A First-Timer's Thoughts on Travelling Solo
Updated: Mar 11, 2021
When I first posted about travelling solo to Copenhagen and Malmö on Instagram, the comments I received from other women on the subject really resonated with how I felt before I took the leap to travel alone for the first time. They spoke of feeling daunted by the idea but wanting to try it anyway; of digging deep for the courage to go explore under their own steam. Since then I've wanted to put some thoughts together about how I prepared for the trip, what it taught me, and why I think everyone should give solo travel a try at least once. My experience gave way to so many positives, such as lessons in self-discovery and shifts in self-confidence that I will forever be grateful for. There were definitely some misadventures too, so hopefully this provides a nicely balanced account! Although I'm portraying this from a female perspective, my aim is for everyone to find a point of reference that speaks to them. And as I am by no means a solo travel pro, I'll also be sharing some further reading and resources at the end of this post...
I want to address my privilege at this point, as being a white Western woman undeniably makes travelling - particularly travelling solo - an easier process for me than it is for my BIPOC peers. For instance: I don't have to Google if a destination is safe to visit for someone of my race. As a white person, I benefit from a racially biased system and the legacies of white-supremacist regimes every day. I don't have to think twice about how easy it is to move through the world as a Caucasian, which is the ugly reality of white privilege in action. By travelling, I exercise and take advantage of this privilege whether I like it or not, and I'm working on ways that I can contribute to dismantling that.
A FIRST-TIMER'S THOUGHTS ON TRAVELLING SOLO
BEFORE YOU GO
1) Take some time to think things through. And by that, I don't mean talk yourself out of it! The very opposite, in fact. At this point it's possible that you've already poured a lot of time and hard work into deciding whether or not to follow this path, so take a minute to energise yourself. Build yourself up. Celebrate your bravery, curiosity, defiance and tenacity in wanting to travel solo in the first place. Recognise your objectives, your dreams, your expectations, and your fears; give them all equal attention. Reflect on why adventuring alone is important to you, what you hope to get out of it, and how you'll go about seeking that. Consider what experiences you aspire to have and what lessons, knowledge or skills you're keen to absorb along the way. Doubt may nibble at your heels and that is only natural, because travelling solo for the first time is a big deal. But you can be mindful of those doubts without being consumed by them. Hear them, then evaluate how rational they are. Cross-examine them. Counter-argue them. How many ambitions have we allowed to whither because we were too afraid to give them life? There is a very human paradox in this; we dampen our desires because we believe the timing or conditions will never be optimal for them to survive. When in reality, the timing and conditions are always optimal. We just have to be bold enough to jump in...
2) Do your research. People choose to travel solo for a multitude of reasons; it could be because their would-be companions aren't able to make the same commitments as them, because they want to challenge themselves and advance their personal development, or because they feel compelled to escape the limitations of the everyday. For me, I found myself with some extra holiday-time on my hands. So I figured; why not push my boundaries and kick anxiety's hairy bum in one satisfying swoop, whilst proving I could achieve it utterly independently!? Whatever your motivation, the preliminary research phase is super-crucial. Do some myth-busting about the realities of solo travel. Discover for yourself how best to tackle any bored or lonely patches you slide into and remember they will be temporary. Know that it won't always be simple or perfect - and it certainly won't always be glamorous - but it will ultimately change your life irrevocably. Read articles, visit websites, listen to podcasts, make moodboards, watch videos, ask around; but pick your sources wisely! I would recommend reaching out to seasoned solo travellers on social media whose advice you trust and who have actually been to the destinations you're attracted to. There is a lot of fear-mongering out there - especially where solo females are concerned - so learn to sniff out what is genuine from what isn't and shape your own informed opinions. For example: when I was researching my day trip to Malmö from Copenhagen, I stumbled across a lot of negative press warning travellers to stay away from the city. According to what I read, Malmö was supposedly violent and unsafe. But then I delved deeper, and came to the conclusion that this negativity was largely rooted in xenophobic attitudes towards the local multicultural community. So staying true to my gut feeling, I went to Malmö anyway. Whilst I can only speak for myself, I ultimately felt totally at ease there and encountered no problems other than my own logistical failings (which I'll come to in a bit)..!
