Back in 1998, I left the relatively small town of Derry and went to university in Liverpool. I kept hearing people talk about just being back from a 'gap year' before starting university. I literally had never heard of it before. I then went from being a skint student with lots of university debt straight into full time employment in London. I had always dreamed of taking that big trip, but living in one of the most expensive cities in the world wasn't exactly kind on my savings account.
My friends shared similar dreams of taking an epic, life-changing trip, but our dream destinations, budgets and timelines were all so different. I began to wonder if this was something I could do on my own. There wasn't the same flood of online content celebrating "brave, adventurous women blazing their own trail" in the travel space. Gender aside, solo travel wasn't as common as it is today. But I was determined to make it happen, so I booked a ticket to the most exotic place I could think of.
Going solo for the first time
My first solo trip took me to the island of Jamaica. I planned to travel around the island, hopping from town to town on the network of public buses that my trusty guidebook informed me would only cost a few dollars per journey. I soon learned that, after a recent security incident, tourists were strongly discouraged from taking local transport. And as a female travelling alone, it was completely out of the question. A private transfer would cost me $100 a pop, and I knew my budget was not going to stretch that far.
Luckily, the savvy traveller in me realised I could "hack the system" and take the more affordable (and safer) airport bus back and forth to different towns. It was a pretty significant detour at times, but it meant I could afford to fulfil my dream of exploring the ins and outs of Jamaica without breaking the bank.
Of course, now we have an endless amount of resources at our finger tips. We have the freedom to plan as much or as little as we like, knowing that if we get stuck, help is only a few taps (and an expensive phone bill away).
Getting my bearings
My first solo trip to Jamaica was full of learning curves like this. For one, I expected to stand out a little, being a pale-skinned Irishwoman in a tropical island country. But I wasn't quite prepared for how out of place I felt wandering around town on my first few days. I quickly realised a good way to ease my nerves was to shadow the other tourists. In hindsight, this seems a little stalker-ish, but it meant I could let the curious looks and muffled comments fall on whoever I happened to be walking closely behind.
Nowadays, most cities have a simple and far less creepy alternative: walking tours. The best part is, most of them are free - budget travelers rejoice! In saying this, a tip is always subtly encouraged at the end of the tour. These tours can be run by people from all walks of life, offering a unique, local perspective on what is often their home town. They'll share the top spots to visit and places to avoid, and are usually more than happy to answer any questions you might have. It's also an excellent way to get chatting to other travellers and make new friends on the road.
If you're overwhelmed by the idea of narrowing down an entire destination's offerings to a handful of items, let someone else put the itinerary together for you. Joining an organised tour doesn't just take the hassle out of planning where to go, it also covers transport and often lunch, too. And again, these tours are likely full of other travellers in a similar position to you, wanting to make the most of their time and connect with other like-minded people.
Wherever you can, choose a local tour provider. After all, they know their destination best. It also means the money you're spending is going directly back into the local economy. This is one thing Traveller Counsellors do best. Our local partners are born and raised in-country, meaning they directly benefit from your business.
Book a local experience
The easiest way to reach the heart of a destination is to connect with its people. These days, you'll find an endless array of local experiences on platforms such as Airbnb and Get Your Guide. There's everything from street food walking tours and cooking classes, to street art walking tours and laughing yoga in the park. These experiences present an unique opportunity to see the place you're visiting through a local's eyes. You might even make a life long friend - but at the very least, you'll have a fantastic story to tell when you get home.
Table for one, please...
Back then, I'm not sure I had ever eaten out alone, and I definitely hadn't ventured out to a bar solo. It took a while for me to find my balance between enjoying my own company, revelling in my own thoughts, and wanting to connect with others. Having a good book and a journal on hand kept me from staring aimlessly into the abyss on several occassions.
At times when I was feeling particularly social, I'd take a seat up at the bar and make a conscious effort to look approachable - not mindlessly scrolling on my phone. I'd strike up a conversation with the bar staff and go from there. There was often another traveller just like me scanning the room for someone to share a meal, or at least a pint with.
Embrace the new technology
Today, access to the internet, technology and social media really help you stay connected, both with people back home to touch base with if you are feeling the need, or people that you meet along the way. I remember having to make analogue plans - arranging to meet people in a week's time at a certain café or hotel, not knowing if they would turn up. But in recent years, I've managed to organise spur of the moment meet ups and unexpected reunions all over the world. On a recent trip, I saw on Facebook that an old friend that I had not seen in several years since they moved back to Australia was in the same place I was heading to. After reaching out to her, we ended up spending four days exploring together. That would never have happened in the days of post-cards and dial-up internet.
My first solo trip to Jamaica totally changed the way I approached travel. I now had the courage and certainty that I could do it on my own, but I knew that I didn't always have to. It's perfectly fine to sit in solitude one day and want to talk somebody's ear off the next.
Since Jamaica, I've been taking 3-4 week trips every year. Finally, 11 years after that first solo expedition, I took that epic extended trip I'd always dreamed of. My belated "gap year" may not have looked the same as those 20-somethings I met at university, but it was still the adventure of a lifetime; one that I encourage everyone to embark on themselves.
Top Tips for Solo Travellers
If I were to wrap up my top tips for taking your first (or tenth) solo trip, it would be the following:
Do your research. The internet is a wonderful resource. Use it. Don't forget the guide books too, but be weary on their date of publication.
Don't be afraid to start small. Maybe eat out a few times or go out for a drink by yourself somewhere more local or familiar or try a weekend break away on your own.
Consider an organised group tour for your first solo trip. There are some fantastic options for all budgets, age groups and interests these days. These are especially great if you have a short amount of time and want the benefits of having your days planned for you with other people.
Make use of free walking tours. Join up with a group the first day you arrive so you can familiarise yourself with the area and meet fellow travellers.
Consider joining some other local group tours, which can range from anything from a few hours to a few days. If you want to learn about the local cuisine, join a cooking class. If you're a slight shop-a-holic, see if there's a market tour in the area.
Plan your trip well with lots of activities to keep you busy but be flexible in your attitude so that you can take opportunities as they come along.
If you're keen to check out the nightlife, head to the university/hostel areas. Most cities will have a concentration of bars and clubs in the one spot so you can check out a few places to find somewhere that's your style. From swanky rooftop cocktail lounges to grungy dive bars, there'll always be somewhere to quench your thirst and get a taste of local nightlife.
If the planning process is a little overwhelming or you just need a bit of advice on where and when to go, reach out to a travel agent. It's literally our job to help you plan the most epic travel experience and we love helping people get out of their comfort zone.
Ready to get planning? I'd love to help. As a full-service Travel Counsellor, I can take care of as little or as much as you like. Get in touch and let's book your solo trip!