So, you’ve finally done it. You’ve decided you’re going to quit your job (or take a shizload of leave) and set off on an adventure around the world…alone.
But solo travel brings with it a huge amount of fears, doubts and second thoughts. What if you make no friends? What if you get sick? What if your bag gets stolen? What if you just hate the whole experience and want to go home?
Let me tell you, every traveller has the same fears running through their head, and even after several years on the road I still get nervous when heading off on a new adventure. It’s normal, and you shouldn’t let it stop you from having the most incredible experience of your life.
But, it helps to have a small idea of what you should expect, so below are my own tips for making your trip the greatest adventure possible.
1. Set a date
You need to make it real. If you just sit at your desk and say, “Hmm, I’ll do it this year sometime, or maybe I’ll just wait and see how things go and do it next year” I can promise you, it’s never going to happen. There is always an excuse not to do something. Set a date, and book a ticket. That way there’s no going back.
2. Save enough money before you go
There is nothing worse than running out of money on the road. Some say you only need $5,000 to travel the world for a year. Others say $10,000 and some even say $20,000. The truth is, there is no ‘right’ number. Every traveller is different and wants different experiences that cost different amounts of money. My advice is, just save everything you possibly can while you’re at home. Give up all your meaningless purchases like Starbucks and shoes and sunglasses. Be the cheapest bastard you possibly can. Small change adds up, and in some countries a few dollars goes a very long way (for the price of a New Zealand coffee you could feed yourself for 3 or 4 days in some countries).
3. Don’t be cheap
As a budget traveller, I’m always mindful of where my money is going. But sometimes you just need to splurge. Your budget may be tight, but don’t miss out on those tapas in Spain, or that Peking duck in China. When a unique experience requires some spending, do it. There are far more forgettable things you can forgo while travelling, such as expensive taxi rides, a nice hotel room, or an expensive night out on the booze. And 5 years later you definitely won’t regret the missing $30, but you will regret missing out on something special while you had the chance.
4. Don’t sleep in
You can sleep at home. I’ve continually regretted trips where I spent a lot of time sleeping from hangovers, jet lag or just pure laziness. I spent a week in Buenos Aires just drinking in my hostel and clubbing with my new roommates. I didn’t even get out to see a tango show, or try the famous steak, or watch the Boca Juniors play. A few years later, a guy in my hostel said, “You’ve been to BA? My gosh, isn’t it just the most incredible city ever?” and proceeded to tell me about all the shows and foods and places he experienced. Needless to say I hung my head in shame and told him I didn’t get the chance to see any of that. My next trip there will definitely be a whole lot different.
5. Get a good camera and take photos!
When I started this blog, I had so many stories I wanted to share and was so disappointed that I didn’t have the photos to go along with them. Weird as it may seem, I actually spent most of my time backpacking South America without a camera, as I thought I could just collect the memories ‘in my head’. Silly fool. Now I make sure to take photos of everything, and am excited to look back on them all when I’m an old man in a wheelchair. Do yourself a favour and take as many photos as you can! And make sure you get a lot of good ones of yourself in all those amazing destinations. If you want to learn how to take amazing photos of yourself while travelling, check out my guide here.
6. Don’t forget the people back home
I spend most of my time on the road these days, but I always make sure I go back home at Christmas and spend it with my family. I also stay in touch with my Mum and friends on Facebook/Whatsapp/Skype almost daily. I don’t buy gifts or souvenirs, because I don’t really see the point (unless I see something really special) but I always make sure to let them know where I am and that I’m ok. Just because you’re a globetrotter now, don’t think you’re too cool to stay in touch!
7. Buy the right backpack
Let me tell you, having the wrong backpack will make your life misery. And I say backpack because you really do need a backpack. Suitcases are clunky and and hard to move around with. Don’t think you’ll have beautifully paved concrete paths everywhere you go to seamlessly wheel your suitcase around, because you won’t. Sometimes you may unexpectedly need to walk through marsh, or floods, or muddy roads, or sand, or any other type of unfriendly terrain. So a backpack is essential, and you need to make sure you get the right one! Go to a hiking/backpack store and ask the staff there which backpack suits your body type. You don’t have to buy from them, but do make sure you get some expert advice. I personally use a hybrid backpack (a backpack with wheels on the bottom). 90% of the time I can wheel it around, but that other 10% I am extremely happy I have those backpack straps on the back. If you prefer carry-on only, make sure you’ve got the right size! This chart will help.
