By: Olivia Cooper
For most of my life, traveling meant following along on family vacations or road trips with friends. Until recently, I worried that traveling alone would be a lonely, or even scary, experience. My friends and I have often daydreamed about trips we’d like to take together, but as our priorities continue to change, a two-week trek through Southeast Asia that works for all of our schedules seems less and less possible. So, when I found myself with a list of dream destinations and no one to go with me, I started to reconsider my stance on traveling alone.
There are a lot of reasons for a woman not to travel by herself, and I’ve heard them all from concerned friends and relatives. They’re not wrong – lately, it feels like the world is a scarier place than ever. But my sense of wanderlust trumped my fear, and I booked my first solo stay in Paris. If you’re thinking of taking your own independent excursion, try these tips to be sure you get the most out of your experience.
Go where you want to go.
If you’ve tried to plan a vacation with a group, you know mapping out an itinerary that will please everyone is easier said than done. By traveling alone, I let go of the need to please anyone but myself. I could sleep ‘til 11 a.m. if I wanted or abandon my lunch plan to venture down a pretty side street. The ability to wander without having to talk over every decision with a travel partner was freeing. By following my own instincts, I opened myself up to unexpected discoveries.
Get out of your comfort zone.
Traveling can be exhilarating and nauseating all at once. As a homebody, the thought of leaving the comforts of home to navigate airports and foreign train stations makes my chest tighten. Luckily, you don’t have to go cliff jumping or glacier climbing to get out of your comfort zone – unless you’re into that sort of thing. You can start small by mastering the metro or tasting a local delicacy. For me, it was having dinner at a café while resisting the urge to glance at my phone for security. I felt kind of proud of myself for meeting this challenge and allowing myself to be more present.
Read the fine print.
This was the emphatic advice I got from a friend after her recent solo trip to Ireland. Though most of us don’t bother to comb through pages of terms and conditions, myself included, it’s important to know what recourse you have if your credit card is stolen or your flight is canceled. This applies whether you’re traveling with or without a group, but without a friend to help you manage, a sudden change of plans can feel like a crisis. It’s easier to take charge and regroup if you’re armed with the right information.
With potential language and cultural barriers, this can be the most intimidating part of traveling abroad, but building the confidence to speak with locals is especially important when traveling alone. To avoid reaching out for fear of making a mistake could mean that you miss out on really connecting with the place you’re visiting. If you don’t speak the language, learn the basics ahead of time by listening to the Coffee Break Languages podcast or using Duolingo. Memorize a few key phrases and keep a translator app handy just in case. Accept that you will probably slip up, and when you do, chances are people will be understanding.
If the thought of keeping yourself company, even for a few days, makes you crazy, put the word out to your friends – and their friends. Find out if anyone you know has travel plans that coincide with yours. Seeing a familiar face and speaking your own language, if only for a couple of hours, can be just the break you need before heading back out on your own. Or sign up for a class with fellow travelers. I planned my Paris trip around a food photography workshop I came across on Instagram. By spending part of my time exploring on my own and the other part with a small group, I got the best of both worlds.
Of all my lessons learned traveling alone, my biggest surprise was that I never really felt alone at all. Brushing up on my French to make conversation with locals and fellow travelers, I got to feel like part of life there for a while. I made memories and friends I won’t forget. Most importantly, putting aside my fear to travel alone made me look inward and find confidence I didn’t know I had.
Contributor Olivia Cooper is a full-time communications professional and part-time baker living in St. Petersburg, Florida. On her blog, A Dash of This, she enjoys sharing recipes inspired by her Southern roots and her love of French flavors. See also her previous posts here and here.