I honestly can't remember the first time I ever travelled alone. Perhaps it's because I grew as the child of an expat life - I took my first-ever flight when I was younger than the age of three, although obviously I was accompanied by my parents then! - and, as a third-culture kid born to two parents who weren't of straight-shot ethnic origins themselves, the world has always felt like a rich tapestry of places to explore, rather than one bound by borders that I was fearful to cross. To put it simply, I was born with wanderlust in my blood, and a love for travel is a part of the fabric of my being.
You see, to a traveller, it's not just about seeing beautiful places and taking nice photos once you get there. Sure, that's part of the experience - but I think historian Mary Ritter Beard put it best when she said, "Certainly, travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living." One of the best things about travelling is the exploration of other cultures - learning about how other people live, how they think, what makes them tick, what makes them smile. It opens your mind to different ways of thinking, and helps you learn to see the world through someone else's eyes - and in turn, that can help you learn to be more compassionate, more understanding, more tolerant, and wiser about the world and the other people living in it. I guess that's why to say someone is worldly is to mean that they are experienced and sophisticated.
But there's another level of travel that can teach you something about yourself - and that's travelling alone. Sure, it isn't always easy, nor is it always comfortable - in the physical and metaphorical sense - but then again, most things that help us to grow aren't. People often say that great things never came from comfort zones, but a large part of that philosophy is due to the fact that removing oneself from what we are used to, or what we find easy, is what will challenge us. It's often somewhere in that field of discomfort that you discover your true character.
On a practical level, there's also the fact that solo travel forces you to be more independent, more adventurous, and in short, figure things out on your own because there isn't anyone else to do it for you. I often find that it forces me to see and do more, as well, since I tend to be more efficient when I travel solo. There are many tips I've personally picked up along the way, and perhaps those are best saved for another post, but here are the first few:
- Get a SIM card - in the modern age of data and technology, it can make a huge difference, whether that's helping you find somewhere that the locals recommend rather than something that's in a standard guidebook (through location tags from review sites in the local area, for instance), or using the maps function (one of the most useful things I use in any place I go to, since this helps me figure out the best routes to where I want to go - and encourages me to walk more rather than opt for other modes of transport that might make miss out on interesting alleyways and cool sights that are closer than I realized), as well as feel safer just knowing I am able to be connected if I need to be.
- Screenshot some local phrases, even if it's just how to say please and thank you, and ask where the bathrooms are. Even if you butcher the pronunciation, the attempt and effort will go a long way with many locals in showing them that you're trying to appreciate their culture (rather than doing that awful thing we've all been guilty of, where you'll see that someone doesn't understand you and instead, repeat the same thing in your own language - usually English, since many of us assume that everyone speaks it everywhere, which isn't actually the case of course - louder and louder, like they'll suddenly understand it just because you've increased the volume. In those cases, even body language can be better!
- Always take a copy of your hotel's business card with you, and carry enough cash for a cab ride home (stashed somewhere safe, be that in your shoe flattened underneath your sock, or even in your bra) - this way, you eliminate one of the biggest fears, which is potentially being stranded somewhere without being able to return to your hotel, because you'll hopefully be able to find a taxi even if it's a bit more expensive than walking or public transport, and you'll be able to show them an address of where to go, or have a local number someone can call. Data helps too here, once again, if you don't know if you'll be able to find that taxi. If you're still stuck, I often find that trying to find the nearest hotel or guest-house (or even restaurant) helps since they can then help to arrange transport for you if necessary.
- Do your research beforehand - especially if you have limited time, it'll help you see and do more, or at least see and do better things, and once again, there's the safety aspect.
- Be open minded and curious (but stay street-smart!) - no matter how much research you do, you might find a place is completely different when you get there, and some of the best discoveries are the ones you stumble upon by speaking to a friendly local, or just happen to wander past down the road. Having said that, if you're feeling uncomfortable about straying too far out of your comfort zone, remember this: If you plan your days around doing things that you'd even enjoy doing at home, it'll be easier to get out there and do them in a different country, than trying things that are challenging both in terms of the experience plus the location as well.
