Every two days before my trip, I get the same call from my mom. She’ll ask me in a worried tone, “Are you sure that you want to go?” Smiling over the phone, I tell her what I have told myself since my first time jetting off on a solo trip:
“You’re not safe anywhere, so go everywhere.”
I took my first solo trip at nineteen. Granted, it was after a summer of traversing Europe with friends, so I didn’t feel like a complete novice. I knew the basics: what and how much to pack, how to navigate large airports and train stations, and where to look for help if I needed it. However, there was still so much that I didn’t know about being in a place alone that I would eventually discover over the course of 10 solo trips.
If you’ve never been on a solo trip before, or even if you’ve never been abroad before, I want you to know that solo travel is for everyone, especially women, and can become an active part of your life. As an 18-22 year old woman, this is the best time for you to start traveling while you have the flexibility in your schedule. Here is everything that you need to take your first trip.
Covering the Basics
Let’s start with the three basic knowledge points that every solo traveler should be familiar with.
Pack only a backpack filled with essentials
The first time that you take a solo trip you may feel the need to pack everything. What if you can’t find what you need there? The truth is that unless you’re visiting a third-world country - in which case you should do a little more research about what you’ll need prior to your trip - you will be able to find what you’re looking for in a local shop. Therefore, don’t feel the need to bring anything more than the following: a couple of clothing items that can create multiple outfit combinations, your ID/Passport, local currency, technology for communication, and an empty water bottle.
*Pro-tip about local currency. You may not think you need it if you’re going to a big city, but there will always be a cash-only bar or a cash-only outdoor market. Save yourself the ATM fees and hit up your bank at least three days in advance to order some currency; banks usually do not have foreign currency on hand.
Arrive early to airports and train stations to ensure that you don’t miss your transportation
One of the perks of traveling alone is that you don’t have to worry about another person not wanting to ask for help. It doesn’t make you look stupid to ask for help; it’s better than wandering around aimlessly looking and wasting time. Information desks are a good place to go as they are designed to help you and they usually speak English. It is better to arrive early so that you have enough time to do this.
Ask strangers for help
Some may not agree with this, but I think that when in need, it is good to ask strangers for help. I like to play the probability game, which lends me to think that most people where I am, are good and genuinely willing to help a person in need. Whether it’s directions, borrowing a phone charger, or a phrase that you need translated, it’s always okay to ask for help. Just stick to your gut and areas that have a lot of people. The best places to go for help are local restaurants or hotels. If someone is following you - like the person who followed me on a scooter in Morocco - head inside a nearby cafe to feel a little more comfortable and get your bearings before leaving.
Know Where You're Going But Don't Completely Plan
When going alone, it’s slightly more important to do your research. So do it. Look up what you’re allowed to bring into the country, what attractions you’d like to visit including how far apart they are from each other, and what transportation in that area looks like. Look at the number of women that travel there regularly and the extra precautions that they take. For example, I wore a fake wedding ring in Morocco because I read online that I would have less harassment; it worked.
The more important things to check when taking extra precautions are how safe certain areas are at night and what the safest transport is between local destinations. My rule of thumb is to stay where there are as many people as possible and when in doubt about getting home late at night, take an Uber rather than a local taxi - this might only apply to big cities where Uber is more accessible. It’s always good to do some planning ahead if you know that Uber is not an option.
While it’s important to plan, I learned very early on that it’s not always good to completely map out your trip. Leave room for the unexpected; that’s what makes an adventure. If everything went according to plan - you went here, you saw this, you ate that - then it’s a vacation, not an adventure. Leave a day unplanned for you to try something that a local recommends or for you or to go somewhere with the new friend that you just met. I think sometimes it’s the people that you meet on your journey that impact you most. Leave room for them to crash your travel plans.
Where to Start
Most people think that you need to be rich to travel. You don’t. The cheapest ticket I’ve paid out of the U.S. is $222 from NYC to Stockholm and the most expensive is probably about $480 from NYC to the Galapagos. You can travel cheaply if you follow these guidelines:
Don’t pick a destination beforehand, let the destination match your availability. Use Google Flights. Type in your Where From, but don’t type in your Where To and click Search. It will bring up prices to destinations all around the world and it will allow you to identify the cheapest during the days in which you want to travel.
Pick a destination that is cheaper than home. Essentially, don’t go to Western Europe. London and Paris are beautiful, but they’re also some of the most expensive places in the world. Instead, visit South America or Asia. For the week that you’re there, you’ll end up spending less money than if you would have stayed in your home country.
Hostels are cheap and safe. I have stayed in all female hostels and mixed hostels - both are safe. They offer a great opportunity to meet new people for that unexpected adventure! Do book ahead of time as the rooms tend to fill up.
Don’t think about it, do it. When we overthink it, we tend not to do it. We ask others for input; we question whether it’s the right thing to do, and by the time we think we’re going to commit, the flight price goes up and we back out. Flight prices can rise by the hour; do not wait to book it if you see a good deal. You can plan later for all of the logistics. You don’t need a place to stay or a list of things to do before you click submit.
While it might seem intimidating at first, solo travel can be very rewarding. It allows you the opportunity to go beyond your comfort zone, personally reflect on your everyday pattern, and meet new people that you probably wouldn’t have engaged with if you were already there with someone else. Some of my most thrilling experiences are from my solo trips. Let this be your call to action - or even better, your call to adventure after COVID-19.
About the Author: Kaitlin Gili is a Quantum Computing Researcher as well as the CEO of Encouraging Women Across All Borders. She received her B.S. in Physics from Stevens Institute of Technology and plans to pursue her PhD in Physics at Oxford University after working at Los Alamos National Laboratory and gaining industry experience at Zapata Computing. In the past, she has worked on four different research projects across three continents, including developing quantum algorithms for practical applications. She is passionate about providing mentorship for young women, creating new outreach tools for getting more young people interested in STEM, and helping others in their personal and professional development.