So you have finally decided to travel solo? Congratulations! I don’t know what your story is, but it must have taken a great deal of courage to even come to that decision, and for that alone, you deserve massive respect.
Whether you want to make it a one-off thing (I hope not!), or you plan to have this rendezvous with yourself on a yearly basis, or monthly, or full-time, this is the first step towards a life-changing journey.
So, what do you do next? How do you decide where to go on your first solo trip? Here are a few pointers that may help you decide:
Follow Your Heart
Well, duh. This should go without saying. It is your solo trip, after all. That’s the great thing about traveling alone—you can go wherever you like without having to find a compromise with your travel partner(s).
So go ahead and ask yourself what you like the most.
- Are you more of a beach person or a mountain person?
- Do you like going to museums, art galleries, and historical buildings, or do you prefer something more adrenaline-inducing, like bungee jumping, skydiving, and white-water rafting?
- Do you want to go where there are lots of young party-goers or do you want somewhere quiet where you could get away from it all and be one with nature?
Don’t pick a place just because everybody else wants to go there. I once made the mistake of going to Paris on my first time to Europe, even though: 1) I didn’t like big cities, 2) Arts and museums weren’t really my thing, and, 3) I wasn’t really keen on visiting the ‘City of Love’ so soon after a breakup.
In the end, it turned out to be quite a disappointment. I would still have wanted to visit Paris at some point in my life, but I wish I hadn’t tried to make it the highlight of my first Europe trip just so I could impress people with pictures of the Eiffel Tower.
Okay, time to get real. You need money to travel. Sure, you can follow the footsteps of Christopher McCandless and many others who hit the road with zero or very little money in their pockets. If this is what you’re aiming for, click here for some inspiring stories of those who have done it. But for the rest of us, we’re going to need some money to buy that flight/bus/train ticket.
So take an honest look at your budget, and let that help you decide where to go. Far-away destinations don’t necessarily mean that they are less affordable. For example, if you’re in Europe, flying to Southeast Asia may be expensive. But the fare plus travel expenses for a few months in Southeast Asia may still be cheaper than if you were to travel within Europe for the same amount of time.
If you asked me, I’d say it’s better to start with a place that gives you some familiar comfort. I know, not everyone will agree with me on this. Some may want to jump in at the deep end right away by going to countries that are totally different from their own. And that’s totally cool. But some may prefer taking it a little slowly.
For my first solo destination, I chose Singapore because I knew it to be safe, clean, and modern. Plus, the weather, food and language were very similar to my own. That it was only several hours away by train from my city was a bonus.
So, if you’re feeling a little scared about traveling alone for the first time, start with a place that is not too drastically different from what you’re used to, but still foreign enough to give you a feel of what it’s like to be a solo adventurer abroad. If you live in Europe, this should be fairly easy to do. You’re most probably just a few hours’ drive away from your neighboring countries, and for most of them, I believe you don’t even need a passport or a visa. * jealous *
However, if you live in a huge country where it takes an entire day to fly from one end to the other, then you might want to just travel domestically for your first trip, which is absolutely fine too. A solo trip is a solo trip even if you don’t cross any international border.
It’s common sense to avoid going to countries that are at war or experiencing any kind of political unrest. Not only are they unsafe, they probably won’t let you enter in the first place. But what about third-world or developing countries? Are they safe to visit? What about countries with high crime rates? Should you avoid them at all cost?
Those questions are a little harder to answer. The thing with danger is that it’s everywhere. It’s even there in your own kitchen. Whether or not a country is ‘dangerous’ is rather subjective. Let’s say you’ve never been to Southeast Asia. It’s normal to be concerned about how safe it is for a solo female traveler. You might have heard stories of snatch theft, or people being scammed, or women being harassed. But there are millions of women, including myself, who have lived here our entire lives. And look — we’re fine. That’s because we know which areas to avoid, and how to dress and behave to avoid unwanted attention.
Similarly, I’m a little scared of visiting the US, because I’ve been watching too many American movies. I was also very nervous about visiting Russia last year (again because of American movies), but for the hundreds of millions of people living there, those are their homes, and they’re alive and well because they are familiar with the place and know how to take care of themselves there.
So, my point is, while I don’t discourage you from visiting places that are deemed ‘unsafe’, I’d recommend putting it off until you’re a more experienced traveler, so that you would be better prepared if—*gasp*—you find yourself in a dangerous situation.
