1. Research first
If you already know your destination, do a little bit of research on it. You don’t have to find out every single detail, but at least know where you’re going and have some vague idea how you might get there. Find out if there are certain periods you should avoid – elections, strikes, national holidays are some. Talk to friends who have been to those countries or cities, or read up tips on forums and blogs.
2. Don’t remain alone
Yes, you started out the trip alone, you’ll be making up your own itinerary on the go, and you’ll head back alone. No reason why you can’t meet people, make friends and/or hang out with others while on your trip. In fact, isn’t that one of the best perks of travelling solo? Those moments spent with new friends I’ve met while travelling are actually some of my best trip memories. Where to meet people? Try hostels, cafes, restaurants, tour agencies, tourist attractions, tourist services (even a laundromat or currency exchange)… so many places! Just be open to saying hi and starting a conversation. Don’t worry about not having a common topic to talk about – for one thing, you definitely both love travelling!
3. Hostels are great
Sure, it’s great to bag a room for 2 bucks. But try and stay in top rated and popular hostels (check Hostel World, Hostel Bookers etc) nearer to the city centre or in crowded locales. Not only are they probably safer, but they are a great place for you to meet people. Make sure the hostels you pick have a communal lounge area or kitchen, or offer dorms of 4 or more, otherwise there’s a high chance you won’t see anyone there for the entire duration of your stay. There are pros and cons to being in a 12- or 16-bed dorm of course – meet more people! But also, a higher chance of ending up with a snorer in your room!
4. Be a tourist
You know what they say about trying to “blend in”? Yeah, well, if you’re a white Caucasian travelling in India, that’s gonna be just a tad tough. And especially for backpackers, with our hippie elephant print pants and hiking boots – and that enormous backpack – it’s gonna be hard to try and smoke anyone that you’re NOT a tourist. So embrace it. Stay within the tourist area, always be aware where the tourist police or embassies are, and rely on tourist booths and information counters when you have queries. And when you want to get the authentic experience, make sure you do the homestay with a buddy.
5. Have a flexible itinerary
Everyone seems to think having a flexible itinerary means NOT having one at all. Well guess what, being fixated on not having a plan isn’t being flexible at all. Some days you’ll find yourself heading off to who-knows-where with a bunch of really fun people, other days, it’s fine to sign up for a day tour or land package with a friend or on your own. What’s most important is that you’re flexible enough to stay or leave. If you like the place, hang around a couple more days. But if you think it stinks, go!
6. Share the adventure
Especially if you’re planning on some adventure, always grab someone along. When you’re out camping or trekking, I’m pretty sure it makes a big difference having someone to call for help when you fall down a ravine. And if you’re planning on doing a solo hike, getting a guide is a huge MUST – and one from a reputable travel agency, not a random local who’s the brother of the cousin of the fourth auntie of your taxi driver – don’t take risks when it comes to your life. Also, don’t take risks with your gear. If you bought your gear cheap in Asia, word is, it won’t last you more than 2 treks. I wouldn’t want to test that rumour.
7. Plan safety
A certain degree of safety can be planned in advance. Book the first night’s accommodation so you don’t get accosted when you hop off (more like stumble off groggily) an overnight train; have the name, address, telephone number and better still, map of your hostel ready for the taxi driver. The other bits of advice will sound a little like common sense: Don’t get drunk if you’re not in company you can trust; be one with your backpack at all times (practice squats with it on if you’re heading to Asia, hint: public toilets); leave the fancy stuff at home (luxury brands, jewellery); try not to get lost alone; get a local SIM card to stay contactable; and always let someone know where you are, even if it’s the teenager at your hostel’s front desk.
8. Money, money, money
You’ve heard this one tons of times before: Don’t carry all your money on you. This is where people start getting creative with hiding their money – in their socks, shoes, hidden pockets, bra… (Just a note, money pouches worn under your clothes only work in cold seasons, when you can actually hide it under layers; try “hiding” a money pouch under a tank top in summer.) But also, don’t carry so much money to begin with. Especially if you’re doing a long trip, sometimes it’s worth paying the extra admin fees to withdraw from an ATM when you need it instead of travelling with thousands of dollars and stressing over where to hide it.
9. Important stuff
Make sure you have both hard photocopies – and soft copies, whether in your email, cloud or dropbox – of all your important docs: Passport, ID, driver’s license, visas, travel insurance, credit cards etc. If you get a new visa or trekking permit along the way, take a photo of it. I try to remember to snap every train ticket as well, just in case I lose it. Also, pack all your medications you currently or usually require (especially if you have certain allergies or conditions), as well as any you might need for your trip i.e. Diamox for altitudes.
10. Lonely Planet
Yeah, this is a whole breed of traveller, and it’s somewhat of a tender, bonding moment when you bump into another traveller with guidebook in hand. I’m all for doing Lonely Planet trips, as long as you don’t turn into one of those people who think the best experience is only the one as exactly stated in the guidebook and who aren’t open to local tour guides, exploring, and creating their own paths. But having said that, as a solo traveller, you can pretty much trust that going with whatever’s listed in the Lonely Planet puts you well within the confines of safe travel. One thing to note though, if you’re taking advice with regard to how much things should cost from the guidebook, check that it’s a recent edition; always leave a little buffer for this thing called inflation.
11. Women travelling solo
A lot of feminists will tell you that it’s just as safe for women to travel solo as it is for a man. I think that’s bullshit. We’re the weaker sex. It’s much easier for men to overcome us by sheer force. And especially for Asian women travelling alone in Asia – it’s easier for people to get away with kidnapping you just because it doesn’t appear as out of the ordinary for you to be in the company of locals as it would for a white female because you (unfortunately, in this case) look local.
So admit your weakness and put in the extra effort to stay safe: Don’t walk around alone at night (actually, after dark), don’t put yourself in situations where you’re alone with a man, always act like you know what you’re doing (confident women appear more in control), dress appropriately and modestly, and try and travel in groups or with other male travellers as much as possible.
Never admit you’re travelling alone when asked, especially by over-inquisitive locals (say you’re with friends), lie about having a boyfriend or husband, heck, even wear a fake wedding ring if you need to. Make up an alias (that’s believable, don’t call yourself Britney Spears) that you can give when fishy people ask for your name, and ask for people’s emails and numbers instead of giving out your information (better still, add them on Facebook, you can always unfriend them later). And if you ever find yourself somewhere that you feel unsafe, immediately head towards families, tourist spots, or religious buildings.
Better yet, try and befriend cute, handsome and/or gorgeous male travellers to be your bodyguards on your trip.