(Being good at) solo travel

Last weekend I was up in the Portland area for a dear friend’s wedding, and got the chance to spend the better part of two days exploring a city I’d never been to before. The more that I saw and did, the more I thought about how grateful I am that I know how to travel alone.

There are, of course, some caveats. Being female, I have to be more careful and conscientious of potential safety risks than men often need to be, and that does tamper some of the brazenly adventurous spirit that I sometimes slip into. I’ve also done almost all of my solo travel in cities for the simple reason that there is lots to see in a small radius, and it’s easier to get around by oneself with fewer resources. My hometown necessitates a car; my favorite cities do not. Lastly, as much as I love traveling alone I don’t always prefer it — nothing can replace the joy of sharing new experiences with other people.

However, I am super glad that I’ve learned how to enjoy independent travel. Some of it is inherent to my personality. I’m pretty introverted, and actually like being anonymous in a big crowd. I am sometimes fiercely independent, and it gives me a joyous opportunity to report to no one and do, basically, whatever I want. Sometimes I’ve traveled alone for the simple reason of not letting other people stop me from seeing things I wanted to see. My parents also did a phenomenal job setting me up to travel well, from teaching me the right balance of enjoying being a tourist to paying attention to the locals, showing me how to make good use of public transportation, and reminding me that there’s always more to explore.

But not everyone has had the same opportunities. I started flying alone at 16, and started exploring cities on my own at 18. But I’ve only recently realized that it’s a skill not as many emerging adults have as I’d previously thought.

So here are some of the things that have helped me the most when traveling solo. (Note that I’m going to skip most general safety measures because most of us have had it drilled into our heads and that’s not where the adventure lies, but of course, prioritize your safety at all times.)

Figure out your tech. When I was in Portland this weekend, Google Maps was my best friend. But I didn’t want to use the data when I was in London, so I had a super handy pocket map of the city that I used to navigate me basically anywhere I needed to go. In Washington, DC, it was a mix of both. I always keep a portable charger (and often my phone charger) with me if I’m going to be out for a whole day. Your tech can be next-gen or analog, just make sure whatever you have will serve your purposes.

Find your ride. This becomes pretty city-specific, but look into what the transportation options are in any city you go to. My best friend gave me a heads up that Portland’s bus system is really convenient, and it cut my transportation costs within the city to $10.50 over 2 days (yes, you read that right). I’m really used to subways and trains, and you can always grab a cab or Lyft if needed.

That being said, you will see more if you walk. I love my mom. She’s great. But she also made me walk miles of San Francisco hills at a young age. Like I didn’t even know you could get a cab easily amount of walking. Now, if I’m exploring a place by myself I have no problem walking 5 to 7 miles in a day. Maybe that means building up your stamina before you go, maybe it means knowing when to walk and when to catch a ride. Most of the time, my rule of thumb is to walk if it’s less than a mile between destinations unless I’m on a time crunch.

Ask for recs. You will be by yourself, and yes the internet is helpful, but ask some friends or family for some of their favorite things to do/see/eat in the place you’ll be going to. I only found out about one of my favorite stops in Athens because I’d asked an old friend for stuff she loved in the city (the Benaki Museum, in case you were wondering). My friends who got married this weekend put a ton of cool stuff on their website that I was able to use to guide my trip planning. People know good stuff — pick their brains for it.

Pick out some must-sees. I tend to center solo trips on one or two things that I can’t miss. In LA, it was a killer Cuban restaurant and Griffith Observatory, both of which I’d been meaning to go to for ages. DC was the National Archives and Air & Space Museum. Portland was Powell’s Books and Washington Park. This provides a few benefits. One, you get to actually make time for the things you’re most excited about. Two, it provides geographical touchpoints that you can plan the rest of your travel around. Knowing that I wanted to see those two things in Portland meant that I not only planned out transportation between them, but that I focused my research on other experiences (mostly food, if we’re being honest) to close by those high-priority items.

Do your research. Things I always research ahead of time: transportation (and where I’m staying if that isn’t already handled), must-sees, some good restaurants, and often a short list of other items of interest. I might not use all of it, but then I have the info and I don’t get overwhelmed by the newness of everything at once. I also tend to save info either as emails to myself or notes on my phone, but do whatever system works best for you.

And know when to not have a plan. This is one of my favorite things about traveling, because while in most of life I hate not having a plan, when traveling it can add to the adventure. Of course the broad strokes are planned, but I make sure to leave room for detours, and lately have started building in time — often toward the end of a trip — that is quite literally meant for whatever I didn’t already get to do. If I actually did everything I wanted, I allow myself to visit a place again or even take a nap. The point is giving yourself the freedom to take your time and not be stuck in a strict schedule.

Bonus tips:

  • Ride public transportation like a local. Stay on the quieter side, bring a book, know your stop, and for goodness sake hold on. And of course, feel free to ask if you do need directions.
  • Have cash and card. A lot of cool, hole-in-the-wall places only take or prefer cash, and some places are now moving to card-only. Be prepared.
  • Tell someone you trust where you are. This is the one safety tip I will give, because it probably gives me the most reassurance. When traveling alone, I make sure someone knows my plan for the day, and periodically check in with where I am. Usually that just means sending a picture of something cool, but it’s also for safety.
  • Store your bag. I just found out about this one during my last trip, but if you’re not staying in a hotel you can store your bag for a while through services like Bagbnb (the one I used) or Vertoe for like $6 a day. If you’re staying at a hotel, they’ll usually hold your bag before and after you check out if you ask (it is best to leave a tip). If you’re really in a pickle and not staying at a hotel, you can always ask if they’ll store your bag, and offer a really good tip.
  • Balance paid with free, or at least inexpensive. I am not made of money. Most emerging adults aren’t. And the thing about solo travel is you can’t split the cost with friends. This doesn’t mean you have to avoid paid stuff — and you’ll have to pay to eat — but for every paid thing you do, have a couple options of free things as well. Last Sunday I spent half a day checking out tons of stuff in Washington Park, and only spent money on one entrance fee (to the Japanese Garden, which is absolutely worth it). Plus a lot of the best places to eat aren’t expensive!

What are your favorite solo travel tips? Hidden gems in cities you’ve been to? Let me know in a comment below, or on Twitter @ohgrowup! Thanks for reading, and happy adulting!

5 thoughts on “(Being good at) solo travel

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