Instead of walking the stage for my college graduation, I decided to travel across Asia. I hopped on a flight (rather, numerous connecting flights) to visit Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Hyderabad, Bangalore, and Dubai. The goal was to immerse myself in different cultures, step out of my comfort zone, build confidence relying on myself to get around, stay safe and make sound decisions while treading the Eastern hemisphere. Plus, when traveling solo, you get to do whatever you want, whenever you want without having to wait for others or work around their conflicting schedules.
Although traveling alone is liberating, it has its cons. It’s easy to spiral, thinking about worst case scenarios while you’re away. What if I get mugged, abducted, or worse? What if I lose my phone and wallet? What if my luggage gets lost and I miss my flight? What if I get lost? Trust me, I’ve had the same wave of thoughts. I’ve also experienced losing luggage and nearly missing my flight on this trip (I ran through the airport with my flip-flops in my hand but that’s a story for another time). But at the end of the day, it will be OKAY. For those of you wondering, yes, the airport sent my luggage to my hotel the next day and I made my flight.
Like anything in life, there are many ways to prepare yourself to mitigate risks. Danger and risk exists even in your hometown. You cannot live your life in fear and let that dictate the choices you make, especially when it means forgoing a potentially life-changing experience in the best way possible.
With that said, here’s what to you need to know before planning your next solo trip.
1. START SMALL
Culture shock is real and if this is your first time traveling solo, you might want to start off with solo domestic trips. There’s so many beautiful cities to visit even within the United States or wherever you’re based. After that, ease into international travel where they speak a language you are comfortable with. Programs with set itineraries and a large group can be helpful too, such as a study abroad or mission trip.
2. LEARN KEY PHRASES IN THE LOCAL LANGUAGE
For the most part, people know English depending on where you go. But in case they don’t, it’s helpful to learn how to ask for directions, ask for recommendations, and learn basic phrases needed in restaurants and stores.
3. TAKE WALKING TOURS OR HOP ON/OFF BUSES
There’s no better way to get a lay of the land than by taking a walking tour with other tourists. You’ll learn about the history and culture, giving you a better appreciation for the landmarks. Of course, you’ll also get your steps in, meet new people, have people to take your photos, and have a pre-planned itinerary. In case the weather is hot, hop on/off buses are sometimes air conditioned and allow you to take as much time as you like at any landmark before hopping on the next bus.
4. SUPPORT LOCAL STORES
After a long day of exploring, you’ll want to stop and charge your phone so local coffee shops may be the perfect opportunity to possibly try a local coffee variety, do your part and support small businesses, ask for restaurant and sightseeing recommendations, and have meaningful chats with people. I’ve often had great conversations with locals by doing this.
5. UNLEARN STRANGER DANGER
This one is the hardest to achieve because it’s been drilled into us since we were kids, and all the true crime shows I’m sure you’ve watched (or is that just me?). This might be hard at first, but the more you travel, you’ll realize that 99% of humans are innately good. If you keep an open mind and understand that most people have the same interests like music, food, and more, you’ll get so much more out of your trip. The word “stranger” has a negative connotation, but I believe strangers are just friends we haven’t met yet.
Look around instead of stare at your phone. Take in the culture and try new things. Carry a book instead and this will likely spark amazing conversations.
6. BE AWARE OF YOUR SURROUNDINGS
And now getting to the 1% of creeps out there. It’s common to see people walking around town with their headphones on and faces glued to their phones, which is fine, but probably not the best idea when you’re navigating a new city. If you do listen to music while walking, keep one earbud out. Be aware of people walking behind and around you, signs, landmarks, and be generally present. Staying alert may ward off potential predators, or it might help you to catch anything looming.
Questions to ask yourself:
Do you notice someone staring at you from your peripheral vision?
Has someone been following closely behind or are they stalling their steps to stick alongside you? Walk into a store nearby and see if they continue to follow.
If I’m walking on a quiet street, especially at night, and I notice heavy footsteps approaching or a shadow, I’ll turn back to see who it is. If I see it’s a man about to walk past me, I’ll often cross to the other side of the street just to be safe then pull out my phone to pretend call a friend. If you are walking alone, feel free to actually dial a friend to keep you company on your commute.
NOTE: Not all countries use 911 to contact the police, so it’s important to take note of that. Some countries have different numbers for crimes and medical emergencies too.
7. IT’S OKAY TO LIE SOMETIMES
You’ll meet a lot of people on your trip and they’ll often ask if you’re alone. It’s best not to reveal where you’re staying and that you’re alone. *cue kidnapping scene from Taken after the daughter shares a cab with a random dude and he follows her out* If you’re not comfortable sharing, tell them that you’re meeting up with friends or that your significant other is waiting for you at the hotel.
I guarantee you’ll get approached by numerous men who will try to hang out somewhere or pry into your personal life. I’ve found that telling men you’re married works well if they won’t leave you alone. Sadly, sometimes even that doesn’t work (what??). A trick I’ve learned when men stare is to stare back, but with a wide death stare. Hold it till they look away. Works like a charm.
