Malaria medication. Typhoid pills. Ciprofloxacin for traveler’s diarrhea. Was I really going to a place where an impending illness seemed so likely? More importantly, was I really traveling there solo?
I was 21 years old and headed for Thailand. Starting with Bangkok I would be making my way to the hill tribe villages of Chiang Rai to teach English for a few weeks before continuing on to Chiang Mai then through Laos, Vietnam, China and Hong Kong. Did I mention I was going solo?
How Solo Female Travel Made Me Stronger (And How It Can Make You Stronger, Too)
While I'd studied abroad in Sydney the summer prior — an experience to which I acknowledge as the gardener of my planted travel infatuation — traveling solo and volunteering through Asia was a whole different animal: different language, different food, different customs; in fact, prior to arriving at my volunteer placement in Chiang Rai I'd received a list of cultural taboos that ranged from walking into a home with shoes on to pointing my legs straight out at someone. I studied the list like I would a history textbook before an exam, terrified that if I forgot just one single item I would fail.
I remember telling my parents about my plan to travel to Thailand.
“That sounds fun,” my dad had said with a smile. “Who's going with you?”
I gulped, knowing what would inevitably come next. “Nobody. I'm going on my own.”
His smile immediately turned upside down. “You can't go by yourself. You're a 21-year-old female.”
I didn't want to be deceitful. I'd hoped after I explained how excited I was to have a solo adventure and volunteer they'd see my side. Despite how I didn't want them to worry, I went online and booked my flight anyway. Now, I couldn't make excuses about reasons I shouldn't do the trip. I was going.
Once the ticket was purchased my parents realized this was a done deal, and became hands-on in the preparation, even buying me new clothes for the volunteer stint (Tip: Black slacks in the Thai summer heat are not necessary). And when I finally found myself overseas, I knew I'd made the right decision hitting buying that plane ticket.
“I learned just how strong and capable I really was when I had only myself to rely on.”
All of the unknowns throughout Asia I had thought would scare me became exciting curiosities: the street stalls offering unfamiliar dishes, the squat toilets, the colorful and speedy tuk tuks, the long overnight trains, the mysterious jungle treks, the hectic streets filled with backpackers and hawkers, the words that seemed similar but varied in pitch. Even things that I had back in New York — like fruit juice, jewelry and bicycles — became exciting points of exploration. In hostels and backpacker-filled guesthouses I made friends easily, everyone in the same boat, while homestays and family accommodations provided the perfect way to indulge in local fun like Mahjong and karaoke. And as I navigated missed trains, border checks, confusing cities, lost luggage and language barriers, I learned just how strong and capable I really was when I had only myself to rely on.
The Joy of Solo Female Travel
Since that trip, I’ve gone on to enjoy solo backpacking through a number of destinations: South America, Europe, Morocco, French Polynesia, British Columbia, New Zealand, Fiji and many others. With each trip, my confidence in my abilities grow, as does my strength. Interacting with locals and hearing their stories, seeing first hands the cultural differences and varied ways of life around the globe, my mind has opened up like a like a book, my brain hungry to read every page. And with every new page read I’m given inspiration, knowledge and power.
Looking back now, all the pre-trip worry seems almost laughable. Don't get me wrong, it's completely rational to feel nervous before a solo travel journey; however, after taking to the road on my own — and loving it — it was unnecessary. Worrying about what to pack, how I'd get around with the language barrier, if I’d get lost and if I'd make friends at my hostel was for nothing as with common sense and a bit of confidence this all comes easily.
For those interested in traveling solo for themselves, here is some advice to get you started on having your own solo journey. In my opinion, it’s something everyone should experience at least once, for even if you don’t end up loving it it will undoubtedly make you a wiser, more confident and stronger person.
