Two months ago in early September I arrived back home from a three-week stint overseas. What made this trip different from others I’d taken in the past was that I decided to do it completely solo. I had an amazing time, and I’d highly recommend most people do it at least once during their lives.
For the travel-hardened veterans among us, a three-week journey barely registers in an existence where time away from “home” is typically measured in three, six, or twelve month blocks. However, for someone living in the same city that they were born and raised, this represented a new opportunity for independence and to seek unique life experiences.
At the beginning of the year, I’d set out to make 2016 a year to actively explore new possibilities in several aspects of my life. One of the ways I wanted to incorporate something different was to explore the option of solo travel after being inspired over a year ago by a post I came across on Reddit titled “The stop-being-boring shortcut. Go to India.”
Fortunately, I’m in a situation where making travel plans to this extreme is unnecessary, given I did not identify with the proverbial “hot pocket microwaving, dead-end retail job working, fapping addicts” the post was aimed at. Nonetheless, the thought of throwing a spanner into the well-oiled machine of daily routine resonated with me.
Of the many self-imposed challenges I set, solo travel made me the most uncomfortable.
This is why I had to do it.
How to plan an international trip (by yourself) when you don’t know what you’re doing
Fast forward to May and this venture still remained, unactioned, on my list of 2016 plans. One morning, under the influence of a strong black coffee, I decided that enough was enough. I’d let this idea go unplanned for over five months and it was beginning to weigh on my mind. I arbitrarily selected a three-week block in August, put in leave from work and added the dates to my calendar. Now that I’d committed to a time, it was my responsibility to make the trip a reality, or else this time off would consist of nothing more than three typical weeks in my home city.
This was definitely not going to happen.
My first step involved overcoming the anxiety which would soon hit me in spades. Negative thoughts about travel would often taunt me, serving as an internal means to prevent anything from happening.
“You don’t know what you’re doing.”
“I don’t think travelling is safe right now.”
“What if all those horror travel stories happen to you?”
This is natural, I told myself.
After I’d calmed myself down, I was able to approach the “problem” objectively and began to delve into specifics.
Step 1. Lock down your travel destinations.
OK, so… where do I actually want to go? I’d better start thinking logically before analysis paralysis kicks in.
My first overseas trip was to Europe 13 years ago, experiencing the serene countrysides of Slovenia and Croatia with my family as a young teenager. After some thought, I decided there were still so many places on the continent I was yet to visit, and decided it was definitely worthwhile planning a trip back there.
I started off with an idea to visit some friends I’d known online since the early days of using Last.fm, the once popular music streaming and discovery website. This locked in the cities Nancy (France) and Warsaw (Poland), where they resided.
Next up was Kowloon in the north of Hong Kong. A close friend and ex-girlfriend had spoken with me at length about Hong Kong, and how it’s a great place to visit, especially for foreigners from the West. Naturally, I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.
Now that I had three countries in mind, I thought to myself awesome, looks like I’m done. But, after returning to my plans the following day, I wasn’t satisfied. The idea of spending over three weeks in only three countries seemed silly, especially if I was doing it alone, which naturally affords to it a higher degree of flexibility than travelling with a group of friends or family.
This led me to opening up a map of Europe and attempting to decide which other countries I’d like to visit. Ideally, I decided, spending either three or four nights in each place would suffice, which presented the opportunity to visit six countries over three weeks.
Three more European countries to add? Excellent!
My thought process for the next three countries were as follows:
Austria is geographically close to Poland, with Vienna regularly featuring in the world’s most livable city lists. I also heard their schnitzels are world-class. Tick.
Next up was Berlin in Germany. A European trip that didn’t feature this eccentrically vibrant city would mean I’m missing out on one of the biggest tourist spots in the world. Tick.
Lastly, I decided on Amsterdam in The Netherlands. Because, well, as a solo traveler, how could one turn down an opportunity to visit Amsterdam? I simply couldn’t resist. Tick.
Step 2. Lock down the dates you plan to be in each country.
The beauty of travel is that there is no “right” or “wrong” way to do it, and plans can vary wildly depending on how comfortable you are in foreign places. I’ve heard friends describe holidays where they’ve booked a one way ticket to country X and simply backpacked around, having limited ideas for what the next day/week/month will hold. On the flip side, I’ve also heard holidays described to me where every activity was meticulously planned and nearly every hour of each day accounted for over a period of several weeks.
I decided to place myself squarely in the middle of both approaches.
At the least, I decided, all transportation and accommodation would be booked in advance. Everything else would be planned ad-hoc. Transportation would include all flights, and any trains I would need to take between countries that required a ticket to be purchased in advance.
Following on from this idea, I needed to plan the order that I would be visiting each country, as this would allow the above to be organised.
Once I had the countries marked on a map, determining the order of travel was straightforward which allowed me to play around with dates until I was satisfied.