3) Decide on your destination(s) and prepare for them. Like with the fear-mongering I just mentioned, you're bound to get some fairly dire unsolicited input when it comes to selecting your solo travel destinations, with people warning you about how "lawless" and "dangerous" certain places are. Women especially are fed so much toxicity about the perils of travelling solo that it's a wonder any of us do it at all. That's not to say we shouldn't be on our guard. but we do just need to be smart and call out patriarchal bias masquerading as concern wherever we see it. Yes, solo travel isn't without its risks, but the same can be said of a lot of things - so don't let anyone's cautionary tales stop you. If we only paid heed to the scary "what-ifs" in life, none of us would ever do anything we wanted to! All we can do whilst on the road is stay savvy, open-minded, alert, and hope that the majority of people we come across know to respect a women's personal space.
When opting for where to go, regardless of your gender, remember to ask yourself the following questions: is the area generally regarded as tourist-friendly? What do the Foreign Office guidelines say about travelling there? Is it easy to get around? I chose Copenhagen for my solo city break because it was somewhere I'd always wanted to visit, it was known for being welcoming, it wasn't too far from the UK for a first-time solo female British traveller, and because it presented an effortless opportunity to travel to two countries in one sitting - given its close proximity to Sweden via the Øresund Bridge. It wasn't an exceptionally drastic option nor a wild one, but it was nevertheless still a test for a gal who had never been outside her homeland alone before (except for a one-way flight to Vienna where I immediately met a friend and went interrailing). A lot of solo travellers choose Southeast Asia for their first adventure, whilst some just pick a different city or state in the country they live in. There is no right or wrong. It's about finding your own specific happy place between your comfort zone and the unknown. So don't push yourself too hard - you can always start small and branch out further next time. And once you've settled on your destinations, be sure to familiarise yourself with the following:
The local language basics. At the very very least, enough to say 'hello', 'please' and 'thank you'. 'Table for one' is also handy.
Customs and culture. Do you need to dress more modestly, or avoid certain gestures and behaviours? The golden rule of travel is that you show respect for your hosts, so read up on these things now to spare any offence later.
Accommodation options. Depending on where you go, an Airbnb can sometimes be cheaper than staying in a hostel. Either way, read the ratings and reviews to help you weigh up factors like location, cleanliness and value for money. Because "budget" doesn't have to mean "basic". In Copenhagen I chose an 8-bed, en-suite female dorm at Urban House - which I had completely to myself for the first two nights! Your accommodation will likely be the centre of where and how you make the majority of your connections on the road, so bear this in mind whilst making your bookings. Do you thrive off company and see yourself regularly socialising until sunrise? Or are you an introvert (like me) who prefers shorter bursts of social activity in smaller groups? These are all significant things to mull over. I know a lot of long-term travellers also like to treat themselves to a hotel stay every now and again, so that might be another little idea for you to ponder!
Living costs. How much do groceries cost where you're going? What is the price of a bus ticket, a roll of loo paper, a prescription, a night out? Get thinking about your budget as early as possible, and whether it might be worth picking up odd jobs along the way to top up what you spend.
The boring (but vital) grown-up stuff. Does your passport have enough months left on it? Have you found out if you require any visas or vaccinations? Have you got travel insurance? Spoiler alert: the answer to these questions should always be "YES HANNAH, STOP NAGGING!"
4) Build your back-up pack. When life gives you lemons, make limoncello! Nothing is ever plain-sailing, and that's to be expected. If we're out of our comfort zones and far from home, the little inconveniences or misfortunes that befall us all occasionally might feel trickier to swallow than usual. Whilst we can't control everything that comes at us (it would be dull if we could), we can still take precautions and be proactive in finding mitigations to help soothe any blows we are served whilst travelling. So here's a few suggestions for your explorer's back-up pack:
The correct power adaptor for where you're going. This might sound blatantly obvious, but it's a faux pas I made in Copenhagen! I got to my hostel and realised that the adaptor I'd always used in mainland Europe didn't fit the sockets in my dorm. So I had to quickly find a replacement, which I ended up paying much more for than I'd have liked - but it was my own fault.
Offline maps. Again, I speak from experience. When I crossed the border into Sweden for the day, my phone didn't adjust to being in a new country the whole time I was in Malmö. I couldn't make calls, send texts or use the internet - meaning I had to rely on a good old paper map from the tourist office to get me around. And actually, it was quite fun once I'd stopped worrying about not being able to use my phone! But next time, I will definitely be downloading an offline map.
A wireless charger. A great back-up if you don't have the right power adaptor (who does that!?) and also if you're out exploring for hours at a time chomping your battery life by taking lots of snaps and using mapping apps. Check me out with my rhyming advice.
A roaming mobile data package. Even if you're the kind of traveller who likes to go away and completely unplug from the noise of normality, I would still recommend getting a basic international data add-on for your phone in case of emergencies. Although most contracts for mobiles these days include free data, texts and calls across a number of different countries, it is worth checking first what your coverage entitles you to.
