I started traveling solo when I was 21. It was an impulsive decision, and not something I had been planning for a long time. I had just gone through a (not-so-painful-but-still-very-demoralizing) breakup and I was also going to celebrate my 21st birthday, so I thought, why not do something crazy? I wanted to have some time alone anyway.
I didn’t even know that solo traveling was a thing. I didn’t know there were hundreds of thousands of solo female travelers out there. This was before smartphones. I honestly thought I was some sort of pioneer (and so did my family and friends, apparently).
Does that mean I wasn’t scared? Absolutely not. I was terrified. These were the fears I had that almost stopped me from traveling solo, and how I overcame them:
1. Fear of People's Opinion
Specifically, my mom’s opinion.
I remember the time when I was a teen. My mom and I went to the beach because there was a carboot sale nearby. While she was busy shopping, I went and sat on the beach by myself. Afterwards, I told her that I really enjoyed it, and that I was thinking of going to the beach alone again sometime.
My mom quickly and huffily put an end to that thought. She said, “Only a mentally ill person would go to the beach alone!”
Mind you, I lived in a society with very low awareness of mental health. Being mentally ill or having a mentally ill person in the family was — in their opinion — a great source of humiliation.
So, several years later, when I was making the decision to travel solo to Singapore, I knew that it wasn’t something I wanted to discuss with my mom.
And unfortunately, she wasn’t the only one who was appalled by the idea of a woman traveling alone. In my culture at that time, solo female travelers were practically unheard of. Going anywhere alone meant you were asking for bad things to happen to you.
Then, there were also those people who thought I was frittering my life away, when I should have been focusing on finding a husband and saving money to buy a house and a car.
How I Overcame It
I didn’t tell my mom I was going. Only my best friend and a few other people knew. I felt like I was not doing anything wrong. I was a working adult living on my own, I wasn’t borrowing anyone’s money, and I wasn’t abandoning my responsibilities.
I think I only told her after about 10 countries. And I must say, it was easier to ask for forgiveness than to ask for approval. With 10 countries under my belt, I was able to prove to her that I could take care of myself, so there was nothing she could say about that.
Now, I’m not trying to encourage everyone to up and leave without their family’s knowledge, but what I’m saying is that sometimes you’ve got to distance yourself from environments that are not conducive to your personal growth. Sometimes you’ve got to learn to strike a balance between pleasing your family and living your life. It is your life, after all. If I had listened to every negative comment that people said to me, I don’t know where I would be right now. Probably on a hospital bed, living on antidepressants.
NOTE: For safety reason, you must never go anywhere without telling anyone. Make sure at least one person knows your location, and who to contact should there be any emergency.
2. Fear of Flying
Have you ever heard of anyone who loves turbulence? Well, now you have. I was that person. Smooth car rides bored me. I loved bumpy roads. On a bus, I liked sitting at the back, preferably right above the wheels, so that I could feel more impact if the bus went over potholes or speedbumps. I also loved airplane turbulence. It always gave me an adrenaline rush — much like being on a roller coaster…
…until the fateful year of 2014. It was a sad year for all Malaysians (and many others) when three Malaysian planes were involved in fatal accidents, claiming almost 700 lives. One went missing without a trace; one was shot down by a Russian missile over the Russian-Ukrainian airspace; and the other one crashed into the South China Sea.
Up until then, I used to think of plane crashes as something that only happened in other parts of the world. In 2014, suddenly they became a very real possibility. I put off flying for almost a year, and after that, every time I had to fly, I would have anxiety over the slightest turbulence.
How I Overcame It
- Make sure that I’m as comfortable as possible. That means warm, loose-fitting outfits, an eye mask, a blanket or a shawl, a travel pillow, earplugs, and no shoes. I mean, I take them off and wear only socks. I also make sure that I’ve gone to the toilet and done all the necessary (including washing my face and brushing my teeth) before I get on the flight.
- Try to get as much sleep as I can on the flight. Turbulence is less scary when you’re asleep, so I try to stay up late before a flight, so that I can fall asleep easily on the plane.
- If it’s a long flight, I always bring a book or something to while the time away and keep me distracted.
- When there is turbulence, I would look at the flight attendants. If they’re not screaming their lungs out, then chances are the plane’s not crashing. One of my childhood dreams was to become a flight attendant**, so now I’m using that as a way to motivate myself to overcome my fear — if they can go through that turbulence unfazed, then so can I!
(** until I discovered that it was possible to travel the world without being a flight attendant.)
3. Fear of the Unfamiliar
Imagine stepping out of an airport, only to be greeted by sights and smells that are not familiar to you. The weather is not something you’re used to, the people speak a language you’ve never heard of, and the signboards are written in characters that you cannot read. I love being in that situation now, but it was terrifying the first time.
