can easily carry yourself. My must-haves includes a quick drying towel (can also be used for a pillow, extra warmth, protection against questionable linens), ziplock bags (a godsend. never travel without them), nylons (for cold weather, layer under pants for extra warmth without extra bulk), microfiber underwear (two pairs: wear one, wash one. If the second pair doesn't dry on time, ziplock bag it), a small bottle of castile soap (good for washing body, hair, and clothing), and a small arsenal of in-case-of-emergency medication.
11) Dress accordingly.
If you are going to be in a culture that differs from your own, do some research on appropriate attire. Take along a scarf or shawl if you will be a place where it might be necessary for you to cover your shoulders, head or knees at any juncture. As a rule, dress somewhat conservatively so as to not call attention to yourself. Wear clothes that can be easily washed and dried. I got through eight cities in seven countries in eleven days with a pair of jeans, two long sleeved shirts, a sweater, a tank top, a pair of leggings, and two sets each of socks and underwear (sports bras are much easier to pack than underwire). Oh, and you pay attention to nothing else from this section, heed this: Wear shoes you can walk in. Like, really walk in.
12) Relish the experience.
Relish your solitude. Break away from your routine. Don't tweet. Don't count calories. Don't work out. Enjoy what is around you. Take the time to find the quiet in your head. Record your thoughts. Notice the details. Take photos. Take the road not taken. Wander. Discover.