Anthropology student, hedonist,
food blogger at comidaesvida
Santa Fe, NM
Frida by Tara Jacoby
20 TIPS FOR TRAVELING ALONE
Three years ago, I was nervous about traveling to a foreign country, much less traveling alone. Now, I am quite the expert, and like it just as much if not more so than traveling within large groups (although my study abroad friends are the best!!). I’ve learned lots in my journey, and honestly, it was one of the best things I could have ever done. Here are some tips I have on traveling to a country where you know no one and have no idea what to do:
1. Enjoy Yourself. It’s so freeing knowing that you don’t have anyone to answer to or feel bad if the restaurant you recommended turned out to boojy (aka The Perch at Oxford). You won’t get dragged to Moulin Rouge in Paris because everyone else in your group wants to go. I’m a huge extrovert, so it was a little difficult accepting I was a loner, but I forced myself to do things and learn something every day. Even on days when I was sick, this gave me a chance to take it easy. I would walk to the City Square Mall, eat lunch by myself, browse the shops, and then—if I felt like it—board the underground train to go somewhere else. Traveling with others in tow can be exhausting because everyone wants to see this and that in a short amount of time. This time, I made my own decisions and went at my own pace.
2. Talk to strangers. Right out of the ferry to Wat Pho in Bangkok, I saw this British-looking dude and locked eyes with him and asked directly, “Hey, where are you going?” He responded, “to the Buddha Statue”. I said, “I’m going to the Buddha statue”. So we both went together, and then incidentally spent the next two days together. The boy, Juan, turned out to be Colombian (not British) and from Boston. But he was an excellent friend and travel companion! I met my friend Michele by asking her in Tompkins as we were both approaching, “Hi Michele, are you Asian?” and we’ve been friends ever since. So really, I’m used to life-long friendships forming out of a simple question.
3. Go somewhere no one else is going. I find Europa to be a bit overrated, full of tourists, and super pricy. Southeast Asia is the best destination for living on the cheap. Food is incredibly varied and tasty ($1 for the best pad thai I’ve ever eaten off the street!) and unless you’re going to Singapore (where a rum and coke is $25), alcohol is plentiful and cost only a handful of pennies.
4. Do not hang out with Americans. Ugly Americans do exist, and they are awful. Do not hang out with your own countrymen, as they will get drunk and do something dumb or fight over ridiculous things like how American plugs are the best in the world. You will never learn the language of another country or make any international contacts if you stick with Americans. And like our plugs, American men can be small and inefficient.
5. Get connected with locals. So what do you do in a foreign country where you know no one else? I set up mini-dates for locals to show me around. Locals can explain the history of things for you, or the culture, or tidbits you would not have known otherwise. This way, you can see life as how it really is lived in this country. They’ll also take you through tours of the city through some sketchy but fun parts. Geyleng is probably not on the top spot of visitors, but it was interesting to walk through. In Bangkok, I went to an underground market that used to serve as a train station and had beers on a bus. Both are DEFINITELY not listed in Lonely Planet guide books.
From Couchsurfing alone, I was able to eat chili crab, japanese ramen, and liquid nitrogen ice cream; ride around on the back of a motorbike, walk up Mount Tabor and Henderson Waves, hike Macritchie Reservior to Bukit Timah, eat lunch with a sloth, visit every museum and zoo imaginiable. When I got bored of hanging out with one couchsurfer, I texted another one, and within an hour he showed up to take me to the Night Safari. I arranged for someone to show me the Science Center the day after I got dumped, cried until 5am, and was forced to move out of my hostel. But if I wasn’t constantly moving, I would have never met this German surfer boy the next day, who automatically made me feel better about my breakup.
