Things I Wish I Knew Before Traveling Alone for the First Time

Things I Wish I Knew Before Traveling Alone for the First Time

The author at the summit of Arthur's Seat in Edinburgh, Scotland.

A year ago, I decided to try my hand at exploring a new city on my own and booked a room in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Now, heading to an English-speaking country for four days may not be the most intrepid of solo jaunts. But it felt a little bit daring, especially because most of my friends admitted they’d never traveled alone before (and might not have the guts to do it in the future).

Navigating a foreign city — even one where you know the language — without the help of your bestie, your mom or your significant other can be intimidating. But many of the biggest challenges come down to money.

For one, you aren’t splitting the fees for accommodations and rental cars — a reality I didn’t entirely plan for when I set out for some serious me-time. Plus, there are those costs you don’t expect to balloon, but do. For instance, I patted myself on the back for scoring an affordable hotel room, thanks to personal recommendations and Kayak, but I also wound up blowing too much on a global data plan.

Tips for budget travel are rarely geared toward those who choose to go it alone. So we decided to tap LearnVest’s money-savvy travelers for what to look out for when you’re flying solo.

1. ‘Comparison Shop’ Your Destination
Some places are more conducive to solo travel than others, but consulting trusted travel resources can help: Airbnb, for example, recently highlighted the most popular destinations for those heading out on their own.

From there, get strategic about cost. Copywriter Rita Brodfuehrer, who learned about sticking to a travel budget the hard way, touts the savings benefits of less popular destinations. “For example, Vietnam's beaches and culture are similar to what you'll find in Thailand, but it's less discovered and therefore cheaper. Portugal is similar to Spain but generally less expensive. New Zealand is slightly cheaper than Australia,” she says.

You’ll also want to check the exchange rate. “The first thing I do when planning a solo trip is to determine how far my dollar will go,” says Billy Cartee, planning associate. “From there, I can figure out what I’m able to spend on accommodations and transportation.”

2. Choose Your Accommodations Wisely
Hostels are great for making new friends and are almost always the cheapest way to go. In Europe, for example, you can generally expect to pay roughly $30 per night. Some have the option of upgrading to a private room for a slightly higher fee, while others offer a discount if you book in person rather than online. “The tradeoff here is that you have to be flexible since you won’t know until you get there if they are fully booked,” notes Account Manager Glenn Edwards. “Hostels are typically clustered around a given area, though, so you can try a backup around the corner if this happens.”

If you’re looking for some more personal space, then it’s time for the great “Which is more cost effective: hotel or Airbnb?” debate — the answer to which is, “it depends.” In major cities it can be easier to find singles-friendly hotel prices and you can often get a discount by pre-paying, although the fee will be nonrefundable. In general though, Airbnb makes it much simpler to search for one-person accommodations within a particular budget and often allows for other ways to save; having access to a kitchen means you can prepare some of your own meals, for example.

Airbnb hosts can also point you to affordable local spots and activities. Case in point: “My favorite part of my trip to San Francisco was a super cheap, hole-in-the-wall noodle shop I wouldn’t have known about without a recommendation from my host,” says Account Manager Britt Barney. Edwards also recommends services like Couchsurfing for much the same reason.

3. Get Familiar With Public Transportation
Taking public transportation is an obvious way to cut back on costs. Look at fares before you ride, though, especially because in some cities you’ll pay more the further out you go. Get to know schedules, too, so you can plan to be back in your hotel room before trains stop running or budget for car service if you’ll be out too late.

Researching local cab fares ahead of time can also help you make a smarter choice about accommodations. When I was in Edinburgh, for example, spending slightly more on a hotel put me close enough to the action that I could walk home alone at night. Had I gone for a cheaper option in a less central neighborhood, I would have paid more in cab fare.

Edinburgh CastleEdinburgh Castle, Scotland.

4. Plan Ahead for Your Phone and Internet Usage
Knowing you have constant access to calls, texts and Google maps can really put you at ease if you’re nervous about navigating a foreign city. Getting a global data plan can be a good idea, but you’ll want to use it sparingly.

Apps like Google Trips allow you to download maps and other information for later use offline. Of course, having a Wifi connection at your accommodation is key. Jack Cohen, QA manager, recommends double-checking that detail before you book. “I’ve had some hotels charge me for Wifi or limit the number of devices I could use,” he says. Another option, highly recommended by Brodfuehrer, is Google's Project Fi cell phone service. “I just got back from Portugal, and Fi was a life-saver,” she says. “Texting to the U.S. was free, calls were 10 cents a minute, I got free Wifi anywhere there was a Wifi connection, and the data plan was the same as when I’m at home.” You can also bring a cheap, unlocked smartphone and buy a local SIM card like Edwards does.

My trip to Edinburgh was a thoroughly empowering experience. I learned almost as much about myself as I did about the beautiful new city I was visiting, sans companions to distract me. I came out of it believing everyone should travel solo at least once in their lives — and it’s possible. It just takes a little legwork.

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