Climate & Weather
These two elements play a vital role in helping me decide where to go. Coming from a tropical country, I just cannot stand cold weather. Anything below 20 degrees Celsius is too cold for me. So although I fell in love with Russia’s colorful cathedrals and postcard-perfect landscapes, I simply couldn’t picture myself living or traveling there long-term, and especially not in winter, because it would just freeze my ass off. On the other hand, I don’t like it if it’s too hot either. Oh well. #firstworldproblem
You may not be as picky as me, but it’s always a good idea to check the weather (and temperature) before you book that ticket to wherever it is you want to go. If a flight ticket to a particular destination is way cheaper than it usually is, be very suspicious because it could be that it’s in the middle of a typhoon season (speaking from experience). You don’t want to spend your beach getaway being holed up in your hotel room because it rains the whole time you’re there (also speaking from experience).
A visa is an official permission that authorizes you to visit a foreign country and it often comes in the form of a sticker in your passport. Before going to any country, please check if you need a visa to enter. Don’t be like silly old me who went to the airport all excited to fly to Myanmar only to be turned away because I didn’t have a Myanmar visa. The lady at the check-in counter looked at me as though I was a bit thick in the head, and I don’t blame her, really. You see, I make all these idiotic mistakes so you don’t have to.
Visahq.com is a great website for checking whether or not you need a visa to visit a particular country. Just select your citizenship, country of residence and the country you’ll be visiting, and it will tell you whether a visa is required for that trip. They also offer visa services for most countries in the world.
As every country has different requirements, it’s important to check this very carefully. Can the visa application be done online? Or can you get a visa-on-arrival (VOA) at the airport? Some visas require you to be present at the embassy and go through an interview process. Some require an invitation letter from a travel agency, or the hotel that you’ll be staying at. Remember that most visas will also cost you money.
So do take this into consideration when choosing your destination. Are you willing to go through a complicated visa application process for your first solo trip abroad? If yes, then the next important things to know are the processing time and validity period of your visa. Make sure you allow sufficient time to apply for it before going on your trip. Don’t leave it till the last minute, but don’t do it too soon either. Otherwise, your visa might have expired before you even get on that plane!
Some countries require you to show a vaccination certificate before you’d be allowed entry. This is to prevent the international spread of certain diseases, and also to protect you from being exposed to infection. The most common vaccines for travel are:
- Yellow fever
- Hepatitis A
- Hepatitis B
- Typhoid and paratyphoid fever
- Meningococcal disease
- Japanese encephalitis
Please note that some vaccines need to be administered in a series of doses spread over several days or weeks. Don’t forget to add to that the amount of time for the vaccines to start taking effect. So just like getting a visa, do make sure you have enough time to complete this process before going on your trip. The country requirements are subject to change at any time, which you can check with the relevant embassy. Click here for a comprehensive list of each country’s vaccination requirements and recommendations, published by the World Health Organization, as of 2018.
Ease of Transport
I’m a terrible driver so I have no choice but to rely on public transportation to get around. A lack of public transportation is usually a deal breaker for me, as renting a car or hiring a private driver is going to cost a lot more if you travel alone, as you don’t get to split the cost with others. Until I brush up on my driving skills, I’ll have to stick to places that are well-connected. Central Asia is going to have to wait.
A word of advice: If you have to take the local buses or trains, find out whether you have to book in advance or just turn up at the station. Check the operation hours, and keep that in mind when booking your flight tickets. You don’t want to get a flight that’s too early in the morning or too late at night if the local transportation to and from the airport is sporadic.
Sometimes, festivals are what attract me to visit a place more than the place itself. What world-famous festivals would you most want to be a part of? Is it Holi in India? Songkran in Thailand? Oktoberfest in Munich? The list is endless. Time your visit to coincide with these celebrations.
On the flip side, some festivals mean that most shops will be closed. In many Muslim countries, during the fasting month of Ramadan, it is illegal to open restaurants during the day, and out of respect, you shouldn’t be eating in public either. In Bali, there is a holiday called Nyepi or the “Day of Silence”, where everybody on the island is expected to stay at home and refrain from using any electricity, electronics, fire, and all forms of entertainment. Even flights are suspended for the whole day. Therefore, while festivals may be exciting, do check if it might affect your travels.