Millions of women have gone travelling solo, and there’s no reason why you can’t too. Louise Thompson provides some advice and insight about her own solo travels and how to forget the fear and go where you’ve always wanted to go.
A note from the Travelhappy editor: Louise Thompson was one of the many people I met when I started solo travelling in 2003. We met in Australia and through a series of random events eventually ended up travelling together through Cambodia and Vietnam, becoming firm friends in the process.
I asked Louise if there were any tips she had specifically for women to go travelling solo, and this is what she came back with.
Over to Louise:
Hola TravelHappy chicas. I have traveled to over 50 countries, many of them solo, and these are my words of wisdom for slightly nervous first time travellers. I know that what holds back a lot of girls from travelling is the thought about doing it on their own. I hope this gives you the impetus you need to get that rucksack packed and that ticket booked and go have the trip of a lifetime!
1. Money solves pretty much most problems when you are travelling solo
I know most of you will be travelling on a budget, and I absolutely was too, but for emergencies, don’t be afraid to whip out your credit card and just fix the problem. That’s what credit cards are for. Don’t take stupid risks. Money you can always earn back. Your safety: not so much.
When I was first in Kuala Lumpur I was brand new to South East Asia and FREAKING OUT. I was staying in a hostel that was beyond rancid. It was the Hostel From Hell. I was sooooo miserable. I didn’t feel safe; I wasn’t meeting anyone; I was exhausted from not being relaxed enough to sleep; dirty from the filthy showers, and wondering why the hell I was chasing cockroaches out of my clothes when perhaps I should be back in London enjoying a nice lunch at Quaglinos on expenses. I was on a budget but I was also miserable. And stuck.
So, I got my credit card out and checked into the 3 star hotel over the road. In the foyer as I checked in I met two awesome girls called Brenda and Gemma. We totally hit it off, and we ended up travelling through three countries together! It all turned on that one decision to say “fuck it, this isn’t working” and make a different decision and flash a little cash.
The three of us travelled super budget from then on. However, that night feeling safe and clean in a bed with clean sheets with two new buddies and a plan to go trek the jungle in 2 days time together, I knew it was the best decision ever. Throwing a little money at the problem. And the thing was, when I worked it out, it was only probably another few quid than what the Hostel From Hell was! It was an amount of money that I would have ordinarily spent on a sandwich and a coffee in London. To have been miserable for such an inconsequential sum seems ridiculous. So budgeting is important, sure, but remember your sense of perspective and why you are going in the first place. To have a good time!
2. Ease yourself in
If it’s your first real travel I highly recommend you make it easy on yourself and go with a semi organized trip, such as Intrepid Travel or G Adventures. They have a zillion different options to choose from. Yes you could do it cheaper on your own, but, again, it can be money really well spent to have the first two weeks of your trip with instant friends, instant roomies and someone showing you the ropes of travel and how to get a train ticket and all that sort of thing. Think of it as Solo Travel With Training Wheels. In a few weeks you’ll be cool to take them off, have your confidence up, and may well have even met some buddies to travel with.
3. Pack Smart
Do your research on the climate you are going to and be smart with what you pack. Be self-reliant: have the stuff YOU need, don’t be the needy traveller. Make sure everything goes with everything else so you can mix and match outfits. Take one pair of strappy sandals that make you feel good. They weight nothing and once you have been schlepping in your hideous Reef sandals for weeks you will just love the boost of feeling “pretty”. People laughed at me for taking them but I can assure you I wore them loads!
It’s really easy to get suckered by the “Lizard Brain”, the part of our brain that is programmed to send out messages of fear which kills thousands of splendid plans and opportunities. It really is nowhere near as scary as you think. Let go of that fear and trust in your capable smart self. If you want to read something to help you tame your Lizard Brain pick up “Steering By Starlight” by Martha Beck (and when it’s published my forthcoming book!)
5. Beat the Track
Another newbie trick for solo women travellers is to start on a standard route so you make some buddies, get your confidence up before you go fully solo and off the beaten track. Something like Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City – Nha Trang – Hoi An – Hue – Hanoi route is a classic. Everything is set up, and you will meet people along the way, find lots of organized trips and so on.
6. The big secret is you are never really on your own
In fact I would often find myself craving some solitary time to write in my journal or whatever. Really, you WILL meet some awesome people, just DROP THE ANXIETY round it (that needy energy does not help). Relax, you are going to have the trip of a lifetime and the people that are meant to cross your path will.