Step 3. Lock in flights and accommodation
This step can be done in one of two ways. For simple trips consisting of fewer places you’re planning to visit, sorting out your own bookings with airline(s) of choice is a viable option.
For trips consisting of many countries with several different means of transportation, I would recommend visiting your local travel agent, especially when you don’t know what you’re doing. It’s their job to know about travel, trip planning, and to share their own experiences abroad. Make a booking, and use their services. It will save you a lot of time, especially if they are able to sort out your plans for you during your meeting.
You’ll now realize that the planning you completed in Step 2 will make this process easier. Giving the agent exact dates/timeframes for each place will speed up your consultation and make sure everything is locked in per your requirements.
Now, assuming that your flights and transport are sorted out, the last piece of the travel planning puzzle is to book your accommodation. Again, depending on your level of comfort, this can be done well in advance or at the very last-minute (when arriving in the country!).
In reality, assuming that no accommodation was planned before arrival, and that you’re not flat broke, the likelihood of having nowhere to stay once you reach your destination is extremely low. However, the satisfaction of knowing where you’ll be staying in advance drastically outweighs the time-saving of doing nothing and needing to make these decisions upon arrival. I don’t know about you, but if I can reduce the amount of decisions I need to make after 36 hours of poor sleep and jetlag, you can bet I’m going to do it.
You will have *many* options for accommodation which will need some thought. Ask yourself the following:
What’s my budget?
Do I know anyone in this city that I could stay with?
Hotel, hostel or Airbnb?
Do I want to stay somewhere central to everything (more expensive), or do I want to stay a bit further out?
What are my flight times? Is the place I’m staying close to, or far away from the airport/train station/bus stop I’ll need to get to on my departure date?
Once everything had been planned, I’d decided on three hostels (Vienna, Berlin and Amsterdam), two friends’ places (Warsaw and Nancy) and a hotel (Kowloon) for three nights.
Step 4. Sit back and relax.
Now that all your travel necessities are locked down, it’s up to you to decide how much activity pre-planning time you’re willing to invest.
Do you like lists? Because I love lists. Designed as a piece of project collaboration software, I find that Trello also functions brilliantly for keeping on top of your travel plans. The ability to create lists and move around items as your plans change, I feel, simplifies the planning process substantially. Seeing everything in one place (and on one screen) will also help you.
I’ve included a screenshot below of the final state of my Trello board before departure.
NB: Think of it as your own “agile board”, minus the inconvenience of recurring meetings, overly ambitious Project Managers and a never-ending list of tasks.
Why you should give solo travel closer consideration
After returning home, I can say with certainty that I would consider travelling solo again in the future. At a high level, here are some reasons why you should consider solo travel:
Build independence. You choose what you want to do, where you want to go, and what you want to see. Tired of traveling with friends who plan activities you’re not interested in? This will no longer be an issue. Navigating through a new, unfamiliar city alone will instill in you a sense of independence that you can’t attain by living dangerously when deciding to take an unfamiliar route to work on a Monday morning.
Break out of your comfort zone. Comfort breeds stagnation, and the path of least resistance becomes a route that is all too familiar. Solo travel forces you into an unfamiliar place, with unfamiliar people, speaking a language you (likely) don’t know.
Ever walked into a foreign nightclub or bar by yourself and not known a single person? It would be difficult enough in your own city, let alone in a foreign country.
It’s both liberating and daunting.
When reality hits you with the ultimatum that you either have to make an effort to meet new people, or stand in the corner awkwardly sipping on a drink you paid too much for, you’ll see what you’re made of. 😉
Experience new cultures. Being fortunate enough to experience what a different culture has to offer will leave you returning back home with a fresh perspective. Perhaps you would like to introduce foreign cultural ideas/concepts into your own life, or even tweak certain aspects of your lifestyle to better align with what you have experienced abroad. Nonetheless, you’re likely to become a more “interesting” person with stories to tell after your exposure to foreign customs.
Meet new friends. It’s extremely difficult to travel solo and not make at least a handful of new friends. In fact, this point could easily make it into its own blog post.
To make this process easier, I’d advocate that you plan at least a few stays in various hostels. The quality of hostel can vary wildly, but the best metric you should use for judgement is how much it will cost you per night. In most cases, it’s safe to assume you’ll get what you pay for. If you have some extra cash, I’d highly recommend booking a single room for yourself. This is something I didn’t do, and will definitely consider in the future, primarily for reasons of privacy and security. Hostels typically have a “common area” where you can spend time and meet other travelers of all ages, without having them enter your room and disrupt your sleep in the middle of the night. This is, of course, a matter of preference.
Gain confidence. I’ve mentioned this point last because I believe it is the culmination of everything discussed above.
*I don’t believe it’s possible to experience solo travel and not walk away an increasingly self-assured, confident person*
If you take away one thing from this post, make sure it’s the above statement.
But don’t just take my word for it, I dare you to give it a shot – you can thank me later.