Contingency funds. Whatever my trip budget is, I try to ensure I have at least 10% more in my savings to cover unforeseen expenses (like buying a new plug adaptor!). But I made another booboo in Malmö by not exchanging enough Danish krone to Swedish krona, so I was very selective about what I did and ate in Malmö in an attempt to conserve what I had in the absence of a bank card. You never know what could crop up, so it's best to keep a little extra aside if possible.
Contingency bank cards. When I visited Copenhagen, I was very retro and would only use cash abroad as it wasn't cost-effective for me to use my card. These days I mainly use Monzo when I travel, but take my main card away with me as well in case (heaven forbid) my bag or Monzo were to get stolen. I would recommend taking at least one back-up card with you overseas if you have it, or have something like Apple Pay or Android Pay set up on your phone. Remember: if you do take multiple cards or payment methods on your travels, do not keep them all in the same place.
A padlock, or two. Your accommodation should have a safety deposit box, locker, or a personal cupboard you can securely lock at the bare minimum. Take a couple of padlocks with you when you go so that you have one to lock away your valuables and another for the zip on your bag, which brings me on to...
A secure bag for daily use. I like to wear a bag that (A) has a zipper and (B) sits across my body, rather than over my shoulders. I try and choose something fairly compact and lightweight as chunkier bags could give off the impression that there are bigger, more expensive belongings in them (like a laptop or tablet). It's also not good to carry too much weight all day!
Photocopies of important documents. Passport, visas, vaccination certificates, driving licence - if you think it's important, get it photocopied! I know it all sounds like a right faff, but I promise you it is worth it. This could really help alleviate the personal cost to you should a bag, wallet or purse be stolen or lost.
Hard copies of useful phone numbers and addresses. Your next of kin, local emergency services, your accommodation, the nearest hospital, embassies, reputable cab firms, and whatever else you can think of. Fingers crossed you'll never need them, but it doesn't hurt to have them written down and stuffed in a sock or something!
5) Map out your journey and itinerary (but not too much). Despite being a natural planner, perfectionist and control freak, even I know that you cannot - and should not - plan every hour of your day. You have to leave room for serendipity and spontaneity; there'll be places you fall in love with and want to spend more time in, or potentially want to leave sooner than you'd bargained for. So when you're coordinating your itinerary, prioritise these few things then aim to leave the rest up to Mother Universe as much as you can:
For my own peace of mind I like to arrive somewhere during daylight hours, even when I'm not travelling solo. New places seem infinitely more intimidating in the dark, so save yourself the added stress by grabbing an earlier flight/train/bus/ferry.
Know in advance precisely how you'll get to your accommodation from the transport hub you arrive into, step-by-step. From Copenhagen Airport, I worked out I had to get a train to the Central Station and that my hostel was just a short walk from there. What I didn't count on, however, was there being more than one exit from the train station. So I ended up walking down completely the wrong street for quite a while before looping back in a big old circle to finally reach my destination!
Make a note of all your must-see, must-do, non-negotiable sights, activities and excursions in each place and group them together by location. That way, you can manage your days more wisely by concentrating on one specific geographical spot at a time.
Calculate your route from one base to another. So if you're staying in Luang Prabang for two weeks before moving on to Hanoi, it would be useful to know the distance and how long it will approximately take you depending on the transport link you opt for.
6) Share your plans with family and friends. It's inevitable your tribe will worry about you gallivanting off across the planet, and they only mean well - so if your mum wants to fuss over you and make you a special cake and do your ironing before you go, lean into it! Arrange pre-trip meets with all your favourite people and share with them your plans for the next few days/weeks/months. By doing this, it could help solidify for you the EPIC-NESS of what you're about to embark on and pep you up just when you need it. It could also help them understand your reasoning for wanting to travel solo and ease their apprehension if they see how passionate you are about going. Tell them success stories of other travellers who inspire you and show them photos of where you're intending to go. Give them copies of your itinerary and accommodation info too so that someone always knows roughly where you'll be. When departure day comes, you may find it tough leaving your loved ones behind - but stand firm and don't let it shake you. You have come so far already and you've not even gone anywhere yet!
7) GET EXCITED!!! Arguably the most important one, and pretty self-explanatory. So pack your bags (be ruthless; pack light), buy some comfy walking shoes and curate that roaming playlist because you're about to do something amazing! Don't look back, 'cause you ain't going that way...
WHILE YOU'RE THERE
So - you've landed in your destination safe, sound and full of anticipation. You've done the hardest part; those endless months of saving, soul-searching, researching, planning, euphoria and panic all converge right here. Where do you go now? Onwards, my friend; onwards.
