Traveling solo wasn’t something I set out to do. It just happened. I was only 12 years old when I ventured out on my own aboard the Santa Fe Super Chief. The mission: a cross-country trip to visit a next-door neighbor family who moved 1,800 miles from Chicago to Phoenix.
Not wanting to put their only daughter on an airplane, I settled in to my very own cozy sleeping compartment for the 55-hour ride to Arizona. I clearly remember saying goodbye to my father as he discreetly handed several folded bills to the uniformed porter. “Please keep an eye on her” or something like that, I heard him say.
I loved every single solitary (and it truly was almost solitary) moment. Cruising past rolling Illinois farmlands and across the mighty Mississippi River to a slow 7,800-foot climb up Raton Pass on the Colorado/New Mexico border.
Etched in my memory, I still see the brilliant blue sky of New Mexico suddenly turn a deep purple-gray. An intense gully-washer proved more than the rails could endure. The majestic Super Chief was delayed for several hours in the sweltering New Mexico heat. When a brilliant rainbow signaled the storm had passed, the bright red locomotive let out a roar and a rumble and we slowly chugged westward once again. The standing water quickly evaporated in the desert sun; we were cleared for takeoff.
With increased anticipation as we neared Phoenix, I felt like Phileas Fogg at the end of his 80-day journey. My first solo journey came to a close.
Here are my lessons learned from decades of traveling solo:
Dining alone can be fun
I used to feel so self-conscious as a solo traveler dining alone. Especially when the waiter would noisily remove the empty place setting. I’m still not sure if that is proper etiquette or if it’s a signal to the waitperson that there’s only one diner. Either way, I find it rude.
My remedy for fidgety to fun is simple;
- I always bring something to watch/read/do. It’s my dinner companion.
- Be ready for strangers to ask you to dine with them. Then it’s up to you to join them.
- Make mealtime a travel reflection time. I like to think about my day, silly accomplishments and exceptional experiences. Reflection elevates me away from curious glances and inner anxiety.
- Enjoy a drink with your meal. But don’t drink too much. While it might calm your fidgetiness, overdo it and your newfound fun becomes a risky venture. Finding your way back to your accommodation or ship just became an unsafe option.
- I’ve learned not to berate myself if I’m getting burned out on public dining. It’s decompression time. I’m a big fan of room service, whether in a hotel, on a ship or even on Amtrak. I’ll watch a movie on TV or my laptop and shut out the rest of the world, if only for a few hours.
Making friends is easy
Conversations with fellow travelers are spontaneous occurrences. Sharing stories and advice becomes part of travel’s allure. While it’s extremely important to always note the people around you for safety reasons, when you’re in a closed setting (like a B&B breakfast room, on a train, in a waiting room, on a ship or a land tour) it’s almost impossible not to chat with others. Temporary friends or even life-long friendships begin while traveling solo.
If the lack of having people to talk to is beginning to make you antsy, sign up for a hands-on cooking class. Almost every city has them. Conversely, cooking demonstrations don’t require interacting with anyone, same for wine tastings. Hands-on activities are conducive to meeting people. You might even want to set up a new email address that you only use for all the people you meet on your travels.
I don’t like walking alone at night
On my first visit to Rome, I bought a ticket to an evening performance of La Traviata. The small theater was only a four-block walk from my hotel. While it would be just past dusk when I walked there, it would be dark by the time I arrived and certainly afterwards.
As I waited in line for the doors to open, I spotted two women about my same age nearby in line. I walked over and asked if they minded if I waited with them. These two women from Ireland were only too happy to have my company. We sat together in the theater and afterwards they walked me back to the hotel. Don’t hesitate to tag along with a group at night, even if the group doesn’t know you’re there. There’s safety in numbers.
It’s just you and your luggage
As a solo traveler, you must travel as light and as unencumbered as possible. Whether on a driving trip around the USA or a train trip through Europe, you will have to be able to manage your luggage on your own. This also includes going up or down a long flight of stairs should the escalator and/or elevator be out of order.
There have been times when I’ve had to go up half a flight of stairs with one bag at a time and hope that no one ran off with the two bags I had to leave at the bottom. If I had one less bag and they weren’t overpacked, it would have been a lot easier.
Know exactly how many pieces of luggage are with you…and do a count every time you enter or leave a taxi or train. Hopefully, it’s no more than three; one suitcase, one computer/electronics/overnight bag and your purse or cross-body bag. If you ever have to make a mad dash to make a connection, you’ll know why traveling light is so important.
ABC – Always bring (local) currency
British taxi drivers don’t want their tip in Euros. Gelato stands may not take credit cards. Don’t leave home without a bunch of small bills for tips and little purchases. Have tip money in the currency of the countries you’ll visit. Traveling solo means always having your own small change.
Write down emergency phone numbers onto a piece of paper
If you should lose your mobile phone or the battery dies, a piece of paper with a list of phone numbers is your backup. Include Embassy phone numbers and addresses for the countries you’ll visit. That said, always pack a small flashlight for backup.
Also write down in block letters your hotel name and address or your ship’s name, port name and departure time. Many times I’ve hopped into a taxi in a foreign city and asked the taxi driver to go to the port. He had no idea what I meant. I had to draw a picture of a ship and then he knew where to go.
Read About: Getting Ready for Your First Solo Cruise
Leave your itinerary with friends and family
Include the name of your hotel, ship or train schedule. While there may be days when you are off the grid, they’ll know where you are and you’ll know that in an emergency they could track you down.
Keep basic safety in mind
- Hotel safety: If massive hotel – Ask for a room on a low floor near elevator – not at end of corridor – make sure windows are locked and door locks work – open wardrobes and look behind draperies – bring a door wedge alarm
- Bring a keychain-size can of pepper spray
- Listen to your inner voice. If something doesn’t feel right, change course.
- If small boutique hotel, let reception know where you’re going when you leave
- Always keep your phone charged. Bring a charger with you. Know how to quickly find the flashlight feature.
Remember to download music and videos before leaving home
What you can’t download, store in the cloud to download after you’ve deleted another. In many places, hotel, ship and train wifi isn’t capable to download video. Even just a couple of movies or a few TV shows is enough to get by until you have fast wifi to download from the cloud.
No need to arrive early at European train stations
Unless you’ll need assistance, plan to arrive at your European train station no more than 30 minutes prior to departure. Amtrak provides comfortable waiting rooms for standard and first class ticket-holders. European train stations are like a chaotic symphony of people darting and racing about but in precise direction.
If you have a 1st class ticket, many major cities offer lovely private lounges. Sometimes the lounges are on a second level or off in a corner. You can ask at an Information Booth.
And my MOST important lesson learned from traveling solo?
Expect a new sense of self. Yes, you probably stepped a little or a lot out of your comfort zone. It doesn’t take bravery (you’ll hear that a lot) or the lack of a travel companion to travel solo. Just the will to go where you want, when you want and however you choose to go.
When all is said and done, traveling solo builds confidence and character, independence and innovation. Looking back on some of my solo travel adventures, I wonder how in the world I managed alone. If given a reset option, I wouldn’t change a thing. You can do it, too.
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