- Don't be afraid, either - it helps to remember that no matter where you go around the world, you will likely find people who you have something in common with, and you can learn from those you don't - and isn't that part of the reason why you're there?
- Pick a hotel based on the best location - when I travel alone, this is more important than ever because a better location will determine whether I can get to more places and see more, with less hassle for transport, all of which makes it easier and more comfortable for someone going solo.
- Embrace the solitude - so often in our daily lives, we rush from place to place and don't have a lot of "me time".
Solo travel is a great time to spend some quality time with yourself - if you're comfortable in your own company, it's something you'll savor, and if you're not, it'll teach you that it is such a wonderful thing once you learn to welcome and enjoy it.
They're all aspects that I think the majority of solo travellers would agree with - such as Mona Khalil and Rana Dababneh, for instance - two women who are veteran travellers (whether solo or otherwise!) and the founders of Pomalo Travel. The two 38-year-olds launched the company out of their shared passion for experiential travel, and to answer the need of the most discerning and modern travellers for bespoke and out-of-the ordinary travel experiences. "We have found that the most incredible experiences happen through authentic partnership and collaboration; with our clients, our local vendors, and the broader travel community. Our exclusive travel community is by invitation only and Pomalo Travel is a proud member of Pure Life Experiences, We are Africa and Traveller Made," they said.
"The first time I traveled solo was right after finishing university to Turkey for a youth leadership program. I got the travel bug as a child and when the opportunity presented itself to travel alone I grabbed it and took the plunge. And since then I haven’t been worried about traveling alone, as my initial worries faded when I came back with amazing memories, beautiful sights, new friends, new perspectives, and an open mind," says Mona. Rana, on the other hand, headed to Belgium for her first solo travel experience: "[It was] for an economic modeling course (so geeky, I know!). That was shortly after followed by a camping trip to Norway, which remains to this day one of my favorite destinations," she says.
Photograph: Jesse33 / Shutterstock.com
What are some of the biggest mistakes you have personally made along your journey of solo travel and in learning how to do it better?
MK: [For] one of my first solo travels, I booked myself in a beach resort and that is just not my kind of solo travel – a beach holiday on your own. Having said this, this was purely my own personal mistake – it was not for me. Others love it and might as well enjoy some solo time on a beautiful sandy beach. Another mistake was not being safe as I took a dodgy taxi back to the hotel, and on the way I had to pretend I was on the phone with someone waiting for me back in the hotel.
RD: I don’t make mistakes!
And some of the best things you've realised?
MK: Solo Travel is not a lonely way to travel, as it creates easy dialogues with people and others you wouldn’t necessarily think of talking to, this opens your mind to different perspectives that you are not used to.
I found out that when I travel alone, I concentrate on what I want only, no compromises, so going along, no missing out on things I really want to do, I sleep, eat, drink, visit whenever I want or don’t want. For me, solo travel builds confidence, independence, risk taking, strategic thinking, and cultural empathy.
RD: Travelling alone opens up your mind and gives you the freedom to explore on your own pace.
How do you choose a place when it comes to a destination for solo travel?
MK & RD: We look at our travel bucket list first. Then find out what would be nice to visit because of the season and book the flight and hotel. If you are travelling solo for the first time, go somewhere where they speak a language you are comfortable with. We would suggest to ease into it – do not go too isolated at first –make sure you book a nice hotel in advance and spoil yourself a little on amenities. Once you have gotten a hang of being ‘solo’ you can always opt for the more adventurous places.
MK: Personally, I do not like going to a beach resort when solo travelling, as I explained – laying alone on the beach just does not do it for me. Rather, if you love lounging and relaxing, book a spa resort where you can indulge in massages and meditation classes.
RD: In my opinion, the best destinations for solo travel are those that have a soft adventure element in them. And sometime, travelling alone, but not on your own is the perfect combo. While travelling alone, you can still find ways to participate with other travellers or even locals through hiking and kayaking activities, cooking lessons, concerts and festivals.
Travelling alone seems to be an increasingly common venture for many people around the world. Why do you think this is?
Plenty of people have more money, more time, more wishes and with that comes solo travel is safer, easier and more accepted. In our busy lives, it comes as no surprise everybody needs some “me” time to stay balanced - solo travel might be the answer to this.
