Top 10 Tips For A Solo Female Traveler
All right ladies, you’ve been waiting for your friend to come through on his promise to take vacation days. Your sister said she’d go with you to Ecuador as soon as she can save enough money. Your best friend from college constantly talks about your upcoming Southeast Asian adventure. And yet none of them will bite the bullet and put their money where their mouth is.
Too many of us spend our lives waiting to live. If you’re at all like me, at some point you’ll become too tired of waiting and you’ll decide to start living on your own. In June of 2009, I bought my first airplane ticket for a solo journey. My destination: the cheapest flight out of Newark to the farthest land possible. The cost: $300. A month later, my two feet hit Panamanian soil running.
Here are my top ten tips for when, not if, you get the courage to travel on your own. This advice will help you navigate one of the most rewarding and liberating experiences you could imagine.
1) Know Your Country
Respect the local laws of the land. This rule is easy to do, but you’d be surprised at how many travelers botch it. Any guidebook will tell you about the local customs, dress code, tipping rules, etc . . . Do research before you depart so you are comfortable, safe and respectful once you’re on foreign soil. After all, you don’t want to be turned away from that temple that you flew 5,000 miles to see because you threw on a tank top that morning and forget your shawl, do you?
2) Must-Pack Items
There are a few items that I always carry with me while traveling solo. Some are for social purposes, while others are for serious situations.
You never know when a new pal will need a light. I’m not saying smoking cigarettes is the healthy way to go, but it’s always nice when someone leans in to light your cigarette and starts up a conversation. You also never know when you’ll need to start a fire or light up your path on your way back to your beach cabana through the jungle.
Laugh all you want, but many parts of the world you’ll travel in won’t have lighted paths. Or you may find yourself sitting in a circle in the woods with new pals. Headlamps are key, coveted and very light and easy to pack. They are also clearly way more effective than a lighter.
You can buy them in most countries, but you’ll never know when the girl next to you on the bus will be in need of one. It’s an instant way to help a sister out when she’s in a pinch on that 12-hour overnight bus from Lijiang to Kunming.
Pure safety here ladies. Put it on your keychain and carry it with you at all times. I carry mine wherever I go. Luckily, I’ve never had to use it for emergency situations, but it can act as an impromptu instrument in random jam sessions as well.
Have a bunkmate who snores? Kid behind you on the train? Losing your hearing from the rumblings of the airplane jet? Earplugs have been my saviors on nearly every trip I’ve taken.
Traveling can get you all disoriented when going across time zones. You never know when you will want to conk out for a bit or when your hostel mates will stumble in late at night and forget to turn your dorm light off. No need to get angry, you are sleeping like a baby thanks to your earplugs and eye mask!
Make sure you bring one with an alarm. Small, portable and a lifesaver when you’ve got to get up at 5 a.m. to catch that bus.
3) Keep in Touch
The first order of business whenever I land in a foreign country is to buy a used cell phone and pre-charged SIM card. This can be kind of difficult if you don’t speak the language, but the art of pantomime can go a long way. Ask the local hostel owner where you can go to buy a used phone and if they can write down how to ask for it. Or, better yet, go with someone from the hostel who will come with you and help. The most I’ve ever spent for a used phone and card was USD$25. I’ve bought phones in China, Thailand and Panama the first day upon arrival and they have come in handy many times.
First, the phone allows my Mom to know that she can contact me whenever. For that reason only, having the cell is key. Peace of mind for Mom is priceless.
Second, the phone allows you to make a ton of local calls, which is really important when you are on the road consulting your guidebook and dead-set on a certain hostel at your next destination.
Third, it allows you to get the numbers of other fellow travelers while you are roaming and exploring. I once got the number of a girl in Panama City, fell deathly ill in a northern province, texted her to see if her path had taken her nearby and found out that she was just a few blocks away. This one simple connection allowed me to reach out to a friend in a desperate time when I had the worst food poisoning on the planet. The medical clinic had no potable water or toilet paper. She was there within 10 minutes with socks, Gatorade and, you guessed it, toilet paper. I also had a hand to hold as I thought I was dying.
Fourth, the phone will allow you to call your health insurance provider if you need to be evacuated.
4) Limit the Drinks
Hopefully, at this point in your life, you know your limits. Feel free to throw back a drink or two, but always keep your eye on your beverage. Traveling alone is not a good time to get completely wasted. Unless you’ve made some serious friends over your journey that you know you can count on, I simply don’t recommend it. It’s best to have your wits about you. Save your boozing nights for when you are back home with your friends who you know will always have your back.
5) Hone Your Horny Guy Detection Skills
Lots of guys on the road are lonely. And they are still dudes. Some are absolutely great and you can count on to be friends, and then some simply want more from you in your brief moment of passing. Hone your skills in identifying these guys and try to avoid them. It just isn’t worth it.
