Solo travel planning made easy
It can be tricky to know where exactly to start when it comes to booking a solo trip. So many options and so many variables! But the best thing is, YOU call the shots. No compromise, this is your trip :) Whether it's a weekend break, or a year long backpacking adventure, I've got 9 simple steps that will have you on the road in no time (and will hopefully save you some money too!) Happy planning!
1. Where should I go?
What do you want to get out of this trip? Do you want to push yourself to try something new? Do you want to immerse yourself in the local culture and maybe learn some of the language? Or do you just wanna crash out on the beach and have some downtime? This is where I always start.
The first time I went backpacking for a few months, I was eager to explore the other side of the world, but I was a little nervous as it was my first time, so I started in South-East Asia by joining a group tour from Bangkok to Singapore with Intrepid, and once I'd found my feet, I flew to Darwin and explored Australia and New Zealand for a few months on my own. The latter were easy countries (for me) as there was no language barrier. However, when I wanted to challenge myself with new language skills and to push myself with multi-day hikes and horse-riding (I had never done either) I opted for 6 months in South America (below). These are both pretty lengthy trips, but I've also been known to pop off to a beautiful, somewhat unknown Greek Island for a bit of beach time ;)
SEE ALSO: 11 best first time solo travel destinations
2. When should I go travelling?
If you're planning a weekend break, block it out of your diary in advance then book your flights (see step 3!). If you're looking at a 6 month or longer backpacking trip, set a date at least a few months ahead, then tell your friends and family (this means you're less likely to cancel your plans). It will also give you time to save as much money as you can. Bear in mind that many flight operators offer new year sales (more on booking flights later) but if you are flexible with your dates, this could be a great way of saving money at the outset. Another factor to consider, are major festivals or events. For example, Edinburgh will always book up months, if not a year in advance throughout August due to the Edinburgh Festival, and the same goes for Rio in February for Carnival. Accommodation costs in cities can double when there is a major event taking place so you could save money by avoiding these busy times.
Tip: being flexible with your travel dates can save you a ton of money
3. How to find the best flight deals
There are a whole host of booking sites out there, but my favourite is still Skyscanner. You can quickly view comparisons with other local airports, and you can filter by airline. You can also set up email alerts (see the button above the filters) where you can be notified as to when the price of your flight drops.
Tip: If you haven't heard of the airline that the search result surfaces and the price seems too good to be true, do a quick online search about the reputation of the carrier. Sometimes it's better to pay more with a reputable carrier should anything go wrong, or you need to change your dates.
5. How to pick the right hotel, hostel or Airbnb for you
This is closely linked to step 1. Depending on what kind of trip you're taking, a little bit of research is vital. I've stayed in a gorgeous Airbnb apartment in Barcelona on a weekend solo trip, but I made sure it came with excellent reviews and most importantly, was in an area where I would feel safe walking home on my own. If I'm still unsure I simply google the neighbourhood. (I also made sure it was within walking distance to some great tapas spots!)
RELATED: 7 tips for guests to get the best out of Airbnb
But sometimes you want a hotel, where you don't have to clean and someone else will make your breakfast :) I stayed in a small family run hotel in Desenzano when I really wanted to take a few days to relax. It was quiet and had a view of Lake Garda which was just what I needed. I use TripAdvisor to get started, and always go for a hotel with great ratings and reviews (these are not necessarily the most expensive ones either). Once I find one I like the look of, I scroll down and filter the reviews by 'solo traveller'. This is a super quick way to read the reviews that are the most relevant to me. Finally, I double check the location is good for me then that's it!
If you're backpacking, hostels can be a wonderful way of meeting people. I tend to book myself in to a private room (at least for the first couple of nights), which is great when you have jet lag to deal with, then if I really want to save some money, I'll take a female shared dorm. Hostelworld have a great at-a-glance overview for each hostel, and usually plenty of photographs too. Again, make sure to double check the location if you're travelling solo. It's always better to pay a little more to be in a good (and safe) location.
6. How to find the best deals on travel insurance
Finding any insurance can feel like a bore, but I've outlined some tips to help you find the best, and most suitable cover (it isn't always the cheapest). But whatever you do, travel insurance is an absolute MUST and can save you a lot of money should anything go wrong, or you need medical help. In my experience it's always best to find your own insurance rather than opt for Airline insurance (which will be offered to you when you fly).
Travelling from the UK
Money Saving Expert offer impartial advice (and check out their '16 need to knows' before you search). You need to submit your email address when you search but their at-a-glance pricing and ratings make it easy to book you insurance in seconds.
Travelling from other countries
World Nomads have a great and well-deserved reputation for being no-fuss, reliable insurers. In fact I've used them on all of my most recent trips.
7. How to avoid banking fees when travelling
It's easy to get stung with banking fees when you're travelling, but there are a few ways to avoid this. Also - see point no. 9 ('Before you go') about taking a small amount of local currency with you so you're ready when you get there.
Travelling from the UK
Post office money card - change the card to the currency you want then it acts as a local card. You can add up to 13 currencies.