One of the many beauties of solo travel is that everyone's experience of it is deliciously unique. We will each draw something different from it every time, but there are a handful of hallmarks to adventuring alone that are universally applicable. I think it'd be beneficial to unpack some of those together, so that we can further demystify the nitty-gritty of solo travel. Then, when the time comes, with any luck you'll feel a little more ready for whatever comes at you...
Solitude. Spending so much time with just me, myself and I was one of the big stumbling blocks I hit before I went to Copenhagen. As any anxiety warrior will tell you, time alone can catalyse cascades of unwelcome thoughts - so I was worried about being overwhelmed by it all while I was away. But I was astounded by how calm I felt as soon as I settled in. I was like a butterfly, freshly emerged from its chrysalis, deriving so much joy from my surroundings that any doubt I did have was forgotten and fell away. Even dining alone - something I was truly dreading in the pit of my stomach - turned out to be quite lovely! So embrace having this time with yourself; you may find it's like reconnecting with an old friend you drifted apart from. I honestly believe there is no better framing for self-discovery (and rediscovery) than exploring somewhere new. It gently coaxes you to get comfortable in your own skin, and you could be surprised by how pleasant that feels. If it does get a bit intense at any point, think about what your coping strategy would be at home and remember your feelings are valid. Watch some Netflix, get some sleep, keep a journal, take a walk. If it's company you're craving, you'll never be far from someone who is happy to have a conversation. But solitude doesn't have to be as desolate as it sounds. It can be liberating, as it repositions you as the centre of your own world and shifts the focus towards your own enjoyment. It gives you back the power.
Empowerment. When you travel solo, there is only yourself to please. You and you alone are in control of your own time: no compromise, no constraints. You can literally do whatever you want and be whoever you want. How often are you able to say that!? So let the freedom of it invigorate you. If you want to go back to the same art gallery again and again, do that. If, like I did, you fancy trekking 15 miles around the city one day, go for it. You want to eat a bucket of fried chicken for breakfast? Eat the bloody chicken! You are the sole decision-maker now. Everything is on your terms. You can be as impulsive and self-indulgent as you like. But empowerment is not only a by-product of living your best traveller life; it can also be brought on by facing your fears and following your instincts...
Making connections. This was another element of travelling solo that I was anxious about, because I usually find small-talk unbearably awkward and am constantly worried I make a terrible first impression! Being a typical introvert and INFJ-T personality, I find socialising quite draining in large doses which can make me retreat into myself and appear a bit aloof. But, again, I was shocked by how unencumbered by anxiety I felt once I got going. My cynicism became a distant memory as I struck up conversations with other travellers in the hostel corridors and exchanged pleasantries with strangers sat opposite me in food halls. I shared stories with my dormmates, chatted to fellow passengers on sight-seeing boats and asked baristas for their recommendations of things to do. When you're travelling alone, you'll often find that people organically gravitate towards you, locals and wayfarers alike. They'll want to help you or hear your stories. So whether you're searching for human connection or you happen upon it by accident, be open to finding everywhere.
Wellbeing. It's important to me that you feel encouraged and well-prepared for anything by the end of this post, so here's what you can do to help yourself feel less exposed and more comfortable while you're away; content in the knowledge that you've got everything covered:
1) Always keep your phone charged up. Take a charger out with you, and ensure you have the add-ons required in order to make contact should you need to.
2) Listen to your body. If you really don't want to go somewhere or do something, trust in your own awareness.
3) When you're out exploring, keep your valuables locked away back at your accommodation or otherwise as inconspicuous as possible. i.e. phone in a concealed pocket when not in use.
4) It is beyond frustrating that we feel the need to change our behaviours because of a select few idiots out there, so I hate bringing this up, but do consider sticking to well-lit / well-populated routes where possible if you have to walk anywhere on your own in the dark.
5) Another one I hate to mention - but, if you do go out socialising, keep your drink in eyeshot at all times (even if it's just a softie) and drink responsibly.
6) Stay in touch. Always make sure someone knows where you are, whether it's someone back home or the concierge at your accommodation. You could even use Instagram Stories or Facebook to "check-in" at your location.
Problem-solving. No matter how much we want it to be, nothing is rainbows-and-unicorns all the time. With great power comes great responsibility, so your newly acquired self-sufficiency means dealing with both the pros of solo travel and the cons; the cons in this scenario being the unplanned and the unexpected (like getting lost on the way to your hostel, then finding out you have the wrong plug adaptor). These inconveniences are frustrating, time-consuming, and they could leave you lamenting your solo-traveller credentials; but do not despair! Problem-solving will unearth skills you never knew you had in your arsenal until that moment, even if taking the lead scares you out of your wits. You could come out the other side more confident, resilient and assertive than you were before; which will definitely feel rewarding once the dust settles. It also doesn't make you any less strong or independent if you ask someone for help - just sayin'.
