Is Bali a safe choice for the first time traveller ?
January 6, 2014 5:44 PM   Subscribe

I am a 27 year old female and I want to take an international trip in March. I have never travelled solo and haven't been outside the US in years. I would love to go to Bali but I'm wondering if I might be biting off more than I can chew.

Other info:
- I am very self-reliant in general. I live alone and take pride in figuring out stuff by myself. I am very comfortable (excited) at the prospect of 2 or 3 weeks by myself.
- That said, I have little experience with travel and pretty much zilch when it comes to international travel. I am not an airhead but I can't wrap my head around some of the issues I can foresee. For example - if I fly into the airport at 3:40 am how do I get anywhere ? And if I fly from boston to Tokyo to Taipei city, how does it work in the airport - do I have to figure out a million lines at each stop because I'm leaving one country and entering another? And once I'm on the ground - what do I actually do with my stuff when I am out and about ? leave it in my homestay?

I realize that these are silly questions. I really want to go to Bali but I would be so happy to go to many places. Do you think the hassle of the learning curve of a first time traveller makes it worth it to go someplace a little safer and milder, like Ireland, before attempting Bali? (I would be psyched to go to Ireland too!)

Thanks very much. The reason why I haven't travelled yet and I'm so late into my 20s is because I have been suffering from depression but in the last year have made big strides. I have wanted to travel for so long. I'm finally feeling better to the point where excitement of a trip is overtaking fear of the unknown, so this is really pushing myself.
posted by pintapicasso to Travel & Transportation (24 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I would save Bali for later, when you have a little more travel under your belt. I think Ireland, however, would be a GREAT choice for a first solo international trip. There are loads of very pleasant hostels where it's easy to meet people. Everyone speaks English. It's easy to get to from North America (if that's where you are) - if you live near a major city you probably won't even need a layover. It's relatively easy to get around the country (and cities) on buses.

I really like traveling by myself, but three weeks can be a really long time and feel isolating. Again, for a first trip, something more like 10-14 days might be better, and that's plenty of time to see the highlights of Ireland. Do it! You'll have a great time.
posted by goodbyewaffles at 5:56 PM on January 6, 2014 [5 favorites]

Making connections for international flights is, in my experience, pretty much the same as domestic (at least in major airports). You can always ask people who work for your airline where you need to be. Sometimes you have to go through security again, but it's the same basic procedure.

I laughed when I saw you said Ireland is also an option because that was the first place I ever travelled internationally on my own and it was a great experience. If you're nervous about getting to and around Bali I definitely recommend Ireland as a first time trip.
posted by brilliantine at 5:58 PM on January 6, 2014

I would go to Bali!! Bali is amazing. The people are gentle and lovely, the culture is beautiful and intricate, the landscape is lush. It'll be more of a challenge than Ireland (I've been to both) but well worth it - stretch yourself!

I'm biased 'cause I've been to Bali five or six times, including living there for nearly a year (volunteer work). I have a love affair with that little island. Memail me if you'd like more info. :)
posted by Salamander at 6:03 PM on January 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

My parents who are in their early 70's went to Bali recently. They stayed at the Marriott or something, but ended up taking a taxi or something around the island.

I could not believe it, as I once left my parents overnight at a hotel in Japan (they had to catch a flight) about ten years ago and my Mom phoned me up whispering that there were people "talking out on the street."
posted by KokuRyu at 6:07 PM on January 6, 2014 [3 favorites]

Go for it! Bali is gorgeous, the food is good and cheap, the people are kind and helpful. I felt perfectly fine traveling to Bali alone as a 30yo-ish woman, but I should mention that a) I'm a pretty experienced traveller, b) I'm somewhat cavalier about travel things that stress other people out, and c) I spent the majority of my time at a dive "resort" (really just a hotel across the street from an amazing dive spot). Even so, I found Bali really easy.

The airport bit is easy; there will be signs indicating where to go for international connections, and even if you somehow get turned around, airport staff members basically everywhere speak English.

As for landing at 4am, the easiest thing to do is book your hotel ahead of time (at least for your first few days) and arrange for them to send a driver to pick you up. I think I paid $50ish for this, but that involved a ~2hr drive from Denpasar up to Tulamben.

I leave things in my room while travelling, but I do take some basic precautions -- cable lock for my laptop when I have it, use the in-room safe for my passport and cash, stuff like that.

I also laughed when I saw the suggestions for Ireland, because if I had the tropics in mind, Ireland is about the last second choice I'd come up with :)
posted by ktkt at 6:17 PM on January 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

Travelling would really help discover your temperament as a traveller, so go for it! sounds fun.