8. Don’t overpack!
“When preparing to travel, lay out all your clothes and all your money. Then take half the clothes and twice the money.” – Susan Heller
This might be one of the best travel quotes in history. After my last trip, I decided to “review” all the things I had packed. I realised that during my 6 month trip, I had packed around 7kg worth of stuff that I didn’t even use once. That included a pair of boots, a couple pairs of jeans, a beanie, some thermal clothing, a handful of shirts and some other miscellaneous things. Yet I’d carried these things all around Uganda, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Kenya, Singapore and The Philippines. I’m sure they enjoyed their overseas trip, but my life on the road would’ve been so much easier had I just left all that stuff at home. Remember, as unbelievable as it sounds, other countries have shops too. If you need stuff, you can buy it.
9. Do some planning beforehand
While I don’t suggest planning your entire itinerary out to the hour, it helps to have a few things planned before you go. Write down the cities and places you want to visit and how to get there, restaurants and dishes you want to try, the activities you want to do and also a handful of places you could stay. There have been too many times where I’ve arrived in a country with absolutely no plans, and spent the next 3 days in the hostel doing all my destination research. It’s a huge waste of travel time which could be spent out and about experiencing the city. Be smart and do your destination research at home!
10. Make local friends
After my first trip solo trip overseas to Spain, I was so amazed at all the new friendships I had made in such a short time. And then I realised, I didn’t make a single friend who was actually from Spain. If I ever returned, I would have no one to catch up with, no couch to crash on, no one to grab a drink with and reminisce about the ‘good old times’. This saddened me and from then on, I made an effort to get to know at least one local person in every place I went. Of course, I didn’t always manage to, but the times I did added such a different dimension to my trip.
Just recently in Cambodia I was getting a massage and making small talk with my masseuse. She told me she was going to a birthday party later and so I just asked, “Can I come?” She looked at me with a smile and said “Of course!”
Later that afternoon I enjoyed a karaoke party with a whole bunch of Cambodian people, tried some insane Cambodian street food, and made a heap of new friends. It was all quite a fascinating insight into Cambodian culture and the first alcohol-free karaoke gig I’ve ever been to.
In the end, it’s all good fun just hanging out in the hostel meeting other backpackers, but connecting with local people can also offer a very unique experience. Couchsurfing is ideal for this, but otherwise, just say hi to people you meet around town (like whoever is sitting next to you on the train or at the bar). It may seem a little weird, but you won’t regret it.
11. Bring an unlocked phone and get a local sim
I never really understood this locking phone thing. In New Zealand there’s no such thing as a ‘locked’ phone, as far as I know, and it was only after meeting some American travellers where I learned about these phone networks hacking the phones and setting them to only be used on their networks. That’s fuarking lame. Anyway, sim cards in many countries are cheap and it’s easy to get mobile internet on short term packages (such as 3-day, 7-day etc). I can’t tell you how many times Google Maps has saved me from spending the whole day walking around looking for things that were right in front of my face. I used to be an advocate of just asking for directions, and still am, but quite often the local people will have never heard of what you’re looking for. Particularly if you’re planning on staying for more than a couple of weeks, getting a local sim is a no-brainer (and usually cheaper than roaming).
12. Don’t get drunk (much)
Travelling for quite a lot of people these days just means going to the beach and getting drunk for 7 nights and then flying back home. But do you really need to come all the way to Thailand to do that? I just don’t get it.
I’m kidding. I totally get it. I’ve done that before too and it was heaps of fun. But if that’s all you do, you’re probably going to regret it. Maybe just spend half the time drinking and half the time doing other stuff, like trying local food and visiting local markets. Otherwise a few years from now you may look back on those drunken memories and think, “Man, I wish I’d some other stuff too.”
