The Sloane Condé Guide to Baby's First Solo Travel
Eindhoven, that summer I thought I could stop drinking Coke.
Solo travel is a combination of three of my very favorite things: packing for things, exploring new places, and being alone.
For some fortunate few, this has been old news since third grade. But for the rest of us? Even if you were lucky enough to be born into a family that travels a lot or did a semester or two abroad, I think most of my friends my age are just starting to get into traveling totally solo - without the safety net of a tour group or your parents or even a university to give you direction and advice. Even traveling with friends gives you an entire group to brainstorm/plan with - so I wanted to write a guide for going out there, totally fucking alone, because it's hella daunting. But, it also gets easier and easier every time you do it. I'm pretty new to the game, but I've done it a bunch in the past year, so maybe I could tell you some stuff I've learned.
And, you know, maybe this is all kind of obvious stuff, but not everyone has the same skills and knowledge, and if we could all admit that and help each other, we'd have 80% fewer whiny clickbait articles about how difficult it is to be a twenty-something.
And in that spirit, I present to you:
The Sloane Condé Guide to Baby's First Big Solo Travel, All By Your Lonesome, Don't You Have Friends To Go With You, Or...?
Suggestion #1 : Set a Budget
Once upon a time I used to think two month jaunts across Europe were reserved for trust fund babies and people whose parents really, really, really loved them. Just looking at the list of things to buy convinced me it was impossible. And while it is expensive, trust me, it's doable. Although I'm not totally financially independent, I'm proud to say that with a few generous exceptions (like replacement train tickets or a random night in a hotel), I did the entire thing out of my own savings and pocket.
First of all, be realistic. Realize that you WILL go over budget, and you'll be so busy having fun you won't even notice (or, honestly, care) when you get home. I started out by figuring what I could realistically expect to pay and then contrasting that with what I wanted to pay - and then haggling and deal hunting until they met somewhere in the middle. Start off with the non-negotiables - transport and logging - and think of that as your lump, principle sum. From there, you get to decide how much you want to spend. Decide what you want to leave with and what you want to come back with. Make a specific analysis of how much money you have and how much you want to set aside, and then track it diligently.
Once you're there, don't guilt trip yourself. I mean, eat regularly. Don't go on any crazy shopping sprees - and by the way, I am not sorry, I treasure all those purchases - but get a few souvenirs. It doesn't have to be all ramen and street food. Splurge on a really good local dinner or three.
Remember: You can always get more money, you can't always get more time.
Suggestion #2: Book Your Accommodations, Then Your Transportation
Once you have a good idea of your budget, it's time to book accommodations. Figure out your dates, and where and when there's a warm bed waiting for you. When I went abroad this summer, the first thing I did was email friends and see when they were available and then book around that. It did make my itinerary a little wonky (Netherlands--> Spain --> Germany ?), but I would chalk that up to communicating my needs poorly on my part. Plus, taking the train, I got to visit a bunch of different cities and have, say, a random extra night hanging out in Paris - which I think is 90% of the adventure. Looking back, I wouldn't change it.
Always plan your transportation around your accommodations, not the other way around - transportation is, generally, way more flexible. You don't have to book your accommodations before your transportation, but it helps to have a pretty decent plan. You can always show up earlier and try to get on a different bus or train. I know it doesn't work that way with air travel, and cheap flights don't exactly offer a ton of options - but you can always try to adjust around that.
Never go into a city and say "I'll just find a place" or "I'll just crash in the airport for 24 hours" - because not only is it dangerous, it's often really hard to find, say, a hostel in NYC on short notice, and you're going to be exhausted and fucking miserable and it'll make the next day wasted. If you realize your cheap flight comes in 24 hours before your AirBNB is available, and book another random AirBNB for the night. Trust me. HAVE A PLACE TO STAY. Otherwise your mom ends up paying for your 4 star suite in Valencia because you couldn't find a place that will let you check in at 2 am.
