Traveling with me, myself, and I
February 28, 2013 10:01 PM   Subscribe

What should I know or consider before vacationing alone?

i've never taken a vacation by myself, but as a perpetually single gal with busy married friends and little family, I think I'm ready to stop waiting for other's calendars to clear to see the world and just go see it by myself. What should I know about traveling solo? What are the pitfalls? If you've done it, how did you keep it from being a lonely experience?

Some things about me that may influence your answer:
- I'm in my early 40s, female, in the US
- I'm alone a lot, so I'm not a stranger to solitude
- I'm somewhat introverted
- I'm shy about striking up conversations with strangers, but do fine if they engage me first
- I only speak English and am a little trepidatious about being alone in a non-English speaking country
- I'm not opposed to small group tours, but unstructured is okay too
posted by cecic to Travel & Transportation (32 answers total) 80 users marked this as a favorite
When I traveled alone, I only felt lonely when I had nothing to do or I was in a place where I felt unsafe. Otherwise, I had a lot of fun and freedom going to places by myself.

Also, I occasionally took day tours and those were fun. You meet people and it is a nice break from traveling alone.

I also kept a journal which helped when I felt bored/lonely.
posted by cyml at 10:07 PM on February 28, 2013

I'm pretty introverted but friendly, and I'd say about half my trips are solo. For me, it's heaven. Traveling alone, I'm able to see what I wanted and do everything on my own schedule -- in London, I was free to offset my museum-going with long bouts of sitting in my room eating takeout and watching British reality shows to my heart's content. In Vienna, I just walked and walked and got horribly lost on public transportation while looking for Freud's house, not speaking the language and having no idea what people were talking about, but got back safely. I've been solo camping in Alaska. I've spent weekends alone in the Hudson Valley. Even if I travel with a friend, I like to go off on my own a lot and just reconvene for dinner.

In general, I don't say a word, trying my best to look like a native. I have a feeling this won't fly in my trip to Tokyo this fall, but we will see.

The Hairpin has done several stories recently about solo women travelers "[X] Days Alone In..." and they're worth checking out. I also love guidebooks and travel blogs to come up with ideas on what to do.

Have fun. It can be a great experience.
posted by mochapickle at 10:23 PM on February 28, 2013 [12 favorites]

Its been a few years since I've done any solo travel.

Have a contact to call into. Especially with traveling alone, you want to make sure that your behavior indicates externally a responsibility to call someone as well as so that someone knows when you aren't calling in... Keep them abreast of your itinerary.
posted by Nanukthedog at 10:32 PM on February 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

I only speak English and am a little trepidatious about being alone in a non-English speaking country

I wouldn't worry unduly about this. It's not hard to find people that speak english pretty much anywhere, and if you have some extra time, you can always take lessons.

If you've done it, how did you keep it from being a lonely experience?

I recently quit my job and spent 3 months travelling by myself. I was rarely alone, though. I just stayed at hostels, talked to people and tagged along a lot on tours and other people's travel plans. The great thing about travelling, especially outside the country, is that almost everyone you meet is inherently interesting, and you are interesting to others. It's one of the few situations where you can essentially tell people: "I'm unemployed and homeless right now" and people think that's a great conversation starter.

I was lonely sometimes, usually right after I split up with someone I had been travelling with, but it rarely lasted longer than a few days before I met someone new. A lot of people doing the backpacking thing are on facebook, so make sure you friend everyone you meet. I met one couple in El Salvador, via their friend that I had met in Guatemala, split up from them for a few weeks, then ended up meeting up with them again in Nicaragua, which was easy to arrange, because of facebook.

The best way to meet people to travel with is in hostels and on small tours. I'm actually very shy and rarely initiate conversations, but a lot of backpackers are extremely extroverted, so you kind of have to go out of your way to avoid talking to people.
posted by empath at 10:49 PM on February 28, 2013 [4 favorites]

One thing that can be fun is to go somewhere where you have some peripheral connections but not close friends. That person you met at that conference that one time would be happy to meet you for dinner when you're in their small town in the Netherlands, or your friend's cousin would be delighted to take you to the flea market in Paris. It's a nice way to feel like you are not totally alone and yet still have the flexibility and freedom of being utterly on your own schedule and only doing the things that make you happy.
posted by judith at 10:50 PM on February 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

