It doesn’t matter where you’re going. If you follow these basic tips, you’re in for an intense, fulfilling journey.
When I solo traveled to Estonia last month, I was focused on getting away from family life. It was more “I don’t want to keep living this way” than “I want to go somewhere new.” At home, I often felt suffocated for not having space to myself, while at the same time, my social life was close to non-existent. I didn’t bother building a social circle for myself because it was all too easy staying at home and having all three meals served by Mommy. But inevitably, having no social life meant that loneliness and critical boredom were lurking within sight.
Other people will instead have “pull factors” when deciding to solo travel. There could be a specific destination that they’ve always wanted to visit or a strong incentive to explore physical and mental capacities. Pull factors are reasons that pull you to the destination, or toward the decision to go traveling, while push factors are reasons that push you out of your current way of life.
Both reasons are legitimate, but taking note which purpose you have (or if it’s a mix of both and what the components look like,) will come in helpful when designing your traveling experience. For example, if you are aware of some push factors, you’ll make sure not to live exactly the same way you did before your trip. If I traveled all the way to Estonia because I didn’t want to be bored anymore, the least I could do was to make sure that life in Estonia, however that may look like, was not boring. Recognizing your pull factors, on the other hand, will of course help you tick off your travel goals. But there’s a fine line between pull factors and something called “expectations” — and it’s a line that’s good to be aware of. More on that later.
In my travel, I made the rookie mistake of not having a defined budget. My plan was to “spend the least possible.” This was objectively the most horrible plan to have, because A) it wasn’t not measurable (no matter how little I spent, I always came up with a way I could have spent even less,) and B) I’d be consumed by guilt and self-hatred every time I splurged (or thought I splurged) on a small meal.
If setting a budget is hard (or if you wish to avoid it for any reason,) setting a few ground rules can be helpful. “Going to a restaurant is OK twice every week” or “visiting a nearby place is OK if the train ride costs less than (insert value)” are clear-cut standards that you either meet or don’t meet. As long as you hover below these red lines you set for yourself, you’re free from guilt while also not going broke. Make sure your ground rules are realistic — if they’re not, you’ll realize that soon after beginning your trip, and you can always revise them as you go along.
Let’s be real. We all get lonely. I feel lonely sometimes even around family and friends, so you can imagine how much it can suck when I’m well and truly alone.
The first thing to recognize about loneliness is that it’s completely OK to feel lonely from time to time. Just because an eggplant tastes unpleasant (to me, at least) doesn’t mean it’s poisonous or in any way bad for me. The same goes with emotions — taking time to yourself such as solo traveling is inevitably going to give room for unpleasant emotions to arise. There is no reason why you should suppress them. In fact, now is the time to let them loose and examine them with your whole body. We’re usually missing out on these opportunities by being surrounded by people, or actively surrounding ourselves with people as a fear reaction against loneliness.
While loneliness is a natural emotion, it’s also not completely harmless. Feeling lonely has made me do quite a stupid thing in the past, not least when I was solo-traveling. I got attached to the first friend I made (or thought I made) — only to get semi-proposed by him within the first few minutes of our conversation which left me feeling disgusted and betrayed. It’s quite amazing how humans can strip themselves of all rational judgments and caution when they are craving contact with other humans. More on this in the following section.
4. Tips for Females
You can go on Google and educate yourself on red flags all you like, but the number one rule to have in mind shouldn’t change: trust your gut. If a man is approaching you and he seems nice, and seems to be ticking all the nice-guy boxes, that doesn’t mean he is nice. Your gut can be catching on some shady business before your brain gets to it. It’s OK to refuse further interaction and get away, even if you can’t think of a reason why you’re feeling uncomfortable at the moment. It’s OK to be rude to prioritize your own safety. It’s OK to be rude.
One way I’ve struggled with being able to trust myself was how I doubted my perception because of my cultural background. Japanese culture has stricter norms around interacting with the opposite gender than in Russian culture. When a Russian man harassed me, I took days to settle within myself whether or not it really was harassment. I felt almost bad for reporting him and avoiding him for the rest of my stay. But the longer I wasn’t reporting him, the longer he was getting away with his offense. What I took so much time to realize was that, regardless of cultural differences, when I was clearly showing signs of discomfort and he kept testing my boundaries, he was being disrespectful. Period.
5. A List of Things to Do
It’s important to call your list as a “List of Things to Do.” Anything stronger than that — a “To-Do List,” “Bucket List,” or a “Must-See List” would – as a simple matter of language – imply that these items are waiting to be checked off the list. Not only would it leave you feeling dissatisfied and guilty when in the end, you couldn’t check everything off, it would also drive you throughout the whole trip to do things for the sake of doing them. Just because you are in Switzerland, doesn’t mean you have to hike up a mountain. In fact, if you are hiking just because you think you should be hiking in Switzerland, it won’t leave you feeling any more fulfilled compared to before you began your hike.
Having a “List of Things to Do,” however, will make sure you at least know what opportunities are out there whenever you find yourself itching to do some more exploring. Ideally, when you feel the urge, you’re ready to go — you’ve already done your research.
The trick to having a smashing time, no matter what your solo trip looks like, is to not have any expectations. This may sound like an avoidant way of thinking about your trip, but not setting yourself up for anything is hardly a negative mindset. In fact, it is a mindset that allows you to experience each moment for its own sake and not having to anticipate whatever comes next. For example, I wasn’t aware before I landed in Estonia that locals celebrated Midsummer’s Day. I might have done some research and known about the exact ways they celebrated (ie: with bonfires and barbecues,) then come in itching to celebrate midsummers in true Estonian fashion. Since I didn’t know about the bonfires, when a couple of friends invited me to theirs, it was a happy surprise. I’m filled with gratitude that they added so much to my solo travel experience.
By not having any expectations to start off with, anything that happens is just that — something that happens — and not “this is what I expected” or “not what I expected.” In this way, your experience isn’t colored by your preconceptions, and you are free to have it in your own way and in the way it comes. While I’m no philosopher, I don’t need to be one to say that things never happen as expected. Whenever you notice yourself anticipating tomorrow, playing it in your head, and setting up expectations, call it quits by telling yourself: “what’s going to happen will happen.”
You can follow all of the above steps and still collapse under stress. Well, stress makes you stress-eat, and the amount and content of stress-eating usually leads to even more stress. When you literally can’t control anything else – your living situation, your negative emotional spiral, your social life, etc. — control what you eat. Having a full, happy stomach is the baseline from which you can start again on everything else. And that tiny sense of agency – of what goes into your mouth and stimulates your taste buds — can just as well be the boost of self-confidence that was missing to kickstart your real action.