Back in 1998, I left the relatively small town of Derry and went to university in Liverpool. I kept hearing people talk about just being back from a 'gap year' before starting university. I literally had never heard of it before. I then went from being a skint student with lots of university debt straight into full time employment in London. I had always dreamed of taking that big trip. So, I had big dreams and plans but living in pricey London the practicalities of saving wasn't that straight forward.
Then I started thinking who else would be interested in travelling as well and the reality was my friends and family all had their own dreams and plans which were all different, so I needed to figure out if this was something I could do on my own. And this led to my first trip solo.
For a variety of reasons, I ended up in Jamaica. I planned to travel around the island and my guidebook told me it would cost about $4-$5 to get from town to town. Turns out in reality and following a recent security incident, that tourists in Jamaica, especially women travelling on their own, were discouraged from travelling by public transport - so instead, it would cost around $100 to get from town to town. $100 per journey! There was no way my budget was going to stretch to that. There went my plans for travelling around the island.
I was very proud of myself when the solution focused part of my brain kicked in and I realised that if I kept getting the cheap bus transfer back to the airport, I could then get another airport transfer onto another destination. Luckily now we have the internet and many blogs to turn to in order to better plan and hear what's really happening on the ground.
I was approached several times and hassled quite a lot in a short distance trying to have a wander around - I felt quite intimidated. I came across a couple of tourists in front of me speaking in German. I decided a good way to safely explore a bit of the town was to walk closely behind them - like a stalker! They were probably just as intimated by me as I was by others. These days, I always use free walking tours as a way to firstly get my bearings in a new place, work out if there are any no go areas and find out more about the local history and culture. It is a great way to meet others and reduces your need to stalk people!
Another way of me getting out and about was to go on a few organised group tours. This again was not only a good way to see the sights but also another way to meet people. I find these days there are more and more creative tours, should that be food walking tours, street art tours, exploring with locals, or activity-based tours such as cooking, which can give you a real insight into life for locals. I suggest as much as possible, that you use local tour companies so that you are investing into the local economy rather than using corporates based elsewhere. That's one thing I love about Travel Counsellors - we have direct access to lots of in-country local partners.
Back then, I'm not sure I had ever eaten out alone or gone into a bar on my own. You need to work out if you are happy just sitting in your own company or if you want to use it as an opportunity to meet people. Having a good book to hand or a journal to write in is a good distraction if you just want to be on your own and have some food. However, if you do want to meet people my top tip would be to sit at the bar and try if possible, not to be on your phone or reading, as it will put people off chatting. Strike up a conversation with the bar staff as an opener and then take it from there. Also, if you see someone else sitting on their own or even a friendly looking group, don't be afraid to ask if you can join them. Strangely enough, in western countries this may seem like a bit of a pickup move, but when you are in places on a tourist or travelling trail, this is normal - people wanting to connect.
Today, access to the internet, technology and social media really help you stay connected, both with people back home to touch base with if you are feeling the need, or people that you meet along the way. I remember having to make analogue plans - arranging to meet people in a week's time at a certain café or hotel, not knowing if they would turn up. But in recent years on my 'big trip' I saw on Facebook that an old friend that I had not seen in several years since they moved back to Australia was in the same place I was heading to. After contacting her, we ended up spending four days together catching up - that would never have happened if it was not for Facebook check-ins!
Regarding my first ever solo trip to Jamaica, it was a personal challenge in so many ways, but after that experience I knew if I could do that on my own, I could do anything. From there I started to go on 3-4 week trips every year and it was only 11 years later when I managed to jet off for an extended period of time for the adventure of my life…
In summary, my top tips for travelling solo would be:
* Do your research
* Don't be afraid to start small - maybe eat out a few times or go out for a drink by yourself somewhere more local or familiar or try a weekend break away on your own.
* On your first trip, go on an organised tour. There are some fantastic options for all budgets, age groups and interests these days. These are especially great if you have a short amount of time and want the benefits of having your days planned for you with other people.
* If you go it alone, join a local free walking tour as soon as you arrive - it's a great way to familiarise yourself with the area and meet people.
* Consider joining some other local group tours, which can range from anything from a few hours to a few days.
* Plan your trip well with lots of activities to keep you busy but be flexible in your attitude so that you can take opportunities as they come along.
* Check out the popular hostels and go for a drink or some food.
* Make use of social media to connect and re-connect with people.
* Just do it - give it a go!
Want some help in planning a solo trip, get in touch with me at Travel Counsellors…