What destinations did you have in mind? I did something similar, but structured my (very long) trip so I had some days scheduled where I met up with old friends or traveled with friends to break up the pace of traveling solo. Here's what I found to be helpful:

- Airbnb - booking rooms with locals is a great way to get a pulse on the best and brightest in a city. More often than not, you'll have a host that is very traveler-friendly and good company too.
- Couchsurfing - not sure how popular it is compared to a couple years ago, but their forums were a great way to meet up with other single and/or female travelers.
- Consider a volunteer expedition or adventure tour. there's a prolific number of programs out there, whether you're into cycling, hiking, cooking, spas or historical tours for long or short durations. If you're going on a long trip, do this first, and if you're lucky, you'll meet great folks who you'll want to continue your travels with.
- Back-up your life - I had a trusted friend at home who had access to my secret secret accounts and knew my rough itinerary. I put a lot of my important stuff in the cloud for just this trip so I could access in case of emergency. If I didn't check in within a certain amount of time, "plan-b" would be enacted and she'd start contacting friends to try to get in touch with me.

Can help you with more info if you want to me-mail me.
posted by hampanda at 11:14 PM on February 28, 2013 [4 favorites]

I got really friendly with my camera's self-timer.

But, also, I found people on couchsurfing / okcupid / niche social networking sites who seemed like people I'd be friends with, and hung out with them some days. You get a new acquaintance (at the very least -- I'm still leeching off one of my hosts' good taste in music), and they get an excuse to do touristy things.
posted by batter_my_heart at 11:46 PM on February 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

I wrote a lot of letters and met a lot of people. I'm not sure if that would be different in my early 40s, as the letter writing had a lot to do with being 19 and soul-searchy. But I bet people would love hearing from you. Or you could start a blog?
posted by salvia at 12:02 AM on March 1, 2013 [3 favorites]

One thing I learned to do while traveling alone was eat in a sit-down restaurant by myself. Not while reading a book or newspaper, but just sitting and enjoying a meal (and this was in the days before the dining distraction of smartphones, so that didn't apply, but it's the same idea). Doing this (1) means that just because you are alone doesn't mean you can't enjoy fine dining; (2) opens up the possibility (if you want it, and depending on the venue) of interacting with fellow diners; and (3) has stayed with me as a useful skill.
posted by gubenuj at 12:13 AM on March 1, 2013 [3 favorites]

I usually travel alone, even though I am no longer single, since I travel extensively for work and so does my partner. I am also female.

Having lived alone for five years before moving in with my partner, I learned several habits that have served me well when traveling: how to comfortably eat in a restaurant by myself, how to walk around a city by myself looking like I mean business, and how to entertain myself. Transferring all those skills to being on travel is all you really need to do. Read up on your destination beforehand to learn about any well-known tourist scams. I'm usually good at doing that but still got scammed while getting a henna tattoo in Marrakech two weeks ago; oh well.

I personally like taking a book with me when I'm at a restaurant or cafe, though usually I might only be pretending to read it and I'll people-watch instead. Due to my introversion and, well, being female with all the associated cultural baggage, I prefer not to invite interaction by looking like I'm "lonely" (and in a number of countries I've been to, a woman, particularly a visibly foreign woman, sitting alone seems to invite attention from men who want to resolve the perceived loneliness) so I like appearing to be distracted. For these same reasons I also avoid opening up big maps in public (use Google Maps on your phone, or download maps locally to your phone to avoid using expensive data... either way it's more subtle than a massive paper map or guidebook). I do enjoy sitting at the bar at a restaurant, both to interact with the bartenders (if I speak their language or they speak mine) but also because in most places, a bartender will watch out for you. That can be helpful.

I have never been to a country where I did not at least speak a few words of the language, so I can't relate to the intimidation of not speaking any at all, but I would at least recommend to you that you learn to ask "Do you speak English?" in all the relevant languages, and to learn the word for "toilet" so you can ask hopefully if and when you require it. I've generally found that people in any country are much happier to speak in English to you (if they speak it) if you ask them first in their language.

This has become more challenging for me given that the nature of my job means I should not always be very public about where and when I am traveling, but until that was an issue for me, I found that posting "Heading to [place] this [timeframe]!" on Facebook and Twitter frequently yielded me someone to have lunch or a drink with, thanks to connections with friends-of-friends who were willing to introduce me to someone in the area I'd be in. Updating Facebook regularly also usually served as my "I'm not dead!" notification to family and friends.