Bali is lovely, but has been developing a reputation for petty crime, but this is avoidable as long as you avoid the party crowd in Kuta. As long as you're sensible, you should be fine. However, I would suggest having a firm itinerary or hopping on some tours when you're on the ground, as the locals outside of the touristy service providers would not be able to speak English well, though they will try to be helpful.
posted by cendawanita at 6:26 PM on January 6, 2014

Bali has a very well-established tourist industry and that makes things a million times easier. People in the popular tourist areas will speak English and be ready to help. There are lots of Bali travel guides out there, so you can study up and get prepared. Making prior arrangement with the hotel and having them send a driver to fetch you is great advice as you're arriving at an odd time.

If you were planning a trek through Mongolia, I'd tell you to try something else - but travel to Bali is easy as so much there is designed with tourists in mind. With some internet and book study, you'll be prepared. I agree that the stretch to try something so different will pay off in spades when it comes to the confidence you'll earn. Keep in mind that there are pickpockets and thieves everywhere in the world. You don't need to leave the country to find that. Be smart and aware and you'll be ok.

There are lots of MeFite travelers, so if you need further advice once you get things booked, come back and ask!
posted by quince at 6:29 PM on January 6, 2014

If millions of eighteen year old Australians can handle Bali, you can probably handle Bali.

For example - if I fly into the airport at 3:40 am how do I get anywhere ?

Guidebooks are a great resource for questions like this. However, as an experienced traveler to a part of Asia where travelers often arrive in the wee hours just because of how time zones and airline schedules work, my first guess is that there will probably be taxis. Anytime there are flights arriving, there are going to be taxis, because taxi drivers want to earn money. You may need to take special consideration in selecting a taxi and behaving in the taxi due to the hour*, but there will almost certainly be a taxi.

I would personally opt not to stay in a homestay after arriving so late, just because it seems sort of rude. You should get a hotel the first night then go to the homestay the following day, at a reasonable hour for expecting guests.

And if I fly from boston to Tokyo to Taipei city, how does it work in the airport - do I have to figure out a million lines at each stop because I'm leaving one country and entering another?

No. You'll board in Boston, arrive in Tokyo and then again in Taipei, and stay in the airport terminal for your layover. You may be given customs and immigration forms on the plane (because many of your fellow passengers will have Tokyo or Taipei as their final destination), but you almost certainly won't need them. You might want to read up on the airports to double check that this is the case, but every time I've flown internationally and had a layover in a third unrelated country, I have not had to go through customs or immigration because I was technically not entering the country.

And once I'm on the ground - what do I actually do with my stuff when I am out and about ? leave it in my homestay?

You'll take ground transportation (again, probably a taxi) to wherever you're staying, and then for the most part you'll leave most things there during the day while you enjoy Bali. A lot of people like to carry a "day pack" or slightly larger handbag to fit a camera, travel journal, guidebook, and the like.

*I have no experience with Bali, but when I flew into Mumbai at 2AM, I was advised to ONLY take the official airport pre-paid taxi service, pay in advance at the window rather than paying the driver, and never under any circumstances allow the driver to take you ANYWHERE other than your hotel, or to pick up ANY other passengers, even a "friend". I'd guess Bali isn't quite as wild and wooly as all that, but again, a guidebook can provide more specific information.
posted by Sara C. at 7:00 PM on January 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

quince is right, Bali is well-prepared for tourists. The party scene in Kuta can be easily avoided if it's not your thing, and it's where most of the petty crime and horrible traveller experiences are. Outside of the few blocks that make up Kuta, you can find beautiful scenery and experiences.

I'm not an experienced traveller by any means. I stayed in the next section over from Kuta in a chain hotel with two girlfriends, ate mostly at local places, took day trips out to waterfalls, crafts markets, parasailing, white-water rafting and the volcano. We got ripped off by a few taxi drivers, but since the exchange rate was so strongly in favour of the Aussie dollar it didn't put the slightest dent in our budget. I figure the drivers have got families to feed, whatever, at least they got us where we wanted to be on time. We also scheduled a rest day to sit by the hotel pool to read and swim and drink cocktails, which was quite a relief for me as an introvert.

If you have any problems your hotel or hosts will likely be very helpful. As a single woman you're more likely to get hassle from drunk tourists, but tourist family groups and the locals will be more than happy to help if you have problems. It's a family-oriented culture so I think a homestay would be a really lovely way to experience the place.

