The first overseas adventure you have by yourself is an intense time of self-discovery, personal growth, and developing your passions. It’s unlike anything you will ever experience. I am still talking about my big year abroad in Europe in 2015. I made so many mistakes along the way and learnt that travelling by yourself is pretty hard. But it’s also so worth it.
The real beauty of exploring the world alone is that you have the freedom to do whatever you want to do, guilt-free. That’s damn exciting… and fairly nerve-wracking. But never fear! I’ve made the mistakes so that you don’t have to, and come to some very interesting realisations in the process.
Here’s what you need to know.
#1: Every person’s solo journey is different. Be true to yourself when planning your adventure.
So I am a complete nerd when it comes to ancient Roman history. I love the out-of-this-world architecture, the fascinating religious practices, and realising that there’s actually not that much that separates us and the people of ancient worlds.
Also: I love pasta.
The Roman Forum, Rome - P.S. you can sketch this marvel while earning credit towards your degree. Check it out!
So naturally making Rome and Pompeii my first destinations for the year was the best decision I ever made. It taught me one vital thing: that it’s incredibly important to consider your own personality and interests when planning your itinerary.
If you want a truly fulfilling experience, think beyond ticking off the most #travelgram-worthy destinations. Plus, I guarantee you’ll still get some pretty amazing shots along the way.
Mount Vesuvius, Pompeii
MY TOP TIP: Ask yourself what you would absolutely love to learn more about or experience and go immerse yourself in it! Take into account your natural social style to escape becoming completely overwhelmed. If you’re an introvert, opt for places off the beaten track and single room accommodation. If you’re an extrovert, a hostel in a town with great nightlife might be your best bet. And if you tend to alternate between being a hermit and a socialite like me, throw in a bit of both to avoid loneliness or overexposure.
#2: The time of year can make all the difference. Be prepared for it.
You may be the type of person to improvise when it comes to your travels. That’s great! There are definite benefits to going out on a limb and travelling where the wind takes you. I personally wouldn’t have ended up wandering through some pretty magical (and isolated) woods in Zürich if it wasn’t for a poster that I happened to see in a train carriage.
Zürich Wilderness Park
HOWEVER. One thing you absolutely should not wing is your preparedness to deal with the weather. Snow and rain don’t necessarily mean a quiet one inside with your Netflix account - as long as you have a dependable jacket and the strength to jump out of bed on a miserable day.
TIP: Make sure you know what you are getting into by giving that Weather app a good workout, and pack accordingly before you get on a plane. Have a backup plan for when the weather unexpectedly turns, and I can assure you that you will earn the well-deserved bragging right of having made the most out of every opportunity.
BONUS TIP: Note that particular events or activities can be seasonal, so do your research! When devising a strategy for tackling Spain for the first time, I knew what my priorities were: churros, chorizo, and the Seville Fair, only held in April. Who would want to miss two weeks of dancing, amusement rides, and gorgeous costumes?! That trip ended up being my favourite travel experience to date.
Plaza de España, Seville - These rowboats were an added bonus that you can experience while learning Spanish this year!
#3: Travelling alone is a whole other level of independence. Give yourself time.
Your level of independence is going to be unrivalled, and that’s because the main person you’ve got to rely on is yourself. That being said, I have to warn you that this is literally going to be the best thing you do for yourself in your entire life.
You’ll become a logistical god. The reason for this is that you’ll find out pretty quickly that missing connections, being nervous at the airport, and suddenly getting sick while you’re alone are not fun experiences to have. You’ll want to avoid them at all costs. The reassuring news is that there are ways to minimise the impact of derailed plans and prevent a mental breakdown (yes, this may happen).
YOU’VE GOT THIS.
TIP: Be patient with yourself, plan ahead, and give yourself time. You will make mistakes, but giving yourself enough time to travel from place to place and figure out your next steps will reduce your stress levels drastically.
Ask yourself a few key questions before you hop on a plane: How do I get from the airport to my accommodation? Can I book anything in advance? Do I have medicine packed? How is the public transport system in this place?
If all else fails, talk to the locals! They’ll have insider information, and might lead you to amazing places like this.
Plitvice Lakes, Croatia - Pssst. You could learn about artificial intelligence AND visit these waterfalls with AIM Overseas!
#4: Your phone will be your new best friend. Use it to its full potential.
In most of the hostels you visit you’ll be able to print out tickets, maps and contact numbers. In fact, I highly recommend that you do print these out (or screenshot them) in the case of an emergency. Though, occasionally you’ll get stuck without crucial information. Your phone will need to save the day. It will become your map, camera, translator, and your connection to friends and family.
I am beyond grateful to my phone for capturing my journey in the absence of a good quality camera and for leading me around the world. My only regret about my whole experience is that I didn’t buy a portable charger sooner. Being stranded in the outer suburbs of Poland without any phone battery taught me that lesson the hard way.
St Gilgen Zwölferhorn, Salzburg - My friends wouldn't have believed I did this gorgeous hike without the proof on my phone.
Lake Wolfgang, Salzburg - Seriously, who needs a Canon when these are the views from below the mountain?!
TIP: There are a few things you should invest in that will turn out to be lifesavers when you need them most. Luckily for you, most of them are FREE. For example, the offline function of Google Maps allows you to navigate through a city without internet, as long as you save the city’s map to your phone beforehand. Also, Whatsapp allows you to message and call people for free if you have internet access. The greatest thing about this app is that you can easily share your location with other people while on the go.
BONUS TIP: And if you don’t have data while overseas? Most McDonald's restaurants and train stations in Europe offer free wifi in exchange for an email address. Additionally, I’d like to introduce you to ‘Eduroam’. If you’re a university student wandering past another university while overseas, there’s a chance that you’ll be granted access to their wifi through this international roaming service. What a relief!
#5: You’ll get lonely, even if you think you won’t. Stay connected.
Lastly, and most scarily, you can expect to be thrown face-first out of your comfort zone, into places that are often incomparable to what you are used to at home. Constant discovery can be both eye-opening and paralysing at times, regardless of how eager you are to explore alone. That’s the reality of a solo trip.
TIP: Do things that feel like home and update your friends and family about what you’re doing and how you’re feeling. Who knows, they might even give you inspiration for the next leg of your expedition! Take advantage of their waking hours and commit the time difference between yourself and them to memory for instant support when you are in a tricky situation.
Above all, remember that travelling solo isn’t static. Making friendships is much easier when you’re with people who are keen to discover a new place. Forcing yourself to talk to strangers can lead to lifelong friendships, incredible travel memories, and a great excuse to do it all again in a years’ time!