traveling alone

When Things Go Wrong, and I'm Alone

I get asked about this all the time:

What if something terrible happens to you?

Are you ever really scared?

How do you handle weird situations when you’re alone?

Finally I decided to write about it, mainly for those who don’t travel alone and are curious. I’ll tell you now, I’ve heard just about every travel horror story and have been warned many times by friends, family, and acquaintance to ‘be very careful.’ And I am. But I also have faith in myself.

Despite the trials and mishaps, I love exploring alone. 

Despite the trials and mishaps, I love exploring alone. 

I’ve had weird and unnerving experiences abroad, especially traveling alone. Yet every time, I am able to figure my way out of the situation, usually in one piece. Take for example, my arrival in the south of France during my gap year. I took the TGV train from Paris to the south of France and from there I hopped on a local bus. The bus driver helped me figure out where to get off, a tiny town with one small grocery store, a bakery, and a bank. From there I did my best to follow the directions my hosts had provided, thanking my foresight to look up the bed and breakfast on the walkthrough version of Google maps. Still I was confused when I got there. There were two gates onto the property, both of them locked. One was obviously for the bed and breakfast, and the other was down the hill and around the side of the property and looked to be for staff. I couldn’t see anyone and tried calling out to no avail. I checked my last email with my hosts, where I told them when I would arrive. I sat on my suitcase for a while, until a woman passed walking her dog. She knew of the people who owned the B&B, but didn’t have their phone number. I saw a group of people pull up and unlock the front gate, and quickly hurried that way. Chatting with them, they had no clue about the owners and had just been hired for the night. They suggested I go to the other gate. Now, a few hours after being dropped off, I was really wondering what I had  signed myself up for. Finally, as I was trying to figure out where to go for the night, I saw a figure walking down the road toward the back gate. I jumped off my suitcase, waving a little frantically.

It was another volunteer, and he told me that I was expected tomorrow due to an email mixup. He had been heading to the beach for a swim when he saw me. My hosts were visiting Morocco at the time so the B&B was pretty quiet. He helped me get settled in my small, sparse room before showing me around. Throughout that afternoon and laying in bed that night, I was anxious about my choices and situation. I took some basic precautions--I used my doorstop on my room door that night and my family knew where I was going. But I stuck it out, trusting my instincts. As I settled in, I made amazing friends, learned a lot about gardening and running a B&B, and enjoyed living between the beach and the mountains. This first workaway experience was unforgettable and changed my outlook on life. And I wouldn’t have gotten there if I wasn’t willing to take a few risks.

To be okay through almost any situation abroad, here is what you need:

  1. Travel Insurance - I recommend World Nomads, an affordable insurance that varies by length of stay and region of travel but always offers two levels of insurance. They have helped me find reliable emergency clinics in Bangkok when I had a staph infection and then covered the cost of the visit. They also will cover some electronics and personal items, helping me pay for a new iPhone when mine got wet while traveling. A dependable travel insurance that is easy to contact will help you know that you have someone to help if you get sick or your plans are ruined.

  2. Emergency money and medications - It is super important to carry some backup cash (this can be U.S. dollars or any currency) just in case ATMs are not accessible or your cards are not working. I usually keep $50-100 dollars stashed in a few places in my luggage.Also traveling with some basic medications is smart. This means Advil, Imodium, and any prescription medications you use regularly. It’s very possible to get medications abroad, but it’s easiest to carry some with you.

  3. Your instincts - There have been moments where I have switched metro cars or taken a better-lit street even if it was a longer route. Once I was waiting for a bus in Thailand, at a stop next to a police station. A policeman came out of the building and a driver pulled over. They obviously knew each other and chatted for a few moments. Then the policeman came over to me and told me the man in the car could give me a ride back to the city. I declined, saying I would wait. The policeman asked again and told me it was okay to go in the car. Reluctantly, I hopped in. We made light conversation and the driver was very polite. However, the second we got into the city and I knew the area, I thanked him and hopped out. Maybe he was fine, but I prefered to take the reins and control the situation.

  4. The ability to ask for help - I can’t even count the number of times I’ve stopped someone to ask for help. This can be directions, a translation, or to use their phone. At a small restaurant in Bangkok the businessman at the table next to me translated the menu for me and conveyed to the waitress that I was vegetarian. Asking for help is something that comes naturally to me now and I understand that often, people can be trusted. I believe the American viewpoint is often distrustful of others abroad, but so many people have been willing to help me that I now I have a different viewpoint.