Growing up, I was not a very adventurous kid. I led a pretty sheltered life as an only child. Then, I moved out at 17 and learned to be more independent. But I was always (and still am) rather timid and shy. Plus, I have a very poor sense of direction. I actually had to turn on my GPS inside a shopping mall in Kuala Lumpur.
How I Overcame It
4. Fear of Language Barrier
Visiting a country where nobody speaks English is a terrifying prospect. Especially if you can’t read the characters either. But when I visited New Zealand for the first time, I had a different problem. New Zealand was the first country I visited where English was the first language.
I had studied English in school for more than ten years, but I had always felt insecure when talking to a native speaker. I worried about making grammar mistakes, pronouncing a word wrongly, or not being able to carry a decent conversation. Sadly, people tend to judge a person’s IQ based on their English proficiency. I’m guilty of that too, sometimes.
It didn’t help that the Kiwi accent was so hard to understand. I felt like an idiot for not being able to understand English.
How I Overcame It
I don’t always have internet when I travel, so I’m not always able to use a translating app to communicate with people. What I do instead is learn some basic phrases before I go. It’s only polite to know how to say ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ to the locals when you’re visiting their country.
In general, younger people are more likely to know some English compared to the older ones. So, I would try to approach them first whenever I need to ask something. Other than that, you can also go to a hotel or a restaurant and ask the receptionist. I find that most people are actually very eager to help, despite not being able to understand or speak English. When all else fails, sign language and a good sense of humor will usually do the trick.
5. Fear of Not Having Enough Money
Being a cheapskate, I was not overly concerned with this, to be honest, because I knew how good I was at living with very little, but it did cross my mind sometimes.
- Would it be enough if I brought only IDR500k (USD35) for a 3-day trip to Medan, Indonesia? (It was.)
- How about SGD32 (USD24) for one day in Singapore? (Also enough.)
- What if I ran out of money halfway through my trip in Bangkok? (I did, but I survived.)
How I Overcame It
Of course, that was just one of the foolhardy things I did when I was young and naive. Now, I have matured as a traveler and understood the importance of having enough money in case of emergencies (like missing a flight or falling ill). Also, now, I can afford more comforts and am less interested in roughing it out.
But if you stop yourself from going somewhere because you think you need to wait till you have ‘enough’ money to shop more/have more luxury on your travels, trust me — you’re never going to have enough. As you grow older, you’ll only want more comfort and more luxury. You’ll have higher standards. And by that time, you’ll probably have more commitments anyway and more debts and not enough time to travel.
So, just go. But make sure you have some backup money for emergencies. Better yet, get a good travel insurance so you don’t have to worry about all that.
6. Fear for Safety
Let’s just admit the fact that the world is a much more dangerous place for a woman traveling alone than it is for other types of travelers. Unfortunately, in this day and age, there are still certain people who like to prey on vulnerable women. To disregard this fact is to live in denial.
How I Overcame It
But I would take the necessary measures to protect myself. Learn to trust your instincts, always be extra vigilant of your surroundings, and never let your guard down. Before going on that trip, read up on common scams and dangers to look out for.
7. Fear of Loneliness
I’m an only child and an introvert. I’ve spent most all my life being on my own and I love it! Given the choice, I would rather stay alone in my room and be called a hermit than go out and see anyone.
But to go for weeks without human interaction would be mad, even for me. Will I get lonely? Will I get homesick? The problem is I’m not the type of person who can easily strike up a conversation with strangers.
How I Overcame It
When you think of solo travel, getting lonely might be one of your biggest worries. But when you actually do it, you’ll quickly realize that you’re never quite alone. In fact, traveling solo is the best way to meet people. When you’re traveling with someone, you will most likely never bother making friends with other people because you already have someone to talk to. But when you’re alone, it might become a necessity. Likewise, people are generally more willing to talk to someone who’s on their own rather than to approach a group of people.
And the best thing about traveling solo is you get to decide when or if you want to socialize. I found that my interactions with other people (locals, especially) are what makes my travels more meaningful. To me, traveling is as much a journey to get out of my comfort zone as it is a journey to a new country. So, when I travel, I like to force myself to stay in hostels or join meetups so that I get to meet more people. Click here for tips on how to make friends if you’re an introverted/social-phobic solo traveler.
True, most of the time, you’ll only meet people who are simply passing through your life without making any meaningful connection. You exchange a few niceties, talk about where you’ve been and where you’re going next, and then go your separate ways. But sometimes, you get to create lifelong friendships. I’ve stayed friends with some of them and even visited them in their own countries.
8. Fear of Travel Mishaps
I’m not known for my organization skills or my punctuality — let’s just put it that way. I also don’t have the best sense of direction.
And when you’re traveling abroad on your own with no one to help you keep track of time or remind you where you put your stuff, it leaves very little room for error. I was constantly worried that I might forget something or lose my passport or miss my flight.
But does that stop me from traveling solo? No. Does it help me become more organized and punctual? Also no.