How does it travel differ for women specifically, in terms of what they are seeking, in your opinion?
Women love that “me time”, where they can find peace of mind and do a bit of soul searching – this could be part of a cultural escape, an adventure trip even an ultimate shopping experience.
What about safety - this is often a big concern for women travelling alone, or even those travelling in pairs.
Most places are pretty safe to travel alone as women, as long as you abide by the ‘rules’. We always advise to keep the hotel business card in your pocket, phone charged and with credit and make sure that, if you decide to head out by yourself, you let the hotel reception or even your best friend back home know what your plans are and when you are expected back at the hotel.
What type of person do you think solo travel is best suited to?
To sum it up, I think that person finds himself/herself enjoying “getting lost” as they believe by getting off track they will find beautiful memories hidden in places, basically, “an explorer” and anybody who is comfortable being on their own.
Do you think travelling on your own can be a more expensive or cheaper experience than travelling with companions, or the same, and why?
Solo travel is more expensive if you're comparing apples to apples, as you are not sharing the cost of the room, transport, guide, activity and food with anyone else. Also, when you are alone, you will choose the best for yourself as you wouldn’t want to be sitting alone at the back row of a show, for example.
What about when it comes to activities?
There are activities that are better shared! An exploration trip to the Arctic, for example, is best with other travellers. Again, you can travel alone but not on your own.
Do you believe there are still some places in the world that perceive solo travellers in a certain way, particularly women?
MK: For sure, some more conservative people will maybe think there is something surely wrong with that woman for travelling alone. I [have] had many people ask me why am I alone. But you will be surprised that you can easily educate them when you show them how happy you are doing what you are doing, and how much it enriches your life.
How often do you think people tend to - or should - travel solo, in their lifetime, be it long- or short-haul travel?
MK: I don’t think there is a right formula for that. For me, I will travel solo either when I feel like it or when I have to ([for instance] maybe I cant find anyone to come with me on a particular trip, but I will not miss out on an opportunity to travel).
What are your must-have items to pack when you're traveling alone, and how does this differ from what you'd pack for travelling with others?
RD: The usual of course is my iPhone, mainly for the carefully categorized playlists. I never travel without my yoga pants and running shoes. Plus, I bring sunglasses, swimsuit ‘no matter how cold is the destination’, my cross-shoulder handbag and a backpack. [And] a little black dress, high heels, and my makeup pouch.
MK: Shoes! I’ll pack one pair of high heels, I always take my Stan Smiths and sandals or flip-flops. My iPhone is so important when I travel because it is my camera, book, notebook, music and entertainment. And I buy a lot of magazines at the airport.
Your absolute must-remember top tips for travelling alone are...?
MK: My advice for solo travellers is to be smart and don’t take uncalculated risks, make sure your phone is charged at all times and buy enough data. Use this opportunity to do the things you love, at your own pace.
RD: Enjoy the solitude!
...and your top three places for solo travel in general during a lifetime, followed by your top three predicted solo travel favourite destinations for next year?
Cambodia, New Zealand and Nepal. Next year: Peru, Denmark, Bhutan.
What about if someone is thinking of it but afraid to take the leap - are there any good bridge ideas, like maybe going on a yoga retreat or booking yourself into a tour group (so you're still going along but where you'll still meet other people to hopefully spend time with there)?
Join us on our hosted trips - the next one is a 40 day trip to Latin America (Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, and Argentina), and you can join on the whole trip or choose a section you are interested in to join us.
Where's the next destination that you are off to alone?
MK: I am travelling to Dominican Republic and hopefully will combine it with Turks and Caicos and Jamaica in November 2017, as I am invited by the Dominican Republic Tourism Board and Aman properties to experience their lovely destination and properties. But you know, I have to combine this with other close-by destinations, so I chose Turks and Caicos and Jamaica as they have been on my bucket list.
RD: I am looking ahead to the Arctic in March 2018 and Tour de Mont Blanc starting in Chamonix France in the summer.
To learn more about Pomalo Travel, visit their website at www.pomalotravel.com
Pictured: Mona Khalil and Rana Dababneh, the founders of Pomalo Travel. Photograph: Ruksana Hussain.