In a few days I will set course on another journey. The tropical nation of Costa Rica is my destination, a country I once called home back in 1998 as a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar. This time, like then, I will set out on this adventure alone.
If you have been reading my blog for the last 3 years or know me at all, you already know that I have an affinity for solo travel. I don’t want to say I always prefer it because I enjoy visiting places with people I love (like you, Mom ), but I do possess the spirit that makes traveling alone an important part of my overall discovery of new lands. When I am by myself I see and feel more. My senses become more heightened. Every part of me soaks in the newness and differences in a way that I don’t experience when I have companions. I feel more completely the rhythm of life in the new destination and commune more with the locals. To me, solo travel is exhilarating.
And while it is exhilarating, it isn’t perfect. Yes, I can get lonely. Yes, I can be harassed. Yes, my budget doesn’t go as far. Yes, I don’t get to participate in tours that require a minimum of 2 participants. Yes, I get tired of the voice in my head :). BUT the sheer sense of freedom and adventure always outweighs these moments of temporary discomfort.
In anticipation of my upcoming trip, I thought I would highlight some of my practices that always make my solo travel so rewarding. Here goes:
1) Research, Plan and Plan Some More
Prior to any trip, I run my internet browser ragged! I love the process of pre-trip planning as I search to discover all the secret spots, best hidden restaurants and highest rated tours. I post on social and travel websites about my trip with questions I may have and look to natives for advice on what they recommend I see or do. I create spreadsheets with my trip itinerary – where I will stay, how I will transport from Point A to B, what tours I have signed-up for and all the contact information I will need once I touchdown in the new territory. As you and I know, no trip is ever long enough (even my near two years in Paris felt too short to me), so putting together a researched plan prior to arrival has allowed me to maximize limited time as well as give me a purpose each day. I should note, however, that my itineraries always include lazy afternoons in cafes or getting lost in the streets of a new city cuz it is in these moments I usually find the most pleasure.
2) Be Alert
Safety is of course critical, and staying alert is paramount. I know as a solo woman traveler I am more vulnerable when I enter a new culture or country so I take the extra effort to familiarize myself with my surroundings. I never rush and am constantly scanning and staying alert to people, signs and events around me. On metros, in crowds and walking the streets I keep my senses alive and personal effects close. Because of it, I have traveled alone to the likes of Mali, Senegal, Morocco and India with absolutely no incidence and have always felt safe. I will add, however, this sense of security wasn’t always the case for me. As a young and more naive traveler (15 years ago) I had experiences in Mexico, Cuba and Costa Rica where I was robbed, sexually assaulted and physically attacked. Although I came out of each unscathed (albeit a bit frazzled), these incidents conditioned me to the importance of being aware to all that is around me all the time. In some lesser developed parts of our world, I have also adopted the practice of hiring drivers or guides as I navigate cities where I may stand out more than most (Africa and India to give examples). Although it does dip into the travel budget, I appreciate the greater sense of security and having someone to look out for me or help deter unwanted attention. This ultimately enriches the overall enjoyment of the journey.
3) Stay at Bed and Breakfasts/Boutique Hotels
I love big fancy hotels and all the amenities they include. It is true. But when I “fly solo” the smaller the hotel the better. I look for quaint bed and breakfasts or boutique hotels that are run by local families and are centrally located. I read all the reviews on booking.com, tripadvisor and/or trusted guide books to select a “home away from home” with friendly, helpful staff who strive to make their guests’ stay more than just a place they rest their head on a pillow. In India this practice proved to be particularly beneficial as I was treated as a daughter in most B&Bs I stayed. The extent of the hospitality lapsed into invitations to dinner with the owner and family, courtesy 3am pick-up at the Jaipur bus station and gifts to bring back home. Smaller hotels usually also have other single travelers which has led to a tour companion for a day or two and great conversation over a glass of wine while swapping travel tales.
4) Bring a Book to Dinner
The biggest pitfall of solo travel? No built in dinner date! Undoubtedly I have found delightful, interesting meal companions throughout my journeys (sometimes even at the table next to me), but it isn’t guaranteed. For these times I bring something to occupy myself between courses. My kindle is always snuggly packed in my over-the-body travel pack as well as a small notebook where I can capture my thoughts or observations. If I am in the need of social interaction, I look to dine at a restaurant or cafe that has counter service so I can engage other diners around me or the staff. Meal time alway involves a bit of strategy when traveling on my own.
5) Talk to Strangers and say “Yes” to trusted invitations
Do I talk to everyone? No. Do I accept every invitation from all who extend them (particularly men)? No. BUT one of the key reasons I travel alone is the opportunity to meet people and experience elements of a culture or country that I might have missed out on otherwise. I engagemost (not all!) that reach out and also do my best to reach out to others. I use tools like Couchsurfing, Meet-up and other social media sites to find local activities with a local crowd and flavor. I always contact “friends of a friend” who were recommended I connect with during my stay. Many of these encounters have resulted in long term friendships and some of my most memorable and unique moments during my travels.
6) Have a Mobile to Communicate
I don’t leave home without 3 things: my passport, my international power adapter and my iPhone (actually 2 of them – my US iPhone and international unblocked iPhone). Having a phone that I can use to text and make phone calls in my destination is uber important to me. As a solo woman traveler I never want to feel or be helpless, and having my international phone with a local SIM card (research where you can get one in the destination country prior to departure) or an international calling plan with my US phone is a necessity. Period. I also ensure all critical contact numbers are in my phone before I set out into the streets and that important numbers (including hotel contact information) are given to my family before departure
7) Stay Open to the Unexpected
I do like to plan my trips to the fullest, but never am I so steadfast on anything that I don’t allow the unexpected or unplanned to deviate my itinerary into something greater than I expected. Like you, I travel to experience the unknown so being open to it has sweetened many experiences while away from home. Make sure you do the same.
I close this post with one of my favorite quotes:
”It is only in adventure that some people succeed in knowing themselves – in finding themselves.” ~ André Gide