Travelling from the USA
Charles Schwab have a checking account with no ATM fees and no foreign transaction fees.
Revolut is mobile banking app and debit card (costs £5/€7) and they post it out to you worldwide. You can add to your account via top ups from your bank account. Plus you can receive money in an emergency if you need it.
8. How to meet locals and like-minded travellers
So you're travelling alone but you also want to meet friendly people along the way right? When I set out on my first trip I was adamant that other travellers would annoy me or would just be out to party (which is so not my thing). How wrong I was! I've made lifelong friends on the road, and I've shared some tips below on how to meet great (like-minded) people, without compromising your me-time.
Join a group tour
This is particularly good if it's the beginning of your trip, or you're feeling out of your comfort zone in a new country. The first time I went to South-East Asia, I joined an overland tour with Intrepid and made some great friends that I later met up with in Australia.
Book yourself into an immersive experience
What do you LOVE when travelling (see point 1!), what can you talk endlessly about? Whatever it is, sign up for a class in the country you're visiting. I remember taking cookery classes in Vietnam, and ended up on the back of my teachers moped, zipping to the food market to buy our provisions (and got a load of free tasters ;) then being invited to her sisters wedding!
I also took yoga classes in NYC (and even signed up to be a dog walker as I was there for a few months). Wanna learn more of the language? Sign up for a class in your local area. But it doesn't have to be a course or class. Even getting a haircut gives you a real insight. I've gotten my hair chopped and styled in NYC, Sydney and Paris (and when I was in Paris, Julie Delpy was in the salon - it wasn't even a swanky salon.. that's pretty much as Parisienne as it gets right?).
Take time out in your hostel
The easiest way to meet people is to hang out in your hostel. You may even find that most of the people there are travelling solo too and would be up for an impromptu lunch or walking tour (hostels often advise on, or offer these too). In Guatemala, when I was there it wasn't really safe to go out on your own, but a bunch of us went out together to a salsa bar, and ended up seeing (and dancing to) Ignacio Perez Borrell (of Buena Vista Social Club) as he performed in a small club. It turned out to such a memorable spontaneous night. In San Pedro de Atacama (in the Chilean desert), I had an impromptu Easter dinner with some wonderful new Dutch friends, by the fire with a box of Chilean red wine. We even found chocolate bunnies to swap! We are still friends to this day.
9. What to do before you go
Sort out money matters
It's a good idea to get some local currency before you leave. I ordered $50 each worth of UAE Dirhams, Thai Baht, Malaysian Ringgits, Singapore, Australian, New Zealand and US dollars before I took my first long trip. Which sounds a lot but it does help to have some local money up front. Some currencies (such as Indian Rupees) cannot be obtained before you leave (as they cannot be taken out of the country), so check with your bank to find out. You may need to give your bank/currency provider 7 working days notice for some currencies. Also, see point no. 7 about finding a card or account that will not charge you for making foreign transactions (or act as a local card).
When you can't pre-order currencies, take extra US dollars as these will typically be the easiest to change worldwide on arrival. And shop around for the best exchange rate.
Tip: Take clean crisp notes as older dirty notes (even if still legal tender) may be rejected.
Tip 2: Remember to inform your bank to your travel dates and destinations, so you're less likely to have your card blocked when arriving in a new country.
Essential admin and medical checks
Email yourself a copy of your passport and driving license, should anything go wrong you will have digital copies just in case. You should also CC in a family member or close friend.
When it comes to carrying first aid, chances are you won't ever need it, but just in case, pick up a basic kit, and (if applicable in your country) ask your Dr for some antibiotics. If you do get ill, it might be easy to obtain antibiotics over the counter at pharmacy (for example in South America), but different countries have their own protocol (and charges) so try to be as prepared as possible. You may also need immunisations for certain countries (and these may need to be obtained well in advance before you travel) so check out the CDC or Fit for Travel websites to see what you might need.
Research the climate and culture of your destination
This is such an important pre-trip bit of research. Make sure you're aware of how to respect the local culture, and what to expect from the weather, food and safety matters. No matter where you are in the world, no-one wants to make a faux-pas (or get caught out with an unexpected fine because you didn't realise jaywalking was illegal). NEVER take photographs when you are asked not to, always dress appropriately and always try to learn a few words of the language too. You get so much more out of your trip, and people will always appreciate it if you try.
Want a little reassurance?
Solo travel can be daunting. Especially if it's your first trip. But the best thing to do is talk to people who have been. I was super nervous about my first backpacking trip and visited the friendly folks at STA Travel (who only employ people who have extensively travelled - so chances are, there will be someone in the branch who can help you with your destination). By the way, STA did not pay me to write this post - I'm simply a fan of theirs and found them really helpful. There are a LOT of operators out there, so choose one depending on the type of your trip. You can also read this post about how to deal with solo travel anxiety. But honestly, you will be FINE, and furthermore, you may have one of the most life-changing, empowering trips of your life! Happy planning!
SEE ALSO: 11 essential tip for the first time backpacker