19 Hacks for Mastering Solo Travel
A little secret about solo travel? You may be by yourself, but you're never the only singleton. In fact, solo excursions are nearly commonplace; almost 24 percent of travelers took a leisure trip overseas on their own last year, according to the Visa Global Travel Intentions study.
In the last four years, I've explored twelve cities in eight countries on four continents by myself. I've delved into natural wonders, riding a camel under the moonlight through the Sahara Desert, cruising through the panoramic beauty of Norway's fjords, and snorkeling with penguins in the Galapagos Islands. Others experiences were more culturally enriching, like seeing a modern take on Romeo and Juliet at the grandiose Royal Swedish Opera in Stockholm and indulging in afternoon tea at the Crooked House in Windsor. And still others were about the journey itself, like a wellness retreat in Massachusetts where I got lost in a yoga class while watching the sunrise over the Berkshires.
While you may board your flight by yourself, not knowing anyone at your destination naturally forces you to open up to others. In fact, single travelers seem to share an unspoken code, helping one another out (when luggage on a flight to Latin America didn't arrive, for example) and respecting each other's travel habits (my Morocco tour group was already helping me style my food shots before touching their meals by day two).
Whether fueled by a search of self-discovery, recovery from personal trauma, or simply traveling without the hassle of coordinating schedules, budgets, and interests with family and friends, a solo sojourn can be liberating. To soften any turbulence while flying solo, check out these tips and tricks for being savvy on the road alone.
Grab a Hotel's Business Card
As soon as you check in, pick up a card or brochure with the hotel’s name and address (and ideally a map) on it. This way if you get lost, you can quickly flash the card to a cab driver, so you’ll always find your way back. If the lobby doesn’t have a card, ask the front desk to write down the name and address for you.
Pack light—and Then Remove Three More Items
Do a test run at home and make sure you can comfortably carry all your baggage on your own. There may be times you have to navigate tricky situations (and staircases) quickly, and the last thing you want to be doing is struggling with your bags by yourself. No one’s keeping track of whether you wore the same outfit two (even three!) days in a row so only pack what you really need.
Buy a Concert Ticket
Since taking in live music and theater doesn’t involve conversing, it’s perfect solo entertainment. Look into the schedules of landmark venues, like the Sydney Opera House or New York’s Carnegie Hall to both tour and experience sites during their peak performances. Over a weekend in Vienna, I befriended Maria von Trapp at Volksoper’s Sound of Music production, and the next evening, I explored the inside of the grandiose Vienna State Opera with a ticket for Arabella. Snagging restricted view seats ahead of time allowed me to keep my options open with minimal loss—but in both cases, I went and was able to move over to an open full view seat.
Work With Companies That Cater to Singletons
As the number of solo travelers continues to grow, more companies are catering to the trend by eliminating single supplement fees. G Adventures and Intrepid both specialize in small group travel and will pair up single travelers of the same gender in rooms without extra charge. Exodus offers special departure dates specifically for single travelers, while Abercrombie and Kent guarantees individual travelers will get private accommodations each night.
Join a Free Walking Tour
Young locals in many cities lead complimentary daily tours, with optional donations at the end. The nature of the pay-what-you-can walks tends to attract solo travelers (about 25 percent on my Reykjavik and Austin tours were on their own, while an overwhelming 80 percent were in Stockholm and Quito), naturally creating an opportunity to connect with like-minded adventurers, anxious to bond for meals and outings. Bonus: Use the guides for tips about the local favorites du jour (I discovered tasty fish soup at Kajsas Fisk at a bargain price, thanks to my Stockholm guide).
Tip Well on Day One
Staying somewhere for more than one night? Find a particularly helpful employee and show him or her your appreciation with a generous tip. After doing so with a concierge who helped me with my luggage in Quito, he understood I was traveling alone. Every time I needed a cab or a restaurant reservation, he made me a priority—and also became my personal translator. I even found myself getting red carpet treatment at one of the city’s top restaurants, thanks to his call.
Leave Your Jewelery at Home
There’s no need to impress anyone but yourself, so leave your designer handbags and sparkly accessories behind. That includes your fancy camera, laptop, phone, and other things you might be waving around. One good option: switch to an older wallet or pop on an older cell phone case, so you’re less of a target for pickpockets.