Suggestion #3: Flexibility, Flexibility, Flexibility
The key to solo travel success is flexibility. Not only does this mean being willing to go off your itinerary, it means being cool with dealing with loneliness, or getting super lost, or eating bad train station food, whatever. You know? Enjoying yourself in any and all situations.
But seriously, it's a practical component as well. Being flexible with your travel plans themselves can be key. If you're willing to take a 13 hour layover in Dublin, you can fly to Europe for way under 1k. If you're willing to drive to another airport, you can also save a ton of money - for example, if I fly out of Toronto instead of JFK, it's usually like $300 cheaper. Look into those options - don't assume you're stuck with the most obvious route. The same goes for booking hotels and hostels. Ask around. Do your research. Don't go in with too many pre-conceived notions. Like I said, I had kind of a weird travel plan this summer - Eindhoven to Seville to Cologne - but it meant I got to stay with really generous, wonderful friends and take a trip I never would have afforded if I'd stayed in hotels or hostels.
Suggestion #4: Be Type-A. Be Really, Really, Really Type-A
When you're with friends and family, people will love you and point out that you set your passport down on the counter and didn't pick it up. When traveling alone there's no one to keep you in check, ask you if you remembered your (x), whatever. And you're going to be flustered and excited and your mind is going to be reeeeally elsewhere. You're going to want to have fun and not be constantly asking yourself where all your shit is constantly.
First of all, get a folder, or a bag, or whatever, and keep all of your important documents secured. Keep track of your shit. I refuse to be paranoid, but I also refuse to let anything stand in the way of a good time. I am not that person, and I will never be that person, with a passport carrier around their neck, but I do have it attached to the inside of my carry-on via document case.
Make a checklist. No, really, make a checklist. Everything you need to get there, everything you need while there, everything you need to get home. Outlet adaptors? Call your bank? Train tickets - did you book them and print them? Did you call work and give them your time off request yet? Make lists of the valuable items you're taking with you and want to make sure you have when you come home - phone, DSLR, grandma's diamond ring (hide that list though, duh). If you don't trust your airline not to lose your bag, make a list of what's in your suitcase. Make a list of your purchases and stay on budget. It sounds crazy, but it's honestly such a weight off your mind and it's that much more you won't be thinking about.
You're hearing this advice from a person who can't find her checkbook in her own desk, so if I'm telling you that organization makes it so much better, you know I'm serious.
Suggestion #5: Find Yourself Some Locals
No matter how independent and introverted you are, no matter how long you're gone, you will - I promise you - get to a point where solo travel gets a little lonely. There are only so many museums you can go to. Who's going to take pictures of you? Are you going to get a selfie stick? No you're not. No, seriously, you're not.
I mean, you're alone here, don't be dumb. But I'm convinced that hanging out with locals is the best way - nay, the only way - to experience a new city. And to that effect, here's your chance to make new friends. Reach out to people you know from home, search for friends of friends, everyone knows someone. It's a good way to make non-sketchy connections and see a city at the same time.
Also, re: locals, I mean, I sound like my mother, but if you're going to go home with a dude, at least make sure someone knows where you're going. Write a note and leave it on your hotel dresser, or something. Haven't you people seen Taken?
Suggestion #6: Be Assertive, But Not Aggressive, When Dealing With Authority
I know this might sound like really obvious advice, but one of the things that surprised me was that I wasn't really prepared to be insistent and polite, but firm, about my demands. I think this a problem mostly experienced by girls - we're raised to be polite, and nice, and lady-like, and whatever. This doesn't work when you're dealing with transportation bureaucracy.
For example, my AirBNB host in Paris tried to kick me out 18 hours early so she could have a cleaning lady come in - and she was not nice about it. Normally I might have been like, "Oh didn't realize, okay, sure, sorry," - you know, because I was (and still kind of am) transitioning out of just assuming that you don't have a choice in what authority tells you. But that wasn't in our contract and I wasn't about to deal with booking another room for a night. I ended up pulling up the original booking forms and our contract and showing them to her. She was super pissed - and gave me a bad review on AirBNB - but it saved me like 50 euro and a ton of time for something that wasn't my fault anyways.