  5. The knowledge that you’ll get through it - This may not sound like a lot, but often the simple understanding that I’ll come out on the other side of a situation keeps me calm and allows me to get through it. This stems from my past experiences that have tested my reflexes and emotions, giving me a confidence in myself and my coping abilities.

I hope you found these tips and stories helpful. Also I have a post specifically about safety and the questions I often receive about staying safe abroad.

The Secret to Traveling Alone

The number one question I am asked when I start talking about traveling is: ‘Who went with you?’

‘Myself,’ I answer.

Okay, so I went alone. But in today’s world that is not an acceptable answer for a teenage girl. We think that outside our country is a world filled with crime and terrorism. And who is a girl to protect herself and make her own way?

Next comes a series of questions: ‘Why? Couldn’t you have found a friend to go? Weren’t you scared? How did you do it? Were you lonely?’

Honestly, I went by myself because that was the only way to make it happen. Since I funded all of my travels myself, I didn’t have the money for any of the gap year programs available. All of my friends were set on going to college straight-away and my parents certainly couldn’t take off work to come with me. That just leaves me. I was so set on traveling and taking a gap year that I told myself the things I would see would make up for any loneliness I felt.

But here’s the thing--I was rarely lonely. ‘Traveling solo’ is a misnomer. Traveling without anyone else meant that I met so many great people as I went. Because I didn’t have anyone I knew to talk to, I would start up conversations at hostels or wherever I was staying. Soon, I was going on day trips with strangers and making life-long friends. When I stayed with hosts or volunteered I made even closer connections, with my fellow volunteers or with the families I stayed with. I went on a 6 hour road trip with some amazing people I met in the South of France (it wasn’t supposed to take that long) and I explored Rome with a pair of Canadians I met over coffee in the hostel kitchen. If you go in with an open mind and a willingness to meet new people, you will make more connections with those around you then you would have if you were not alone.

This picture was kindly taken by a stranger after they saw me trying to catch a photo in front of Buckingham Palace. 

This picture was kindly taken by a stranger after they saw me trying to catch a photo in front of Buckingham Palace. 

In spite of that, sometimes I would rather do something alone. While I was traveling by myself, I became spoiled. I did just what I wanted. If I wanted to spend all day in one gallery of an art museum, no one was spurring me to move faster. When I decided to cafe-hop and ramble around a city with no aim, no one was opening up a map and directing me. Even now, when I am not traveling, I can really appreciate a day by myself, doing exactly what I want to do. This made me more independent than I already was and pushed me past my comfort zone, as traveling tends to do.

To answer how I managed alone, it could be said that it is just my independent personality. Although I am young, I had no trouble planning where I was going and how I would get there by myself. I heard a funny story when my friend ran into my mother at the grocery store. Apparently he asked which cities I was planning on traveling to and my mother said that she didn’t really know. She knew some of the countries I wanted to visit, but all the particulars were managed by me. The only advice I can give for this sort of planning is to do your research, such as to find out which hostels are safe, and to have confidence that you will make everything work out. Life finds a way of happening no matter where in the world you are.

Lastly, I am very frequently asked if I was scared while traveling alone. I won’t lie. There were moments when I felt unsure of what was going to happen next or if I was safe. But I was fine. I relied heavily on my gut instincts as well as taking as many precautions as possible. If I didn’t like the way it felt to walk down a certain street, I would quickly move to a busier area. If I needed to find something, I would ask a stranger for directions. When my overnight bus connection in Phnom Penh, Cambodia seemed a little sketchy, I stuck with the rest of the people transferring and spoke up when the new bus driver told us we were on the wrong bus. (We weren’t.) I kept my valuables in the bags I could keep close to me and always had a hand on my purse. Some things you cannot stop from happening, but you can do your best to be aware and take precautions against edgy situations.

I’ve come to love traveling on my own. Despite anything that gets in my way, I’ve had amazing experiences abroad and by myself. I also take pride in the fact that I’ve become a person who can function independently. I believe that solo traveling has strengthened my character and capabilities.

So next time you want to get away from work or school, and nobody can go with you, don’t let that stop you.