Indonesian is not difficult to learn if you just want the basics, but many Balinese speak job-related English and I got by with please, thankyou, no thankyou, no money (useful in markets for persistent sellers, as long as you are honest and don't just buy something at the next stall), where is... that sort of thing.

That said, I've never been to Ireland but I bet it's great too. It's just that if Bali is your first choice there's no reason not to go even if you're alone.
posted by harriet vane at 7:16 PM on January 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

Do you think the hassle of the learning curve of a first time traveller makes it worth it to go someplace a little safer and milder, like Ireland, before attempting Bali? (I would be psyched to go to Ireland too!)

On my first trip out of the country, I bought a one way ticket to Guatemala and spent three months in Central America by myself. I didn't know a word of Spanish. I survived. Go where you want to go. You'll manage. Read up on where you're going, get travel insurance, make sure you have a place to stay when you land -- you'll start meeting other travellers on the first day and you won't be alone.
posted by empath at 7:38 PM on January 6, 2014 [1 favorite]

Also -- use the /r/travel subreddit and Lonely Planet forums and trip advisor. There are a lot of people who do this kind of thing and they have plenty of advice -- almost every question you asked has been asked there before.

As far as your specific questions -- don't buy a flight that lands at 3 in the morning in an unfamiliar city -- land in the morning, give your self plenty of daylight to find transportation, a hotel, get a meal, etc.

And yes, at every airport you need to figure out lines, but there are signs in english and poeple that speak english in pretty much every major airport in the world. If you're confused, talk to the airline people, that's what they're there for.

As far as where you leave your stuff, yeah, you either lock it in a safe or leave it with the homestay if you're doing a home stay. Take as few valuables as you can on your first trip, because you're probably going to lose stuff or get it stolen. That's just part of travelling.
posted by empath at 7:43 PM on January 6, 2014

Bali in March is an excellent choice.

First, a bit of a warning, do not schedule your return flight on Nyepi, the Balinese New Year, March 31, because the airport will be closed.

If you are worried about arriving late at night*, book a hotel in Legian or Seminyak for the first night that will send a driver to pick you up. Or just take a taxi. It's perfectly safe. Kuta is for the party-hearty/package tour crowd.

Then I'd suggest going up to Ubud for the rest of your stay. It is smaller, less frenetic, more centrally located and a better option for finding budget accommodation. You can easily book a driver to take you around sight-seeing but there are a LOT of things to see and do in Ubud itself.

Memail me if you need more specific advice and recommendations. I'm here right now.

*My first trip to Bali, I landed at the airport around 10 o'clock at night (breaking one of my primary rules of travelling, never arrive late at night). I had been told to take a bemo (public transport) from "outside the airport gate" as it was cheaper than a taxi. What with waiting for someone's lost luggage and backpacker's kismet, there was a group of around 5 of us who were similarly adrift. We couldn't find a bemo... because they stopped running at sunset, we decided to walk to Kuta. I mean, it didn't look far on the map in Lonely Planet and it was a nice night. What a sight. Taxi after taxi stopped to ask if we wanted a ride and finally, after spending what seemed like an eternity walking on one long road without even coming to the first intersection, we accepted, after bargaining hard, I'm sure. Not. We didn't even have the name of a guesthouse and anyway, it was so late and just after Christmas so everything was booked anyway. Finally the taxi driver stopped at a hotel under construction and the night watchman let us sleep in a bale, a thatched roof, open-sided pavilion, that had wooden beds with mats on them. He showed us a bathroom we could use to wash up and he brought us tea. So that's where I slept on my first night in Bali. I'm sure you will do better.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 8:03 PM on January 6, 2014 [4 favorites]

Nthing Ubud, much nicer. You will be fine, thousands of Aussies go every year. Avoid the party scene, and avoid very cheap pre-mixed cocktails etc as there have been a few isolated issues with methanol poisoning.
posted by smoke at 8:19 PM on January 6, 2014

I walked around in Ubud (an inland town) alone in the middle of the night as a 28-year-old woman with no problems except some stray dogs that made me feel nervous (but they ran away when I picked up a rock). It's probably one of the safest places I've been to.

The beach party towns might be different, though, since there's a higher proportion of drunk foreign tourists there.
posted by Jacqueline at 8:22 PM on January 6, 2014

Echoing the sentiment that Bali is easy. But... that is in comparison to travel in other developing countries. If you've never been to a developing country, then you may still find certain things challenging. I think it depends on your enthusiasm/tolerance for things like frequent interactions with touts and the degree of decay and chaos in traffic and general infrastructure. It's really fine, I think, and I don't know anyone who has not coped with this, per se, but some people don't like it. These things plus the heat and humidity will probably result in some culture shock. T

he things that make Bali easy are that there are literally people all around you who would be happy to help you with directions/getting a taxi/a hotel room/to your restaurant, and that it is very well touristed.