8. KEEP COPIES OF IMPORTANT DOCUMENTS
It’s best practice to print copies of your passport, visa, government ID, student ID, ticket numbers, and reservations in case the originals get stolen/lost. Take a student ID if you have one because this might get you into museums and other attractions for free. Store electronic copies of these on Google Drive or Dropbox so you can access them from any computer. Give a copy of them to your loved ones back home so they can send it to you worst case. Memorize key phone numbers and the password to your Dropbox in case you do have to use a payphone or access a new computer.
9. GIVE SOMEONE YOUR ITINERARY
Keep at least one person back home updated on where you’re headed for the day or the general area you’ll be in. Drop them a location pin so they know where you are in case of an emergency.
10. DOWNLOAD IMPORTANT APPS
Maps: Download an offline version of the map of the city you’re visiting.
Google Translate: Download an offline version of the language used in that country. This way you won’t need to rely on slow data plans.
Transportation: Download the app for the ride sharing service that country uses and an app for the local trains/buses.
Keep a portable charger on you in case of emergency. Purchase the appropriate plug adapter for that part of the world as well.
11. GET AN INTERNATIONAL PHONE PLAN
I never had to struggle during my trips because T-mobile has a free international texting & data plan. But if you don’t have T-mobile, it might be helpful buying an international plan, data hotspot, or SIM card once you arrive in the city.
12. BRING ESSENTIAL MEDICATIONS
Vitamin C pills and electrolytes will save your life when you’re dehydrated or under the weather. Take all the medications you might need for all types of illnesses. Depending on the country, regular medicines you’d normally get over-the-counter in the US might require a prescription to purchase there. I’ve been to a country where any medicine that’s not plant-based or “natural” needs a prescription (aka everything), and I didn’t heal until weeks after returning home. The bottles are likely not going to be in English either.
13. DON’T BE TOO CHEAP
We all want to save money, but don’t skimp out on your safety because you want to save a couple bucks. Do your research and ensure the area you’re staying in is safe. Or if it’s a little extra to be in a more metro accessible hotel, go for that. Walk around in the day, but once it gets dark, the safer option might be taking a taxi.
14. ASK A LOCAL WHETHER UBER OR TAXI IS BETTER
Ubers are usually better than taxis because of the location tracking and affordability. But at the same time, they don’t always have annual criminal checks run on them, nor do they always speak English. Depending on the country, taxi drivers in the area may or may not require being authorized and licensed before working. Find that out before deciding on your mode of transport.
Whatever you do choose, it’s a good idea to track the route on your own GPS to ensure your driver is taking you the right way. It would also be good to take a photo of the license plate before you get in, just in case you forget something in the car and need to track it down.
NOTE: Uber and Lyft aren’t popular in Asia, so be sure to download the appropriate ride share app. Dubai uses Kareem, India uses Uber and Ola, Singapore uses Gojek and Grab, and so on.
15. KEEP YOUR MONEY SAFE
Wear a fanny pack or a money belt facing the front so it’s not easy to pickpocket. Make sure the clasp is facing the front so they can’t unhook and snatch quickly from behind. Distribute cash in different bags so if one gets stolen, you still have some on hand. If you stop to buy tickets or anything where your attention is away, put your bag between your legs or in between your body and the counter instead of beside you.
16. ENROLL IN STEP
STEP stands for Smart Traveler Enrollment Program. Enrolling in this free program registers your trip with the US Embassy in the country you’re visiting. You’ll get information about safety conditions, natural disasters, and/or family emergencies.
17. KNOW THE CON GAMES OF THE AREA
Someone might offer you something for free, find a “dropped ring” on the floor and offer it to you, or give you a rose. It’s most likely a ploy to pickpocket you. In Barcelona, children are often used to trick tourists, one sweet talking you while the other sneakily steals your wallet. Here’s a list of common scams and how to avoid them.
18. PACK LIGHT AND BE CULTURALLY AWARE
Lighter luggage means easy mobility and less cost for storage. Pack a staple neutral-colored item for each type of weather/activity. Sandals, sneakers, a jacket, and a few jeans and tops to switch around with each other. Read up on the culture and attire the locals follow so you’re respectful and don’t stand out.
19. DON’T TAKE YOUR PASSPORT EVERYWHERE
There is no reason for you to be carrying your passport around on the day to day. Most hotels will have a locker so place your valuables there or purchase a TSA Approved Lock to store it safely in your backpack.
20. HAVE FUN AND MEET PEOPLE
Don’t let these precautions freak you out! Once you get to your destination, all of this will come naturally to you now that you know it. Go out of your comfort zone and meet some locals. Sign up for a cooking class, a painting class or anything you’re interested in at Meetup.com. You can even look into city tours, food tours, art and culture tours, day and night tours given by locals at Withlocals.