I just returned from a 10-day solo adventure in Belize on Christmas Day.
I aim to go on an extended solo trip every December and had a friend ask for advice for his first long solo trip.
First off: I highly recommend solo travel. There is no better way to assess and grow your personal resiliency than to stand on your own two feet at a possibly-incorrect bus stop in a foreign country with just a backpack and a dead cell phone.
Go bite-sized at first, if it makes you uneasy – an overnighter road trip perhaps, and then build up to longer sojourns. But everyone should take a solo trip.
Here’s my reply to my friend:
1. Get clear on who you are and why you want to do this.
I never referenced any online resources for solo travel. I never even planned on solo travel. It just happened. One of those spontaneous outcomes from a messy personal crisis.
My divorce was finalized on the day before Thanksgiving. I booked a flight to Puerto Rico the next day and left a couple weeks later, so there wasn’t really any time to consider how it might be different from traveling with others.
I really feel like solo travel is just like regular life solo.
Some people are great at going about entire days without any significant others playing a part. That doesn’t mean they don’t interact, but there’s an internal driver that has confidence in managing whatever the day brings and an appreciation for the solitude. These people are often the type-a red personalities that take charge anyway. That type of person is great at solo travel.
There are other types of people, not better or worse, who find structure for their life within the context of relationships with others. They generally have a significant other that much of life revolves around, or they book up much of their free time with close friends. These people tend to have a harder time with solo travel – just trickier, but certainly still worth it.
The void of not having anyone there to back you up or to share the experience with either feels like an exhilarating huge relief (to those of us in the extreme first example) or it can feel like a existential crisis (to those in the extreme second example). Most obviously fall somewhere in between.
I’m a take charge person. To an irritating degree. Traveling with others is often very draining. Whether they want me to or not, I feel a responsibility to make sure everything is taken care of. I’m also an introvert, so it’s the sweetest treat in the world to exist for awhile with no expectation to communicate or interact with anyone unless I choose to. Add in the fact that I love a challenge and one can see how solo travel comes naturally.
I think the most important thing is to assess what kind of person you are, without judgment, and then consider how that will play out in a solo travel situation.
Design your excursion accordingly.
There’s no need to take a long trip if long trips aren’t your style. There’s no need to stay in one place, go rural, drive, adventure, backpack, stay in a hostel, etc. Our instagram world tends to push us to try new things, which is great, as long as we also inject a healthy dose of what feels good to us.
You’re looking to step outside your comfort zone with a long solo trip, which I am ALL FOR. But be sure the why aligns with what you will love; what will help you grow in good ways. Too many of my friends have tried to jump on a solo trip and had a miserable time because they mimicked someone else.
I’ve accepted about myself that I want to be on the move. 2-3 nights maximum at any one place on a trip. And I naturally wake early when traveling and want to go a little crazy, so even if I’m exhausted when I’m planning a trip (always), I plan for a lot of adventures.
In Belize, I got in to my camp the first night after dark and then went on an 8-hour cave/swimming/human sacrifice tour the next morning at 7:30 am (the justifiably popular ATM tour if you’re planning a trip to Belize).
It was my perfect way to start a trip. And, yes, I did do Tikal (said friend had recommended this wonderful Mayan ruins site in Guatamala)! I left the very next day for my border crossing journey and had a blast hiking through the jungle at 3 am with a headlamp.
In 10 days, I explored San Ignacio, Tikal, Placencia and Caye Caulker through a 50/50 combination of challenging adventure days and spontaneous wandering days. That’s my kind of solo trip.
Yours will inevitably be different. Don’t overthink the details. Consider what gets you excited, set a purpose for the trip, and then book it.
2. Some practical considerations.
If you haven’t done much travel, then perusing some of the incredibly comprehensive travel advice websites out there are definitely worth the time.
There are a lot of insights, tips and tricks that will save you a LOT of discomfort and difficulty. No need to learn this stuff the hard way.
My biggest learnings now that I have a few international trips under my belt:
- Always, always, always pack less than you think you need. You absolutely will wear your same favorite pair of shorts every day. And you will kick yourself for any bit of extra weight, especially if you’re moving around a lot with a backpack.
- The exception to the first tip: Always pack extra underwear. Sometimes laundry services are few and far between. Undies take up little space or weight and washing your own and hanging them out to dry is a pain in the butt.
- Critical items are generally triple priced once you’re abroad. Things like sunscreen, bug repellant, dramamine, outlet adapters, cough medicine, band-aids, anti-itch cream, healthy snacks and sugar-free chocolate (I’m type1, SF chocolate is critical). Put together a travel kit of a little bit of all of these items (and a lot of chocolate). It won’t take up much space, and will likely save you in many ways. There are outlet adapters on Amazon that fit almost every country.
- Tropical areas come with bugs. Biting bugs. Especially off the beaten path in developing countries. DO NOT GOOGLE THIS. Dear lord, you will never travel if you google this type of stuff. Seriously. Just get over your personal qualms with DEET or bring the strongest natural whatever you can get.
- Developing countries have different food prep standards. If you have a strong stomach, you will probably be fine. But, definitely get your Hep A vaccination, and any others recommended for the country you’re traveling to. Then, ease into the new diet. Don’t go food cart the first day on your first international trip. Safeguard your trip from a bathroom adventure by taking a gut supplement like Travelan and eating yogurt whenever you can while eating wildly.
- Embrace the natural. When I first started traveling, I tried to bring a blow dryer, waterproof mascara, and all of the other frivolous crap that I should have been desperate to escape from. Now, the hair air dries (I like tropical/oceanside trips, so it’s probably gonna go frizzy anyway), my skin soaks up the fresh air, and I enjoy the fact that no one expects me to be made up all Hunger Games-esque.
If you haven’t been on a solo trip, go. Be open to whatever unfolds. The experience will open your eyes to who you are in a way that nothing else can.
Another friend checked in on me on day 3 of Belize. My response encapsulated how impactful these trips have been on my overall life:
Was it everything you hoped it would be?
Everything is what you hope for when you love the bumps in the road as much as the perfect beach day.