I love solo travel. The unrivaled freedom is intoxicating. You’re free to go where you want, do what you want, and journey at your own pace. Having backpacked the world for over fifteen years, I’ve had all kinds of amazing adventures. From hitchhiking in Iceland to trekking in New Zealand to bouncing around Madagascar, I’ve had the privilege of seeing some of the world’s most incredible sights. But, when I first started, I had no clue what I was doing. I had trouble making friends, got scammed on more than one occasion, and struggled to get by as a backpacker. But I stuck with it and over the years picked up more and more tips and tricks that helped me deepen my experiences, save money, and stay safe. As more of us go travelling again in a post-COVID world, I wanted to share some of my biggest lessons from my adventures:
1. The world is not as scary as you think
If you read the news regularly or spend any amount of time online, chances you’ve heard how awful it is out there. But, as the saying goes, if it bleeds, it leads. So we’re constantly bombarded with bad news — regardless of whether or not that paints an accurate picture of what it’s like beyond our borders. Contrary to what the news proclaims, the world is not a super scary place. Sure, they are some places you’ll want to avoid. And yes, you’ll need to take some precautions and use common sense. But that’s true for any destination — including where you’re from!
Moreover, you are not the first person to head out into the world solo. People have been doing it for centuries. There are well-worn trails all around the world, which means it’s never been easier to book a flight and head out on an adventure. If you’re still worried, however, start small. Instead of a monthlong solo trip, start with a weeklong one nearby. Build up your confidence as a solo traveler in steps, so that when you’re comfortable, you can head out into the world and explore for as long as you want.
2. Things will go wrong
Just like life at home, sometimes things on the road don’t go as planned. I’ve been lost, scammed, robbed, and injured. I’ve missed flights, had gear break, and everything in between. Sometimes, things just don’t go your way. But that doesn’t mean you should panic and stay home. It just means you need to be prepared.
Whenever I leave home, I buy travel insurance. I know: it’s a boring topic to research and read about, but it’s helped me on numerous occasions over the years. Broken bones can cost thousands of dollars; emergency evacuations can cost hundreds of thousands. Don’t go bankrupt because you skipped out on insurance. And don’t miss out on the peace of mind it offers. I never leave home without it. You shouldn’t either.
3. You’re more capable than you think
When you travel, especially alone, you’ll end up in situations that stretch your comfort zone past its limit. Language barriers, missed connections, getting lost… the list goes on. While it might feel a bit uncomfortable while you’re going through it, as a solo traveler, you have no other choice than to buckle down and figure it out yourself. There’s no one else to lean on.
But, once you’ve taken care of the situation, you’ll learn that you actually can handle anything thrown at you, which is incredibly empowering. Next time you’re in a tricky situation, you’ll know that you can rely on yourself to handle it. You’ll develop more self-confidence in the process, which is why I consider travel the ultimate personal development tool.
4. Making friends isn’t that hard
When I started traveling, I was super introverted. I had a hard time making friends in hostels and on tours. Eventually, after weeks on the road solo, I took the leap and finally started to put myself out there. It wasn’t easy, but I eventually became comfortable with the process.
Just because you’re traveling solo doesn’t mean you have to be alone. In fact, making friends is easier as a solo traveler than if you’re with a group of friends or a significant other. It’s too easy to slip into a comfortable bubble with people that you know and end up coming home without having connected with anyone new.
Here are three ways to make friends in a hostel:
- Don’t spend time wearing headphones or earphones. People can’t come up to you to chat if you’re always listening to music or watching videos.
- Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there. Use shared interests to kick-start conversations. See someone wearing a shirt of a band you like? Use that as an inroad to a conversation.
- Take part in any social activities the hostel offers: walking tours, BBQs, yoga classes, cooking classes, shared meals — whatever! These are great opportunities to connect with other solo travelers.
Making friends — with locals and travelers alike — is one of the best parts about traveling. I’m still in touch with friends I made over a decade ago — all because I took the leap.
5. Embrace the sharing economy
One of the best ways to connect with locals is to use the sharing economy. These apps make it easier than ever to interact with people who can share their tips and advice with you, allowing you to have a deeper and more authentic trip. Want to meet travellers on the road? Book with Hostelworld to unlock Chats and Linkups. Love to play pickleball? Check apps like Meetup.com and Facebook to see if there is a nearby group you can join. Want to meet up with someone for a museum visit? Use the Couchsurfing app’s Hangouts to find new friends. Just because you’re traveling solo doesn’t mean you need to spend every day by yourself. Embrace the sharing economy to save money, get tips, and connect with locals.
Here are some of my favorite platforms:
- The Hostelworld app – Lets you chat and arrange to meet other travellers once you book.
- Couchsurfing – For meeting locals for drinks, food, events, etc.
- com – For niche meetups and events in cities all around the world.
- Trusted Housesitters – For pet-sitting opportunities that provide free accommodation.
- RVShare – Like Airbnb but for RVs.
- Campspace – For private camping and glamping experiences
Slow travel is the best travel
When I first started traveling, I bounced around from place to place every few days (especially in Europe). There was a ton to see and do, so naturally, I wanted to see and do it all. What I learned — and what many others have learned — is that moving from city to city quickly is not only expensive but it decreases the quality of your trip. Instead of adjusting to the pace of life somewhere, you spend all day in transit, just to snap a few pictures before moving on.