Being present. One of the most valuable principles I picked up on my solo sojourn was to live more in the present moment. Anxious people are frequently characterised as being too preoccupied with the future, while those with depression tend to dwell in the past. I describe having anxiety as living through every situation three-times over; the version that actually happens, the version I fear will happen, and the version I wish had happened had I been able to get a grip of myself better. Travelling solo didn't cure me of that, but it did show me how freeing it is to just 'be'. Because I was so distracted wandering around Copenhagen like an awestruck child, it barely occurred to me until later that I wasn't staying so much in my own head as I normally did; I wasn't worrying about sticking out like a sore thumb or running through what could go wrong - I was just living in the now. I was relaxed yet attuned to my surroundings, and built a deeper, more intimate relationship with the place because of this state of mindfulness.
WHEN YOU RETURN
I'm not gonna lie, guys - post-travelling blues are definitely a thing. The comedown may be bumpy, but that can only be a testament to how special your trip was and the lasting impact it left on your senses. The best antidotes I've found are treating myself to a cute little meal when I get home, looking through photos and reliving memories, sharing my insights with others, then turning my thoughts to the next adventure! If your first solo-travelling experience taught you only one thing, hopefully it's to dream it and do it. Carry that forward into your everyday; along with the increased confidence, new-found troubleshooting abilities and heightened intuition you've gained. Don't be afraid to take up more space - in your own life and in the world. When I returned from Copenhagen and Malmö, I noticed how my posture had pulled up and my stride had strengthened as I pounded the pavements in London. I wish the same for you, and invite you to ride that wave of empowerment into every corner of your being. Whilst the lingering glow of travelling solo will fade from your face eventually, it will still remain in your bones and sit there until that wanderlust comes a'calling again. Who knows what possibilities will await you then..?
EXTRA RESOURCES & READING
OTHER BLOGGERS & CONTENT CREATORS ON SOLO TRAVEL
This is not a complete list by any stretch - just a few of my faves!
Cassie The Hag: Cassie is a lady after my own heart: a self-confessed introvert and fellow anxiety warrior, still travelling in spite of it all. She is currently living in New Zealand and has been travelling solo for two years. There is a whole section of her blog dedicated to solo travel, including how to take great photos of yourself when travelling alone - which I really could have done with in Copenhagen as the only photo I have of me is a terrible selfie!
Where Goes Rose?: Having initially started travelling for fun, Rose has since carved out a niche for herself as the go-to girl for solo and foodie travel on a budget. Her digital nomad lifestyle in Mexico may have been briefly interrupted by the pandemic, but her blog still blossoms with plenty of inspiration, ideas and recommendations.
The Blog Abroad: Under the handle @glographics on Instagram, Glo creates what she calls unifying resources: infographics, guides and prompts addressing anti-racism in the travel space as well as global society. She recently rounded up the most Black-friendly countries and most racist countries in the world, which could prove very useful in the planning of your next trip.
Oneika The Traveller: Oneika has so many strings to her proverbial bow - she is an award-winning blogger, a media personality, journalist and keynote speaker who has travelled to over 100 countries worldwide. She is especially passionate about encouraging more women to travel and about the Black travel experience, using her hugely successful platform as a means of activism.
Finding Alexx: When I first started following Alexx, she had just embarked on a seriously wanderlust-inducing project which involved travelling to a different country every week for a whole year based on the cheapest flight available. Like all of us, coronavirus intervened and brought Alexx's adventures to an abrupt pause - but only for now. Her blog is absolutely fab and chock-full of itineraries, things to do, reviews and solo travel know-how.
If you're unsure about taking the plunge and going fully solo, travelling as part of a group could be the best of both worlds for you. These companies run tours in destinations all over the world specialising in adventure travel, whilst connecting individuals with a like-minded, intimate community.
Flashpack - for solo travellers in their 30s and 40s looking for adventure and/or escape.
Contiki - bringing together world travellers through unique and immersive experiences.
G Adventures - adventurous small-group travel experts with options including marine tours, local living and rail tours.
Nomad & Jules - small tours and bespoke trips to gorgeous places like Jordan, Morocco and Oman.
If you want to see more of what I got up to in Copenhagen, follow @littleanxiousexplorer and check out my Copenhagen highlights.