Getting in to the airport at 3am will be no problem whatsoever, and if you get 'ripped off' it will be a matter of 2-3 dollars, not 10 or 20. You can get a taxi from the stand or you can walk outside the airport proper and get a cheaper one. If you are travelling for the first time I would not bother trying to get the cheaper ones just because it will be a little more nerve-wracking for you. Bali (and most of Sth East Asia) is largely set up like this. The bolder/more adventurous/more willing to attempt the language you are, the better deals you will get. But there is nothing wrong with taking the well travelled path for your first trip. Even easier-- most hotels will send a driver if you are staying somewhere mid-range or above.

Ireland is beautiful and will be even easier than Bali because people will speak English and will have more common cultural expectations of you, and you of them. But I would not say that Bali is difficult by most people's standards.

Nthing- avoid Kuta. Ubud has become a lot busier but is still a lovely place. Seminyak is nicer than Kuta by a long shot and on the beach. The Lonely Planet guides can give you much more detailed info on how to do your trip well.
posted by jojobobo at 9:03 PM on January 6, 2014

Before I ever traveled alone, I was terrified of the idea. But then I wound up doing so sort of accidentally after a study abroad experience in Thailand and had a great time. What I noticed is that there are actually lots and lots of young people who travel alone in South East Asia and have a great time - in fact, I enjoyed it so much that, two years later, I took 6 months off and traveled through South East Asia and the Indian Subcontinent alone and, again, had a great time.

I still have not been to Bali, but from what I heard from other travelers I met in South East Asia, it's completely fine for a solo woman, taking into account the good advice here from people who have been there.

I say, if something about Bali has inspired you to take this step and travel alone, you should go to Bali. Traveling is so much more fun when you're going somewhere that gives you tingles at the thought of it.

There are also things you can do to make traveling alone more fun. You'll meet lots of interesting people if you stay in hostels instead of hotels (though if you don't want to be with a bunch of 19-year-old British and Aussie kids, stay at slightly nicer/more expensive ones); day tours can be fun and/or enriching if you choose the right (non-cheesy) ones; same goes for short courses.
posted by lunasol at 10:03 PM on January 6, 2014

I'm not sure about recommending Bali. I have travelled there twice as a female alone (the first time was my first ever overseas trip) and once with a female friend. The times I went alone were horrible. I found the constant begging and harassment from people trying to sell things or chat you up very disturbing. I wore a fake wedding ring and dressed modestly and still felt quite unsafe. (Nothing bad actually happened, though). I found taxi drivers particularly bad. Eventually I ended up not leaving my hotel because going out was too stressful.

Travelling with another person was a different experience altogether. The locals just leave groups alone more than they do for single people.

(Of course, there were plenty of very nice locals too, and probably even some of those who approached me were just being friendly, but as a first time traveller overwhelmed by that already, it was too too much.)

My experience in Vietnam was similar, by the way, but on the other hand I have been to plenty of (Polynesian) Pacific Islands which have been the total opposite, and where I felt very safe (Tonga, Samoa, the Cook Islands). They are much more expensive, though. I also found East Timor much less stressful than Indonesia, even though objectively it is probably less safe. People were just more reticient and also maybe less used to tourists (and therefore less out to exploit them).
posted by lollusc at 10:58 PM on January 6, 2014

HA! I misread this while scanning headline as a "time traveling" question.
posted by Classic Diner at 6:13 AM on January 7, 2014 [1 favorite]

I am an American citizen who used to live in Bali, Indonesia. I moved there (with my cousin) without visiting the country first and I didn't know much about Indonesian culture or the language itself.

I am not sure if I would recommend it for your first intentional trip. While Bali is a very easy place to travel as a Westerner, Balinese culture and its customs are very different than the West. You could wind up experiencing some culture shock or inadvertently offending the locals. For example, during my first weeks in Bali, I wound up feeling homesick because I didn't understand how to adjust to the pace of life and the culture, and I seriously thought about heading home after I fell into a drainage ditch and had to get rescued by a 70 year old farmer. (The whole village heard me scream and came out to watch me get fished out of the ditch.)

In addition, Going in March means you will wind up there during rainy season, when it is very hot, rainy, and humid. It's much more temperate and less rainy between May and August, if you can swing that time frame.

