It’s raining outside in New York City as I sit at my favorite local coffee shop, Madame SouSou, in Astoria and write alongside a foamy cappuccino and mason jar of pink roses. As the petals fall on my keyboard, swirling around with the wind sneaking in from the front door, I find myself somewhere between nostalgic reflections of my first time solo traveling in Argentina a year before; and the nervous anticipation for my upcoming solo travels to Morocco and Vietnam later this summer and fall.
When I had first decided to solo travel to Buenos Aires last August, it was at a time in my life when everything was in transition. Summer 2014 found me at one of those crucial forks in the road where you can decide to either continue on the path you’re going down or drastically change your circumstances and take a stab at happiness. As I sat on that Buenos Aires bound flight, I began to question my sanity to solo travel. The idea of solo traveling when wistfully looking out a window and imagining far flung locales is inherently more romantic than the prosaic reality of sitting alone sans companions aboard an evening flight to a different country. Yet, solo traveling ultimately gave me unprecedented strength as I faced truths about what I want in my life, discovered overwhelming kindness from strangers and learned to love the spectrum of emotion one feels when they face themselves.
Today, solo travel is a hot topic as women around the world are flirting with the idea of visiting a country without a friend or loved one in tow. There is something idealistic and inspiring about waking up in a foreign place and having the utmost freedom to see what you want, when you please; for the Travelettes’ who are drawn to the promise that solo traveling offers, consider these tips for first time solo travelers.
1. Research your Destination
I have a love affair with spontaneity when I travel; I love serendipitous encounters, stumbling upon charming cafes and meeting people from around the world. More often than not, the best moments in travel (and life) are the ones we don’t plan for. That said, when flying solo to a new destination there is a fine line between embracing chance and being totally unprepared. When I caught a boat over to Uruguay, the lack of preparation I had done was comical! It wasn’t until my passport was stamped and I was standing on Uruguay soil did I realize I had no idea where to go, no idea where to exchange my money or how to get around. With Colonia only an hour away from Buenos Aires by ferry, it was no problem to leave so much up to chance for a short trip across the Rio de la Plata but for my arrival to Argentina from New York–that was a different story. I made sure to learn about the safer neighborhoods in Buenos Aires, the currency exchange, how to get to and from the airport and picked up advice from friends and locals who know Argentina well. I left plenty of room on my trip for whirlwind adventures and chance meetings, but I came armed with practical information on the destination I was visiting.
2. Tap into your Intuition
It’s said that women have a very keen sense of intuition and have an uncanny way to sense danger a mile away. When I was visiting the rough and tumble neighborhood of La Boca in Buenos Aires, I was advised by many to be careful. La Boca is beautiful, colorful and playful but beyond the two streets that tourists see there are dangers to be had. As I roamed through La Boca with my camera bag hoisted on my shoulders, I noticed a palpable shift in the air as I crossed over a set of train tracks and realized I was no longer in the “tourist friendly” part of town. I felt the change before I realized it and promptly turned around–knowing that nothing good lay ahead. As a first time solo traveler, my intuition was my greatest asset in throwing up red flags in situations I knew I should avoid.
3. Expect to get Lonely
There were so many beautiful moments of solo traveling that left me smiling deliriously and feeling utterly alive; yet there were inevitable moments where loneliness won out over confidence and trailed me like a debt collector. Solo traveling is an experience that reveals parts of your personality and a full spectrum of emotion in all its intricacies. As much as I learned to enjoy the moments and embrace the present, I also learned to pick myself up. The best advice I can offer first time solo travelers is to expect to get lonely at times and to embrace this emotion as you will every other thought and emotion that washes over you during your trip. There is a real power and simplistic beauty that comes from knowing you have the strength to lift your own chin up when sad, comfort yourself when lonely and keep moving forward.
4. Stay Connected to Home
There is of course an appeal to being fully submerged in your solo travel adventure, but when out there alone it is best to stay connected to friends and family back home. Whether you are uploading photos to Instagram, sharing Facebook updates on your latest passport stamp, checking in on Foursquare or simply messaging via Whatsapp–it is smart to let people know where you are and where you’re headed.
5. Enjoy the Question: “What do I want to do?”
During my stay in Argentina I met a wonderful person who left me with a simple piece of advice: Don’t ever do anything you don’t want to do. I’ve mulled these words over in my mind and realized that too often in life I tend to put myself in situations and circumstances I wish I hadn’t–whether for fear of disappointing someone or a sense of obligation. Solo traveling offers the refreshing and revolutionary freedom to ask yourself what do I want to do today? Each morning I woke up in Argentina I asked myself this question and whether I spent the day writing at my favorite cafe, jumping a last minute flight to Iguazu to see the falls or hopping a boat to Uruguay–everything I did on that trip was because I wanted to. In life, we don’t always get this freedom to choose for ourselves so savor this question, get comfortable with it and relish the endless possibilities of living life on your own terms.
6. Bring What Makes You Comfortable
As a writer I draw comfort from journals and books when I travel. My journals reflect back at me my innermost thoughts, while my books offer escape, advice or solace in harder moments. Everyday that I was out exploring, I had my Nikon and journal in my bag with me. Albeit being a small comfort, both became extensions of myself as I waded further into my solo traveling adventure. Bring what makes you comfortable.
7. Be Wary of your Surroundings
I’ll admit that when it comes to my personal belongings I’ve sometimes been a little too casual with leaving a bag next to me, leaving a purse unzipped, or leaving my camera in plain sight. On my first day in Buenos Aires, I found myself at a local bar enjoying a drink in celebration of my arrival. As I tried to get comfortable with the idea of drinking alone, I left my bag next to me with the flap thrown back and my camera exposed. I hadn’t thought twice about it because it was daytime, the bar was fairly empty and I was sitting directly next to my bag but a few moments later a local (and soon to be new friend) told me to be careful–that in a city like Buenos Aires I have to watch my surroundings. Being wary of my surroundings extended beyond watching my bag–as a solo female traveler it’s important to look around, be careful and be cautious.
8. Skip On the Cocktails
When I traveled to Panama with my girlfriends we would stay out dancing until 3 am at a local island bar in Bocas del Toro. We were all together and if one of us had overindulged in the libations, there were 5 other girls to keep an eye out and watch her back. My nights in Buenos Aires were tamer when compared to the frivolity of Bocas del Toro–unless I was meeting a friend for drinks, attending a local asado or simply having beers with travelers at my hostel–most nights proved low-key.
The truth is that solo traveling means no one else is responsible for you or your belonging but yourself. If you get lost, drink too much, get robbed or simply lose your way home you do not have a safety net of friends to defend your silver lining. Even in the evenings that I met new friends or locals for drinks, I made a point to keep my wits about me so that I was always savvy to the situation and sure I could get home safely at the end of the night. While half the fun of travel is to seize opportunities, skip on drinking to the point that you cannot take care of yourself.
9. Let Solo Traveling Change You
There is a favorite quote of mine that reads: “A ship docked in harbor may be safe but that’s not why ships are built.” It’s human nature to be cautious but life truly begins when we step outside of our comfort zones and take a chance on the unknown. Solo traveling is an experience that inspires, tests and strengthens anyone who ventures into the world alone with their thoughts. Of course there are dangers to consider and risks to keep in mind but so long as you’re savvy to the destination, aware of your surroundings and keen to you intuition–the trip has the potential to be life changing.