The internet is filled with backpacking tips for first time backpackers. Bring this, ditch that, roll your clothes, pack bottom heavy. But the number one thing I wish I’d known before taking my first solo trip is this:
When solo backpacking, you won’t be alone!
Okay, I know that seems obvious, but hear me out. Backpacking solo can be really daunting. And unless you’re a total lone wolf, you’re probably a bit worried about being by yourself so often. I know I definitely was before my first trip backpacking alone through Central America.
When I first landed in Mexico, I was nervous to be embarking on my first solo backpacking trip. Wearily, I directed my taxi to take me to the busiest sounding hostel in my guidebook. I felt like I had newbie written all over my face. I nervously walked in, eyes darting around trying to assess the friend potential of each of the other travelers, praying I’d make at least one friend.
Spoiler alert: I did. I made many friends! I made friends that night from all over the world that I ended up traveling with for the next few weeks and some I still even chat to today. Because, that’s what happens when you travel.
Anyone who wants to see the world, but is too nervous to go traveling on your own, don’t be. Going solo pushes you to get out of your shell and talk to people you would otherwise never connect with. By the same token, being a solo traveler comes with a strange gravitational pull that attracts other travelers to you. A person by themselves is much more approachable than a couple or group. You’ll find yourself being asked to join on day trips, share a taxi or grab a meal.
That’s not to say that you won’t ever be alone. Because you will. It’s an inescapable fact that at certain points you’ll be by yourself. But any solitary situations you might end up in will be worth it, because at your next destination you might find your new best friend, your soul mate or just an incredible group of people to explore the world with.
At the end of the day, no one can you teach how to travel alone. Once you experience it, you’ll know if solo travel is right for you. Until then, here are some more tips and tricks that I wish I knew before my first solo backpacking trip, that will make your trip as smooth and worry free as possible.
Traveling Alone? Be Prepared
I’m not saying you can’t spontaneously book a trip and be a plane the next day. But a bit of preparation goes a long way, especially when traveling alone. When you’re traveling solo, everything is your responsibility. You don’t have anyone to rely on to make sure everything goes smoothly. Doing your research helps limit the amount of OMG moments that will inevitably pop up. Here is a basic list of things to research before your trip:
- Make sure your passport doesn’t expire for at least 6 months (we’ve heard of friends who have been turned away at the airport for not having at least 6 months on their passport!)
- Have a proof of return ticket if the country you’re flying to requires proof of onward travel (ie. they don’t want you moving there on the downlow!)
- Check if the country you’re traveling to requires you to have a visa
- Bring some cash (you never know if your ATM card is going to be denied)
- Research which vaccinations you need and get them!
Packing for Solo Travel
Unless you’re traveling to a super remote destination, you’ll probably be able to purchase most things abroad if you forget something at home. But it’s nice to feel assured that you’re traveling with everything you need before you step on the plane. When you’re backpacking by yourself, you don’t have the opportunity to borrow something from a friend. These are some items that we never travel without:
Buy Travel Insurance (When Backpacking Solo or Whenever!)
I can’t stress this enough. If you’re traveling solo and something goes wrong, the last thing you want to be stressing about is how much this emergency is going to cost you. Whether it’s a hospital visit or getting your phone stolen, you’ll want insurance to cover you. We’ve used our insurance unexpectedly so many times on the road. At best, you’ve paid for it and don’t need it and at worst, it saves you from going tens of thousands of dollars in debt. We love World Nomads because they’re affordable and we’ve never had any trouble collecting our insurance.
How to Meet People While Traveling
I know I said that meeting people is easy, and it is, but you do have to put yourself in situations that give you an opportunity to meet others. Hostels are a great place to meet travelers, if you’re cool with the young, backpacker vibe. Not all hostels are massive party hostels either. You can usually find a good mix on HostelWorld, from rager hostels to lowkey chill ones.
If you’re not a hostel person, it’s a little tougher to meet people at a hotel or Airbnb. There are great online resources though for meeting others. Couchsurfing is a good resource where you can stay with and meet up with locals or other travelers. They often host meetups in busy cities where big groups gather to chat about travel.
There are also some really popular Facebook groups for travelers where you can find travel buddies to go on the road with. If you’re looking for the best places to travel alone, females centered groups like Girls Love Travel and the Girl Crew Facebook groups and app have great advice. Plus there are lots of friendly locals and travelers who are keen to meet up!
Best Places to Travel Alone
Some places are easier to backpack solo than others. If you really think that you’ll want to be isolated from other travelers during the duration of your trip, look for more obscure destinations and consider traveling in the off season. If you want to be around other travelers and perhaps find travel partners, definitely look to more well known destinations. It doesn’t have to be Paris in the middle of high season, but at least consider a more well-traveled region.
