Ten top tips for travelling solo
Rosemary Maher studies French at the University of Leeds and is spending her year abroad as a Language Assistant in Colmar, France. Here are her tips for travelling solo during your year abroad downtime.
One enormous perk of the year abroad is travelling. Whilst living abroad for a year, travelling provides us with the opportunity to discover new cultures – often learning more about our own in the process – and expose ourselves to different traditions and ideas. For those of us in Europe, after crossing The English Channel a huge number of countries are, almost instantaneously, more accessible to us. Europe, with its vast network of trains and buses and the readily available budget airlines, is an easy continent to navigate. When the holidays come around many people will grab a bunch of mates and hop on the next bus/ train/ plane to their chosen destination. There’s nothing wrong with this approach – holidays with friends can be incredible experiences – but people shouldn’t forget that there is more than one approach to travelling. Having recently completed a (short) solo trip to the Czech Republic and Austria, I would like to share some tips for anyone who is contemplating travelling alone.
1. Do your research
When travelling alone, you need to be self-sufficient. Do some thorough research before you go – it may seem tedious but it will pay off. You should look at how safe the country is – this is particularly important for solo travellers, specifically women travelling alone – and consider this when choosing where to go. Obviously crime happens everywhere, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do your best to give yourself the best possible chance of avoiding crime hotspots. For some Eastern European countries, you may also need to consider the political situation of the country – but don’t let these things bog you down too much. It’s just a matter of understanding what is going on in the country you plan to visit, so you can take any necessary precautions.
2. Make an itinerary
Make a detailed itinerary for your trip, including the addresses of your hostels, times of your buses/ trains/ flights, and directions to your accommodation as required. Print one copy and have it with you at all times – or, if you’re feeling really cautious, print two in case one gets lost. It’s also a good idea to send a copy to your family, or a friend, so that there are always some people who know where you should be.
3. Choose your accommodation carefully
Accommodation is an important part of any trip. Look into each town/city carefully, and establish if there are any no-go zones. As it was my first trip alone, I chose to stay in a central location – this way there were plenty of people around, it was well-lit and I didn’t need to take any public transport, such as a subway, late at night. If you choose to stay in hostels, I would advise sticking to single-sex dorms if you’re a female traveller. Dorms are a great way to meet people, but only choose them if you feel comfortable with sharing a room with complete strangers. It’s usually possible to book a single room if you’re not too keen on the idea of dorms – after all, you can still meet people in the social areas of the hostel!
4. Likewise, plan your transport with care
My first journey was an overnight train from Zurich to Prague. Admittedly, these can be a slight safety concern if (like me) you have chosen a single seat, rather than paying a lot more for a couchette. Minimise the risk by choosing a carriage with plenty of people in it (this way there’ll be people around you to help and witnesses if anything goes wrong) and sit near a family if possible. Keep your valuables in inside pockets, or anywhere that will make them difficult to steal.
During your trip, avoid arriving in a new, unfamiliar city after dusk. There is nothing worse than wandering around in the dark, map in hand, feeling completely lost in a new city – this just marks you out as a target. Arrive in the morning where possible – this gives you the day to explore the place and get your bearings whilst it’s light.
When it comes to methods of transport, there are a range of options. Budget airlines are well known; likewise, everyone knows that Europe has an incredible train network. Take advantage of special offers – for example the Deutsche Bahn website offers tickets under a deal called ‘Europa Spezial’ which allows passengers from neighbouring countries to get good deals on travel through Germany. Bus companies such as Eurolines and MeinFernbus are worth looking into – in some cases, the journey is the same length as that on a train and is much cheaper. If possible, I would advise looking at the national rail website of the country you are planning to visit – it is usually much cheaper to book tickets through them, than, for example, to book them through the Voyages SNCF website if you are currently residing in France.
5. Pack lightly
You can’t rely on having someone to help you get your bags onto the train, or off them, so I advise only packing what you can carry. It’s much better to take a rucksack than a suitcase – in many European cities a wheelie suitcase on the cobbled streets will drive you insane in minutes.
6. Keep your family and friends updated
Parents (including mine) are likely to have some concerns – most noticeably regarding safety. Although it may frustrate you and feel like your independence is being questioned, it’s really not hard to send a quick email to let them know all is going fine. Reassure them; they just want to know that you’re safe and enjoying your trip.
7. Avoid looking overly touristy
People constantly snapping away on their cameras and wandering around with their nose in a map – I’m talking about you. By all means, take photos and check your maps. The trick is to be discreet. Take any photos you want, and then put your camera away rather than leaving it dangling around your neck. If you feel a little lost, check your map – but go into a shop or café to do so, rather than looking lost in the street. Now isn’t the time to wear your ‘I heart (insert place here)’ t-shirt either – the aim of the solo traveller is to blend in as much as possible, avoiding unwanted attention at all costs.
8. A few white lies don’t hurt
When out and about, never let on that you are travelling alone. If someone asks where you’re going, say that you’re meeting someone at such-and-such a place. You can use this if you need to ask for directions, but want to make it look like you are with other people – by saying “I need to meet a friend at [X], can you tell me the quickest way there?” Approach families, older people or women – these are usually the safest people to ask.
9. Copy the locals
If you’re not sure how to do something, but don’t want to ask, just watch a local and copy them. This goes for buying tickets for the metro or a bus (which, in continental Europe, you sometimes need to do before you board the bus), paying at a café, bar or restaurant, or even just ordering something simple to eat or drink.
10. Know the basics
Lastly, know the basics – that is, the language, currency and emergency numbers. Like me, you might find yourself visiting a country where you don’t speak the language. I certainly don’t speak Czech, and have never learned German, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try – have a few useful words/ phrases to hand, just in case you need them. Even if you’re not a linguist, learning five basic words – hello, goodbye, please, thank you and help – will suffice.
Know the currency you will need to use – not all countries in Europe use the Euro. If you can, get your hands on some of it before you leave. If not, use a currency card to withdraw money to avoid some hefty bank fees.
It’s also useful to know the emergency numbers – at the very least, just the national hotline which is 112 for Europe – before you leave.
This is not a post intended to put people off solo travelling. It can be an incredibly rewarding experience – but taking the necessary precautions will enable you to make the most of your trip. I hope this will also encourage people who want to travel somewhere, but not with others, and have thus far not taken the leap to do it – it’s honestly worth every moment. You’ll gain self-confidence, and you can be proud of having navigated each hurdle yourself.