Keep Cash on Hand
Even though credit cards are widely accepted these days, you don’t want to be caught without money when you’re alone. While the exact amount depends on your personal comfort level, splitting your cash up in various locations of your baggage will prevent a quick theft. Perhaps a few bills go in an envelope rolled into a pair of jeans and another gets tucked into a foldable shopping bag pouch. Consider investing in a money belt to store money and your passport while you’re on the go. Some normal-looking leather belts even have secret compartments to make your cash less obvious.
Take Your Vitamins
It’s bad enough being sick in bed at home alone, so prevent yourself from getting stuck in that situation on the road by yourself. Take your multivitamins daily, pack zinc to boost your immune system, and bring familiar cold and allergy pills with you, so you don’t have to navigate a foreign pharmacy while feeling under the weather.
Wipe Everything Down
Take prevention one step further and use antibacterial wipes on any surface you’ll be in contact with for extended periods of times, like airplane cabins and hotel toilet seats. On a train between Salzburg and Vienna, an older couple chuckled and gave me a thumbs up while I was cleaning the seat and window area. Nowadays, the trend is starting to catch on and I get less looks—and less sicknesses.
Bond with the Traveling Community
Whether or not you like staying in hostels, tap into the local ones for activities and a built-in community. Meet-up groups may be more expat-oriented, but most groups open their arms to anyone looking to connect. During a Thanksgiving away in Ecuador, I discovered both hostels and meet-ups offering home-cooked meals for Americans to celebrate the tradition away from home.
Learn the Language
Not having anyone that speaks your native language will force you to dive into the local dialects, even if just for a few key phrases. Practice with an app like Duolingo so that you don’t find yourself, you know, turning headfirst into an exit driveway.
Schedule Rest Stops
After racing around Scandinavia for two days, I found myself lying on the bed with my legs up the wall. I realized that in those 48 hours, minus meals, I hadn’t even stopped for a coffee break. Thus, I took a “day off” and indulged in a different sort of local culture at Stockholm’s Central Badet, a bathhouse built in 1904. Fresh feet and a clear mind put me back on track to enjoy the rest of the trip.
Embrace the #latergram
Traveling alone may increase that urge to constantly post photos and updates on social media in order to share the experiences. But the Tower of London isn’t going anywhere—and neither are your photos. Live in the moment and post in the afterglow. #Latergram all you want—no one knows what minute you were there but you. Plus, delaying posts will prevent strangers from knowing your location at any given moment.
Bring a Comfort Item
For those nights when it can get lonely in the room, bring a little treat from home. Whether it's an episode of your favorite TV show to watch on your phone or a popular hometown snack, having something familiar will help overcome homesickness in your downtime.
Keep Your Ears Open
Listen for anyone speaking your mother tongue. You may find fellow tourists to exchange practical tips with (like the fellow New Yorkers I ran into who directed me to a charming rooftop bar in South America) or run into a local who can help you out of sticky situations (like the English-speaking Moroccan who made multiple calls to my Marrakech riad to make sure I'd be picked up in my cab at a given intersection).
Map Out a Plan
Do your homework and have a sense of the general geography, main attractions, and local eats, but don’t just pick up the latest tour book on the city. Since you’ll be relying on yourself, read up on the weather conditions, special events, and political climate for your time there so that you’ll appear informed to the locals and be prepared for any possible detours. Forcing yourself to create an itinerary will also help you strategize timing so you don’t end up at the Musée D’Orsay in Paris on a Monday (when it’s closed) or miss Buenos Aires' Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo walk, which happens every Thursday.
Find Mealtime Entertainment
Dining alone can be the most challenging part of traveling. While street food and grocery store meals will fill your tummy, don’t let the stigma of occupying one side of the table exclude you from experiencing restaurant culture altogether. If studying up on the next day’s itinerary or scouring attraction brochures doesn’t do the trick, grab a seat at the bar where you can keep busy by watching the bartender at work or a window seat where you can people watch as you eat.
Take Advantage of Solo Benefits
Reap the rewards of not having a plus one by waving your solo traveler flag when needed. I’ve sped to the front of Walt Disney World’s Mission: Space ride in 10 minutes by using the single riders line at EPCOT, got a single last-minute tenth row seat to a sold-out New York City Beacon Theater concert for 65 percent off, and settled into a cozy 42 square-foot single room at Berlin’s Circus hotel at a fraction of the price, all thanks to being alone.