You’ve booked round the world tickets and you and your best mate are going to eat, sleep, breathe and, most importantly, love the backpacker life. Then he gets offered a job he can’t refuse, bails out on the travel plans and you’re left dangling your ticket over a candle flame. Stop. All is not lost. Travelling solo can be a daunting prospect but often turns out to be the best way to meet people and broaden your mind. A friend even met his future wife while backpacking alone around New Zealand, so it could change your life.
But if the thought of being alone in an unknown city, in a bewildering country, on an alien continent makes you shudder, take a look at these tips from solo travel experts Tom Griffiths, a youth travel adviser to the government and founder of award-winning website Gapyear.com, and Steve Gill from STA Travel, and see if they can help change your mind.
Meeting people and dealing with loneliness
The loneliest times are arriving at a hostel late when everyone seems to have got to know each other. You don’t have the option of people coming up to you to chat, unless you’re Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie, so you have to approach them. Scan the room and pick who you think you’ll get on with. If in doubt, look for where the laughter is and go for the big noisy group.
Embrace being alone somewhere spectacular and savour the tranquility. Picturing the commuter crush on the Circle Line in situations like this can make you feel the luckiest person on the planet.
Look forward to the next exciting thing. Everyone suffers from homesickness at some stage in their travels so research the next stage of your trip and let the excitement take over.
Look out for other solo travellers in the airport departures lounge. Tom Griffiths says: “Within 10 minutes you should be able to decide if they are the most boring person on earth or a complete nutter, but if they seem cool share a taxi to the hostel and stick together.” Also hook up with solo travellers going to the same places as you via travel website forums such as www.gapyear.com/travelmates.
Jump in at the deep end. When staying in hostels opt for a dorm instead of a single room to maximise your chances of meeting like-minded people.
Tired of asking the same questions all the time? Hook up with a group of solo travellers for a while or join an organised adventure tour. This eases the pressure of meeting people everywhere you go and if someone’s annoying you can just move on.
Seize the opportunity to read everything in your backpack and take advantage of hostel book swaps. Getting lost in a book can be seriously satisfying and relaxing at the same time.
Make mugs of the muggers. Carry a dummy wallet and make it look full and realistic with expired cards, receipts, business cards and a small quantity of local currency. If you get mugged you can hand this over instead of the real thing. But remember – life isn’t worth what’s in your pocket.
Looking like a cash-rich tourist makes you an obvious target when walking around cities. If you look like you’ve got nothing on you, muggers won’t bother. Carry your things in a white plastic bag, as the locals do, and wear scruffy clothes and shoes that blend in.
Hide cash on your body using a Tubi-grip bandage. Put the bandage on the top of your arm or leg, under your t’shirt or shorts and put coins and notes into it. It’s subtle and your cash will stay safe, although be warned it can get itchy sometimes.
Beware of slipping into the MP3 zone. Headphones can be a good way of avoiding having to chat to a persistent fellow passenger, but make sure you’re aware of what’s going on around you. When you’re zoning out, and especially when sleeping, keep the volume low.
Carry a personal alarm with a cord that you can pull if in danger. When on a bus you can keep the alarm in your bag and hold the cord so if someone moves the bag, it goes off. See this for an example.
Don’t get into fights. If you’re on your own you have no back-up and nobody else around to make your behaviour appear rational. And if you don’t speak the language it’s difficult to persuade people to defend your cause.
Special tips for girls
If you feel vulnerable sit beside an elderly woman or a mother. Experience has shown that they sympathise with a girl travelling on her own and are much more likely to help if you run into trouble. A blonde-haired blue-eyed girl travelling in India found that travelling with men exacerbated the hassle from local men and tended to cause fights. If she stuck by mature women, men respected the mother figures and would leave her alone.
Wear a wedding ring to stave off unwanted male attention and talk about your husband. It really does work.
More clubbers are taking to the backpacker trail, causing an increase in date rape between travellers in recent years. Stay safe by drinking out of a bottle and keeping your thumb over the top, buying your own drinks and holding onto them at all times. If you do become a victim be aware of how the morning after pill works and how to find it.
If in doubt raise the alarm and don’t be afraid of looking ridiculous – you’ll probably never see these people again. A woman in her 30s felt threatened by a group of lads hanging around in the multi-storey where her car was parked. She decided to wave her arms and pretend to be an aeroplane which made her look more mad than vulnerable and shocked the lads into doing nothing. As she did, pre-empt a dangerous situation by taking action when you feel at risk, don’t just allow it to happen.
And finally, Tom Griffiths assures me that a good way of chatting up a fit bloke on the plane is to play the nervous passenger and ask to hold his hand. If you can pull that one off then, respect!