Being both a photographer and a writer I’m often sent on assignment by myself, but many people are choosing to travel alone – and not for work. According to an online trends analysis, ‘Google searches for “solo travel” and “travel alone” were at the highest they’ve ever been in January of this year’. I’ve been enjoying solo adventures for the past five years and with Woman’s Day around the corner, I thought I’d share some lessons for other fearless females who want to tackle their next trip independently.
- Melanie van Zyl
1. Research and plan…
Sounds obvious, but do your research. Some areas are simply safer to walk around on your own than others. My motto is always ask and Airbnb is great for this because it connects you straight to knowledgeable locals. Ask outright what it’s like for women to walk alone, can you do so at night, any traditional do’s and definitely don’ts? I wouldn’t advise taking the info as totally accurate, but it’s an excellent way to gauge an area. It’s also how you’ll learn about common scams, high-alert pickpocket areas and other scenarios you can otherwise avoid. Also, plan your first and last nights properly (with transfers booked, or ensure there’s easy public transport nearby) so you don’t arrive in a foreign place and immediately have to negotiate and stress.
2. …but leave time for the spontaneous
I went to Sri Lanka by myself a couple of years ago and my biggest regret was having planned every step of my stay. I wish I’d had a couple of days to keep travelling east on the southern coastline because the beaches kept getting better and better, but I’d already paid and made commitments elsewhere. Lesson learnt – let the spontaneous stuff play out!
3. Talk to strangers…
Yes, it’s contradictory to what your folks lectured back when you were seven, but when travelling it pays off to ask the locals. This doesn’t mean you have to run off drinking together, but gather advice and always ask more than one person. Something as simple as, ‘Where’s your favourite bakery?’ or ‘What’s your top sundowner spot?’ are likely to yield your favourite travel moments. Still not keen? Join a walking tour. This ensures a safe way of chatting to a local, but in a group. Most big cities have a free option you can join, there’s even one in Cape Town, Joburg and Durban if you want to connect right here in South Africa. Our national parks are also wonderful spaces to meet friendly locals. I’ve visited many alone with great success, finding safety in our wild spaces and communal campgrounds.
4. …in their own language
Being able to greet someone or share a thanks can get you far in a different country. Duolingo is an amazing (free!) app for daily lessons in a number of languages. Want to live a local? You’ve gotta praat die taal.
5. Use your phone…
Uber, TripAdvisor and Instagram are all vital travel apps. Google Maps is even better. Did you know you can download a map to use offline, so you can navigate even without data? It’s not effective for plotting walking routes or finding public transport, but certainly helps if you’re lost! If you have a local SIM card, the Google Translate app can even decipher signs in foreign languages! Just invest in a great power bank so that it’s charged at all times.
6. … then leave your phone at home
Or safely stowed away, but try to travel the old way and just wander aimlessly. It’s a great way to tick off items number three and four on this list.
7. Take a class
Travelling alone can get, er, lonely. Enroll in a class or sign up for a tour. I’m a big fan of the new Airbnb experiences, which offer everything from inner-city skating to concerts, cooking classes and more. Otherwise, join a travel group. You’ll still be tackling the big bad world alone when you want to, but there’s comfort in having people nearby to answer your questions. I’ve just spent two weeks in Sicily on a digital nomad retreat with Find Your Pack and it was the perfect way for me to experience the island solo, but comfortable. I made amazing new friends, could jump onto plans with others and go exploring in a group, or simply wander the city streets by myself. This blog gives a great low down of what it’s like to go on a digital nomad retreat in Sicily.
8. Pack light…
Chances are you’ll need to lug your bags around yourself when travelling. Pack light to avoid dragging big suitcases – having your hands full can render you more of target. Plus, worrying about only one backpack or easy-to-carry bag means less stress. Really want to keep cash safe? This tip is gold. Sonja, from Breadcrumbs Guide, says ‘Conceal cash by rolling it up tightly and sticking it in an empty unused tampon applicator. Slide it back into the wrapper and you’re set. Not many pickpockets will try to steal a tampon from your pocket!’
9. …and leave some things at home
Create a rough itinerary with contact info and give it to someone back home (preferably one that cares about your safety!) just in case something goes wrong. I also advise travellers to email or save important documents (such as tickets and a copy of your passport) to the cloud using Dropbox or Google Drive.
10. Most of all, trust your gut
If something feels off, trust your gut. There’s no shame in self-preservation. I’d rather give politeness the middle finger and leave, than stress and find myself in a bad situation. I once left a place and drove home through the dead of night when my car alarm kept going off, rather than spend a night in dreadful anxiety. If you get into an uncomfortable situation with a too-keen local, then embellish. One of the best tips I’ve read online is using the ‘I’m married’ line, which often helps ward someone off. Otherwise, use the tools available to you. Pepper spray is not only a neat piece of armoury, it’ll give you confidence just knowing it’s there. However, in some countries it’s not legal and is considered a ‘concealed weapon’. Load up on a travel-sized bottle of hairspray instead. It’ll still sting and give you time.