The great thing about travelling alone is that your time is your own. It’s a chance to be selfish – to see what you want to see
Travel experience is one of the most important gifts you can give yourself. You’ll meet people whose lives have existed parallel to yours on the opposite side of the planet without your ever having given them a thought, you’ll learn things about other cultures that will enrich your own and you’ll see sights that no camera could ever adequately translate. And one of the best ways to do all these things is solo.
SELF-DISCOVERY AS PART OF THE JOURNEY
Travelling alone is not for the faint of heart – you may feel frustrated, lonely, lost and afraid, but you’ll also learn more about yourself on the road than you ever thought possible. Independence, assertiveness and openness are the likely byproducts of solo adventuring, whether you’re in a different part of your own country or on the other side of the world. There’s a lot to be said for shared experiences and having someone to turn to in an emergency, but everyone should travel to a faraway place on their own, at least once.
The great thing about travelling alone is that your time is your own. It’s a chance to be selfish – to see what you want to see, when you want to see it, and how you want to see it. Whether you want to dash past a monument or spend hours lingering over coffee at a sidewalk café, you are only at the mercy of the plans you’ve made for yourself. Solo travel also offers the chance for the clear-minded pursuit of new skills or self-discovery – without going too Eat Pray Love, things like a yoga retreat are probably best experienced alone.
JOIN UP WITH OTHERS FOR A WHILE
Travelling solo doesn’t mean you have to be alone all the time. Many tour operators have wised up to the fact that charging solo travellers single supplements for joining tours was costing them business. In many cases, you can now join tours with couples, families and other solo travellers without the need to pay a premium. Some offer you the chance to share a room with another solo traveller of the same sex, if you’re open to it, or the option of a room to yourself without the additional expense.
It’s hard to say what any given person will find difficult about travelling solo, as 10 different people will have 10 different experiences of the same city. Knowing where not to visit is as much about understanding the local culture as it is about the timing, so consider the following.
- Avoid places near areas of strife. Turkey, for example, is a stunning destination, but recent unrest has made some travellers question the safety of going there. You’re not guaranteed to be safe anywhere, but if you can avoid places with troubled recent histories, you can at least minimise your chances of being caught up in dangerous situations on your own.
- As a woman travelling solo, you’ll probably want to avoid places where local culture may limit your options, like areas of the Middle East or parts of the world where Muslim culture is most restrictive. In Saudi Arabia, women are held in high esteem, but the culture dictates that they must be covered up at all times and may not drive cars. In Iran, local women may not go out alone, so you’re likely to find yourself in male-dominated situations that may make you uncomfortable. Be aware of the local culture and respect it, wherever you travel, and you should avoid problems.
There are also websites like TripTogether, where you can search for like-minded travellers heading to destinations that interest you. It’s about the possibility of meeting up with someone who shares your interest in travel and exploring new places, in a location that you’ve both always wanted to visit.
TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF
Safety is the first thing that comes to mind if you’re going it alone. South Africans are naturally more safety-aware than people from many other countries but you’d be naïve to believe that just because you’re in a place with a lower crime rate, you can let your guard down. Crime is a reality you should be prepared to face anywhere in the world – particularly if you look out of place or a little lost. Dressing like a local is a great way to minimise risk immediately – sometimes you’ll be dragging a suitcase around, which will make it obvious that you’re a traveller, but wherever possible, try to blend in. Nothing screams ‘tourist’ in South Africa more than a couple dressed entirely in khaki to navigate the wilds of the V&A Waterfront – think along those lines.
KEEP IN TOUCH
Social media is fuelled almost entirely by wanderlust-inducing ‘brag’ images these days, but it’s also a great way for your friends and family to know you’re safe. Whether it’s a Facebook check-in at a new location or an Instagram pic a day, the time-stamp will help people know you’re safe and where you were last seen, in the event of an emergency. As much as a solo adventure may seem an opportunity to do what you like when you like, having a plan in advance will help make your trip easier.
Social media is fuelled almost entirely by wanderlust-inducing ‘brag’ images these days, but it’s also a great way for your friends and family to know you’re safe. Whether it’s a Facebook check-in at a new location or an Instagram pic a day, the time-stamp will help people know you’re safe and where you were last seen, in the event of an emergency. As much as a solo adventure may seem an opportunity to do what you like when you like, having a plan in advance will help make your trip easier.Knowing a few key phrases in the local language is both useful and respectful. English isn’t as widely spoken as we’d like to believe, and being able to at least ask where the nearest train station is will save you hours of frustration.
Knowing a few key phrases in the local language is both useful and respectful. English isn’t as widely spoken as we’d like to believe, and being able to at least ask where the nearest train station is will save you hours of frustration. Keep copies of your travel documents
Keep copies of your travel documents in a separate bag, have a back-up plan in the event that your accommodation turns out to be less glamorous than advertised and always go with your gut instinct. If you don’t feel safe, change your plans.
HOW EXOTIC DO YOU WANT TO BE?
Bearing in mind what you want to get out of travel, it’s important to do your research and know how far out of your comfort zone you want to venture. The UK and the US are great ‘starter’ options for solo travel. Being able to communicate in English, understand train schedules and read menus goes a long way towards making the logistical part of the experience simpler. Infrastructure is a major plus – there are plenty of trains and planes to help you get around.
If you don’t like big cities, the US offers plenty of opportunity to head out into wide-open spaces. Avoid the crowds in Las Vegas, New York or Washington – try Sedona, Arizona, for imposing canyons and horizon-defining views; Kansas City, Missouri, for quirky museums and an immersive jazz experience; or the dazzling forests of Maine, which juts out into Canada from the northeastern United States.
Canada is a great place to consider if you’re drawn to North America – the scenery is stunning, the culture is varied and the people are almost impossibly friendly and helpful.
South America is another fantastic destination. The exchange rates are similar – as is the cost of living – and the only country in the region that SA passport holders currently need a visa to visit is Bolivia. Argentina is a great option – Buenos Aires lies on the same latitudinal parallel as Cape Town, so the climate is similar. The culture is a mix of Latin American and European, the food is amazing and the people are friendly.
The popular wine-producing region of Mendoza is stunningly beautiful. South America is vast – from the Atacama Desert in the north to the Patagonian ice fields in the south, the wild Galapagos Islands to the West and party capital Rio in the East, you’ll find something to satisfy your wanderlust.
Asia has long been a popular choice for solo travellers, thanks to the ease of getting around, an abundance of cost-effective accommodation, and beautiful scenery.
Southeast Asia, in particular, has built a thriving economy on helping travellers find their zen, and if you’re feeling a little stressed out, a yoga retreat may be just the thing for you. There are many options out there – from a three-day experience to a three-month course that will turn you into an accredited yoga practitioner. Finding your centre and developing mindful thinking – while learning a new skill that could open doors for you – is a great way to spend a holiday. For solo travellers, there’s the opportunity to contemplate life in relative solitude, but also the chance to meet up with fellow travellers on a similar path.
Think foreign, think exotic, think local – but make sure you travel. There’s nothing more rewarding.
This article first appeared in the February 2017 issue of Club.