This is a series of honest posts about what solo travel is really like, so please start with part 1 if you haven’t already.
First solo trip
The first time I went anywhere on my own, was a 5 week trip to Australia in 2017, just after I’d finished my Bachelor’s degree and really became an engineer. You can read a bit about why and how I decided to go there here, but the important bit here is, that I’d never been anywhere by myself before that, and chose to try it out 14.000 kilometres away from home. Yes, I’m insane.
Naturally, my family and friends were freaked out and worried for my safety, particularly as a woman travelling alone, but I was determined. The only extenuating circumstance was, that I had an Australian friend I planned to visit for a couple of days at the start of my trip, and that I had travelled independently with friends before. I also chose to do couchsurfing, staying with locals for free, which meant I was never really alone during my trip and saved money. In the eyes of everyone I knew that was both good and bad, as staying in properly registered accommodation entails a measure of safety that couchsurfing doesn’t, but some of them also understood that people willing to host a stranger for the night were more likely to be good people (and they were!). Either way, it was a bit reckless, but my Australian friend was a big proponent of couchsurfing and as it turns out, it is pretty popular and quite normal in Australia.
I was overly excited and didn’t really mentally process what I was doing until the night before my flight. In my mind I was visiting a friend and exploring a bit afterwards, and it was just another country, not one halfway around the world, and they all speak English, right? I had a near panic attack and got super scared of travelling alone the night before when it hit me. My boyfriend and I were in bed and I remember crying and freaking out about roadside murders, rape and travel horror stories while he held me, telling me I’ll have a grand time. He was right of course, but the experience changed me forever.
Getting on that plane was one of the scariest and most surprising things I ever did and I had a 30 hour flight to obsess and worry about what could happen – the strange thing is, I didn’t. A soon as the plane took off, I was giddy with excitement and felt an immense sense of freedom. I’d conquered my fears, worked my ass off to save enough money for the trip and I was on the way to Australia, an exotic promised land outside of Europe. I remember feeling on top of the world when we landed and the customs officer was asking me if I had anything to declare. I proudly stated I had nothing except a bucket of excitement. He laughed with me and it was smooth sailing from then on.
Dealing with my fears
But was it really? The first time I walked down the streets of Canberra by myself while my friend was at work, I was obsessively checking the map to make sure I didn’t get lost. I was annoyingly aware that any phone calls from my European SIM card would cost a fortune and that I couldn’t just Google anything, so I was on my own (I later bought an Australian SIM card). Every car that zoomed past me was a potential car crash with expensive hospital care in a foreign country, every person walking down the street was a potential threat – while my brain was spinning in circles, my mouth was stretched in a wide smile and I felt like singing as I walked down the street. It was an incredible, hysterical duality of an exhilarating sense of adventure and ingrained social unease in new situations.
As I entered the first museum of my trip and bought a ticket for one and walked through the doors by myself, I initially felt embarrassed. I felt like every single person around me was looking at me and wondering why I was alone, or if I was waiting for someone. It felt like I had something to prove, like I had a big “weirdo” sticker on my forehead that I needed to somehow justify, but in reality, nobody cared. The first time I wanted a coffee, I bought a takeaway cup and sat on a park bench with my phone, because I was too uncomfortable sitting in a cafe. The first time I was hungry by myself, I went to a fast food place, where it was socially acceptable to eat fast and mind your own business.
Since I was in a different time zone than my friends and family, I couldn’t just chat with them online or on the phone as I later learned to do whenever I feel out of sorts during my solo travels. At first I didn’t even have mobile data, so I had to rely on wi-fi, but eventually I relaxed into it – my coffee stops moved indoors, my lunches became longer. The feeling of questioning looks on my back abated, the hairs on the back of my neck were no longer raised by every passing stranger who looked my way and my step became less hurried and more sure, although I’ve never mastered the nervousness of walking alone in a foreign city after dark.
Obviously solo travel is somewhat less safe than travelling with a friend or a group, but it can be done safely. I’ve covered the basics of smart and safe travelling here, and that’s a starting point. If you trust your gut, you’ll be able to navigate most situations safely, but at the end of the day, if it’s meant to be, it will be.
Unfortunately, there’s a very real chance that a brick will fall out of the sky and kill you (yes, here‘s a news article), even if you’re not doing anything particularly unusual, so just go where your heart takes you and use your head.