9 Questions To Ask Yourself Before Traveling Solo

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I’m a huge proponent of travel, regardless of parameters. Whether domestic or international; via a backpack, or with a big budget, traveling offers exposure to other cultures, which in turn fosters empathy, compassion, and tolerance. Traveling solo magnifies the experience — and the benefits — exponentially. This, of course, is based on the assumption that travelers keep an open mind (more on that to follow).

We all have our own idea of what constitutes the ideal trip, whether we’re experienced vagabonds or new passport holders. And that’s okay. Before hitting the road alone, however, ask yourself the nine questions ahead. The answers will help you judge whether you're really prepared for solo travel — and whether you'll truly enjoy it.
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Illustrated by Louisa Cannell.
While I cover everything from dirtbag to luxury as a food and travel journalist, I always travel as a backpacker. I prefer to visit developing nations, and I’m one of those people who thrives on a bit of discomfort — I actually enjoy complicated logistics, long rides on clapped-out buses, and language barriers. It forces me to problem-solve, interact with people (I’m an introvert), and travel in what, for me, is a more experiential manner.

Roughing it isn’t everyone’s idea of a good time, which is one reason I prefer to travel alone. I’m also obsessed with food, often to the exclusion of most other activities, and traveling solo means I don’t have to compromise and can focus on my interests (fortunately, it’s also how I earn a living). Before you purchase those plane tickets, ask yourself what you’re passionate about: museums? architecture? mountaineering? beaches? It’s your trip, so make the most of it.
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Illustrated by Louisa Cannell.
Don’t let an anemic bank account keep you at home. Having limited funds only means you need to adjust the way you travel, and plan your destination and itinerary accordingly. By necessity, I live very frugally. Before I became a travel writer, I’d save up for one major trip a year, and take off for a month or so. I kept costs low by hoarding frequent flyer miles, staying in hostels or homestays, taking overnight bus journeys to save on accommodations, and eating street food or purchasing meals at open-air markets. What I learned is that I actually enjoy traveling in this manner, so I stick to what works for me. If my trip is for pleasure, I choose destinations that will enable me to take off for a longer period of time; I’d rather spend a month in South America than a week in France. Think about where you want to go and what you can afford, and start researching.

If you prefer high-end resorts but have a limited budget, consider staying at a property in a developing nation, where off-site expenses will be more affordable. It’s also possible to visit expensive destinations like Europe on a shoestring. Sign up for sites like The Flight Deal and consider regions or countries that aren’t tourism hot spots. When I went to Parma, Italy, to research a story on cheese, I was able to afford an add-on holiday on the tranquil island of Ischia, because neighboring Capri was out of my budget. Bonus: I didn’t have to contend with hordes of tourists and the resulting inflated prices.
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Illustrated by Louisa Cannell.
If the thought of being alone (and device-free) has you reaching for a Xanax, traveling solo probably isn’t for you. If, however, you relish time to yourself or want to become more comfortable doing things on your own, solo travel is the best way to achieve that. When you’re the only source of entertainment, security, and logistical planning, you develop incredible organizational and coping skills (having a good sense of humor is key). Solo travel is also invaluable for self-growth — you’re free from the distractions of everyday life, and better able to focus on who you are and what makes you happy. It's a great way to work on your own idiosyncrasies and, in my experience, become a more interesting, enlightened person.
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Illustrated by Louisa Cannell.
One of the greatest joys of travel is meeting people. Despite my introverted nature, I love to hang out with like-minded folks when I’m away from home. Some of my most memorable travel experiences have been the direct result of meeting fellow travelers and locals. But it can be smart to approach an encounter with a healthy dose of suspicion, because it's better to appear rude than find yourself in a dangerous situation. Basically, use common sense. Most people you’ll meet on the road are just like you — they’re seeking companionship, conversation, or insight into a foreign culture. Go with your gut and never put yourself in a vulnerable situation if you can avoid it. Sometimes, there’s no way around arriving at a deserted bus station in the middle of nowhere in the dead of night. But if you have options, use them.

