I’ve done lot’s of solo travelling across Europe in the last 14 months. 15 cities, 14 of which I’d never visited before and 11 of which in countries I’ve never visited before and I did it Johnny NoMates style. A couple of friends asked me how I do it and they weren’t meaning method, just how I journey to completely new destinations without anyone with me or waiting on the other side. The short and honest answer is that it helps to be a grumpy anti-social independent-minded git.
OK you don’t have to be as seemingly anti-social as me to solo travel and in fact that’s an unfair label to put on myself as when I am abroad alone I’ve been known to be up until almost dawn having conversed all night with people from other countries I’ve never met just learning about their country and culture and politics all aided by several beers. Of the 4 classic personality types I have a ‘melancholic’ persona, apparently, which doesn’t mean I’m about to burst into tears every few hours but does mean that I’m very comfortable being in my own company for extended periods. Here’s my first tip: solo travelling doesn’t suit all personalities, especially those which can’t exist for a nano second without interaction with other human souls. Even in these days of cyber-interaction that is of little comfort if you need others to help you make a decision as to what to wear, do or where to go.
I love city breaks. I love culture, heritage, history, art, archaeology and architecture. I also like the complete unknown. I love to people-watch and time to think, time to absorb and time to eavesdrop on how others do life even though at the very most all I get are snapshots and sound-bytes. Yet you will be amazed at how even these can colour life back home just by seeing how people do things differently. So for me, my choice of travel experience must fit my personality to get the best from it. By comparison, I’m never going to understand for a single moment the attraction of say, Magaluf or ‘Eye-beef-fah’. That’s just me. There’s nothing wrong in those places either for a solo traveller. If that fits you and your personality and you can handle yourself alone in such places safely then go for it.
That brings me to my next tip on solo travel: be savvy and fearless. OK, it doesn’t take a great deal of fearlessness to travel for the first time to Copenhagen or Tallinn or Bratislava on your own, not for me anyway. All are First World cities in developed countries but as ever things can go wrong. I do always pick out a good Guide Book and read up before I go out and take out with me (usually a digital version available offline). Depending on where you are going the guide-book may or may not be able to advise you on where to avoid, but all will counsel on basic common sense: stay in mainstream areas, keep your possessions close at all times and respect local laws. In my case this doesn’t always work. Drop me down in a new city for the first time and once I have the lie of the land, I am drawn to explore mazes of barely navigable back streets and love turning corner after corner as if drawn into the legendary Labyrinth. A word of caution here: I do have an in-built SATNAV in terms of me finding my way around. Not a boast and not 100% reliable but from all my travelling experiences this far in life I would say 90% reliable. You can drop me anywhere without a map and I will find my way around. That said, I do always keep guide books and maps in my shoulder bag even if I never refer to them. Be fearless – there’s no point going if you are just going to stick to the well-beaten tourist path, at least not for me. Use common sense and all your intuition but you will often learn and experience more from your destination when you venture off-piste.
Next tip: have a ‘Laissez-faire’ attitude or as the French say ‘whatever’. Now here I’m only speaking about my travels in Europe and not explorations further afield to more exotic locations. I don’t make lists when I pack to travel. I know me. You know you. My default travelling list is in my head on-demand. I’m not travelling with anyone to impress with my much admired fine biceps and 6-pack with a full array of Uniqlo sportswear. I’m out to experience what I set to experience as comfortably as I can. Do you need all those this and thats? The must-have essentials are your travel documents and any important medications. Anything else you forget to take with you, including toothbrushes and underwear can be bought at the airport or abroad. Just a caveat on the underwear thing: if you are prone to ‘go commando’ for comfort’s sake while you fly at any time – and I’m not saying that’s me (ahem) – just remember you have airport security x-ray screening to pass through before you’re in the departure lounge. Ever wondered why those security guys and girls seem so amused in their mundane jobs?
New tip: Never, never NEVER talk to warm, friendly, elderly chatty Australian Grandmothers who might sit next to you on any flight. This is not so much a golden rule for all but just me venting for the loss of my very expensive Dr Beats headphones on a flight back from Finland because the incessant talking of said neighbouring passenger which caused me to forget I’d put them in the seat pocket in front ready to use before I was ambushed and which I forgot in my haste to exit the aircraft.
Last of my big tips for solo travellers…but then you would already know this if you are or will be a solo traveller…be spontaneous. Plan your trip ahead if you want. Google Streetview where you will be staying and the streets around if you want (as I have done) but then when you get there be quite prepared to rip it all up and just pick a road and follow it to see where it goes. Yes, of course as said before, keep your brains inside your skull. Be safe, know what you need to do if you need help from that guide book you have already read and is in your backpack…but DARE to do things you’ve not done before. Stop your life for a moment and take a look at the lives of others. In my travels across Europe so far the differences aren’t huge but they are subtle and it has only served to have enriched my worldview.
My scariest adventure as a solo traveller to date has been a journey I took out of Sheffield one day as a newly licensed driver. Following in the footsteps of Bilbo Baggins I did pick a road – any road – and drove on it. I ended up in some small nondescript town in the British Midlands. To any non-Brit readers just imagine you were heading out into your local countryside just on a whim and ended up in Nowheresville Arizona. Well that was me. Scariest experience was trying to find my way out of that place. Whatever road I chose – with no map in the car – lead me back into NowheresVille where I genuinely believed I would run out of petrol, be drugged, kidnapped and wake up in a cornfield in Iowa. Go figure.
The worst I’ve ever encountered in solo travels have been riding in a bus through the West Bank during an Intifada (Palestinian uprising) with angry youths stoning the bus I’m in or riding a night bus from Tel Aviv to Eilat overnight while trying to sleep with my head against the hard metal handle to the escape window while a sleeping soldier next to me had his Uzzi Rifle digging in my ribs or being strip-searched before being allowed to board a flight to jumping full pelt onto a ferry last-minute in Norway only to realise I didn’t know where it was going, to being almost arrested in Rome as a suspect terrorist. I’m far more worried about being out late with the drunken hoards in my home town than any of all the above.
As I wrote earlier I’m a ‘whatever’ solo traveller I’ll keep on travelling solo in this way while life and God’s good grace permits.