Seconding the poster who said one of the benefits of traveling alone is getting to sit in your room eating takeout and watching local television (that's "understanding the local lifestyle" if you ask me and thus an entirely legitimate activity). I actually find it extremely difficult now to travel with people who want to go-go-go to every tourist attraction and historic site all day long. There's a lot to be said for an afternoon spent in a cafe without hearing your own language!
posted by olinerd at 1:13 AM on March 1, 2013 [5 favorites]

Bathroom finder
posted by artdrectr at 1:15 AM on March 1, 2013 [3 favorites]

I have never been to a country where I did not at least speak a few words of the language, so I can't relate to the intimidation of not speaking any at all, but I would at least recommend to you that you learn to ask "Do you speak English?" in all the relevant languages, and to learn the word for "toilet" so you can ask hopefully if and when you require it. I've generally found that people in any country are much happier to speak in English to you (if they speak it) if you ask them first in their language.

I'd also learn how to at least ask for directions and understand basic directions like 'straight ahead, left, right' and modes of transport like 'bus' and 'train' and then if you're comfortable with that then learn the words for basic, common foods, like chicken, beef, water, beer, etc.
posted by empath at 1:17 AM on March 1, 2013

I travel alone 80% of the time and far prefer it (mid-30s, female, tho I admit I usually travel to countries where I speak the language). Being able to do whatever you want, at your pace, is absolutely the best thing ever.

Seconding letter-writing! I have several penpals anyway and if I have a trip coming up, I save their letter for it. Also agree with olinerd about having unobtrusive maps/guides on your phone.

I have never mastered the "eating alone at a restaurant" thing (soooo self-conscious), so nowadays I am a lot happier renting on AirBnB and cooking dinner for myself. Going shopping for local food is super-exciting in itself.

Depending on your level of introversion, you might consider local Couchsurfing meetups. The CS community is just as much about socialising as staying on people's couches and they are super-inclusive due to the necessarily transitory nature of many members. You are unlikely to be the only person who doesn't know anyone at a meetup.
posted by ClarissaWAM at 2:51 AM on March 1, 2013

Stay in hostels. You'll meet tons of people you can spend the day with (if you want). Most will be younger, but they probably won't care.
posted by backwards guitar at 3:27 AM on March 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

I do this all the time and I'm currently doing a round the world trip by myself. It is super fun going places by yourself and very liberating.
Don't worry about the language. If you think a place is cool, so do a bunch of other tourists and the people there will be used to english. Even in places like rural Cambodia there will probably one person who knows a few words.
Bring a really good book so if you feel like just staying in your hotel with some wine and read, you can.
If you do want to meet people and talk then day tours are great for this. Small groups are better than big groups for this. You instantly have something in common in that you want to see the same thing and as mentioned above, you are the new interesting person.
I dont like going to bars by myself when travelling. I find it hard to strike up conversations there. (The only exception is when a football match is on. A conversation can be started by loudly saying "what is the bloody ref doing?" at almost any point in the game).

You do have to be more careful of your safety when travelling by yourself. But this really just means taking the same precautions that you usually do when you are alone.
posted by drugstorefrog at 3:34 AM on March 1, 2013

Spending quality time alone is amazing, the growing independence and self-reliance that comes with it is empowering.
Staying at hostels and taking structured toors is a good way to meet people and strike up conversations, and being somewhat older than the typical backpacker was never an issue in my experience.

But being alone means always doing what you want: taking long walks to get to places, often walking for hours to get to a museum, getting lost along the way and meeting people. Or just chilling for a day. Or spending aaages looking at a plant or finding just the right place for lunch.

My ebook reader became my most prized possession, and I was grateful for packing light, so I never had to worry about hauling my stuff.
Volunteering and stuff like wwofing meant I could meet people and interact with them in a way I wouldn't normally have a chance to do. It's also nice having a structured schedule for a change.
I would learn numbers, and basic questions in the native languages. That's always appreciated although to be honest, it's amazing how much of communication is about body language and signs.

In places like China, travelling the cheap way on trains served a double purpose: I felt safer being in crowds rather than the posher 4-people compartments that sometimes meant ending up alone with a strange man. (I'm female.)
It also meant that people took care of me - people would have their children speak to me in English to make sure I knew where I was going and that I would get off at the right stop. Or once at a bus station where I was the only foreigner, they even had an announcement in English over the speakerphone to make sure I got on the bus. That's so sweet!
In the middle of a dark dirtroad in Cambodia, where no one spoke English and I only had a map to show people where I was going, a family sent out a man on a motorbike to guide through the maze of streets back to my hostel.
Stuff like that is cool and stays with you. People are kind.

