Tip 2: Solo Godsends

Once you’ve made it to your destination, there are heaps of alternatives to help you explore your destination by yourself.  I’ve listed a few here that helped me, but let me know if you have any more!

Breakfast

Sometimes the hardest part is starting the day, and by that I mean eating breakfast.  Not only are you in a city you don’t know, but you’re may be coping with jetlag, or unable to speak the language in your new city.  It can be a good thing to eat breakfast at your hotel, whether you have it included in your room rate, or whether you can purchase it separately once you arrive.  If it is included in your room rate, this can be a great way of ‘filling up’ for the day, or at least for a few hours, and it means you don’t have to think too hard first thing in the morning.

City Sightseeing Buses

Where do you go first?  How do you get there?  How long will it take to get there?  These are some of the questions that you are going to come up against once you head out the hotel door for your first day of sightseeing and sometimes this can be enough to paralyse you.  But, if you are a in a city with a sightseeing bus – most cities have them, you know the ones, usually big red double decker buses of some kind – get on one.  It is a great way to get around because it takes all the worry out of using the public transport system or walking around streets you don’t know.  Firstly, they usually travel past all the sights that visitors normally want to see.  Secondly, they give you an idea of how the city is connected and you get to see it from a different perspective.  Generally there is an onboard commentary in a variety of languages, which is great for getting to know some fun facts about the city, and everyone on the bus is there for the same reason, so there’s no way you should feel out of place.  Sometimes they even provide discounts to other sights.  And they are especially great if you only have a short amount of time in the city.

Walking Tours

If you want to get down and gritty with the city at street level, then you can opt to join a walking tour.  A lot of cities have free walking tours (you can opt to pay a small fee to show your gratitude at the end), usually run by locals who have a great knowledge of the local history.  They can show you spots that are off the beaten track and this makes your trip so much more memorable.  There are all sorts of guided walking tours though, and if you don’t mind paying for them, again they are a great way of seeing the city and getting your bearings, and you won’t be by yourself.

Any Sort of Tours

And let’s not just stick to walking tours – basically any tour is a great way to get out and meet people, while getting to know a city.  Some tours will even pick you up and drop you back at your hotel.  There are tours by bicycle, by boat, by seaplane, by train – you name it, you’ll find it somewhere.  Be creative and see how many different ways you can see a city!

Bring a Book

One of my biggest fears about travelling alone, was eating alone.  Of course you can find lots of road side stalls to eat from in many countries, or you can drop into a local supermarket to buy goods to eat back at your hotel (boring), but what about if you want to dine out?  Bring a book.  This doesn’t just work for dining alone – it’s great when you are waiting for public transport, sitting down for a coffee or just wanting some down time in a local park.  Seriously, it makes all the difference – you’re not alone, your reading!

Find a Focus

Finding something to focus on during your holiday is a great way to take your mind off travelling alone.  Want to take awesome photos wherever you go and post them to Facebook?  Writing a blog?  How about keeping a diary of your journey?  If you have a focus for your holiday, you’ll find you’ll be much more engaged in wanting to make the most out of every opportunity, rather than just wandering from sight to sight.  I found writing my blog for my first solo trip an absolute god-send, because suddenly I didn’t feel so alone.  Plus – I had to entertain my readers!  It’s still my focus for every trip – how can I make this trip exciting as possible for my readers?

Skype

Knowing you can Skype someone back home when the going gets tough or to share your excitement is a great thing.  Skype has an incredible way of reducing the distance from your loved ways.  Just seeing their faces can make all the difference.  If only Skype was around when I first visited Skype, I may not have spent so much time on the floor of my hotel room crying.

Hostels

Ok, so I’ve not graduated to this one yet, but I know people who swear by it, and if you are confident enough – go for it.  It can be a great way of meeting people from all over the world and to see as much of the world as possible on a budget.

Tip 1: Make it Easy on Yourself

Like the words from the Burt Bacharach song, make it easy on yourself.

If your first solo trip is churning up your insides like there’s no tomorrow, there’s no reason you can’t do this without some training wheels (metaphorically speaking of course!).

The first thing to remember is that not everyone travels the same way and some people are just more comfortable travelling alone from the get go.  So don’t listen to everyone else’s prejudices – do what makes you comfortable.

Now, if you are incredibly uneasy about your first solo trip, the point of your first trip is to ease yourself into it.  And this is how I did it.

Choose an easy destination.  Whether this means that you choose a country where they speak the same language as you, or the destination is close to home (it doesn’t even matter if it’s in the same state – the point is to just do it), or if it’s somewhere you’ve visited before with others – choose somewhere that you think you may feel comfortable travelling to.  That’s why I chose Japan for my first trip – it was relatively close to home, I had been there before so I felt I could remember my way around a little (and without getting too lost in Shinjuku Station!) and I knew it wouldn’t be too much of a culture shock.

