14 Top Tips for the Shy Solo Traveller
Fancy solo travel, but can’t bear the thought of having to socialise in a rowdy hostel? Find talking to strangers difficult? Worried about whether you can hack it by yourself in a strange country? Read on, for the answers to all of the above – and more.
1. Test the waters
If you’ve always tended to travel with others – family; friends; significant others – then deciding to travel alone is a fairly big leap into the unknown. If it’s something you are considering, try a little road test in advance to see how you get on. If you’re heading somewhere for a holiday or weekend away, plan a day or an afternoon where you check out the local surroundings with only yourself for company. If you haven’t got anything booked, go for a day trip somewhere in your home country – preferably a place that you haven’t visited before. It won’t give you a foolproof grounding for solo international travel, but it will help you find out very quickly whether you feel super awkward sitting by yourself in a cafe.
2. Talk to the locals
This doesn’t need to be life-affirming, friendship-forging, soul-baring stuff (after all, you’re shy!), but the odd bit of chit-chat with a local can be surprisingly heart warming when you’re on your tod. People working in bars, cafes and restaurants are usually happy to have the odd chat, especially if you’re asking about their local city or region, and they will almost undoubtedly have some great insider knowledge about the area. It’s easy to get started – just ask them if they can recommend a great restaurant/bar/coffee shop/hidden gem/local attraction etc. (Although don’t ask where to find a great restaurant if you’re in a restaurant. That would just sound rude).
3. Don’t feel the need to join in
This is definitely a rule to keep if you feel like you are in backpacker central, surrounded by crazy people having SO MUCH FUN!!!!!! Some cities and countries attract backpackers like a magnet, and if you struggle to click with others it can feel like everyone is having the time of their lives, while you look on from the outskirts. Undoubtedly, some will probably be having a blast, but that doesn’t mean you should give up your plans or put yourself in excruciating social situations just to ‘join in’. Do so on your own terms, if it is something you want to get involved with, and feel comfortable doing so.
4. Find a regular hang-out
When you’re in a strange place and surrounded by strange people, it’s surprising how comforting finding a regular ‘hang-out’ spot can be. This can be a great place for breakfast that you stop by each morning, a cosy coffee shop or a relaxed diner – the point is, you frequent it enough to feel like a regular, and the staff will probably start treating you like one too. I found a brilliant little soup cafe in Helsinki which served such gorgeous, warming bowls of deliciousness that I returned a couple of days in a row. By the third day, the owner was chatting enthusiastically with me about the local delicacies, and handing over free dessert…
5. Remember to be selfish
As with No.3, remember to prioritise yourself. This might sound like ridiculous advice for solo travellers who should only really be looking after themselves, but it can be easy to forget. Be open to suggestions, but don’t feel obliged to go along with other people’s plans. If you want to head out to that art exhibit early in the morning, it’s ok to pass up that invite to the all-night rave that
is your worst nightmare you weren’t that interested in anyway. Also make sure you spoil yourself. It’s easy to get carried away and have a splurge every now again when you’re with a friend or partner, but you’ll probably be less likely to pamper yourself if you’re alone and possibly keeping one eye on a budget. Throw caution to the wind every once in a while – when will you be back here again? Spas in particular are great places for solo visitors as you’re absolutely entitled to relax by yourself, with minimum small talk (just putting it out there…) and are also a way of life in some countries. (Think baths and saunas in Scandinavia, hammams in Morocco, and massages in South East Asia).
6. Pay attention to your instincts
When you’re travelling with a partner-in-crime, you always have someone there as a sounding board. “Does this taxi driver seem a bit dodgy?” “Are you getting a strange vibe in this bar?” “Does this bite look weird to you?” (The last one is a real example. And yes, the bite looked very weird to me). Anyway, my point is that it’s much easier to make a reasoned decision when you have someone else to reason with – as well as back-up if things do go pear-shaped. Be extra careful when travelling alone, and if something doesn’t feel quite *right*, it’s probably not worth sticking around to find out.