You do need to be aware of your surroundings and taking precautions to be safe, before and during your trip.

Clearly, I could go on and on but maybe you can just drop me a line if you want more rambles.

The gist is do it! You will have loads of fun, meet lovely people, and enjoy spending time alone.
I'm like you and do fine if people approach me but shy about striking up conversations. That's fine. Plenty of friendly people out there.
posted by mkdirusername at 3:57 AM on March 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

I asked a similar question recently, and subsequently holidayed alone with success, I don't have time to write about it in much more detail right now but the advice I got in that question was good.

I did get lonely, but never got bored. It forces you to be braver, more confident in yourself and, weirdly, to relax a bit more.

Memail me if you want to chat about it any time :)
posted by greenish at 5:32 AM on March 1, 2013

I'm a mid-20s female who always travel alone. I don't have lonely issues partly because I can make a lot of new friends. Generally, solo female traveler meets more people. My main concern is safety. Here are some of my general rules of thumb:

1. Plan, plan and plan ahead! I will always check hotel reviews, book accommodation online, check the weather forecast, find out what are the main attractions, check city/google map, how to travel from airport to my hotel/hostel, what day tours available (this helps in planning my itinerary even if I'm not planning to take the tours).

2. Don't travel after dark and avoid quiet places

3. Never leave your handbag or luggage unattended. Keep passport and valuables I don't need in the locker or safe. I always make sure the hostel i stay has lockers especially when I carry a laptop. If I wanna go swimming at the beach, I make sure I only take what I need like handphone, enough cash and maybe a scan copy of my passport. I'll try to make friends on the boat and ask somebody to watch my belongings. I'm considering getting a waterproof armband in the future.

3. Always trust your instinct. If a person makes you feel uncomfortable, excuse yourself and leave as soon as possible.

4. Do expect miscommunication to happen due to language and cultural differences. It can be distressing but it's all part of the traveling experience.

5. I'm cautious not to reveal too much information about myself but that generally depends on the countries I travel to and people I meet.

6. I always try to travel light because traveling alone also means nobody will watch my luggage. This usually means one backpack/handbag and one trolley luggage. I never have any problem getting my luggage into any airport toilet.

7. Whenever I'm not sure about doing something, I tell myself it's better to be safe than sorry.
posted by liltiger at 5:41 AM on March 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

One thing that's hard for me when travelling by myself is that I have a tendancy to want to DO ALL THE THINGS and when there's no one with me to suggest going back to the hotel to take a nap, I can easily wear myself out. Do make sure you listen to yourself and take care of yourself, and be sure to take the time to sit in the hotel and watch British reality shows whenever necessary or appealing.
posted by LeeLanded at 6:35 AM on March 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

I would occasionally feel a little alone, but for just a few minutes, usually in a place like Amsterdam's Dam Square. And I liked it.
posted by troywestfield at 6:43 AM on March 1, 2013

- I only speak English and am a little trepidatious about being alone in a non-English speaking country

There are no non-English speaking countries anymore.

I understand that you meant a country where the majority of people's native language is not English, but in anywhere large enough to have a train station or a three-srtory building, you'll find someone who can speak English, even if only enough to direct you to a person on the next block who speaks it well enough to communicate with you. For anything more remote, study the local language first or have a guidebook (preferably one with icons you can point at for "hospital" or "train station" or "restaurant").

But if you're going to, like, Europe? English will get you everywhere you want to go, especially if you take an hour to learn "I'm sorry, I only speak English" in a variety of other languages.
posted by Etrigan at 6:49 AM on March 1, 2013

Start in the British Isles. There's lots to see and do, they're easy to get around by public transit or car, it's very safe for women traveling alone, you speak the language, and outside of big cities like London and Dublin, people often strike up a chat in the pub when they hear your American accent. Also every time I went on an organized afternoon tour as a solo traveler, I got half a dozen invitations from other tourists to join them that night for dinner.

German-speaking countries and Nordic countries are also extremely safe for women traveling alone and have very high levels of natives who are fluent in English, so those would also be good choices.

