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Solo travelling in your 30s
Decide. Commit. Succeed.
I've done a fair bit of travelling over the years but at 32 years of age I had a huge case of itchy feet and needed a big, life-changing overseas adventure to cure it. I quit my job, moved out of my apartment and stored everything I owned. I had planned to see Canada, the USA and Mexico. The US (including Mexico) only offers a 90 day tourist visa so I knew that 90 days was possibly my limit, unless I went elsewhere afterwards and found a job (hard when most countries will only grant working visas to those under 30 years).
Three weeks after making the decision to go, I had booked my entire trip and was saying goodbye to my nearest and dearest. Once the idea was in my head, there was no stopping me. I wanted to see and do as much as possible in my limited timeframe, and the lack of planning time also meant I wanted to reduce the amount of time I spent researching and booking accommodation and transport options.
So, the obvious decision for me was to travel by way of group tours rather than freestyle it. Had I given myself more time to plan, I probably would've done it all the freestyle way as it would've cost a lot less and allowed me more flexibility. That being said, I don't regret my decision at all.
Once you've made the decision to go, everything can fall into place very quickly. The best thing about doing it solo is that this is YOUR holiday, so do it YOUR way, see what YOU want to see, plan it how YOU want to plan it. There is no one to compromise with so simply make the decision, commit to it and make the most of every minute of it!
The benefits of solo travelling in your 30s
- You are older and wiser and make smarter decisions
- You are more independent
- You are more financially secure and (probably) have a far bigger budget than when you travelled in your 20s!
- You are more comfortable and confident travelling alone, eating alone, sight-seeing alone
- At this age you put less emphasis on partying and drinking and more emphasis on exploring cities/towns, hiking through National Parks, visiting museums, people-watching while drinking a latte in a local cafe, getting up early to see the sunrise over the mountains, experiencing the local culture and seeing as much as you possibly can
- If something goes wrong (eg you missed your train), you have the wits about you to sort it out, find a solution and move on. Take it in your stride as it's all part of travelling
- It can give you a new sense of clarity (if that's what you're after) on your career/job/relationships/friends/hobbies back home and can help you be grateful for what you've got or make a commitment to make some changes
- Doing it alone (or semi-alone depending on whether you join tours, meet new friends, etc) means you do what you want to do, when you want to do it - you don't have to consider what the other person might want to see or do, you don't have to compromise, you can be completely selfish and see and do whatever YOU want
- Travelling alone will actually build your confidence, make you a stronger and more independent person, force you to make decisions, and allow you a lot more freedom than you may be used to
Freestyle travel vs. tour groups
Most people spend months, if not years, planning a trip this big. But not me. I knew I wanted to cover as much as possible in my limited three-month timeframe, and I'd only given myself about 3-4 weeks to plan it before my ideal leave date of July. So the best option for me was to join organised tours (even though they can end up being more expensive than freestyle travel). I researched a few companies and narrowed it down to Intrepid and G Adventures. I'd travelled with Intrepid before so knew they were good and I knew that G Adventures was very similar. I poured over the magazines, and by process of elimination I narrowed it down to the tours which best covered the majority of the places I wanted to visit.
But there are pros and cons for each option...
- You do what you want, when you want
- You can change your plans on a whim depending on who you meet or where you want to go to next
- It's cheaper
- It's more flexible
- You can meet a variety of people along the way (eg in hostels), maybe make some new friends, and possibly even take a day trip (or longer) with them to a place that interests you both/all
- You can stay in each place for as long as you want. Needing a bit of stability? No worries, just find a hostel/hotel you like, arrange a long-term rate and stay for as long as you want - possibly even get a job to save some cash (depending on visa restrictions of course)
- You can take some last minute deals on flights, cruises, day tours, etc and potentially save yourself a lot of money than if you booked it in advance and/or took it at peak times
- No thinking required! The tour companies know the best places to visit, hotels to stay in, restaurants to eat in, activities to participate in
- Can be more expensive but is one lump sum payment so often easier to plan/budget the cost of your trip in advance
- You travel with people, so there's safety in numbers plus you can potentially make some life-long friends
- You can opt to share a room with someone else on the tour or pay a bit extra for the 'single supplement' and have the room all to yourself
- You have an itinerary and know where you're going to be each day
- The downside is not being able to spend as much time as you want in each place. Generally, tours will allow 1-3 days in each city/town. Depending on where that is, sometimes it's enough but sometimes you love the place so much you'd like to stay on, but you can't as you have to keep moving with the group
Organised tours was definitely the way to go for me. I wanted fuss-free, I wanted someone to tell me where I was going to be each day and how we were going to get there, and I didn't want to spend all my time Googling what to do each day/evening.