6) Pick Up Pals on Your Route
The glory of traveling alone is that you are never really alone unless you want to be. There is the proverbial “Gringo Trail” that most backpackers follow. Check into a hostel, sit in the common area for a few hours and you’ll hear where people have been and where they are going next. Most likely, the next day a similar conversation will ensue.
I’ve found that making friends while out and exploring is easy: lean in with that lighter, ask to borrow a guidebook or use the generic “Where are you from?” line and the conversations will start flowing. When you meet people you click with, journey with them to the next destination. I once met two Scottish guys who ventured to the supermarket with me. After we shared a dinner, we decided to jump to the next destination together. One dinner then turned into two weeks. Whether lifelong friends or just a pal to hit the town with for the night out, reaching out to others is key to exploring.
7) Lock it Up
When you travel, you tend to bring some pretty pricey equipment with you, from laptops to cameras and everything in between. What is priceless, however, is the information stored on these devices.
First, photocopy your passport and scan it into a computer before you leave. E-mail the scan to yourself so that you can access it from the road and leave your passport in your big pack for most of your travels. Bring out a photocopy when you head to the bars — most countries won’t care it’s not an original.
Second, pick up two small combination locks before you leave on your trip. Designate one to use for your small valuables, such as your passport and camera. Most hostels provide small day lockers that you can easily throw these into when you are sleeping or lounging around.
The other lock is to be used for your actual backpack and your fancy new PacSafe Security Web. Throw out the key and lock it comes with and use a combo instead so you don’t have to carry a set of keys around and worry about losing them. Whenever you head out of the dorm, just throw the web over your bag and secure it to your bunk. Knowing your stuff is safe allows you to go out and explore carefree!
8) The Art of Journaling
Speaking of worrying, ladies, we tend to worry way too much. You know its true! Whether it’s money, that boy you left back home, where your life is going or if you left your hair straightener plugged in while jetting off to the airport, we worry about the big and the small. Worrying is a learned behavior and unproductive, causing undue stress on the brain and the body. I’ve had many girlfriends tell me that they couldn’t stop worrying about things at home while they were lounging on the beach in St. Croix sipping a Corona. It’s a common problem and isn’t something to be ashamed of, however, it is something that you should tackle head-on.
Bring a journal and let it flow. Document your inner journey as you travel solo. Let your thoughts about things back home pour out from pen tip to paper. Journaling your thoughts can allow you to identify what is stressing you out and what you can do about it. And then you can leave it on the paper so it isn’t fritzing out your brain.
Another benefit of journaling is recording your outer journey. This means what you see, hear, taste, smell and touch on your daily excursions. I don’t suggest writing it down like prose, but I do suggest keeping notes about tiny observations. What thoughts did you have while watching old people work out on China’s outdoor public gymnasiums? What was the exact location of that delicious bibimbap stall at Seoul’s GwangJin Market? Impress your pals who may be venturing to Seoul down the road by referencing your handy journal. (Curious on the answer? It’s Eastern A Stall #37 — thanks journal!)
Removing yourself from the world of technology is an absolutely amazing feeling. No more notifications, beeps, bloops or whistles. No more glowing halo of a computer screen. Simply, it is a life without false interruption.
Notify your contacts at home where you’ll be venturing, with whom and your anticipated return date, and then head somewhere with no cell service and no Internet cafes. If you can’t, put yourself on a technology diet and leave your laptop behind and turn your local cell phone off. If you do this for at least three days you’ll get over the compulsive need to check your e-mail that all too many of us have and will allow you to envelop yourself in silence. Before you know it, you’ll be awakened by the sound of howler monkeys in Panama or a rooster in Lijiang, China. Who needs an alarm when you’ve got nature?
10) Know Yourself
We all have our limits: embrace yours. Traveling solo is a good time to push yourself to discover new things, but if something doesn’t feel right, don’t do it. Female intuition is a very powerful thing and it’s important to go with your gut. Does a taxi driver seem sketchy: Don’t get in. Are you really uncomfortable with the thought of a zipline and are just tagging along because you don’t want to be alone at the hostel: Don’t go. Pick up a book or your journal, walk to a local café and go and find an alternative.
Traveling is all about exploring and learning new things, but don’t do anything that just doesn’t sit right with you. It’s important to know yourself. You’ll be surprised at what you do and don’t do on your solo adventure, and when you return, you’ll have an even deeper knowledge of who you are, what you stand for and what path you want to take next.
By Sandy Kreis
[Feature photo by Sandy Kreis; Girl in Egypt by Coleman Yoakum/Flickr]
About the Author
Sandy is a classy broad with a dash of hippie. She spent life in many cubicles before finding the courage to strap on her backpack and travel solo. Now, she writes about these epic journeys and life in general as a 20-something nobody. Sandy is not afraid to try new things (like eating ant larvae in Laos), has an undying love for the written word (seriously!), possesses a strong immune system (a survivor of cholera) and loves collecting people along her way (now that’s a genuine statement).