Traveling alone for the first time this year, at the age of 26, having spent 5 years working in if not a high flying certainly comfortable jobs in marketing and advertising, I was a bit, well, scared, to be traveling alone. I am pretty independent usually, enjoying my own space and time, but faced with scare stories of Vietnamese border crossings, officious Cambodian soldiers and corrupt policeman I thought that it may be easier as more practical to join a tour group. Cue raised eyebrows from my friends, a reassured sigh from my family, and a lot of learnings on my part. These are ways to get the most out of traveling alone:
1. Be prepared to spend more
Upfront costs on any trip are steep. It isn’t clear why. On my recent thirty day tour around Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam our guide receivers 1.3% of the total costs paid, and hotels and transport only another 10%. Some hefty margins there.
If you are traveling and booking alone you also have the flexibility to book different standards of accommodation or travel, eat at different restaurants, cook in, or take a day off – all of which save money. Plus many people you are with may only be away for a few days, with holiday splurge purses rather than strict traveler budgets. The only time being in such a big trip is a benefit is if you are booking extra trips and tours, such as activities like trekking or kayaking where the cost can be split between more people. Most tours don’t include anything other than the bed and the bus – try to find one that does and you will be on a front foot economically.
2. Be confident enough to be independent
This is your trip and the things you see and the experiences you have should stay with you for life. It can be easy just to do what everyone else wants to do rather than follow your own desires or dreams. If everyone else wants temples and you want museums, go to the museums. Keen to try local cuisine rather than pizza like your travel pals? Do it. You are the only one who will regret missing the dreams you have had about your trip.
3. Know when to be flexible
Having said this, know when to go with the flow. You are likely to be with this group of people for a while, so make friends and get to know them. Coming from different backgrounds, with varying hobbies and interests you may not have considered yourself. Ask questions of people and places and you will benefit greatly. See where these new options take you – travel is all about discovery, of new places, people, experiences, and yourself. Sometimes the best memories come from the completely unplanned.
4. Do your own research
The tour leader is likely to have their own preconceptions of what their customers want to do, and it is easier for them to offer a limited range of options. Don’t rely on then or your operator to reveal all the layers of a place, but discover them for yourself. They may also have a few economic links with local restaurants or attractions; consider spreading your spending. Bring your guidebook, look online, read local listings magazines and contact local tour guides. The listings magazines are crucial to give you an idea of the thriving and current culture and vitality, not just historic.
5. It’s a sprinkled snapshot, not a discovery
You are likely to be moving quickly, with only one or two nights in each location. Staying in hotels it is difficult to meet people outside of your group with ideas or options not on your plan. Use the tour as a way to get a glimpse, and not as a deep exploration of a country and its culture.
Would I do a tour again? I think it is something that acts as a great introduction to traveling, and the benefit varies greatly depending upon the place, tour, your temperament, and particularly your level of independence.
My first tour was for thirty days, which was far too long. If you are in doubt, try planning a couple of one or two weeks interspersed with freer periods of independent travel with more flexibility in your plans.
Nietzsche spoke if the importance of seeking knowledge when traveling that enhances life. Make sure it is your life that you are enhancing.