A Guide to Solo Travel: The Practical Stuff

While I was home for Christmas I went to a family gathering at my aunt’s house (for those that know me, no this was not a Barrows Bash…. it was the other side of my family. A Murfitt ménage maybe?). I sat opposite one of my cousins who was just about to set off travelling and will be doing some of it solo. She asked me for advice.

“Ummm, oh gosh I don’t know. Ummm. Be careful. Ummm, yeah I can’t think. Oh take a door stop!”

I was not particularly helpful (although I did reassure her that she will be absolutely fine, and that it is not as scary as you think it is – if you are just about to set off solo, then DITTO). Put on the spot I couldn’t think, but I did spend the lion’s share of last year travelling solo without any major mishaps, and I have picked up a few things. So here is what I should have said to her, and everything useful and practical about how to travel solo that I know, including safety advice.

I think a lot of this applies to anyone setting off on a big trip, whether they’re doing it in a group, a couple, or indeed solo. I think the main difference with solo travel is that you can’t rely on anyone else. You will meet people, and if you need help you will always be able to find it, but you do need to be as self-sufficient as possible.

I should also say that this is just how I do it. I’ve also aimed it at those starting out; I think the longer you travel the more you learn how you like and want to travel, and you will develop your own systems and ways of doing things. This is also very much geared to big, long trips – some of this stuff might sound like far too much hassle for a week by the sea! My general attitude though is to get myself as sorted as possible, give myself as many different options should anything go wrong, and then just relax and enjoy it.

There is a whole other companion post on the emotional and mental side of solo travel which I’ll try to write soon.

So here goes.

Money

The morning after my 30th birthday in Hong Kong, Sean arrived back at our hotel room at 4.30am minus his wallet and his phone. All his cards were in his wallet and he had zero cash on him. For the rest of his trip he transferred money into my account and I pulled it out for him (it wasn’t actually this easy as the day after my main debit card got pulled up for fraud and cancelled….but never mind) He asked me what he would have done had he been on his own: “You probably would have had to have gone home. You can get emergency money from your bank or the embassy I think but you couldn’t have relied on it”.

The key thing when organising your funds is to give yourself as many different options as possible should one or two of them fail.

So, take two debit cards and at least one if not two credit cards, from at least two different banks. If you can get a mix of Visa and MasterCard (when I landed in Ubud last time pretty much all ATMs on the island were rejecting Visa cards, but MasterCards seemed to be fine).

Keep all your savings or the large bulk of your money in an account that you do not have card with you for (I cut mine up) and set up a standing order between that account and your current account for roughly how much you think you’ll need each month. This saves you having to constantly access your internet banking on dodgy WiFi connections and means that you never have too much money in the account you have a card for.

Get the highest limit you can on at least one of your credit cards and keep it completely clean – don’t put anything on it. If there is an emergency you’ll need the full amount (In 2011 I got stranded in New York with the ash cloud, and only had a £1000 limit on my credit card, and very little in the way of reserve funds. Although I eventually got money back from my airline I still had to pay upfront for everything and it was really tricky and very stressful).

Keep one of your credit cards, and possibly one of your debit cards as well, in your main bag and separate to the other two. Also, always have at least 100 USD in cash on you (the easiest to change currency pretty much everywhere – and something that has saved me on numerous occasions when my cards weren’t working for whatever reason.)

Insurance

Get the best you can afford. End of story.

Take a particularly close look at the medical side of it, and if you can, get unlimited expenses.

I use Virgin Money Black Backpacker and really recommend it.

Planning

There aren’t now many places I wouldn’t go to solo for anything other than safety reasons, but if this is your first solo trip then think carefully about the sort of places you feel most comfortable in and start there. My first solo trip was to Copenhagen, and although this was actually by accident (read why here) it was the perfect starter trip for me as I love cities, especially small, walkable ones with lots of cosy cafes and ridiculously handsome men.

One of the hardest things I found at the beginning of my trip was waking up in the morning and not having any sort of structure to my day. When you are with people you all decide what you are going to do, and sometimes it can feel a little overwhelming to do this on your own. I got into the habit of roughly planning the next day over dinner the night before, and although it often went out of the window it was easier waking up with an idea of what to do. This is also why I think day and half day tours are a great idea when you’re just starting out. Cookery classes, food tours, culture tours and bike tours are all great for meeting other travellers, and giving you something to get going in the morning for.

Always book your first night AT LEAST in a new country.

Packing

Try to keep your bags as light as possible, and make sure you can move around fairly easily with them (something I sometimes struggle with). When you’re on your own there is no one to help you, and being able to walk 10 minutes or so to your guesthouse will keep your costs down a bit.

Here are a few things I always pack:

  • Soft silicone ear plugs (the best ones without a doubt. If you are planning on staying in dorms these are essential but are a life-saver, or sleep-saver, even if not).
  • Noise cancelling headphones. I bought mine after a horrendous 7 hour bus ride in Malaysia with a driver blaring Hindi pop so loud I couldn’t hear my Harry Potter audio book! Mine are super cheap market ones, but the next time I have a bit of spare money I’m getting a proper pair.
  • A clothes peg. Seriously the most useful thing I have with me. I use it for closing mosquito nets all the time, and for pegging together curtains that aren’t shutting out prying eyes.
  • Mooncup. See why here. (ladies only, obviously).
  • Head torch. So useful.
  • My iPad mini. I have a laptop with me but am a bit wary sometimes of getting it out in public places, especially as it is so important to me. I feel I can be much more relaxed with my iPad, and use it to read magazines over dinner, and listen to podcasts and audio books on long bus rides. I always make sure it has enough stuff on there to keep me entertained, including some comfort stuff, like episodes of the West Wing and those Harry Potter audio books (which seriously saved my sanity when I got horrendous food poisoning a few weeks ago).
  • Lots of rehydration salts and plenty of the medicines that I use. I check it every so often and replenish from Guardians etc. if needs be. If you get a bad case of the runs the last thing you’re going to want to do is run around pharmacies trying to find salts etc.
  • Wooden door stop – see why below.
  • Whistle – see why below.