13. Don’t be afraid to take time off
Travelling is exhausting sometimes. Maybe it’s all the walking, or just being away from home, or not being able to walk around the hostel naked like you do at home. Often it’s just the constant meeting new people and introducing yourself that can take it’s toll. When you get to that point, don’t be afraid to get a private room and just read/sleep/do nothing for a few days. I do it all the time, and it works.
14. Learn the local language
It helps to do this before you arrive, but it’s never too late to learn a few words. Everywhere you go, at least learn to count to ten, say hello and goodbye, please and thank you, and any other common phrases you might use. In every single country I have been to this has put a smile on people’s faces and makes them feel inclined to treat you that much nicer. Most guidebooks have a good common phrases section, but otherwise a simple Google search will give you all the free lessons you need.
15. Get travel insurance
I shouldn’t even need to include this but surprisingly there are still a lot of people who leave home without insurance. Travel insurance has literally saved me thousands of dollars while travelling. Once I had to see a throat specialist which cost around $700 in China. Insurance picked it up. Another time my Grandma passed away while I was travelling and I had to take a last-minute $2,000 flight from Tanzania to Sydney for the funeral. Insurance picked that one up too. Don’t be a travel dummy – get insurance!
(my recommendation: the ever popular World Nomads).
16. Cheaper is not always better
There was a time when I’d choose a $10, 25-hour bus ride over a $150, 2-hour flight any day of the week.
A 25 hour bus ride is rarely just 25 hours. On a trip that long, you get exhausted. You eat shitty food. You feel worn out afterwards and want to get a good night’s sleep. The next day is spent in recovery mode. You’re lazy and sluggish from all the sitting around and sleeping. You just want to stay in and watch Game of Thrones. That 25 hours can quickly turn into 50 hours before you’re ready to jump out of bed and go exploring again.
My advice is to take that 2 hour flight. In 4 hours you’ll be checked-in to your room, feeling fresh and getting the most out of your day in whichever city is lucky to have you.
I also rarely stay in the cheapest hostel, and will happily take a $10 dorm bed over a $4 dorm bed if it means I get a good night’s sleep and am not stuck in some random place 45 minutes outside the city centre. Remember, your time is just as (if not more) important than money.
17. Slow down!
A common mistake with first time travellers is they try and do too much. For example, with a month in South East Asia they might try and do 5 days in Thailand, 3 days in Cambodia, a week in Vietnam, 5 days in Laos, 10 days in Malaysia and a couple of nights in Singapore. Now sure, that does sound cool, but here’s the problem(s).
- You’re going to be exhausted.
- You’ll barely scratch the surface of each country.
- You’ll spend a large amount of your budget on flights/buses/trains/taxis/buses.
- You’ll spend a large amount of your time on planes/buses/trains/taxis/buses.
On average, getting from your hotel in one country to your hotel in another country will take you around 24 hours of travel time (that includes packing, taxi rides, visa stations, bus/train/plane, customs, waiting for your bag and figuring out how to get to your hotel in the next country). 6 countries = 6 days, which is 20% of a one month trip. That’s a lot of precious time spent sitting on your backside doing nothing. For a first time traveller spending one month in South East Asia, I’d probably recommend 3 weeks in one country and a short side trip to another (and maybe one additional country if you really wanted to). That way you’ll have the chance to really get under the skin of one country, while getting a nice little glimpse of another. Take your time. The world is not going anywhere (soon).
18. Go on a date!
One of the least talked about aspects of travelling is dating. Dating other travellers. Dating a local. Dating anyone. While the road is not the greatest place to start a long term relationship, going on a date can be a really memorable way to experience a city. A new city also offers endless date ideas (local markets, shows, plays etc) which will all be completely new to you and interesting to talk about. Ask out the waitress at breakfast. Or tell that girl in your dorm you’re taking her for dessert. Maybe even try and hold her hand (gasp).
19. Stay healthy
Too tired to head out for dinner. Not getting much sleep. No time to hit the gym. Drinking too much booze. Eating too much junk food.
