Solo travel has really made its way into my life in the past few years, whether by choice or simply because I can’t find someone to join me on my latest (often semi-spontaneously planned) adventure. From my first solo trip to the PRSSA Conference to a week in Belgium and the Netherlands, I’ve discovered that the worst part isn’t being by myself—for me at least. In fact, traveling without accommodating for what others want to visit or eat can be completely liberating. I can do things like go to a french fry museum without wondering if the people I’m with really want to be there. I have discovered, however, that feeling alone is by far the worst part of traveling solo. In the spirit of Valentine’s Day, here’s some of my favorite ways to avoid feeling alone when traveling solo.
Offer to take someone’s photo
Okay, so that sounds a little creepy, but hear me out. Especially when I travel alone, I notice when groups are trying to take a picture with everyone in it. Things are a little different because of the popularity of selfies, but the fault in selfies is that they often cut out large chunks of the background. I often offer to take the picture.
Sometimes they’ll decline, but there’s no shame in that. I’ve noticed that when they do accept the offer, they are usually extremely gracious. To top off your feeling of doing a good deed, these people usually offer to take your picture in exchange…especially if someone in the group notices that I am by myself. I’ve found that these pictures almost always turn out better than they would if I just asked a stranger: maybe it’s the good karma or maybe there’s just a little extra effort because I just took the time to take their picture. See the one above…it’s one of the only pictures of me from a week long trip that I genuinely love.
Ask for recommendations from people you meet
It may seem like common sense, but ask everyone you meet for recommendations. Be it the person who just took your picture, the person who just sold you a museum ticket, or the front desk attendant at your hostel, you never know who might suggest the perfect quirky addition to your itinerary. When your traveling alone, you can push your train to Ghent back a few hours just because someone told you about a really cool bagel place that you simply cannot miss.
Join a tour group
I understand that group tours aren’t for everyone and they aren’t always for me either. However, there are times when a company planned trip, with no worries about transportation, picking a place to stay, and figuring out how long to stay in each place can be the best option. When I traveled to Egypt with Encounters Travel (and my dad), we joined a group tour of Americans and Australians. Among the group was a woman traveling solo, celebrating her fiftieth birthday…and her fiftieth country. She’s everything I want to be in a traveler: brave, confident, and caring. By the end of ten days, I felt so close to all the incredible people on the trip. We stayed together as long as we could, with the last of us saying final goodbyes at the baggage claim at JFK.
As I was getting ready to study abroad, Bus2Alps (a group tour company for students based in Florence and Rome) had an amazing 50% off sale for Black Friday. I didn’t know a single person who would be in Florence with me at that point, but I did know that I wanted to see Pompeii and the Blue Grotto. I was drawn in by the deal (there’s no way I could have done the trip on my own for less) and instantly added the Amalfi Coast to by bucket list as soon as I saw pictures. Once I was in Florence and became best friends and travel buddies with my roommate, I wasn’t too keen on going on a trip all by myself in a group of people traveling with their friends. Luckily I made friends with Amber and Maggie when we made a bathroom stop halfway through our five hour journey. We spent the next three days together and became instant friends. I even went to visit them in Perugia (where they were studying abroad) before the semester ended!
Stay at hostels…and talk to the people in your room
Hostels: good deal, sometimes a little scary. I was incredibly hesitant to stay in a group of complete strangers (by myself, in a foreign country) until I got to know hostel culture a little more. When I’m looking at hostels when I’m traveling solo, I pay extra attention to reviews and find a balance between saving money and staying safe. I also choose to stay in all female dorms—but that’s a personal choice that sometimes costs a few extra dollars.
The thing about hostels is that you can never even begin to guess with whom you’ll be sharing the room. During my solo trip through Belgium and the Netherlands, I mostly ended up with roommates that didn’t interact with me too much; I wasn’t staying in party hostel and definitely valued the ability to catch a good night of sleep, as I was often spending a day (sometimes less) in each city.
That being said, I wasn’t electing to be antisocial. About halfway through my trip, I had the best hostel experience of my life at the Stayokay Rotterdam. I was beyond excited to be spending the night in the famous cube houses. Rotterdam marked one more stop until Amsterdam, my last city. I arrived late at night and all I wanted to do was sleep after a stressful and lonely few days in Belgium. For about an hour, I was the only person in my room. Perfect: an early night to bed and an early morning so I could tour before heading to Amsterdam.