Take photographs of all of your stuff before you leave and keep a photo of the outside and top of your checked baggage on your phone.

Eating out

Read this and just do it.

Looking after your stuff

When travelling between places I always keep everything important in one bag (wallet, phone, passport, laptop etc) and make that my priority. I often ask other travellers to keep an eye on my big bag while I go to the loo / buy snacks etc, but always keep my small bag with me.

(Side note, make sure you can squat with your smaller bag on your back as road side loos often have filthy floors and no door hooks. It bloody good for strengthening your thighs as well).

Make sure when flying, or even on long bus rides where you will be separated from your big bag, that you have things in your small bag you might need should it not arrive with you. See here for my thoughts on this when it happened to me (for the first time).

Keep a copy of your passport, and any visas etc. in your big bag, and send copies of both (and your insurance details) to yourself and a trusted family member or friend.

Looking after yourself

I’ve always shied away a bit from this topic on here, mainly because I’ve read so many “solo travel safety” blog posts that are, in my humble opinion, a load of bollocks. I particularly get annoyed when I see a load of gimmicky suggestions and then a link at the bottom to a blog post on “that time I got horribly drunk in Costa Rica and passed out on the beach”. However, the one that took the biscuit for me included the suggestion “don’t open your mouth because as soon as you do people know you are not a native speaker and you are vulnerable”. Seriously???? Don’t talk to anyone??? That’s your advice???? (Incidentally it was the same post which said this about eating solo).

So my first piece of advice is to talk to local people as much as possible (it’s also fun, and for me what travel is all about). On long bus / train rides I always try to befriend an older woman or two, and always spend time chatting to my guesthouse / homestay owners. I like knowing there are people looking out for me and that know my face. I also always get eating out suggestions from them, and if I’m feeling a bit insecure in a city / town will ask if there are any areas I need to avoid.

My second bit of advice is to not drink. I barely drank last year, and even when I did it was only ever one drink a night, and somewhere I felt pretty safe (like at my guesthouse, or with friends from home). I know that even after one glass of wine I’m not as switched on and as aware as I would be otherwise, and not drinking also means that I’m less likely to find myself in dangerous situations – like walking home down back allies at 3am for instance. This is obviously however a personal decision, but its something to think about.

My third I’ve already written about on here: take a self defence class.

I have a few safety rules which I try to stick to:

  • Never arrive in a new country after dark, and try to avoid arriving in new places after dark as well. You are at your most vulnerable when you are tired and disorientated and have all your stuff with you. If you do, or if you are arriving somewhere after a particularly long journey, then arrange for your guesthouse to pick you up at the station (In Vietnam this meant meeting you on the platform outside your carriage door – fantastic).
  • I only ever take tuk-tuks and motorbike taxis after dark. This might sound counterintuitive but I feel safer on them as I know I can get off should the driver decide to take me somewhere I don’t want to go, whereas you can get trapped in a car taxi (this is in part a reaction to a story I heard over ten years ago about three girls in Peru who took a taxi after dark and got taken to the middle of nowhere, and stripped of all their belongings at gun point). That being said I usually eat somewhere near my guesthouse at night, and go further afield for lunch during the day.
  • I trust my instincts and if I feel uncomfortable I’m not going to worry about being rude.
  • I almost always stay at small friendly guesthouses and hotels and make sure at least a few of the staff know my face.

Finally, I always have two things on me: a wooden doorstop and a whistle. The doorstop is for putting under guesthouse room doors that don’t feel particularly secure, and while I have to admit I didn’t actually use my whistle last year, it did make me feel more secure on a number of occasions. For instance on the overnight train from Ho Chi Minh to Hoi An, I found myself sharing a small compartment with three local men. The door locked from the inside, and I was also repeatedly hassled by the (drunk) train conductor who kept asking me to “love him”. The train was packed and there was nowhere else I could go, so I held my whistle in my hand and although I didn’t manage to get much sleep I did feel a bit safer.

I personally think SE Asia is one of the safest areas to travel around, and there are other things that I’ve done in other parts of the world to keep myself, and my belongings safe. In South America for instance I carried a dummy wallet and would NEVER get a taxi after dark on my own. In Nairobi I didn’t even leave my guesthouse after dark, and kept a card and most of my money in my bra (in a small plastic wallet to guard against sweat).

Health

For me, taking care of my health is part of staying safe. I know if I’m over tired, hungry and dehydrated I won’t make very good decisions. So try to get enough sleep (treat yourself to private rooms occasionally if staying in dorms) and always make sure you plenty of snacks with you on long journeys. If you are getting worn out then head somewhere quiet for a few days and rest up.

Budget

Get this app, and be know that solo travel is more expensive than travelling in a couple.

 

PHEW that was a long post. I really hope if you are about to start travelling solo, or already on your way, you find this useful. Let me know!

If you’ve travelled solo before, what advice to you give to fellow solo travellers? 

1 Comment

  1. Jaklien Van Melick July 22, 2016 / 3:47 pm

    I travel on my own a lot and if I am really honest, I like it better that way… 😉

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