Things like this can make my health deteriorate pretty fast when I’m out on the road, and I’m sure it’s true for other travellers too (all the coughing and sniffling in the dorm rooms will tell you that). It can be hard, but make a concentrated effort to eat well and get enough rest. Sometimes you might just want to go to the supermarket and buy a bunch of carrots and apples and force em down. Or go for a jog. Or any other small thing that lets your body know you’re thinking about it. Look after yourself, because nothing snuffs out the excitement of travel faster than a few days fighting the flu.
20. Learn a new skill
Every country has traditional sports, dishes and activities that the local people love to do. Have a go at the national sport, or take a language class, or learn to cook a local dish. Why? So you can go back home and show off, of course.
And also for personal development, and all that stuff.
21. Don’t get obsessed with getting “off the beaten track”
There’s a disease in the backpacker community right now called “Too-cool Syndrome”, where some people who’ve been travelling for a while think they’re above all the cliché things to do in town. These kinds of people won’t visit the Eiffel Tower in Paris, because of course, they’re way cooler than that. They’re going to see some other tower in some tiny city that’s way cooler instead, because no one’s ever seen it before and they’re going to be the only person on Facebook with a photo in front of this cool other tower. Similarly, they won’t drink Sangria in Spain, or visit the Colosseum in Rome, or see Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, because of course, they’re too cool.
Don’t become one of these people. There’s a reason why everyone does those cliché things, and a reason why they became cliché in the first place. It’s because they’re awesome. Don’t miss out.
22. Get off the beaten track
Of course, you should still try and do a few things off the typical tourist trail, because there’s a lot of great things to experience there too. The absolute best way to do this is by making a few local friends and getting them to show you a few of the hidden spots around town. Otherwise you can use apps like Trover, ask other travellers (travel forums/blogs), or just ask local people such as waiters/taxi drivers/hostel staff. Another good tip is to look for cities in the country that don’t have airports or train stations. They’re usually the ones less frequented by travellers and can give some unique experiences.
23. Stay safe at all costs
If you ever feel in danger, extract yourself immediately. You may feel stupid getting a taxi back to your hotel when it’s just a 5 minute walk away, but guess what; a whole lot of shit can happen on a 5 minute walk. If you see some unsavoury looking characters up ahead, don’t be afraid to just turn around and walk a different way. In many parts of Africa, I never leave the hotel after dark if I don’t have a local male to walk with me, even if it’s just across the road to buy a Coke. Similarly, don’t get peer pressured into doing stupid things; there are a lot of idiot travellers out there who think they’re invincible, some of them are even looking for trouble so they have “really cool stories” to tell when they get home. Don’t be that fool.
24. Experience everything for yourself
No matter where you go, someone is going to have an opinion.
“Don’t go to Vietnam, everyone’s unfriendly and you’re just going to get ripped off.”
“Don’t go to Colombia, there’s heaps of drug dealers and it’s not safe.”
“Don’t go to Switzerland, it’s so expensive and Berlin is cooler anyway.”
Don’t listen to any of these people. In fact, don’t listen to anyone at all. Some of the coolest places I’ve been to are ones that other people hated and said would be crap. The only way to really know if you like a place is to go there and experience it for yourself. If someone tells you don’t need to see the sunrise at Angkor Wat, do it anyway. Maybe that person is an idiot and the sunrise will be one of your fondest memories. If someone tells you Thailand is overrated, go there and make up your own mind about it. When it comes to travelling, everyone’s experience is hugely different and even the bad ones are worth remembering. So ignore everyone else, including me. In fact, forget you even read this article at all. Go without fears or expectations, and enjoy your adventure for what it is.
25. Make it unforgettable
You may never be here again. Do whatever you want, as much as you want, and as long as you want. Travel is freedom. If you want to stay in Costa Rica your entire trip, do it. If you just want to lie on the beach and do nothing, do it. The world has too many rules and 99% of them are stupid. Travel is an escape. Be whoever you want. Go wherever you’ll go. Create your own adventure. In the end all that’s left are memories, so make sure they’re awesome ones.
Just be safe, and have fun. The world is your playground!