To break it up and avoid the possibility of being stuck with the same people for the whole trip, I allowed myself 5-7 days between tours on my own. As most tours start and end in major cities, I was comfortable that my 'alone time' would be in a reasonably safe and busy place. The cities I ended up on my own were Vancouver, San Francisco, New Orleans, Miami, New York and Washington.
If you're considering tour groups, here are some companies which I would recommend:
Accommodation can be expensive for lone travellers
Yes, this is true. But not if you're smart about it.
Hostels are a wonderful accommodation option for single travellers. Don't like the idea of sharing a dorm? No problem. Often you can book a room to yourself - even though it's a little more expensive, it's still usually cheaper than a cheap hotel room on your own. Hostels are also full of like-minded travellers, many of which are solo travellers too. Common areas allow plenty of interaction between fellow hostellers and you may meet someone who's keen to see the same tourist attractions as you and you can spend a day or two exploring the city with them.
Cheap hotel rooms are another option. Here you usually get more little 'luxuries' (eg your own private bathroom rather than sharing!). However, there is little to no interaction with other fellow travellers. Hotels generally do not offer organised social events/gatherings, and the common areas are not conducive to meeting or chatting with other guests.
Below are some of the websites I used when researching and booking accommodation for the times when I was on my own:
Remember, always read the reviews, not just on the hotel's/hostel's own website but on others such as Trip Advisor. I was almost about to book a hostel in Miami. After reading the reviews and learning that almost all hostels in Miami are overpriced for what you get, I ended up paying a little bit more and getting a lovely hotel with king sized bed, full private bathroom to myself, TV and air con.
Is it safe?
Well, as long as you're smart about it, yes. The old adage "safety in numbers" is something to always keep at the top of your mind. Staying in hostels means you're surrounded by people almost all the time. By joining a tour group you're obviously travelling with people, including the tour guide who knows the not-so-pleasant areas to avoid. And obviously, don't walk home alone at night, avoid dark alleyways, don't mix with the wrong people, always keep an eye over your shoulder just so you're aware of your surroundings, and watch your drinks to avoid drink-spiking.
But these are all things you'd probably do back home anyway. So really, it's all about making smart decisions and not putting yourself, or your life, in danger.
Hop On Hop Off Buses
The HOHO buses (as I've affectionately named them!) are a fantastic way to see as much as possible in a city without wasting too much time getting too and from each attraction. The prices vary per city and you can buy one day passes, 2 day passes and sometimes 3 day passes. The routes take in all the best sites and attractions, the tour guide or recorded audio presentation provides information and history that you wouldn't get if you just caught regular public transport to the attraction, and being at the top level of the bus means you can take photos from the bus without the need to get off, as you get a better view from there than you would from the street.
This is my favourite way to explore a new city. It's ideal for when you're on your own. And so much easier than researching and trying to interpret bus and train timetables (which is one thing I'm not good at!). You can also use it as a means of transport around the city or to get to and from certain points of interest. The map they provide also clearly shows where all the main attractions are so you can even walk to a few of them, if they're close enough, and then take the HOHO bus to get back at the end.
Not normally the sort of person to go to a restaurant or bar on your own? Neither am I. But in another country, where no one knows you, no one is judging you, and (sometimes) it's obvious you're a tourist, not a problem! During the times where I was on my own in a city (ie in between tours), eating out alone was something I approached with trepidation. But I quickly realised that the only person judging me for eating alone, was me.
In Vancouver I ended up at a cafe/restaurant seated right next to another solo traveller (she was from the UK) and after a quick chat about how we must both be travelling on our own, we sat next to each other, shared a few jugs of cocktails, had a great laugh, swapped some stories, and then parted ways at the end. I made a friend that night - not one who I kept in touch with afterwards, mind you, but one who kept me company for those few hours and made me realise that eating alone is not really eating alone. Lone travellers attract lone travellers and can fill a void where needed.
Otherwise, you could always just grab some takeaway Chinese and eat it in your room!
Is it for me?
It might be a case of "you won't know until you try it". But give it a shot. No one ever regretted the overseas trip they took, only the one they didn't take. What have you got to lose? Wouldn't you rather get out there and see the world (or parts thereof) than sit around waiting for a travel companion who might want to visit the same country as you, one day?
I personally prefer solo travelling but everyone is different. I love the flexibility of not having to compromise with anyone, making your own decisions on what you want to see and do, sleeping in if you want to, getting up early if you want to, eating at the restaurant you want to eat at, seeing the attractions you want to see and skipping the ones you don't... It's a little bit selfish, but who cares, it's your life, live it the way you want to!
© 2016 Lou Chisholm