6. Go where you have free places to stay. This was also on my "10 LIFE LESSONS I LEARNED FROM TRAVELING" and I’m glad I could follow my own advice. Tim, the German surfer boy, asked me to go to Bali with him the day after I met him. I said, “OK, I’ll book my flight online”. He insisted instead, “No, come to airport with me”. So I went to the airport with him to book my flight to Bali. It ended up being one of the most unexpected, on-the-whim, best decisions I’ve ever made. We spent a week riding around in motorcycles, snorkeling and surfing on the beach, and eating so much satay.
7. Look for secret hostels. The problem with hostels is that mostly everyone there will want to do tourist things, and sometimes you’re sick of tourist things or don’t want to do them. Hotels are rather expensive and not necessarily worth it. Twice, I stayed in a hotel in Singapore, and it was probably the same as staying at a hostel, minus you get your own bed and bathroom. Otherwise, the conditions are the same, the noise levels are always peak high, and it’s dark and dreary being there alone.
Instead of booking for hostels, it’s better to just walk around to find something more convenient. The best hostels, I found, are ones that can’t be booked. I stayed in The Green Kiwi Hostel in Singapore, and found it to be loud and the people obnoxious (and I kept getting asked by Austrians if I could take showers with them). But I stumbled next door to The Rucksack Inn, and for the same price, there was never anyone in the bathrooms whenever I used it (and they were cleaner, which is a plus), and I stayed in a room where I had the whole entire side of the hostel to myself for the night. The Rucksack Inn doesn’t take reservations, and because of that, it was a gem.
Otherwise, if you don’t feel like sleeping on a couch, AirBnB is pretty wonderful abroad. I got to have breakfast with a German, an Austrian, and a Swiss couple, so I ate eggs and jam on toast while everyone spoke German. It actually is a sexy language. I much prefer it to French!
8. Look for secret flights. I used an App Katherine showed me called “Skyscanner” which scans all of the airlines, major or minor, for the cheapest flights. You choose whatever day you want to fly out of and when to come back (if you want to come back) and the prices for each individual flight. Sometimes, coming back on a different airline you arrived in is usual. I found a flight a through budget airline Jet Star to New Zealand for $400. And bought it because it was New Zealand.
Jean posted on the Couchsurfing website that Scoot Airlines, a subsidiary of Singapore Airlines, had flights for 2 cents. That’s right, a flight for 2 cents. Turns out, only the return flight was 2 cents and I had to pay taxes, but still, it ended up only being $100 to fly to Bangkok. It’s strange how in America, we have to pay exorbitant amounts of money to fly across country, or even from North Carolina to New York; and for the same amount of money, I could be in a different country in Pacifica.
Go to the airport and book a flight there. Sometimes it might be cheaper than booking it online, but I also feel that there’s something adventurous in deciding on a destination 15 minutes before you go. For a reference, I went on 10 flights to four countries around $2000.
9. Engage in some cultural anthropology. Hanging out with the locals gives you a rare glimpse about another walk of life. An interesting fact that I learned about Singapore is that the government has a resemblance of a communist dictatorship. Everyone knows about the crazy laws and fines and high housing costs that will keep its citizens working for 70 years, but few know that the government created this App, named Stomp, for its citizens to capture “wrongdoing”. It’s supposed to be a method of “public journalism,” but someone will shame someone on the app and they used to receive money (from the feds) if their story got on the top page. Because the country is so small, the government is more apt to respond. For example, they had this civil service boy on there (every male is required to serve in the civil service) who was shown sitting in the “elderly/pregnant/disabled” seat on the metro while an old lady was standing in the background. The whole country saw this and they were outraged. Why is this man, who is a symbol for active duty and service in the military, not giving up his seat for this elderly woman? Turns out, the photographer cropped out the seat next to the military guy, and the seat was empty. So the old lady was standing not because he was there, but because she just did not want to sit down! It’s not as drastic but it’s almost a semi-vein to Hitler youth in the digital age.