Always learn a few phrases in the host language: Please, thank you, where is the bathroom?, I'm sorry I only know a little French do you speak English?, and how to order at least one common food that you can eat. You get good-guest points for respecting the local language and 99% of everyone immediately switches into English anyway. (In fact you will be frustrated if you are TRYING to learn the local language because everyone is going to speak English to you.)

I always took a book about the place I was visiting -- a good history, a great novel, a popular book of amusing essays -- and if I felt lonely, usually on long train rides or at dinner, I could read that and still be "in" my experience of the place. Plus if you're reading currently-popular local books (I was reading "Notes from a Small Island" on the Tube not too long after it came out, that book was conversation bait of the highest order) or books that everyone in your host country had to read in high school, EVERYONE will strike up conversations with you about them. "Ah, I see you are reading Dostoyevsky, his writing of human nature is excellent, yes?" (The answer, of course, is always how very much you are enjoying the native writer!)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:57 AM on March 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

1) Know yourself -- don't plan a packed itinerary if sight-seeing wears you out, but don't go places with no plans if you'd be likely to hide in your hotel. Do you love to explore, or prefer that somebody else point you in the way of neat things? An advantage of age is knowing what pace and what places are likely to make for fun.

2) Do read up on places. Whether you decide to make up your own route across a continent or take a package tour that handles all the logistics, you'll get a lot more out of the trip if you know what the great places are all about -- either you'll design a customized schedule, or you'll pick the right trip to hit things you really want to see, and/or you may decide to allow extra time in an area known for lovely places to just hang about, or full of art you particularly love.

3) Decide in advance whether the trip is About Solitude, or whether you are just traveling alone. Solo travel is a great way to meet people, whether in hostels, on trains, or just sipping coffee in a cafe -- having another person along actually encloses you in a shell, and some of my favorite chat and off-the-beaten-path exploring have derived from serendipitious encounters. Does that description sound fun or nightmarish? Plan accordingly.

4) English is spoken many places, but it never hurts to familiarize yourself with at least the polite/common expressions page of a Berlitz phrasebook -- just being able to ask for service or inquire about something politely will win you good feelings, even if the discussion ends up being conducted in English (or hand gestures). Plus, you might find you get farther with a little than you ever thought.

5) How much to worry about your security varies a lot with country and part of the world. Japan is about the most foreign-feeling place I've been, and I couldn't have felt more comforatable traveling by myself. In contrast, some southern European countries (notably Italy and Greece) are quite chauvenist, which can make you feel insecure on the street in a way that has nothing to do with getting robbed. It is worth reading a good guide for any country(s) you're thinking of visiting, so that you can trust your judgement of the location around your hotel. But in my experience, I'm much more of a day person when traveling (up early for a lazy coffee, day full of sights, whipped after dinner and home with a book) than at home, so you may not need to worry much about the night streets. Your ability to judge safety for yourself may depend on your experience with, say, big cities in general.

6) Otherwise, i guess my main advice (absent any guidance on how much you've traveled in general) would be to make sure to vary it up -- 6 days of castles might kill your enthusiasm, but 2 days of castles, one touring wineries, 2 days of museums, and a day lollygagging in a sunlit square might be just lovely. Try to anticipate the need for downtime in a longer trip and build it in.

Good luck! Just thinking about it gives me the itch to go, but I fear I'm in the pile of busy parents who can barely find the time to breathe, let alone travel right now, sigh. Hope you have a great trip!
posted by acm at 7:15 AM on March 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

I wouldn't go quite so far as Etrigan in saying only speaking English not going to be a problem, but it's usually going to be an inconvenience rather than a danger. Like, I could not find one freaking English-speaking person in Ankara (Turkey) between the bus station and the museum I was looking for. It's a city of 5 million people! It's the capital of a large country! There's a university! And nobody could give me even the vaguest of directions! But I'm confident that if I had been in real trouble, and not just hot and tired and annoyed, someone would have gotten me to someone who could help.

The thing I like best about travelling alone is that if you get somewhere (be it a museum or a city or a country) and you realize you don't like it for whatever reason, you can just leave! And on the other hand, you can stay as long as you want if you like something. You can go off plan for any damn reason you choose.
posted by mskyle at 7:28 AM on March 1, 2013

I'm in my early 50s and have been traveling alone for several years. Here's what I do, in case it's useful:

Before I go:

- Book a hotel for at least the first few days. If I'll be arriving at night, I'll also have the hotel pick me up. I use TripAdvisor and filter my searches by "business traveller" so I get good feedback about internet access.