I know that Americans only get a couple weeks of vacation per year, but even in that amount of time, you can travel slowly. Pick one or two destinations to soak up rather than trying to zoom around an entire continent. You’ll find that slow travel is much more enjoyable. It’s cheaper, more sustainable, and better for the communities you visit. Your journey also won’t be a blur of buses and trains, so you can actually start to taste the flavor of life in your destination(s) and deepen your experience.
When it comes to travel, choose quality over quantity.
7. It’s OK to leave a place early (or not at all)
But while immersing yourself in one place can be a transformative experience, sometimes you just don’t connect with it. If you explore it for a bit and don’t enjoy the vibe, know that it’s OK to move along. That’s the tremendous benefit of traveling solo: there’s no one else to consider when switching up your plans! Take advantage of that.
In the past, I’d sometimes stick it out, wanting to give the destination more of a fair shake. But time and money aren’t infinite, so don’t be afraid to just move on. Travel is subjective, so every destination isn’t going to be loved by every person. If someplace isn’t for you, just head along to the next one.
Conversely, if you love a destination, don’t feel obligated to move on just because you planned to do so. Stick around longer and enjoy what it has to offer. While I love making plans, I rarely ever stick to them, because things change while you’re on the road. The more you can adapt to that change, the better your travels will be.
8. Follow the five-block rule
Whenever I visit a new city, I always make sure to avoid eating near the main attractions. Why? Because those restaurants cater almost exclusively to tourists, so they are going to be more expensive. Moreover, they don’t have to rely on repeat visitors, so the quality doesn’t have to be as good. Restaurants that cater to locals, however, need to be affordable and tasty. Otherwise, nobody would return and the restaurant would go out of business. For that reason, I always walk at least five blocks from the main tourist center whenever I want to eat or shop. Not only will prices be lower but you’ll get to interact with more locals and enjoy better food. Also, be sure to eat the street food. It’s always more delicious than you think!
9. Take free walking tours
One of the first things I do in a new destination is take a free walking tour. They’re budget-friendly, cover all the highlights, connect with me a local guide who can answer all my questions, and help me meet people with similar interests right off the bat. Don’t hesitate to ask your guide for suggestions on things to do and places to eat after the tour. They are full of info your guidebook won’t have, so don’t miss out on their local insights. Simply google “free walking tours in [insert city]” to find some options in your destination. Just remember to tip your guide at the end!
10. Be frugal — but not cheap
If you’re a budget solo traveler, chances are you need to be frugal as you explore. With no one to share expenses with, costs add up fast. A word of advice, though: don’t be penny-wise but pound-foolish. In the grand scheme of things, saving a dollar here and a dollar there won’t matter. That means that in countries where you need to haggle, follow the customs but don’t get in a bickering match over fifty cents. It also means you should pay the $2 and take the bus instead of walking 10 miles. While sticking to a budget is important, so is saving time and being respectful of local customs.
Remember, you can always make more money, but you can never make more time. Spend them both accordingly.
11. Save more money than you think you’ll need
If you’ve budgeted your trip and you think you’ll need $2,000, save $2,500. If you need $5,000, save $6,000. Not only is the extra cushion good for emergencies, but it will actually give you the freedom to embrace serendipitous experiences. For example, say you budget $2,000 for a trip to Thailand. But while you’re there, you meet some people who invite you to go to a remote island for a few days. If you don’t have the extra money, you’ll likely have to say no.
But this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience that shouldn’t be passed up. By saving a little extra, you’ll be able to say yes to these experiences, which can drastically transform your journey. (Something very similar actually happened to me when I was in Thailand, leading to the greatest month in all my travels. And all because I had the financial freedom to say yes!).
Spending money on transformative travel experiences is investing in yourself, so give yourself the opportunity to do so whenever you can. Those memories will be with you for a lifetime.
12. Pack light
When you’re heading out on a solo trip, it may be tempting to bring a lot of things “just in case.” You’ll be on your own, after all. It’s best to be prepared, right? Not exactly. Overpacking leads to you having a huge backpack that needs to be checked when you fly, increasing the odds of your luggage getting lost or damaged. Additionally, as a solo traveler, your baggage goes everywhere with you — no leaving your stuff with friends while you pop into the airport bathroom.
Packing light (usually around a 40-liter backpack and a day bag) also allows you to fly carry-on only. This means you’ll never have an airline lose your stuff. And you won’t break your back lugging your possessions around. And if you do end up needing something? Buy it! Socks, sweaters, toiletries — you name it, you can likely find it abroad.
13. There is never a perfect time to go
If I had waited for friends and family to join me on my first big trip, I’d likely still be waiting. There’s never going to be a perfect time to take that first step. So don’t wait! One of the biggest regrets people have at the end of their life is that they didn’t travel more, that they didn’t take more risks. But as scary or challenging as solo travel seems, it’s infinitely easier than you think. It’s just a matter of taking that first step.
Make a budget.
Buy a guidebook.
Start a savings account.
Sign up for a travel credit card.
Take one small step today to put you on the path to your travel goal. Then take another step tomorrow. Eventually, those small steps add up, and in no time you’ll be making your dreams a reality.
You just have to take that first step.
When I first started traveling the world solo over fifteen years ago, I made all kinds of mistakes. I was a clueless, awkward introvert fumbling his way around the world. But I stuck with it, learned lessons (often the hard way), and continued exploring. Over time, I was able to improve my journeys and have incredible, life-changing experiences.
The good news is I’m not special. By following the tips above, you too can level up your own solo experiences, ensuring you have a fun, safe, and budget-friendly adventure around the globe.
But don’t just take my word for it. Get out there and put these lessons to the test. The world is waiting!