It seemed like a great idea when you tossed a dart at that world map, committed to buy a plane ticket to wherever it landed. It started to seem like a less great idea when the dart struck Turkmenistan, and everybody who expressed interest in your vacay plan was like, “I forgot I have to get my car inspected that week.”
Which is how you now find yourself bolt upright on an overnight flight to Ashgabat (that’s the capital of Turkmenistan, naturally), with rivers of worry running through your head about traveling solo.
Will you have a good time? Are you going to feel lonely? Will you be able to meet any locals? Who’s going to watch your stuff while you take a bathroom break?
Don’t stress. Traveling by yourself doesn’t have to be a long, silent slog. It can actually be a lot of fun, if you follow these few simple tips.
There are few things more soul-sucking than staying in an aggressively generic hotel. Sure, you may be racking up some [insert major hotel chain name] points, but is it really worth spending your precious few vacation days a year eating frozen waffles alongside traveling salesmen?
Staying in a sprawling chain hotel in a foreign country also is a great way to stay isolated. And a big part of traveling alone is wanting to make friends and hang out with them, whether for days at a time or even just for a post-siesta drink.
Depending on your stage in life, staying in a hostel is definitely the best option for meeting other people who might be fun to pal around with for a while. And even though hostels don’t have the best reputation (trust me, they’re nothing like that horror movie), a lot of them are actually really clean and fun, hosting other young people from all over the world, in addition to being inexpensive.
Plus, if you don’t relish the idea of bedding down in a room with half a dozen triple-decker bunk beds, many hostels offer private rooms (some with shared bath, some with private) for rates that are still way more affordable than a comparable room in a hotel.
If that’s still too low-rent for you, there are a ton of great alternatives for solo travelers who want to get a more authentic (and welcoming) taste of a place, from boutique hotels to short-term rental sites like AirBnB or HomeAway. Just be sure not to accidentally book a room in a bad part of town.
Traveling alone doesn’t have to mean trudging from cultural site of interest to obligatory museum to bad café to anonymous hotel room, only to repeat the process again the next day, like some doomed tourist version of Caine.
On the contrary, solo travel can actually be pretty sweet in terms of doing what really gets you excited and having a varied schedule, because — by definition — you’re not on anyone’s clock but your own. How do people who actually live here spend their time? What are the hottest hot spots?
Sure, you can ask the hotel concierge, or the front-desk person at your hostel — and you’ll probably get some pretty great, up-to-the-minute recommendations, too. But better yet, make a game out of it by letting locals lead you around with their recommendations. For example, pick a buzzing breakfast spot near your hotel and, when paying the bill, ask your server where to go next. What is his or her favorite little art gallery, or bookstore? Favorite riverside running path? Where’s the best dive bar?
Then just take off to that place, sight unseen. When you finish up with that stop on your itinerary, ask the gallery attendant, bookstore clerk, barkeep, or whomever where to go next. Over the course of your day you’ll not only get to interact with a variety of probably-pretty-friendly locals — after all, who doesn’t love hipping folks to their favorite places? — but you also will experience the town in a totally unique way from the sightseeing hordes.
Ditch the Phone
Everyone does it: You’re chilling at the bar after work, waiting to meet up with a friend, and uncontrollably you find your hand tractor-beaming to your device. As you mindlessly scroll through your social network’s latest food/dog/baby pictures, you totally miss — well, everything.
It’s bad enough being zoned out on your phone in daily life at home, but — international data-plan restrictions aside — the impulse to remain tethered to your digital security blanket is even stronger when you find yourself in an unfamiliar place, surrounded by unfamiliar people.
If you can’t trust yourself not to look at it, leave your phone in the hotel room. Unless you’re relying on it for directions (which you can substitute for an old-fashioned travel guide or map, which do still exist), what do you need it for, anyway? And do you really want to waste time translating “What is the Wi-Fi password?” into a foreign language, at every stop you make?
Leaving your smartphone behind (or in your pocket, if you just can’t bear to be separated) is a great way to open your eyes to what’s going on around you. And who knows? Sitting at that zinc-topped bar by yourself, having a red wine and cola (a popular drink in parts of Spain and Eastern Europe, if you can believe it), some knockout local might strike up a convo with you — something I can assure you will not happen if you’re thumb-deep in whatever picture-matching puzzle game is popular that week.
One of the most basic problems you’re going to run into while traveling alone is kind of self-evident: You’ve got no one to watch your back, or your stuff. So you’re going to need to be a little more cautious than you might be if you had a pack of wingmen flanking you at all times.
This doesn’t mean you need to be skittish — just prepared. Because if you do get pick-pocketed, you’re not going to have anyone to borrow money from while you get your cards sorted out.
It’s a good idea when traveling alone to make photocopies of your passport, credit cards, and plane ticket and keep them separate from the real versions. Leave them back in your room, ideally in the safe, so that if anything happens you’ll have the proper documentation with which to get replacements.
You also want to keep your head on a swivel when you’re out at night, especially when you’re in your cups. Two or more heads are far better than one when navigating a foreign city, so when you’re flying solo you need to be extra aware of your surroundings. Getting lost stumbling home from the club in your hometown might seem funny in a collegiate way — but it’s going to feel far less humorous when you end up in the back of one of those weird-sounding European police vans.
There’s nothing worse than the airline losing your luggage. But, you kind of can’t help checking a bag if you’re going on a long trip by yourself. So be smart about your packing and put at least one change of clothes, as well as your dopp kit, into your carry-on luggage.
Because while the airline will usually find your main bag after a couple days, in the meantime you’ll need to spring for fresh underwear (at a minimum), a new phone charger, toiletries....
And have you seen some of these foreign toothpastes, deodorants, and the like? They all seem to have bizarre flavors or scents like black pepper, rosewater, or (shudder) kimchi. You don’t want to kick off a trip without your trusty Gillette Clear Gel, do you? Those overnight trains can get pretty ripe, and you’re going to want to have some Arctic Ice or Cool Wave scent in your arsenal. #NoSweat
Hunter Slaton is a senior writer for Studio@Gawker. The best place he ever stayed while traveling was a hostel in Interlaken, Switzerland.
Illustration by Rob Dobi.