7. Ask people about themselves
Similar to No.2, but this works well with anyone, particularly if you’re the type that hates to talk about themselves. If you come across friendly folk in your hostel or hotel, ask them where they’re from, why they are here and what they’ve been up to. Most people love to talk about themselves, and will willingly chat away. It’s likely that you’ll also hear some good advice or recommendations; after all, these are people who will have been experiencing the area as a visitor like you. Swap notes, compare stories and enjoy the tall tales of other travellers.
8. Catch some live music
Heading out alone in the evening can be hard, especially as everyone else will most likely be socialising at the end of a long day or week. But never fear – you don’t need to feel all weird and awkward at the bar by yourself. Find somewhere that’s got a band on, and blend into the crowd. Even if it’s a more relaxed affair, you can easily sit there tapping your feet and sipping your drink: most people will be watching the act and not really paying attention to who is around them. Museums, art exhibitions and theatre shows are also good solo traveller stomping ground.
9. Carry a book at all times
This is one that I swear by – it’s amazing what a difference having a book can make. There’s something about eating in a restaurant alone that just makes me feel a bit… exposed. Especially when I’m surrounded by people laughing uproariously with mates or flirting with partners. I imagine that they’re wondering where my friends are, or why my date stood me up, or what a shame it is that I’m sat alone. (In truth, I’m sure no-one thinks this. They probably don’t give it a second thought. But it’s what my brain decides). Add the book however, and it’s completely different. Not only do I have something to focus on (that is, something to distract my brain from making up weird and unhelpful suggestions) but I look more like someone who’s come out for a chilled dinner, is utterly absorbed by their book, doesn’t care about being by themselves, and is enjoying a leisurely meal. (Again, maybe no-one thinks this. But I think it, so I don’t care). It also gives you something to do between courses, rather than staring at the people around you. Which I guarantee will look odd.
10. Don’t advertise that you’re a tourist
As with No.6, this is pretty essential for a solo traveller, more so in some countries than others. It’s fairly well known that tourists = money, so the less you can stand out the better. On a more pleasant note, it’s sometimes nice to try to blend in with the locals rather than stick out like a sore thumb, although again this will be more difficult in some places, for obvious reasons!
11. Find a cosy cafe spot
Think carefully when picking somewhere to eat. That dimly lit restaurant with candles and vases of roses at each table might look nice at first glance, but is probably a date-night hot spot. Instead, look for somewhere with more of a mix of clientele – a place where local families are elbow-to-elbow with businessmen – and where service seems fast, if you think you might feel a bit self-conscious. Eating alone is also easier if you find a cosy corner to tuck yourself in; sitting in the middle of the room can feel a bit odd. Even better, take a seat outside if possible. People-watching is a great pastime, and eating al fresco feels much less formal too.
12. End conversations when you want to
Sometimes being shy means you get very easily overwhelmed by more confident, outgoing or chatty people. It’s fine – some people just love to talk – and listening to what other people have to say is by no means a bad thing. However, don’t feel the need to feign interest for hours just to be polite; it’s ok to politely break it off and say you’re going to head out, or read your book, or go grab a drink. Having a pair of headphones on you is also a good way to avoid and/or get out of difficult conversation situations, particularly if you’re on public transport and can’t make an easy escape.
13. Book ahead – and let people know where you’re going
It can be fun to wing it, but generally the kind of “unexpected adventures” that can arise from this are best shared with a friend. Nothing’s fun about sleeping on a park bench by yourself. Make sure you have at least one night booked at each new destination you’re going to, and tell people back home where your next stop is.
14. Check in with the expats
Let’s be honest – a lot of us travel specifically to get away from our compatriots. One of my pet hates when I go to a foreign country is to hear the dulcet tones of a Liverpudlian or Cockney drifting towards my ears. However, when you’re on the road by yourself, sometimes you need to check in with folks who you have something in common with and, perhaps if you’re feeling a bit homesick, even reminisce about the motherland. If you’re away during a national holiday or celebration then it’s even nicer to hunt down a local expat spot, and follow whatever crazy traditions your country does best. Don a shamrock and down a pint of Guinness, pop on a Santa hat and gobble some turkey or belt out Auld Lange Syne – the more expats the merrier.
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