- Use TripIt to store my itinerary and share it with a friend.

- Put interesting places on a map app in my iPhone and buy an international data plan.

- Put scans of my passport, health insurance card, visa, etc. on the iPhone, which is locked with a password.

- Download a handy-phrases app if I don't speak the language and learn how to say "hello," "please," "thank you," and as many numbers as I can stuff into my brain.

- If I'm going to a seriously unfamiliar place where I don't speak the language, such as Thailand, I plan the first few days to be in a tourist-oriented place, like Chiang Mai.

While I travel:

- Blog or Facebook about the trip as I go, which reduces the alone factor considerably.

- Read a book when I eat at restaurants.

- Prepare my "city face" when I'm in a culture that allows street harassment of women. Even at my age I get some of it because I'm tall, clearly foreign, and alone. My city face says this: "I don't see you or hear you; you don't exist; I'm heading somewhere interesting and that's all I'm thinking about."

- Occasionally join a tour but mostly travel by myself so I can go at my own pace, which is considerably slower than a tour pace because I'm an amateur-but-serious photographer.

You might consider hiring a personal, female guide if the cost isn't too steep. In one country, I hired a young woman who drove me around for two days and gave me all sorts of insight that I would never have gotten otherwise.
posted by ceiba at 7:37 AM on March 1, 2013 [3 favorites]

I went to Amsterdam on my own last year. It was only for a few days - so there was no risk of getting lonely - and I did really like being able to wander round and stop anywhere I wanted without having to worry about what other people wanted to do. I took a train to Utrecht and had a pancake by the canal just because I could. I tried to have a conversation in a grocery museum about my boyfriend really liking liquorice with someone who didn't speak much English but was very friendly. It was great.

Admittedly Amsterdam is less 'foreign' than, say, Burma - partly because you can vaguely read Dutch posters, and partly because English is as commonly spoken as Dutch. It's also quite a touristy city, the food in supermarkets looks pretty much the same, and it doesn't feel unknown or difficult. I had no problems at all. As I was travelling alone and didn't want to deal with drunk/stoned people, I took a room in a Christian hostel, despite being non-religious - as I was there in the off-season, I got the shared room to myself, the ban on alcohol meant it was quiet, and the religious aspect was kept to a minimum. (In one country we visited last year - I can't remember now if it was in Helsinki or Tallinn- there was a boarding house run by nuns. It sounded lovely and peaceful, but was only available to single-sex travellers.)

I didn't go to the Red Light District because it didn't interest me, and I didn't go to any weed cafes or places where stag parties were likely to turn up. You can avoid the busy places and the rowdy drunks if you need and want to (and if you're travelling in the UK I'd recommend researching where this is likely to be - Reading town centre on a Friday night for example.) I went to a bar on my own as I decided I quite wanted a drink, but it was a quiet side-street place with a dusty chandelier and people talking about Fellini in Dutch, and it felt a quite comfortable place to sit on my own reading a Kindle - some noisier bars or pubs might feel less welcoming if you're on your own. (I had the In Your Pocket guide, which you can download free from the website for many European cities - it had good information on where you could go to party and where you could go for a quiet drink.)
posted by mippy at 8:25 AM on March 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

Mid-thirties female, have traveled a lot on my own.

As others have said, you can find an English speaker most anywhere. However, do learn how to say "hello," "thank you," and "do you speak English?" in the native language; people will greatly appreciate even this small effort to respect their language. When greeting someone, I typically say "hello" in the native language, then "hello" in English to indicate that I'm not fluent in the language, then "do you speak English?" in the native language.

Cultivate a look of confidence. Dress conservatively to avoid unwanted male attention. Don't tell men that you're traveling alone. If a guy tries conversing with you and you want to get away, tell them something like "sorry, I have to go now; my husband is waiting for me" (sometimes it's ok to lie a little).

Stay in small guesthouses or good-quality hostels. These places usually have more character than hotels, the hosts are usually very friendly and useful, and you'll tend to meet people more easily.

Don't carry a purse or something that can be snatched easily. Use a money bag. Keep cash, credit cards, passport, and other important stuff with you at all times. Keep a stack of cash in a secure pocket, with a few small bills in an easily accessible place. Don't ever, ever show anyone your stack of cash (I speak from experience!!).