I would also advise that you research your destination, including cultural and social mores, common scams, and how to deal with harassment. Depending on what country or part of the world you’re visiting, the course of action in response to unwanted advances or criminal behavior may vary, and it's important to know what to do before it happens.
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Illustrated by Louisa Cannell.
I’m of the opinion that the world would be a better, less divisive place if more people traveled. You don’t have to agree with everything you see or experience in another culture (eating cockroaches, wearing burkas, using shamans for medical care), but you’re the visitor. The most important part of travel is seeing how other people live, for better or worse, and trying to refrain from judgment.

There’s a certain suspension of disbelief required when you travel, and I suggest you try to view things that don’t jive with your worldview as a learning experience, rather than an opportunity to impose your own beliefs. If there are issues you feel strongly about (and we all have them), plan your travels wisely. A broader perspective is great, but not at the expense of your well-being.

Abide by the cultural and religious mores of the country you're traveling to, even if they seem antiquated to you. Many Middle Eastern countries frown upon women with bare legs or shoulders, even in tourist destinations; and pointing your feet in Southeast Asia is a sign of gross disrespect. Every country has something, so be a responsible traveler and learn what that something is and respect it.
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Illustrated by Louisa Cannell.
If you’re the type who loses it over a broken nail or lost luggage, solo travel may not be for you. A cool head and neutral expression are your best friends when dealing with a travel crisis, and in some cultures, they’re also a necessity (in Asia, for example, displays of anger cause one to “lose face,” but it’s also a serious breach in etiquette). I’ve experienced all manner of crises while traveling alone — from serious illness and running out of money to natural disaster — and while internally I was freaking out, my only recourse was to focus on the situation at hand and figure out a way to deal.

One way to help make sure you're prepared is to learn key phrases in the language of your destination. I always pack a good phrase book (like the ones from Lonely Planet), and use it.
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Illustrated by Louisa Cannell.
I missed the Nepal earthquake by 24 hours, and the farmstay where I had slept the night before the quake, was leveled. Shit happens, and if it does, you should have a plan.

If you’re headed to a developing nation — particularly one prone to political, geographical, or climatic instability — register with the U.S. Department of State’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, which will help you evacuate in the event of a natural disaster or civil disturbance. You should also make note of where the nearest American embassy and hospital are located.

Regardless of your destination, try to leave as detailed an itinerary as possible for your loved ones back home; since I often travel by the seat of my pants, I email updates while en route.
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Illustrated by Louisa Cannell.
If you’re in a committed relationship with your iPhone or Insta account, taking a hot spot-free holiday is likely to be stressful. Likewise, if you're traveling on a budget, but sharing a bathroom or eating communal meals freaks you out, consider staying at a hostel that also has private rooms with en suite bathrooms. Back problems? It may be worth splurging on a flight rather than that “romantic” toy train journey to Darjeeling. If there are certain amenities you know you'll be miserable without, why set yourself up for discomfort?
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Illustrated by Louisa Cannell.
Years ago, I dated an insulin-dependent diabetic vegan (yes, really). When he departed on his first overseas trip — a five-week backpacking adventure through Russia, China, and Turkey — I came to the conclusion that he was utterly insane for risking his life. Fortunately, he returned home healthy, with incredible stories and a broadened perspective.

Since then, I’ve traveled with some serious health issues of my own. You’re the only one who can decide if the benefits outweigh the risks, but you can drastically reduce the potential for problems, from medical complications to dietary mishaps, by thoroughly researching your destination and doing the following:

— Carry a scanned copy of your passport, medical insurance card, doctors' names, prescriptions, and related health information, and leave a copy with a friend or family member back home.

— Consider investing in travel insurance. It's usually quite inexpensive, and if you need it, you'll be glad you have it.

— Don’t expect certain countries to conform to your dietary rules. If you’re a vegan, you may have a very tough time in places like Southeast Asia, where fish sauce is a dietary staple. Learn local customs, as well — if you’re dining in a private home, it can be gravely offensive to refuse a dish or drink, so accept invitations with that in mind.
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