When planning for a solo female journey, you can go three routes: plan everything ahead of time, figure it out when you get there or something in between. Personally I like figuring it out as you go along, as you never know what kind of adventure might present itself and change your course. Meeting other fun travelers, getting invited to a festival by a local, hearing about a great city I'd never heard of and falling in love on the road have all been reasons my loosely pre-planned itineraries changed direction. That being said, having everything pre-booked does give you the peace of mind that you won't be left without a place to stay (trust me, nothing is less fun than wandering around for two hours desperately trying to find any hostel with even a vacant couch to crash on) and that you'll be able to pack in everything you want to do.
If it's you first time, I recommend at the very least booking your beginning few nights of accommodation to help you get acclimated to a city. You'll most likely already be somewhat nervous, and being able to hop in a taxi and head straight to your accommodation to settle in will be welcomed. Give yourself a few days to get to know the culture and get comfortable with being on your own and then take it from there. You may also want to book things a few days in advance as opposed to before you arrive to give yourself a little leeway to change your mind, but still ensuring you don't get stuck without a centrally-located bed for the night.
No matter what your travel style is make sure to always research a few things:
- Entry and exit requirements
- Necessary vaccines/medications
- Cultural taboos and common customs (to not make any offensive faux pas)
- Common safety threats and tourist scams (as to not get duped)
One should always known how to stay safe before boarding the plane for their trip. There are a few recommendations I have for solo travelers to help them take extra care:
- If you're a US citizen, sign up for the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (https://step.state.gov/step/), which allows the US government to more easily help you in case of emergency.
- Invest in some pickpocket proof clothing (some brands I like include Clever Travel Companion and Clothing Arts). This way thieves won't even know you're carrying cash or cards, as it'll be hidden in pockets on the inside of your clothes.
- Always carry your hotel's business card so you'll always be able to quickly get out of an uncomfortable situation by hopping in a cab and handing the driver the card
- The first thing you should do when arriving at your hotel is ask for an annotated map of where is safe to go alone and where isn't. Don't wander around staring at it, but look it over and keep it on you as a reference.
- Don’t get distracted by nearby chaos. Creating a diversion is a tactic used by teams of pickpocketers to divert your attention and grab your wallet.
Relying On Yourself
One of the scariest yet most rewarding aspects of solo travel is the fact that you'll be dependent on yourself. Not only are you the travel agent, you're the tour guide, navigator, doctor, interpreter, problem solver, organizer and calendar all rolled into one. You've got to remember dates, make healthy and smart choices, and traverse unfamiliar terrain on your own. What's amazing about this is while it may sound daunting, once you're doing it you'll realize you're capable of much more than you thought. You can do absolutely anything once you're forced to, and it's a major confidence booster. And the more confidence you have in your abilities the more (smart) risks you'll be willing to take, meaning the more adventures you'll end up having. It's as if solo travel a never-ending string of positive self-strengthening occurrences.
With relying on yourself comes the best part of solo travel: ultimate freedom. When I was in Thailand there was no need to argue with someone whether we'd go to the market or temple, about what to eat for dinner or whether getting up at 11am is waking up late or early. Everything becomes your decision, and the trip becomes yours to enjoy as you see fit.
Life is full of obstacles both abroad and at home, and when you prove to yourself you’re strong enough to conquer them on your own, you grow as a person. Why do you think employers love candidates who travel so much? It's because they're adaptable, self-reliant and know how to solve problems as they come. Just by hitting the road they’ve proved their strength. Add in some time traveling solo and that power multiplies. Travel solo, and allow yourself to have an experience that not only leads you to gain skills on the road, but in life.
Jessica Festa is a full-time travel writer who is always up for an adventure. She enjoys getting lost in new cities and having experiences you don’t read about in guidebooks. Some of her favorite travel experiences have been teaching English in Thailand, trekking her way through South America, backpacking Europe solo, road tripping through Australia and doing orphanage work in Ghana. You can follow her adventures on her travel websites, Epicure & Culture and Jessie on a Journey . She’s also active on social media including Twitter @JessonaJourney, Facebook, Instagram and Google+ .