The struggle is real: solo travel edition

How to manage normally simple things when you’re travelling alone.

You know how you sometimes need to go to the toilet in a cafe or in the middle of the airport, and you ask your friend/family member to watch your luggage? Or when you’re stuck talking to a random stranger and your friend is there to save you? Well, have you ever considered how that works when you’re travelling by yourself? Let me tell you, the struggle is real!

So, in this post I’m sharing some of my solo travel struggles and the ways I’ve found to alleviate them. The important things is not to stress too much over it, so I hope that this will show you that there are ways to cope with everything solo travel will throw your way, so that you can be mentally prepared and enjoy your trip.

Solo travel struggle #1: Bathroom breaks

Let’s start with the one I’ve already mentioned: bathroom visits. If you’re travelling light, they’re a breeze: you grab your bag and off you go. However, if you’re carrying a suitcase or a backpack, it’s a bit more annoying than that. Public toilets are quite often too small to fit into with your bag and to make matters worse, you usually don’t want to put it on the floor either.

Honestly, I don’t have a good solution for this. Since I often sleep on overnight trains and buses, my bags are not safely stashed away in a hotel somewhere, which means I’m always dragging them around. Most airports and stations have lockers, which are great if you’re going to the city for a few hours, but you don’t want to pay for a locker to visit the toilet.

Personally, I try to judge the place I’m in and decide if it’s safe to leave my bag there, or ask a nearby traveller if they can watch my bag for a few minutes. In an airport or a station I usually suck it up and squeeze into the bathroom stall with all my stuff, unless there are trustworthy-looking backpackers around, while in a cafe, restaurant or onboard the bus/train/plane I usually just leave the bag in my seat. Yes, these are not the safest options out there, but I carry all my valuables in a smaller backpack that I always bring with me, so if someone wants to steal my dirty underwear and a bar of soap, they’re welcome to it. I also have small locks on all my bag zippers to prevent people from stashing something weird in there, but ultimately it’s up to faith.

Solo travel struggle #2: Eating out

Some of us are socially conditioned to feel weird when eating out alone and I already wrote about my experience with getting used to it in my Real talk about solo travel post. However, I do have some actual solutions for this!

If you feel awkward sitting at a table by yourself and are more introverted, then your phone is your best friend. Check your social media, schedule a check-in call or online chat with your friends and family, listen to a podcast, read an ebook (or bring an actual book, although that makes your luggage a bit heavier). If you’re naturally more extroverted, sit at or close to the bar and chat with the waiters if they aren’t too busy. Even if they are, it will make you feel like you’re part of the whirlwind and less alone, and there might even be other solo travellers or regulars to connect with. Just don’t be annoying and avoid the local drunks if it’s that kind of a place.

If you’re feeling really uncomfortable with the whole thing, get take away or go to the shop and buy stuff for a picnic. Sit on a nearby park bench or curb and people watch while you eat. You can even pretend you’re waiting for something or someone if that makes you feel better.

Table for one please.

Solo travel struggle #3: Getting rid of unwanted strangers

Speaking of eating out and public places: sometimes you’ll get unwanted attention. While that’s more of an issue for women than men, it applies to everyone. Whether it’s a shouted comment from across the street or someone trapping you in a conversation or even invading your personal space, the important thing is to stay calm. Don’t give them a reason to get violent and try to excuse yourself out of the situation as politely as possible, but be firm and clear about it.

If you’re travelling alone, there are no friends around to bail you out, but other people don’t know that. The trick here is to never let them know you’re alone. You can claim you’re waiting for a friend or a partner who stepped out for a bit, fake a phone call or just pretend you’re in a hurry, which works in most cases. If the person is particularly persistent, try to discreetly signal other people, preferably a waiter or a security guide if you’re in an eatery. Another thing you can try is to look for someone who looks friendly and start cheerfully waving at them, pretending to know them, as in “hi, where have you been/so nice seeing you here!” and so on. Most people have enough social instinct to understand that you’re in trouble and asking for help, so they might look at you funny, but they will probably at least let you approach them and thus get away from the person harassing you. Particularly women will often stand with you in solidarity.

However, if all else fails, threaten to call the police and do it as loudly as you can. Don’t ever feel pressured to talk to people, just because you’re too polite or too scared to say no, and don’t be afraid of drawing attention to yourself in this way. If someone is making you feel uncomfortable and refuses to go away after you clearly and politely tell them you don’t have time to talk to them or just plain don’t want to, you are not obligated to cater to their feelings.

Solo travel struggle #4: Walking back after dark

And then we have this, the biggest solo travel struggle and the bane of every solo female traveller out there – the nameless dread of walking back to your accommodation alone after dark in certain cities with weird vibes. Unfortunately, it can’t be helped and it doesn’t get easier no matter how many times you do it.