10. Buy Travel Health Insurance. When I was in Guatemala, I got sick almost every other week and but because I was insured through Study Abroad by this company called HTH Worldwide, I got something like $300 reimbursed for all my doctor’s visits. This time, I didn’t get travel insurance, and I regretted it. I ALWAYS get sick in a foreign country, and that is regardless of whether I drink the water. I went to the doctor twice and the emergency room once. Thankfully, the ER bill ended up being $80 instead of $2000 like it is insurance-less in the United States. Because you are traveling outside of crazy America, most places will have free healthcare or student clinics, but I ended up paying $180 out of pocket, when I could have been insured for $2 a day.
11. Buy a SIM card if your phone will allow for it. Ehh if it won’t. This was one of the first suggestions people advised me when I arrived in Southeast Asia. It is the best way to get connected to others, and you won’t have to be reliant on wifi like I was. But I phone with Sprint, and it’s not compatible, so I would have had to buy a new phone and sim card everywhere I went. This wasn’t worth it to me. So, while I had to be reliable on others to text for me (which I got very good at asking sweetly), it was so freeing to be off the beaten path and not have to check Facebook every hour. I could concentrate on what I was doing and enjoying my time with my host. I probably lost out on some contacts or experiences, but I realize that it is the most genuine people who will make appointments and make it a point to meet you wherever. Others who just want to text you to hang out last minute or make plans to Tioman Island and/or Vietnam and then flake on you are not worth the hassle.
12. Don’t buy anything. As I am moving and dropping more and more stuff in my parent’s garage (to the point, where they have had to move all of their cars out to accommodate my sister’s and my belongings), I realize how much stuff I accumulate and how extreme my baggage is. In the UK last year, I recognized the power of not buying anything—literally because I spent all my teaching funds in Guat and had no money. I don’t know why I was so hell-bent on purchasing so many things (apart from souvenirs). I have a hammock that I bought in Panajachel that I still haven’t used and probably won’t since I’m going to be living in the city. Maybe it’s because I grew up with very little, so I always craved more and more things. Nowadays, I’d rather spend my money on experiences and memories than on items I’ll never use again. I would gladly drop $100 in Auckland for the best steak I’ve ever had then spend it on “Keep Calm, Carry On” imprinted “basic” things. Travel with a backpack and keep it as minimalist as possible. I was like Johnny Appleseed, giving things away to various people.
13. Meet up with your friends. As I grow older and my friends have moved or are moving away (Holla Jenifer, Katharine!), it becomes more and more important to maintain those friendships from far away. After Kyle and I broke up, I exercised my contacts in SE Asia, and reached out to Julie and Danielle, friends teaching in Bangkok. They gladly took me in, without a moment’s hesitation, and I loved the nights we spent walking around in the open air train market, eating squid off the street and “Sawadee ka”-ing everyone. It’s amazing and inspiring to see people come so far from small towns in North Carolina. Just because someone moves halfway around the world shouldn’t mean you will never see them again. Make it a point to visit. I have so much love in my heart for Julie and Danielle, and similarly, after Sara visited me in Surrey, I immediately felt closer to her. Traveling friends are just the best people.
14. Don’t listen to naysayers, listen to the locals. I can’t tell you how many times people have said not to go to Thailand because there was a military coup. Or not to go to Malaysia because it was “dangerous”. I find that as a lone traveling woman, men will love to tell you not to do something because the world is not “safe” for women, instead of making strides toward making it more secure for women travelers. Even though I heard news reports of political unrest, Julie and Danielle assured me that Bangkok was not dangerous at all, and there was a never a moment in which I felt afraid when I went. I actually felt more protected there than I did in America, where people have open access to guns.
While I was in Bangkok, I posted a status about how I was enjoying the country, and I had someone respond with a snarky post about how great it is that I can enjoy the World Cup when the “militaristic police can crush those dirty naysayers” and then he posted a link from thewire.com. First, I responded that I really don’t know the entire military situation (which is true). But secondly, I think I would trust the people who are actually living in Thailand over someone in America who is reposting a wire article. Military take-over doesn’t sound like the most glamorous option, but people have told me that they feel safer now than they did before.