Of course, we usually spend a bit of money when we travel, so if you really want to go somewhere far abroad and wonderful – why not join a tour?  If you really don’t like the idea of travelling by yourself, this can be a great way to get the best of both worlds – as long as you choose the right tour company for you!  Although I didn’t do this for my first trip, I did use them on part of my trip to Europe last year and I am about to do so again for my next trip to Europe in August.  Now, I had already travelled with Intrepid Travel twice before with friends, so I already knew that their tours had a great blend of solo and group activity time.  There was just the right amount of hand holding for me, plus all your accommodation and transport is taken care of.  A good idea is to jump onto one of these group tours and then add some extra time onto the end of your trip, once you’ve found your groove.

Stay tuned for Tip 2: Solo Godsends!

Going it Alone

As I sit on my rooftop balcony overlooking the Melbourne city skyline (not a cloud in sight), planning the details of my next overseas holiday, I find myself reflecting.

Where is the girl who never wanted to leave the comfort of her home in Australia to travel?

Where is the girl who sat crying on the floor of her hotel room in China, overwhelmed to saturation point by culture shock?

Where is the girl who couldn’t imagine travelling alone?

She’s busy collecting mental pin board markers for the places she’s been and dreaming about the places she’s yet to see.

It’s only been about two and half years since my first trip alone to autumn-drenched Japan, but it feels like a lifetime.  I laugh when I think back to how daunting it all seemed in the beginning – nightmares about getting lost in airports, being mugged in foreign streets and panicking about not knowing the language.  But by taking the chance, I have been rewarding handsomely.

It got me thinking about how I got through it all and I thought that others contemplating this leap of faith might find comfort in some of the tips and advice I used to get me through – so here’s my new chapter on Solo Travel Tips – just for you!

Where It All Began

I never wanted to travel because ‘different’ terrified me: different food, different people, different customs. Somehow I said ‘yes’ to a trip to China with a friend of my sister. When I arrived in Beijing, I understood just how much I took the English language for granted. In seconds, a carefully planned trip to the Summer Palace fell to pieces, because I couldn’t clear the first hurdle – buying a train ticket. Everything was written in Chinese. There were no translations and no English speaking staff. If it weren’t for a friendly young Chinese woman who noticed the dismayed looks on our face and asked, in English, if we needed help, I’m not sure how our day would have ended.

There was more. Chinese cuisine bore no resemblance to my normal order sweet and sour pork with fried rice from the local restaurant back home. I saw beggars for the first time in my life, rolling themselves through the streets on homemade wheelie boards, useless limbs wrapped around their necks. In Shanghai, armed police strode into McDonald’s, stood silently, rifles in hand, then left just as silently.

I arrived in Xian several days later, to the sound of music playing from the town square’s speakers. The song was not some patriotic tune spurring on the nation, nor the music people practiced tai-chi to as the sun rose. This woeful tune was the theme song from the movie “The Bangkok Hilton”- set on repeat. My senses were on overload. I returned to the hotel and curled up on the floor of my room, tears streaming down my face, silently praying for someone to get me out of China.

The geographical and cultural enormity of the journey totally overwhelmed me, but once I returned home and had time to process where I had been, the sights I had visited and the things I had learnt, I realized just how much this experience had meant to me. Something inside had awakened. I knew I could love travel.

Over the following years I saw cherry blossom season in Japan, the sun rise over Angkor Wat and nightmare road crossings in Vietnam. I longed to see more, but there were not always friends who shared my desire to see them. At the end of my life I didn’t want to say ‘I never visited that country because no-one would go with me.’ I may have been shy, absolutely terrified and a born panicker, but I knew I had to learn to travel by myself or live with the consequences. And I was more scared of that.

I planned my first solo trip as a return to Japan because I figured it would be easier to start somewhere I’d been before. I started a blog (Escape from Me) to record my feelings, plans and eventually my experiences. The blog was a god-send. Simply because I was sharing my travel with others, I was no longer alone and the whole experience of travelling solo seemed less intimidating. I knew I was finally getting the hang of solo travel when I found myself walking into a small, non-English speaking Izakaya, ordering curry rice and a beer and eating it at the counter with the locals without panicking.

I stayed open to the challenge. A friend packed up her life to travel the world with her husband with their first stop being Grand Cayman Island. She invited me to visit – half way across the world and I accepted. The trip to a sun-soaked, hurricane-prone island in the Caribbean, full of iguanas and turtles, was going to challenge me in all sorts of ways (not least of all because I hated iguanas, turtles and the beach).

There would be plane connections to make in London and the United States so apart from new destinations to explore on my own, there were a host of imagined catastrophes to get through. But, with my trusty blog on my side, I made it. I swam with dolphins, screamed at iguanas, held a turtle (but couldn’t force myself to eat one) and learnt to snorkel. I had never felt so free.

And I haven’t stopped travelling since. With each new trip, I found that my blog pushed me even further. Last year found me in Poland for the first time, armed with a headful of researched history, eager to find my roots. I walked the streets of Warsaw and saw bullet holes still lining the walls of buildings. I met family I had only ever heard about and we had ‘half’ conversations – they in Polish, I in English. I drank vodka. Lots of vodka. And ‘different’ didn’t seem so bad after all.

And although I have only just begun to uncover my family history, I already know and understand so much more for having made the journey.