This is part one in a four part series, “What Solo Travel Looks Like.” After nearly a year away from my home country, I wanted to offer my experiences and advice — an image of what solo travel can really be like. Read along and stay tuned! If you’d like to subscribe to my weekly newsletter, sign up in the sidebar. Happy reading, friends xo
Part One: How does this work?
The coffee was brewing on the little table in the corner, steam billowing up in the cold air and the antique floral mugs waiting just beside it, small piles of sugar at the bottoms. It was November in Maine and hunting season had just begun, and we were letting a lazy Sunday morning wash over us before checking out of our Airbnb and making the trek back home to Rhode Island.
He poured the coffee and brought it over, warm sun filling the room and with it, a feeling of peace and contentment. But my stomach dropped as I remembered we’d need to have the conversation I’d been dreading for weeks now. I breathed in deeply and gathered all my courage.
I think I need to go alone. Hardly more than a whisper, the words catching in my throat, attempting to hold back tears and failing. Words that cut through the room, fractures emanating out from them, splintering any sense of solidity that had previously hung in the air.
I tried not to sob as I waited for his response and rested my head on his shoulder, hesitatingly, waiting for him to shrug me off which of course he didn’t.
And just like that, I think you do too.
It was the beginning of the end, that morning in the farmhouse in the woods of Maine, as we lay there and faced the heart aching reality that we would not be, spoken aloud for the first time.
From then on it was a courageous foray into doing this on my own — not completely on my own, for despite my virtual abandonment of him he continued to be the most supportive partner — but I was flung into the complexities of packing up and shipping away a life I used to know, in exchange for one about which I knew absolutely nothing.
I would be going to Vietnam, solo.
Solo travel is something I’ve read about extensively and yet it wasn’t until I actually did it — booked the one way ticket, got on the plane, landed on foreign ground — that I understood what everyone meant.
The fear. The elation. The nerves. The loneliness. The pride.
I wound my way through Vietnam, through Thailand, through Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia, and onto Australia.
And my travel doesn’t end there. As I live and work in Sydney, I also dream and save and plan to see New Zealand next, then Indonesia. Maybe Nepal and maybe South Africa, Argentina and western Canada, perhaps.
I’ve learned heaps along the way and have wanted these words to come out for months now, stuck inside me just behind my teeth. I haven’t lived for years on the road, I’m not a seasoned solo traveler, I’m not a “travel blogger,” and yet I have words to share. This is my humble offering, the points that stick out to me when looking back on my nine months away from home, alone. They may be useful to you or not relevant at all, but gosh does solo travel make for some really relatable stories. More to come.
If you’re thinking of solo travel or planning your trip already, here are the biggest things I’d want to know:
1. Only bring what you can carry on your back.
Do your research. Purchase the best backpack you can afford and only bring what will fit inside. (I use this one.) It seems ludicrous and monumentally difficult, especially if you’re planning a longer trip, but I promise you it’s not. It’s maybe the most freeing thing you will ever do. In fact, before you leave, go through every single belonging that you’ve collected in your years on this planet. Purge what no longer serves you — donate it or see if friends want it — and only keep what truly lights you up.
As I went through my Providence apartment in the cold snowy months leading up to my departure, I filled bag after bag with donations for Savers, making multiple trips in my tiny car and feeling a weightlessness as I drove off with the bags left behind on the pavement outside the loading dock.
Even if you’re embarking on a short term trip, maybe a week’s vacation from a 9-to-5 job or even a long weekend away on your own, this is a worthwhile activity. Decide what really matters to you in this life, and only keep the things that fit into that picture. With a full backpack and your hands free, traveling will be easier, lighter, safer, and less stressful.
2. Don’t be afraid to bring comfort items.
Traveling solo can be lonely, difficult, and at times, sad. Especially if this is your first trip away on your own, having comfort items from home can make a world of difference. Something that smells like home, that brings you back to a moment in time, that reminds you of the person who gave it to you, that has been a steadfast companion. Maybe it’s an essential oil or a room spray, a gorgeous pillowcase or soft sweater, even a small stuffed animal or blanket. (Yep, my tattered stuffed rabbit totally made the cut and took up precious space in my luggage.) Maybe you’ll find that you don’t need it, but having a bit of a safety net tucked in the depths of your backpack can be extremely comforting.
3. Pack some granola bars or easy proteins.
In my first week in Hanoi inside my lonely hotel room that I feared leaving for the first two days, my meals often consisted of granola bars dipped in a jar of peanut butter. (Thanks, Mom.) I’d lay in bed watching crap TV like Asia’s Next Top Model and see how much peanut butter I could get in in one bite. It was delicious, it was filling, and it reminded me of home. Especially if you’re heading for a less-developed country that might have extreme culinary differences, having some easy snacks on hand is super helpful.