If you would like more specific information, please feel free to memail me. I still have some contacts in Ubud that should help you with your trip.
posted by emilynoa at 6:31 AM on January 7, 2014

Hmm. So in my experience, everyone spoke English in Bali, at least in all the towns/homestays/hotels/restaurants I went to. So that was easy. The part that wasn't easy was that the locals were CONSTANTLY trying to sell you stuff or offering you rides. You would be walking on the sidewalk and would constantly hear "you look? you buy? looky here, look nice, you looky, yes? yes, looky here nice scarf" or "need a ride? taxi? taxi? you taxi yes? you ride taxi yes?" and that got freaking ANNOYING. Also, I took a taxi from the airport, and my taxi driver kept telling me that I have a nice body. Super creepy. And also he drove like a MANIAC (and I've been to Thailand before, so it wasn't my first experience being in a car where there are crazy drivers and 5 people per moped driving next to us). Luckily I met a girl there who recommended me a really good non-creepy driver (more expensive than hiring a random person, but I felt much safer). I might have his contact information somewhere if you decide to go.

As other said, Kuta sucks, the locals were very rude there, probably because they always have to deal with asshole drunk tourists. Ubud and Sanur were both beautiful and relaxing, and if you do any tours then the tour guides are super nice and friendly and give you good local tips if you have any questions. The monkey forest in Ubud was actually kind of scary at times, the monkeys could get pretty aggressive and I was glad that I met another girl who was there by herself, so we hung out together. Uluwatu was kind of a tourist trap, however I saw the most incredible sunset ever there, and their dance show was only around $8, so it wasn't that bad, and the view from the cliffs is amazing, it brought me to tears.

All that said, Bali was beautiful and very relaxing. I got a massage every day. That was heavenly. Dress modestly, stay hydrated, buy a guidebook, and you'll be OK.
posted by at 9:39 AM on January 7, 2014

I just got back from Bali and it is indeed amazing. There's two kinds of experiences you can easily have there. Cheap expat beach parties at the beaches in the south, and interesting cultural experiences up in Ubud. Both are great and different. As folks have remarked above, Bali is quite well set up for tourists and the people are friendly, honest, and helpful.

Bali is also very cheap by American standards and if you're willing to spend a little money you can do very well. Ie, my hotel (Intercontinental in Jimbaran) arranged a great car with an English speaking driver for me for $10/hour. That may well have been double the going rate but it was cheap enough for me, convenient, and easy. A bit of personal help like this is very useful in Bali; it's not an easy place to navigate on your own.

But if you've never travelled internationally before I hesitate a bit at recommending Bali as a first destination. Being alone in a foreign country can be disorienting and Bali is quite foreign. If you're gregarious and make friends with other tourists and want to hang out and be easy going, it's fine. If you want to meet Aussie surfers and drink cheap beer on the beach I think it'd be fantastic. But if you'd like something a little less foreign or challenging, or a city you can engage with the way you live in the US, then maybe Japan or Western Europe would be an easier place to go first.
posted by Nelson at 12:36 PM on January 7, 2014

As others have mentioned, just stay out of Kuta. The calls of "Transport?" from anyone with a motorbike never end, but nobody minds if you ignore them. In Ubud, I'd highly recommend the cook classes at Warung Enak. Excellent, and something you can do on your own, but perhaps also meet some interesting people.
posted by Gotanda at 1:22 PM on January 8, 2014

I dunno. For a first-time solo traveler, Bali could be a bit daunting. I was there last year with my partner and loved it, but I found the constant barrage of people trying to sell us stuff really annoying and distracting, and I'm not sure I would have felt entirely safe all alone, particularly walking to dinner or bars after dark and that sort of thing.

If you were an inexperienced traveler traveling with a friend or you were someone very likely to make friends quickly with other backpackers, then I might give it a go. Or if you were an experienced traveler going alone, I think it would be fine. But combining solo travel with first-time overseas travel experience in Bali seems like a recipe for stress and mishaps. (Although if you could afford one of the higher-end resorts, who send a driver to the airport for you and manage all your meals and activities, that could be easily done.)

For a first-time overseas travel experience, Europe would be more gentle, and an English-speaking country would minimise the risk and allow you to ease into the foreign travel experience. You would likely get much more out of a Bali trip once you gain a bit more confidence about being an international traveler.
posted by amusebuche at 10:43 PM on January 9, 2014

Update. Thank you for all of the advice, I really appreciated everyone's answers. I decided to just go for it and booked my trip for two weeks. I am SO EXCITED! Thanks also for the words of warning, I am glad to have those in mind.
posted by pintapicasso at 5:23 AM on January 12, 2014

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