15. Travel through Tinder. I learned through Julie and Danielle that everyone uses Tinder nowadays, and it’s become so much more than just a “hookup” app. In Bangkok, I actually connected with an NCSU student who was studying in an ethnographic program (the other one at State that was not Guatemala). It was nearing the end of my trip, so I didn’t use it extensively, but I’ve heard other folks have had success with Tinder, and because it’s a super quick interface that allows you to chat with strangers in seconds, it allows you to make connections so much faster.
16. On the downside, be wary of people trying to sleep with you. Use your brain and get out of situations when strangers (attractive or not) invite to you upstairs “for an amazing view” no matter how amazing. It does not matter if they bought you drinks and meals or took you anywhere, you are NOT obligated to sleep with anyone. I know I rode around in cars of strangers, which is probably not the safest option, but have your wits about you at all times. Know when things are sketchy, and have a backup plan for a bad situation.
17. Stay with a host family. While hanging out with a new young twenty-sometimes each day is exciting, sometimes you want some consistency. Staying with a host family is the best way to calm down while still getting integrated in the city. I had asked my professor, Ruie, if she knew any contacts in New Zealand I could stay with. I knew she had spent some time abroad and had a Kiwi lover. She connected me to her friend Ngaire, who was busy, so she passed me along to her friends, Mrs. Webb. So, through a friend of a friend, they graciously took me in. I think I slept better in Auckland, then I ever slept in the past few months.
New Zealand, especially, is a country in which it is very difficult to get around public transportation (akin to the US). I’m already terrible at driving and the maneuvering opposite side of the road would slay me. I’m so lucky to be a part of the Webbs for a week. Xanthe and Caleb basically took me everywhere around the city, and I loved them for me (loved those tunnels ;)). Mr. Webb took me out fishing off the coast of Whangarei for the first time, and I caught something to eat the next night. That whole week was one I will never forget, and I basically decided to live there after I get my (no sex until) PhD. It is one of the best experiences of my life, and all I did was ask, “Do you know anyone in New Zealand (not your lover)?”.
18. Pay it forward. Living on the kindness of strangers is a great feeling, and it really restores my faith that there are sincerely nice and gracious people in this world. Sometimes, we can never truly pay them back, but the best option is to pay it forward. After a great trip, I want to open my space up to other travelers and international people. I want to volunteer with international students. I want to teach ESL for the rest of my life.
19. Learn things about yourself. I spent some time doing that ugly cry on the subway, when everyone notices you’re crying but tries so hard not to look at you. During the lull, I had some time just to think about life. I learned that I get really attached to people after I meet their families, probably because I always missed that connection with my own. I learned that I probably shouldn’t date anyone for a while, and I cannot do long distance relationships. I also witnessed that I am not obligated to hang out with anyone if they are boring or rude. It feels good to level up in self-respect!
20. Make plans to travel for the future. I always assumed that once I meet people, I will never see them again; and for some cases, that is true. But for some, I will stay in touch with forever. We don’t have to live in a world fifty years ago where we never hear from our pen pal and assume they are dead. Now, I heavily Instagram and Skype my international friends, and I visit at every opportunity. Mark came to visit right after China. I went to stay with Dr. Chris in his tent two years later. Both Tim the German and Rikesh from Singapore plan to meet me in Baltimore later this year. You really never know where you will end up, and maybe you’ll be a lot closer than you think. During partings, I always respond, “nos vemos”. We’ll see each other soon.
If you want a travel companion, let me know! I will most likely join you in what is sure to be my next great adventure.
Ode to Jarritos - a collaboration between Amanda Lanzone and Sarah Jacobs
"When he was dying, I said: ‘Moe, how am I going to live without you?’ He answered: ‘Take the love you have for me, and spread it around."