Travelling alone in Europe, for example, may be easier your first time than travelling alone in remote areas of Africa. Most regions have a “backpacker trail” that travelers tend to follow. This can be a perfect place to start if you’re taking your first solo trip. You can always wander off to more obscure destinations and come back to the main areas if you get lonely. A quick Google search will make it easier to find out the best places to backpack alone.
For example, my first backpacking trip I started in Mexico and ended in Costa Rica. There were definite backpacker hotspots like San Cristobal in Mexico, Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, Utila in Honduras and Bocas del Toro in Panama. At some point during my 3 month adventure, I felt like being by myself to have some quiet time for reflection. I decided to visit a smaller town on Lake Atitlan that receives much fewer visitors. Having that small break was perfect for recharging my batteries before hopping back on the backpacker trail to be social again.
The time of year plays a huge factor as well. We’ve visited locations that have been packed, only to return during low season and find them almost deserted. Plan your trip accordingly depending on whether you’re trying to avoid crowds or find your travel tribe.
Keep Your Plans Open
One of the best things about traveling by yourself is that you can make your own schedule! Even if you love to plan ahead, leave room in your itinerary for the unexpected. You may find new friends who will convince you to ditch your travel plans and join their adventure. Or you may realize that the travel destination you had your heart set on doesn’t live up to your expectations. Keeping a flexible schedule will allow you to adapt to the unexpected.
Obviously there are certain travel plans you’ll have to make ahead of time, like purchasing flights and booking hotels in high season. Besides booking reservations for things that will sell out or increase in price, try to avoid putting deposits down on anything. Having the opportunity to make last minute changes to your travels will open you up to amazing opportunities.
Plan Ahead: Best Way to Stay Safe When Backpacking Alone
I know, I just recommended to keep your plans open, but planning ahead (a little bit!) can be really helpful in the long run. Traveling solo is an incredible experience, but it does come with a certain level of risk. Women especially have to be aware of their surroundings and take caution. Researching destinations ahead of time can help keep you out of any sketchy areas or at least avoid walking through sketchy areas at night.
While I was traveling solo through Central America, I stayed overnight in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, which happened to be the murder capital of the world at the time. I took a taxi from my hostel at 4 am and was dropped off at a deserted field that doubled as one of the bus stops to the ferry port. I sat by myself in that field until a couple of men showed up and just stared at me. Eventually more people arrived to catch the bus and the sun broke through the darkness, but for a while I was pretty nervous. The moral of the story is to know your travel route before you leave your accommodation and be aware if you’re traveling through one of the most dangerous cities by yourself at night!
To be clear, I’m not saying to fall for the media sensationalism around the dangers of travel. Most places around the world are perfectly safe. Just because one traveler had an unfortunate incident somewhere doesn’t make that place unsafe. People travel around every country in the world everyday and 99% of them finish their travels completely unharmed. Push the boundaries, visit countries that will shock your friends back home and go get some epic stories. Just stay aware of what’s happening around you and avoid situations that don’t feel right.
If you found our trips helpful, check out these travel resources for solo travelers that we highly recommend:
Best Way to Find Cheap Plane Tickets
Skyscanner – We love Skyscanner because they always give you the best comparisons of different airlines. They also have a function where you can put in your departure city and then click “Everywhere” as your destination. This will show you the cheapest flights around the world for your dates. Perfect inspiration for daydreaming about your next getaway!
Scott’s Cheap Flights – This email subscription service has taken the travel world by storm. You can sign up for a free membership or pay for premium and the service sends you amazing flight deals straight to your inbox. Some of the deals are error fares and you can fly around the world for incredibly cheap. We highly recommend the premium service so you don’t miss out on anything!
Best Way to Find Accommodation
HostelWorld – Our go to platform for finding hostels. They have a wide range listed with pricing for dorms and privates, as well as reviews for each hostel. When we each traveled solo we loved staying in hostels!
Booking.com – We use Booking for our hotels. They have a really comprehensive range of options from low end to high end. We always find something that fits our travel perfectly!
Airbnb – Airbnb can be a good option for solo travelers if you want a few quiet nights to yourself. You can also book a private room in a house where you can have your own space but have the opportunity to meet others. Want to try it out? Click here and receive $30USD towards your first stay!
Best Way to Find Tours
Get Your Guide – This website has listings for tours and guides all over the world. From tours around the Louvre in Paris to safaris in South Africa, they really have it all. They also have reviews of each tour so you can get an idea of the quality, as they are all run by different tour operators.
Best Way to Book Transportation
Blacklane – We love taking public transportation when we travel, but sometimes we need to splurge on some private transport. Nothing feels more chic than stepping off the plane and finding a chauffeur holding a sign with your name on it, then slipping in to your private car.
AutoEurope – If you’re heading to Europe and want to rent a car (European road trips are the best!), AutoEurope is a great platform to compare quotes and cars.