Shortly after I made those plans, a girl my age from Chile arrived. She was also traveling solo…and had been for more than a month. A few hours into our conversation, a lovely, grandmother-ly Dutch woman arrived. She was on her way to visit her son for Mother’s Day. The three of us talked and talked. Before I knew it, my early night to bed had disappeared, but I was reenergized regardless, thanks to good conversation and human contact. Oh, and we enjoyed a great breakfast together at the hostel the next morning.
And seriously, the cube houses were beyond cool from the inside. If you’re in Rotterdam, stay here a night just to experience the architecture. Did I mention that it was only $20 and incredibly clean?
Stay in touch with people at home
I gave up my phone plan in entirety during my semester abroad. I kept my phone on airplane mode and suspended my service. One of the amazing perks of the digital age is the ease of communicating…even when you don’t have a phone plan. WhatsApp gave me the ability to text and call home whenever I had wifi.
After four months, I was accustomed to living partially disconnected. I taught myself to travel mindfully, without the distraction of texts and calls and notifications when I was out and about. I did have to teach myself that it wasn’t a bad thing to take a little longer to get ready in the morning to text updates, and that it was worth staying up a little later so I could call home and make sure everyone at least knew what country I was in. For me, I need to talk to someone I know every once and awhile during solo adventures. Just because.
Join a online travel community
Ladies, if you aren’t a member of the all-female travel community Girls LOVE Travel on Facebook, do yourself a favor…go join it, I’ll wait.
Perfect, now you’re part of support system of 700,000+ women. GLT women always post the best suggestions and with a community so large, there’s people from quite literally all over the world offering tips. I’ve learned new secrets on how to find flights. I’ve found the best tapas restaurant in Barcelona and the bar where Hemingway used to drink in Paris. I’ve watched as these complete strangers embrace each other to comfort (both online and in-person) women who have been injured, fallen ill, or were abused during their travels. There is no other word to describe these women other than inspiring and uplifting.
Men…I’m sure there’s options out there for you too.
Journaling or Reading
It might not be the same as dining with someone, but I found that journaling for the day during lunch and dinner (or at least while waiting for my food) is a way for me to not feel alone…and it makes it a little more likely that I would actually journal, instead of bailing out at the end of the day.
I like to journal into my phone during the day (so I don’t have to worry about carrying my notebook), but I do sometimes carry a book with me. As I journeyed in Belgium and the Netherlands, I read Anne Frank’s diary. While I didn’t have the chance to finish the whole diary before I visited the house (I finished on the flight home), it truly added to my experience. I even sat and read the diary while I was waiting for my time slot to enter the museum!
One of the first things I like to do when I’m in a new city is a walking tour. In most of Europe’s bigger cities, Sandeman’s hosts “free” walking tours led by young local guides; they accept tips at the end of the tour. The tours are long, but often pass all the big sites. It truly depends on the guide, but I absolutely love some of the information that I’ve learned on these tours—so much that I’ve been on them in Barcelona, Paris, London, Brussels, and Amsterdam.
There is a stop halfway through most, possibly all, Sandeman’s tours, to sell the other paid tours that the group offers. These also allow for bathroom breaks (and if you’re lucky a snack or drink). In my experience, the break can drag on, but it can also be a good opportunity to talk to other people on the tour or the get local tips from the guide. When you’re alone, there is usually at least one person interested in saying hi. You’ll get used to the questions: “Where are you from? Wait, you’re by yourself? Why?”
I was late for the Sandeman’s tour I wanted to take in Amsterdam because I spent too long taking pictures at the Fault in Our Stars bench and wandering through the floating tulip market. I filled the spare time with some fries. The guide for the next tour started us off by asking where we were from. By the midpoint of the tour, I had figured out that there were two other girls traveling solo, a Canadian and an Australian.
After the tour we asked the guide for a restaurant recommendation (another tip: ask locals for recommendations on places to go and things to eat). We grabbed lunch together before I could even acknowledge it was happening. We soon discovered that we had all been traveling alone for some time…my week seemed like nothing compared to their multi-month trip. We made dinner plans as if we were friends who were catching up after being apart for years. Over the next three days, we continued to spend time together, learning about each other’s cultures. My last day/ evening/ late night in Amsterdam was spent talking endlessly with Zoe and Christina, and Zoe’s hostel roommates from Ireland and England. Five different accents filled the air and I wasn’t ready to go home anymore.
I was able to make instant-friends with people from at least seven countries in a week using these tactics. I’m an extroverted-introvert, meaning that I need my alone time, but that I also enjoy “extrovert things” when they happen on my own terms. Solo travel isn’t for everyone (and I still love traveling with my friends and family) but I truly think that everyone should try it at least once. There’s no shame in going on vacation with yourself.