The New York Times just ran a piece titled “New Tools and Tours for Solo Travelers” and I am here for it.
As I type this in Luang Prabang, Laos, I’m propped up all by my lonesome in a bed that is large enough to fit me, another adult, and my two nieces (I have to be thankful for this moment because just this summer my scared of the dark nieces were determined to crowd into my childhood bed, fall asleep, and then proceed to destroy my sleep with swinging elbows. It was payback for how wild a sleeper I was when little.).
Since moving to Southeast Asia, I’ve visited Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, Malaysia, Japan, Singapore, and parts of Indonesia as a solo traveler. I’ve done everything from 24 hour extended layovers to three-week sojourners. Now that one of my best friends is planning some solo time, I’ve decided to outline my thought process when planning and enjoying a solo trip.
1.) Select a location that affirms and respects who you are.
Since being Black or female can cause a person to be discriminated against, I keep both in mind when making travel decisions. I can’t choose one or the other. I’m both, plain and simple. I’ve ruled out solo travel (and a potential job) in certain countries because of this criteria. If there seems to be an uptick in crimes against women in one area, you won’t be seeing me there. Did another area pass some legislation that discriminates against people who share my complexion? I’ll pass and head to the next place.
When thinking about a country, I also reach out to people who have lived there or traveled there before me. I always ask about how females and Black people are perceived. Another person may have to ask about the government’s stance towards the LGBT community and/or access for people with disabilities.
2.) When packing, bring a scarf, a shirt with sleeves, and a pair of pants.
This serves two purposes: 1.) to meet a culture’s modesty standard and 2.) to layer up when there’s an unexpected cold snap (re: China!).
In Bangkok, for example, a woman was brusquely rejected from entering the Royal Palace because her capped sleeves were deemed inappropriate even with a shawl. At Angkor Wat, a man wasn’t allowed up a set of steep steps to a holier area because he was wearing a spaghetti strapped muscle t-shirt. Also at Angkor Wat, a woman was not allowed up said steps because of her ankle-length sarong. The enforcers wanted pants to prevent peeping Toms. In Jakarta when I visited Istiqlal Mosque (the largest mosque in Southeast Asia), shirts with sleeves and bottoms that came below the knee were required. Otherwise, a wrap was provided.
Y’all get the idea.
I do not want to travel for an extended period of time to reach a place just to be refused entry into the place. I slide into some pants and a shirt with sleeves and keep it moving.
3.) Leave the jewelry, expensive accessories, and big bags at home.
If my earlobes wouldn’t hate me, I would wear ornate silver earrings all day every day. Nonetheless, I only travel with a pair of studs.
This is because 1.) I don’t need to draw unnecessary attention to myself, especially as a solo traveler, and 2.) I’m forgetful and would probably leave something behind anyways.
Now, I am a fan of a big purse. For years my standard was simple: large enough for a book and a change of shoes. Yet big purses while traveling solo is another story. If I need to run (which did happen to me while in Venezuela), I do not want a huge bag encumbering my stride.
4.) To beat the pangs of loneliness (which are natural), sign up for the occasional day trip and/or group activity.
December 25, 2016 found me in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, a Buddhist country. Because I knew I would be feeling some type of way while my family celebrated Christmas together, I intentionally signed up to take a 20 km biking tour. The pangs still came, but I had joy that day too. I’ve also taken cooking courses and yoga classes to meet new people when traveling solo.
5.) Send a detailed itinerary to at least one other person.
This includes flight numbers, accommodation information, contact phone numbers, any day tours I may have booked in advance, everything.
I’ve played around with TripIt, Google Sheets, Google Trips, and e-mail. My mother, God bless her, prefers a regular e-mail. If an emergency happens, I don’t want the reason for me not being contacted is because the person I sent the itinerary to could not navigate the technology. So, I have to keep that in mind when deciding on how I will share my itinerary.
Note: Since I live overseas, I also register with the US embassy. I spend roughly 10 months out of the year in Indonesia, so I’m registered there. That being said, I choose not to register with the US embassy every time I go to a new country. Even without registering, it’s good to check out the travel advisories. Warning: The embassy is overly-cautious, as it should be.
6.) When visiting a new place for the first time, try to land during daytime hours so you can see what the city and neighborhoods look like.
Of course this can’t always happen, but I’m a person who gives directions with landmarks. I like to see ’em in the daylight. Also, I touch bases with my accommodations in advance to either recommend a trusted taxi company or to pick me up directly from the airport. Unless I’m in a place where English (or Spanish) is widely spoken, public transportation comes later when I’m more familiar with the area.
7.) Carry the local currency, an extra credit card, and a copy of your passport.
I don’t care how expensive the exchange rate is at the airport. If I haven’t gotten the local currency in advance, I’m getting at least some in the airport. Right now I’m traveling in what the United Nations deems a Least Developed Country. It would be foolish of me to whip out my credit card and expect to be able to swipe it like I could in say…New York City.
The extra credit card and copy of my passport I keep in a separate place from my everyday wallet. This way if my passport or wallet is lost or stolen, I still have access to cash and a faster route to replacing the passport. Thankfully, that hasn’t happened to me yet.
8.) When out, limit your alcoholic beverages.
I barely drink as is, but the reason behind this is obvious. Being drunk, female, and traveling solo is not the best mix. I want to remember the amazing people I meet and the places I see. I do not want to unintentionally put myself in a compromising position. Two drink max for me!
9.) Take pictures without a selfie stick.
Though my selfie skills are pitiful, I refuse to buy a selfie stick. I force myself to ask strangers to take my picture because, sometimes, this leads to further conversations, travel tips, and invitations out. Besides the requisite shots to send to family back home, I turn the camera outward on the scenery. That’s just me though.
10.) Enjoy the time alone!
I’ve come to relish the me time that is inherent in solo travel. I move painfully slow. I try to blame it on the South, but really it’s because I’m beholden to bells while teaching. I do not want to be beholden to a clock outside of work.
When traveling solo, I can linger in a museum or skip a particular site if all I want to do is climb back in bed with a book. There’s no compromising needed.
All in all, solo travel is extremely empowering. I would strongly suggest that everyone who can should do it at one point, no matter the age.
What are some other tips that you think I missed? Feel free to leave them in the comments section.
Buen viaje! Salamat Jalan! Bon voyage! Safe travels!