However, if you have to, you have to. Life is too short to skip a concert or nightlife with other travellers just because walking back is such a pain. Although I’m not a fan of partying by myself, I sometimes meet others and decide to join them for drinks etc., but I take care not to get drunk if I’m alone. If I’m coming back at a reasonable hour and have a long way to walk, I like to call my boyfriend and talk to him while I’m walking back, because it makes me feel more comfortable. Statistics say that you’re less likely to get in trouble if you’re speaking on the phone, because the person on the phone is a potential witness, so you can also always fake a phone call if it makes you feel better.

I prefer to use public transport if possible, instead of walking all the way or taking a taxi, because taxis abroad creep me out. I also like to have my headphones in and a jacket on to look less approachable, but I keep the music on low to stay aware of my surroundings. Obviously, well lit streets are better than dark ones, and crowds are supposedly safer than empty spaces. However, if you’re coming back late, the streets will likely be completely empty, which always makes me feel safe, because you can spot other people from afar and change direction if needed. Most importantly, you need to have a bit of faith and trust that everything is going to be fine, because it usually is. 🙂

Solo travel struggle #5: Heavy luggage

Obviously the first rule of solo travel is to never pack more than you can comfortably carry by yourself, but sometimes you’ll get into a situation when that’s just not possible. When I was moving out of my flat in Sweden and UK, I had two giant suitcases full of stuff, because I wanted to take home absolutely everything. So, I had two options: either to ship it, or to carry it.

When I was leaving the UK, I figured I could handle two 20+ kg suitcases and a full backpack, because how bad can it be, right? Wrong. I barely made it on and off the bus to the airport, struggled like all hell every time I had to go to the bathroom and literally cried trying to carry both bags up the stairs. At this point you might say “OK Petra, but why didn’t you ask other people for help?”. Well, my flight was very late at night and there weren’t many people around, those that were had their own bags to struggle with. The lesson here is, therefore, to always rely on yourself when it comes to luggage. Although I am big on seeing the good in people and relying on the universe to provide when needed, sometimes there just aren’t any people around.

So, when I was leaving Sweden, I shipped as many things as I could before leaving. The flat rate for shipping multiple large boxes actually wasn’t too bad and I really recommend Eurosender for within Europe, because they were cheap and efficient. In fact, I learned that it’s much better to ship home any extra stuff you acquire during your travels, than to carry it with you the whole way. A medium-sized box of souvenirs, extra clothes or whatever else you overpacked and don’t need, will set you back less than 50 euros from most countries, even overseas. Provided you can afford it, it’s really not that bad and is usually much less if you’re not shipping overseas.

Yes, I had a lot of stuff after a year in Sweden.

Solo travel struggle #6: Accidents

As we all know, accidents can happen at any time. They’re bad enough when they happen abroad, but even worse when you’re travelling alone. Again, there is no ultimate solution for this, but you can take some precautions to hopefully avoid them or manage the situation when it happens. The first and most important tip is to always let someone at home know where you’re going and when you’re planning to be back. Having a support system is vital for solo travelling, because if something happens, that person can at least give the authorities a starting point for where to search for you. You should also designate them as EC (emergency contact) in your phone.

Then there are the usual precautions: always make sure your phone is charged before heading out, know the emergency service numbers for the country you’re in, carry a basic first aid kit with relevant meds for your allergies or conditions and be prepared for what you’re planning to do during the day. Although I like to get lost in foreign cities without a specific plan, I always make sure I have a bit of cash and a sweater. When it comes to nature walks and hiking trips, it is even more vital to be prepared: wear good shoes, bring appropriate gear, water and snacks, and inform yourself about the weather conditions and the trail you’re going to take. You can also check out this post with tips for solo female hikers that I contributed a tip for.

Even something as simple as getting stung by a bee, summer heat dehydration or rolling your ankle can be a struggle when travelling solo, so just be prepared to make sure that you have the best time possible.

And here we are – we’ve reached the end of this post. It wasn’t so bad, was it? I realise this post may come across as a bit scary or negative at some points, but most solo travel struggles have reasonable solutions or can be avoided altogether with a bit of precaution and planning. There’s no use pretending bad or annoying things don’t happen, so it’s better to be aware and plan for what you can. Over time the planning and decision making becomes automatic, and you won’t even notice yourself evaluating the situation like a pro anymore.

So, stay positive, trust in yourself and believe that everything will be alright, because it usually is!

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4 thoughts on “The struggle is real: solo travel edition

  1. Good advice. #3 is good. I am a magnet for those lonely or mentally ill or other unsavory problem. I always make the mistake of allowing eye contact and being polite and nice.

  2. Great tips for traveling solo!
    I just had this happen to me. I met someone and needed an escape. So right away I told them that I had someplace to go in 5 minutes. That way it didn’t seem rude for me to rush off. I had already told them I had to go 5 minutes ago. 🙂

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