Lonely Planet has an online forum called Thorn Tree that's full of good info, and you can ask questions pertinent to whatever country you're considering.

Have fun! Traveling on your own is awesome.
posted by phoenix_rising at 8:48 AM on March 1, 2013

Response by poster: Wonderful suggestions and advice everyone! It seems appropriate that today (3/1) is apparently National Plan a Solo Vacation Day. Seems like a sign to me...
posted by cecic at 9:27 AM on March 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think you should probably not go to locations that are known to be more difficult for solo women travelers to start off with. Do some practice runs so to speak.

I had spent some time in east Africa (as well as other travels thru Europe, the Caribbean, the South Pacific etc.) and I tried doing a trip to India alone. I loved seeing the sights there but I found the hawkers and touts and beggars to be completely overwhelming. They nearly ruined my day several times. Perhaps you're better at dealing with people harassing you than I am (you probably are), but these people are relentless. The other developing countries I had visited, the beggars etc. were either geographically confined to certain locations or teasing tourists was more of a pastime. In India, it was a full time job, and they were everywhere, morning to night, at every tourist attraction and on every street. I found it exhausting.

Also, not all 'non-English speaking' places are created equal. For example, I had no trouble getting by in east Africa without being able to say more in the local language than "hello" or "thank you". So I thought I'd be fine going to Chile because I know some rudimentary Spanish phrases. I flew into a fairly small airport in the southern part of the country (rather than flying into a main city) and I was stuck there until a flight arrived with one other person who spoke English on it, because I couldn't figure out how to change currency, and without money, I couldn't get out of the airport. No one there spoke a word of English or was able to understand what I needed.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 10:45 AM on March 1, 2013

I travel alone a lot for work and for vacations.

I've said it before here, but I really like looking for themed walking tours as a way to indulge my interests and meet other people with similar interests. For example, in New York, I did one of Scott's Pizza Tours and it was just the right dose of meeting new people. As I'm into food, I also like cooking classes or food tours - some cooking classes may be more aimed at locals than tourists and vice versa.

As an alternative to a book in a cafe, I have started sketching sometimes. I don't think I can really draw for nuts, but is interesting in the way it makes you focus on your surroundings and look at them closer.

I tend to eat out more during the day, and perhaps get take out or if I am renting an apartment, cook myself. Lunch deals are often cheaper, and there is a more casual feel in the day (I am fine eating by myself, but there are some places where it feels easier than others).

I try and wear stuff that either blends in with what locals wear (if it is a Western city, e.g. I wear appropriate city clothing and carry a regular handbag, not special travel clothes and a backpack). If it is in a more foreign country, I try and wear what an expat would wear in that location (for example, in Bangkok, expats will wear jeans despite the heat, whereas tourists rarely do).

I don't speak any foreign languages and have rarely found that a particular problem. But always carry a business card from your hotel - between that, and some sign language about prices, you can usually get a taxi from anywhere. Carry a cellphone and know how to use it when you are overseas (e.g. the right dialling codes). Be alert to who is watching you, know how long a journey is expected to take (I find googling something like 'how long does it take to get from the airport to the city' is useful) and have a sense of where you are going.
posted by AnnaRat at 8:46 PM on March 1, 2013

Traveling alone can be both a liberating and frightening experience. I think much of it comes down to your personality type. Nowadays, however, with hostel and couch-surfing networks all over the world, you never have to be alone for very long if you don't want to be.

What should I know about traveling solo?

"To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world." - Freya Stark

What are the pitfalls?

Feelings of loneliness, homesickness, sometimes anxious/awkward problems arise that would always be better to have someone with you at the time.

If you've done it, how did you keep it from being a lonely experience?

Books, a bit of contact with home from time to time, striking up conversations with people you meet, particularly friendly locals or other travelers.
posted by ageispolis at 11:41 AM on March 2, 2013

I did travel alone for 10 days in 2011, visiting California and I would definitely do it again. It was amazing, being alone allowed me to know me better, to travel without having to negociate what I wanted to do with anybody. I would say plan everything ahead and just enjoy. I took a lot of pictures, comtemplated the sceneries and just enjoyed. I am sure you will have a great time.

If you feel alone, just call or email your family or friends!
posted by daile at 5:14 PM on March 3, 2013

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