7. Expect The Best
I can’t emphasise this enough. Expect help. Expect smiley. locals to help you. Expect to meet cool people. Yes it’s all very different, of course it is, that’s why you are travelling! But don’t be expecting everyone to rip you off and steal your stuff. Of course that occasionally happens, but it happens round the corner from where you live too but you don’t walk down to your regular high street in a state of perpetual panic the whole time do you? Exactly. The vast majority of people you meet will be good, and kind and happy to help you. Expect that and look for that. You will be surprised at the goodness that falls in your path.
8. Learn a few words of the local lingo
Seriously. Learn “Please”, “Thankyou”, “Hello”, “Goodbye”, “Yes”, “No”, and “Where is the bathroom?” That’s all you need, but you do need that. Ask the taxi or moto guy when you land, they will be happy to let you practice on them and people will warm to you faster if they feel you are making the effort in their country,
9. Exercise the right of solo travel
NO PEOPLE PLEASING! It’s absolutely LIBERATING. When someone is boring you just move on! Enjoy the fact you are out of your regular environment and rules. You don’t have to listen to the boring guy ramble on about his oh so important job like you would at an industry event or in the staff coffee room…you can just …walk away! This time you have made for yourself is about pleasing you, not pleasing others or gaining approval. Go see a temple or a waterfall instead. Do YOUR thing.
10. Don’t be a Travel Wanker
Travel Wankers exhibit the following behaviour: 1. Haggling with locals down to the last kip or baht. Seriously, 10 baht means nothing to you but a huge amount to a local. Don’t be a wanker about it. 2. Travel Wankers “do” a country as in, “yeah, I’ve just done Laos”. It makes people want to smack you in the head. Don’t say it. You don’t do a country dude. You visit it.
11. Do some stuff you wouldn’t normally do
Plan, but leave open some space for the unexpected to crop up. I changed my flights about 15 times my plans changed that much! As I met new people I heard about places that sounded cool and unanticipated opportunities crossed my path. If not now then when? Have enough of a plan you feel comfortable (ie. where you are sleeping tonight) but enough flexibility to let the universe bring you all the good stuff it has in store.
12. Don’t spend the whole time in an online security blanket
You are travelling to experience the world. That’s experience it in the moment. In real life. The temperature and clarity of the water in Belize. The sunrise over the mist at Angkor Wat. The heat of the earth beneath you as you sleep on the desert floor in a swag in the Outback. If you are online, you are CHECKED OUT of the present moment. What’s the point of going if you are not really going to be there?
13. Trust your instincts
There are some scary bastards out there, just as there are in the town you live in. Don’t be paranoid, but if a rare situation comes up when you just do not feel safe, then don’t worry what anyone else thinks, act on it. Go stay elsewhere, or travel a different method or whatever. I have to say in the whole 5 months I travelled around Asia I did not feel threatened for my personal safety once. But if I did, I would have acted accordingly. Trust your instincts, that’s why you have them, but do not be consumed by fake Lizard Fear.
14. Go speak to people
Go speak to people. Go speak to people. Nothing more Travel Wanker than only speaking to other westerners in westernised environments. Go speak to some local people. Learn about their lives. Be generous. Take small gifts. Share about your life. Teach some of the small kids English, impromptu. I held little mini yoga classes for the local kids in the beach in Malaysia, taught in a school in north-east Thailand, helped some kids in Cambodia with their English homework…some of my best memories.
15. Be open. And take a journal
External travel always opens up a parallel world of internal insight, realization and personal growth. There is nothing like capturing it in real time when it’s raw. I still have all my old travel diaries and I love to reread them. Wow. Who was that girl then? I buy a new journey for every trip now. Hard copy. There is nothing like writing longhand whilst you meander down the Mekong for 3 days on a slow boat.
16. This is what life is about
Really, don’t sweat the whole “gap in my CV looking bad” thing. I honestly think that anyone who hasn’t the balls to go and do a bit of travel is pretty boring and unadventurous. In my big corporate roles I would actively employ candidates who had the initiative to solo travel in preference to a “stay at home” any day.
17. Celebrate the difference
My motto, especially on the rare not so good days was “celebrate the difference”, and that is sooooooooo important. It’s all state of mind. Of course it’s not like home. Yes things will be wildly inefficient. Yes some of the food will be gross. THAT’S WHY YOU ARE DOING IT!! When you get faced with the inevitable travel delays or whatever instead of moaning about it, realise that that is what makes Cambodia Cambodia and celebrate the difference. That’s what makes for a beautiful diverse world that you want to explore.
There you have it. My top tips for female solo travellers who want to have a life changing trip. Don’t wonder “what if”. You will never regret the travel you do. Don’t use “I haven’t got anyone to go with” as an excuse. Put your Big Girl Panties on and get out there. You will have the time of your life.