Suggestion #7: If You're Going Abroad, Keep a "Man on the Ground"
I mean, I know, it's not like you're going off to war here. But hear me out: when I was abroad, I brought my iPad and updated my cell so I had wireless access throughout Europe. But there were still a bunch of situations where I couldn't get a site to open on my mobile browser, or calling my bank was impossible with the time difference, whatever. One time (see above) I needed to find a hotel in a foreign city at two am, sans wifi and with a dying phone.
I know we're talking solo travel here, but I'm not sorry that I called my mom and asked her to find me a place to stay. It's hard to travel and deal with shit like that. Have someone you can call.
Suggestion #8: Be Realistic About What Kind of Packer You Are
Look, listen, if you're traveling alone, no one is going want to help you with your giant heavy suitcase that you can't lift. So be reasonable here.
However, if you're one of those people who likes to have a lot of outfit choices, whose mood changes with the wind, who feels more comfortable being prepared for any situation, please don't feel obligated to jump on the whole minimalist capsule wardrobe hype train. If it makes you feel more comfortable to totally overpack and not wear most of it, you do you. If you can lift your suitcase and you have some room for extras (and there WILL be extras), I'd say you're fine.
I've gone both the meticulous capsule wardrobe route and the "I'm bringing everything I love route." There are pros and cons to each. Meticulous capsule was essential when I was traveling a lot, but staying in once place, IBEIL was totally fine - if not a liiiiittle frustrating when it came time to pack up again. MC, if done right, gives you a series of perfectly planned outfits, shit that all looks good together that you don't have to think about - but it's also really hard to do right, and you can end up with stuff you hate or doesn't look great together and half the outfits you wanted to have. Last time I did IBEIL, I ended up wearing a rotation of the same three outfits anyways.
All I'm saying is, don't give into peer pressure. There's no moral high ground for the person with the smallest suitcase. If you're high-maintenance, that's not going to change once you're abroad, so recognize that and pack accordingly.
Random Tips and Tricks:
- AirBNB, AirBNB, AirBNB. Ethically questionable, perhaps. Easier and cheaper than a hostel? Definitely. Get your own room, have an actual safe place to keep your stuff, 100% fewer people fucking in the same room as you. Win/win.
- For long term accommodations in foreign countries, also go with AirBNB. Definitely cheapest, and real apartments require pesky documents like references and proof of income.
- Figure out how to pack/what exactly you need by walking through a typical day and thinking of all the essentials to life. Your phone might be background noise to you at this point - but could you take that call without an international phone plan? Better get one.
- The best international flight deals are found on Tuesdays like 60-90 days before the flight. 50% of the time, it works every time.
- Don't stay in the suburbs/outside the city to save money, especially if you're relying on public transport. It usually just adds up to increased transportation cost and time, plus a lack of flexibility and freedom. Budget a little more on lodging and enjoy the experience.
- But, don't go crazy paying for a room you won't be in most of the time. Is it a safe place to keep your stuff and sleep? Perfect.
- I know what I said about overpacking, but there's like, a 2% chance you're going to get invited to something that needs a fancy dress and not be able to borrow one. Skip it.
- Take advantage of discount sites and flights. Last time I went to France, I booked a really cheap flight through Finnair - direct there, and a 4 hour layover in Helsinki on the way back. A little more travel time, but I saved a ton of money.
- Bring a few granola bars with you in case you arrive on a Sunday night and all the stores are closed and you're suddenly really shy to try to order from a restaurant in French.
- Even if you're generally into winging it, have a rough itinerary or list of must-dos before you go. I'm pretty anti-plans, but sometimes I find that if I wake up without a really specific idea of what to do in mind, I find myself just walking around aimlessly all day. Sometimes that leads to cool discoveries, other times I feel like I just wasted a day. You don't have to do all of it or any of it, but keep a list.