If I think back to what started The Pin the Map Project I can probably pinpoint a couple of beginnings: there was the moment I flew to Colombia on my own dime and realized I could actually afford to travel in my twenties, there was the moment I received a push pin map for the holidays and realized how much of the world I’ve yet to see, and then there was the moment I decided to go solo traveling to Argentina. I’d like to tell you that my decision to travel sans friends or family was a well thought out choice, that I had done my research and thoroughly decided on traveling alone, but that wouldn’t be the truth. The truth (like most things in life) is messier and when I boarded my Buenos Aires bound flight, I was running away from my own upcoming wedding in hopes of finding some much needed perspective before I walked down the aisle.
Solo traveling gave me just that–it gave me the space needed to lift my head above the rising waters of my life and realize that my fiance and I were not a good match, that my upcoming wedding was not a good idea and allowed me the strength to call it off. I owe a lot to solo traveling, to that whim of a choice to fly alone to Argentina and dare to ask myself the difficult questions I needed to ask. Since that trip, I have traveled with friends, with loved ones, with complete strangers and alone from Panama to Morocco, France to California. I am frequently approached by readers who are thrilled at the idea of solo traveling but nervous to take the plunge as they are swarmed by questions, concerns and worries. Pulling from my own solo travel experiences, here I share my tips for any traveler brave enough to venture out into this big, beautiful world of ours alone.
Knowing Your Destination
I have a love affair with spontaneity when I travel; I love serendipitous encounters, stumbling upon charming cafes and meeting people from around the world. More often than not, the best moments in travel (and life) are the ones we don’t plan for. That said, when flying solo to a new destination there is a fine line between embracing chance and being totally unprepared. Make sure to learn about the safer neighborhoods of the destination you’re visiting, the currency exchange, how to get to and from the airport and any other must-have information. While I love to leave plenty of room in my travels for whirlwind adventures, I always come armed with practical information on the destination.
Trust Your Gut
It’s said that women have a very keen sense of intuition and have an uncanny way to sense danger a mile away. When I was visiting the rough and tumble neighborhood of La Boca in Buenos Aires, I was advised by many to be careful. La Boca is beautiful, colorful and playful but beyond the two streets that tourists populate there are dangers to be had. As I roamed through La Boca with my camera bag hoisted on my shoulders, I noticed a palpable shift in the air as I crossed over a set of train tracks and realized I was no longer in the “tourist friendly” part of town. I felt the change before I realized it and promptly turned around–knowing that nothing good lay ahead. As a first time solo traveler, my intuition was my greatest asset in throwing up red flags in situations I knew I should potentially avoid.
Be Confident in Yourself
It may be your first day in a new country and you may be clinging to a map like a lifeline, but you are savvier and stronger than you give yourself credit for. One of the first things I did when I arrived in Buenos Aires was to go to a restaurant for lunch to ease into being solo. Get comfortable in your own skin and let your thoughts wash over you as you explore a new destination and all the intricacies of your personality. Confidence is absolutely key and emanates in how you walk, carry yourself and how you talk so be patient and give yourself time to adapt to this new mode of travel.
Skip On the Drunken Nights Out
When I traveled to Panama with my girlfriends we would stay out dancing until 3 am at a local island bar in Bocas del Toro. We were all together and if one of us had overindulged in the libations, there were 5 other girls to keep an eye out and watch her back. My nights in Buenos Aires were tamer when compared to the frivolity of Bocas del Toro–unless I was meeting a friend for drinks, attending a local asado or simply having beers with travelers at my hostel–most nights proved low-key.
The truth is that solo traveling means no one else is responsible for you or your belonging but yourself. If you get lost, drink too much, get robbed or simply lose your way home you do not have a safety net of friends to defend your silver lining. Even in the evenings that I met friends or locals for drinks, I made a point to keep my wits about me so that I was always savvy to the situation and sure I could get home safely. While half the fun of travel is to seize opportunities, skip on drinking to the point that you cannot take care of yourself.
Expect to get Lonely
There were so many beautiful moments of solo traveling that left me smiling deliriously and feeling utterly alive; yet there were inevitable moments where loneliness won out over confidence and trailed me like a debt collector. Solo traveling is an experience that reveals parts of your personality and a full spectrum of emotion in all its intricacies. As much as I learned to enjoy the moments and embrace the present, I also learned to pick myself up at times that home felt lightyears away. The best advice I can offer first time solo travelers is to expect to get lonely at times and to embrace this emotion as you will every other thought and emotion that washes over you during your trip. There is a real power and simplistic beauty that comes from knowing you have the strength to lift your own chin up when sad, comfort yourself when lonely and keep moving forward.
There is of course an appeal to being fully submerged in your solo travel adventure, but when out there alone it is best to stay connected to friends and family back home. Whether you are uploading photos to Instagram, sharing Facebook updates on your latest passport stamp, checking in on Foursquare or simply messaging via Whatsapp–it is smart to let people know where you are and where you’re headed.
Asking Yourself ‘What do I want to do?’
On one of my travels, I met a wonderful person who left me with a simple piece of advice: Don’t ever do anything you don’t want to do. I’ve mulled these words over in my mind and realized that too often in life I tend to put myself in situations and circumstances I wish I hadn’t–whether for fear of disappointing someone or a sense of obligation. Solo traveling offers the refreshing and revolutionary freedom to ask yourself what do I want to do today? When solo traveling I ask myself this question and whether I spent the day writing at my favorite cafe, jumping a last minute flight or indulging in a delicious meal, everything I do while solo traveling is because I want to. In life, we don’t always get this freedom to choose for ourselves so savor this question, get comfortable with it and relish the endless possibilities of living life on your own terms.
Bring What Makes You Comfortable
As a writer I draw comfort from journals and books when I travel. My journals reflect back at me my innermost thoughts, while my books offer escape, advice or solace in harder moments. Everyday that I was out exploring, I had my Nikon and journal in my bag with me. Albeit being a small comfort, both became extensions of myself as I waded further into my solo traveling adventure. Bring what makes your comfortable.
Be Wary of your Surroundings
I’ll admit that when it comes to my personal belongings I’ve sometimes been a little too casual with leaving a bag next to me, leaving a purse unzipped, or leaving my camera in plain sight. On my first day in Buenos Aires, I found myself at a local bar enjoying a drink in celebration of my arrival. As I tried to get comfortable with the idea of drinking alone, I left my bag next to me with the flap thrown back and my camera exposed. I hadn’t thought twice about it because it was after all daytime, the bar was fairly empty and I was sitting directly next to my bag but a few moments later a local (and soon to be new friend) told me to be careful–that in a city like Buenos Aires I have to watch my surroundings. Being wary of my surroundings extended beyond watching my bag–as a solo female traveler it’s important to look around, be careful and be cautious.
Enjoy Your Travels!
There is a favorite quote of mine that reads: “A ship docked in harbor may be safe, but that’s not why ships are built.” It’s human nature to be cautious but life truly begins when we step outside of our comfort zones and take a chance on the unknown. Solo traveling is an experience that inspires, tests and strengthens anyone who ventures into the world alone with their thoughts. Of course there are dangers to consider and risks to keep in mind but so long as you’re savvy to the destination, aware of your surroundings and keen to your intuition–the trip has the potential to be life changing.
Check out more SOLO TRAVEL tips on The Pin the Map Project and share your best solo travel tips in the comments section below!