4. Get creative with your photos.
I bought my first selfie stick at a night market on the streets of Hanoi, and have never looked back. I joined the masses in Asia who don’t leave home without their selfie sticks, unashamedly whipping it out for group shots or solo photos or tricky shots where some height was needed. (This was key as I was packed in with the crowd in front of Angkor Wat at sunrise, struggling to make space for my iPhone.) I got over any embarrassment quickly and realized that if I wanted to be in any of my travel photos, I’d either need to use my selfie stick or ask someone to take it for me.
Which is also a helpful tool. Get brave. Don’t be afraid to ask. Most strangers are happy to take your photo for you, and sometimes you'll even get a decent picture out of it. When I finally ventured out of my hotel room in Hanoi and found my way to the oldest cathedral in the city, I knew that if I wanted to be in a shot with more than just the front door, I’d have to ask someone for help. A kind woman obliged, and I got the first non-selfie photo of myself on my solo trip. It was surprisingly thrilling.
5. Make some plans but not too many plans.
I booked a one way flight to Hanoi from NYC. I had originally planned on staying there for a teaching job (which didn’t happen), so had nothing else booked. At all. When I made the decision to officially call myself a solo backpacker, I had a loose plan of what I wanted to do but beyond that, I was free. Totally open.
As I began to meet other travelers, I realized that some people had spent months preparing for their trips — itineraries, budgets, flights. Some had solid end dates, some were more loose. But most had some semblance of a plan. Most knew where they were going next. And I had no idea.
I started to think how absurd it was to be on this solo adventure on the other side of the world that I hadn’t prepared for. I hadn’t done much research outside of Vietnam. I didn’t know the typical backpacker paths.
And yet, this was so good. I could literally go anywhere I wanted. I’d had money saved in anticipation of being in Hanoi for awhile before receiving a paycheck, and so I had some financial padding. The world was literally at my fingertips. I booked flights no more than a couple weeks in advance, I reserved dorm rooms from my phone on the way to hostels — I counted on meeting people and that influencing where I’d head next or where I’d stay. Because that was really the most fun part of traveling solo — meeting people, and letting your plans change.
6. Stay in hostels.
This should actually probably be #1, because it just might be the most important tip I have. Forget about packing light and bringing food and taking selfies — you need community. Humans need humans. Solo travel is actually somewhat of an anomaly because you’re often not solo at all. Even if you’re visiting a temple or climbing a mountain on your own, there are always other travelers to connect and bond with.
But as my week in that Hanoi hotel room taught me, it’s easy to avoid this. It’s easy to stay hidden and distance yourself and take the easy route. My advice: find a good hostel. Do your research, read reviews, look at photos of the rooms. And once you’ve found a good one, don’t be afraid! Dorm rooms can be completely uncomfortable and intimidating (I once stayed in a room with 27 other human beings, for real), but most hostels have slightly more expensive options for 4-person rooms or even singles. The point is, hostels are social places. They’re practically designed for solo travelers. There are often happy hours, BBQs, organized games, group outings. In fact, a free walking tour offered by a hostel in Hanoi is how I met my first friends on my trip, who I’m still close with today. Even just sitting in a common area by yourself, surrounded by other people by themselves, can be enough to keep you sane. Put yourself out there, take care of yourself and your belongings, and know that all will be well. (More on this in part two!)
My relationship ended a few months after that November conversation in Maine over coffee, and I still grieve it now. It was one of my most favorite trips and he’s one of my most favorite people. But doing what I needed to do for myself will always be one of my proudest moments. I knew that traveling on my own and making myself happy was something I needed to do before I could make someone else happy.
Despite the fear and anxiety and unknowns, solo travel was the best gift I ever could have given myself. It’s changed the course of my life in ways I’m not even sure about yet, in ways I can’t quite see.
But I can feel them. And gosh does it feel good.
As I write this, a little bird flew into the giant window beside me and sat on the ground, motionless. My heart broke before I realized she was still alive and seemingly stable. She sat there for a long time, her beady black eyes blinking, her head twitching this way and that. I worried that she couldn’t fly, that she’d be stuck there until she died, a sad heap of bird at the edge of the window.
And then suddenly I looked again and she was gone, nothing left in her wake, as if she had never been there.
That’s how solo travel feels sometimes, I realized. (And life itself, let's be real.) You can be going full speed and then hit a roadblock disastrously, a clear glass window that looks passable but isn’t. You can sit for awhile and get your bearings again, resting and taking good care of yourself, until it feels safe to fly again.
And then, you’re off.
Want to chat about solo travel? I'm all ears. Send me a message with questions, thoughts, or comments. xo