It's an invigorating idea we've all pondered at some point -- leaving everything behind to embark on a solo journey. Thanks to memoirs like Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love and Cheryl Strayed's Wild, traveling alone has a reputation for fostering self-discovery. Without the crutch of friends or family, we're forced to interact with new people and motivate ourselves to try new things. We also have the freedom to build and change our own itinerary as we see fit, with no one to please but ourselves.
While the notion of unhampered exploration sounds thrilling, traveling alone still raises some concerns, like personal safety and vulnerability to criminals. But these potential risks shouldn't discourage you from setting out on your own journey. To help you plan a safe and rewarding trip, U.S. New Travel has some advice on how to make the most of your unaccompanied adventure.
[In Pictures: How to Travel Solo]
Choose Your Destination Wisely
Of course the first step to mapping out any solo adventure is picking your location. While safety is a top priority, it's necessary to consider a few other key factors as well. Is the public transportation system easy to navigate? With no one to help you split the cost, is it affordable? Can you speak the language and easily connect with locals? Austin, Texas, is known for its budget-friendly attractions and low-cost accommodations, while Portland, Ore., offers a cool yet laid-back vibe with plenty of lush outdoor spaces. If you're eager to venture beyond familiar borders, consider Sydney. Although a jaunt overseas will cost you, you'll be greeted by English-speaking Sydneysiders and plenty of free attractions, including Coogee Beach, Sydney Harbour National Park and the Royal Botanic Gardens.
If you choose to travel internationally, make sure to consult the U.S. State Department to check for any travel warnings. Once you've decided where you want to go, devour as much information as you can about the city's customs and languages. While you don't need to be fluent in the local language, learning a few resourceful phrases (like "please," "thank you," "excuse me" and "can you help me?") will go a long way.
Sign Up for Group Activities
To pre-emptively combat any pangs of loneliness and lend some structure to your solo adventure, sign up for tours or classes before you leave. Cooking classes provide a delectable glimpse into the new culture you'll explore, along with a casual atmosphere to connect with like-minded foodies. If you're visiting a foreign country, language classes also provide a laid-back environment to meet and learn with fellow travelers. But not all group activities need to be pre-planned: You can easily join in on an impromptu museum, food or wine tour once you've settled into your surroundings.
For a more structured experience, consider signing up for a group trip with a tour company like Abercrombie & Kent, which offers a set of guide-led vacations exclusively designed for those traveling alone. Though organized trips often come attached to pricey fees for single travelers, these trips offer built-in social interaction and pre-planned itineraries. Abercrombie & Kent boasts discounted fares for many of its late 2013 and early 2014 itineraries. If the discounts aren't appealing enough, consider that these tours go to places you might not be able to reach on your own, like Mount Kilimanjaro and Antarctica.
It may seem like a no-brainer, but keeping your relatives and friends looped in on your travel itinerary will help allay their worries and build a safeguard should you find yourself lost or in harm's way. If you're traveling abroad, the U.S. State Department recommends enrolling in the free Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP). With STEP, you'll automatically receive timely, country-specific travel warnings and alerts, and have the ability to designate an emergency contact person. The program also helps U.S. citizens during natural disasters, civil unrest and personal emergencies, such as a lost or stolen passport. If you or your loved ones are having trouble contacting each another, STEP also makes it easy for consular officers in U.S. embassies and consulates around the world to help you connect. Staying stateside? Use Facebook, Twitter, a personal blog or other social media platforms to keep your family and friends updated on your whereabouts.
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Pack the Necessities
With no one else to help you carry your luggage, it's important to pack efficiently. But beyond that, it's also important to pack a few essential items. For added security in your hotel room, bring a rubber door stop. Though most hotel rooms have deadbolts or chain locks, sticking a rubber stop underneath the door will lend you some added security (not to mention peace of mind). Also, ensure you have copies of all your travel documents in case anything gets lost or stolen. When you're out and about, only carry the absolute essentials with you, and leave valuables in your hotel safe.
Lastly, don't forget to pack a camera. Capturing picture-perfect photo-ops isn't just a great way to document your trip. A camera also provides a worthy crutch for the introverts among us: instead of burying your head in a book, let a camera camouflage your timidity. Asking others to take your photo is also an easy conversation starter.
Follow Your Intuition
While traveling alone is a great excuse to breach the parameters of your comfort zone, it doesn't mean you should completely let your guard down. Listen to your instincts: If something or someone feels off, approach the situation with a sense of excessive caution. If you're taking a cab from your hotel, ask the hotel concierge to call a car to ensure you're using a trusted company. Also, as a precaution, only withdraw cash from ATMs during the day in a busy area, and always head to back to your hotel at a reasonable time, before the streets empty out.
Prearrange your Accommodations
Pre-booking your accommodations won't diminish the carefree energy of your solo jaunt. You can still engage in some spur-of-the-moment detours, but with the added bonus that you've got a safe haven to retreat to every evening. Before booking your hotel or hostel, be sure to choose a place that's well-reviewed and situated in a busy, centrally located area. If you're unsure about the safety of the neighborhood, get in touch with the local police station for crime statistics; officers may also be able to give you some alternative suggestions.
Engage with Other Travelers
Part of the fun of solo travel is spontaneously connecting with people you meet along the way. Though it's easy to strike up a conversation, you can expel any initial jitters by practicing at home. It seems simple, but going to dinner, seeing a movie or grabbing a drink at a bar by yourself will give you a better snapshot of what it will be like when you're exploring on your own.
There are also websites that can facilitate the meet-and-greet process. For women, there's Inviteforabite.com, a site that allows female-only residents and travelers to create and search for meal invites and group activities in cities across the globe. The site was originally created to provide dinner companions for female travelers who didn't want to eat alone, but over time the site has expanded to include other activities as well, like user-organized hikes and tours. If you're more eager to tap into a local's perspective, Triptrotting.com connects both male and female travelers with residents in more than 2,000 cities based on compatibility tests that match individuals based on different interests.
Take Time for Yourself
If the thought of group activities sounds too similar to your previous vacations, relish this alone time and discover the sights on your own. Ask the concierge for suggestions about safe and fun activities around the city, or grab a map and head to the top local landmarks. Should you grow tired of exploring a new city on foot, consider retreating to a nearby park or pamper yourself at a local spa.
[In Pictures: How to Travel Solo]
-- Ann Rivall