Girl Off the Grid: Tips for Traveling Alone
By Erica Root
I just spent one month working in Nairobi, Kenya. During my free time, I explored the city, with nobody else but my trusted driver and my traveling companion: Panda. The advice below stems from both this recent experience and my time spent abroad in college. If you are curious about my traveling companion Panda, you can follow his adventures on Tumblr here.
Traveling alone has a few benefits. You can go where you want, when you want, dictating how long you stay.
You can also eat whatever the hell you want. There is no passive aggressive exchanges of ‘‘what do you want to to do?’ and then when you offer options, the person, or persons you are with, shoot down all your suggestions.
You can book your day chock full of tourist destinations, complete with an hour-by-hour itinerary. Or you can lay by the pool drinking margaritas and reading a trashy romance novel. It can be blissful.
But there are a few obvious pitfalls to traveling alone:
- There is nobody to watch your luggage when you have to use the restroom at the airport. So you are stuck lugging everything with you and hoping nobody steals your prime seat next to the gate.
- There is nobody to convince you to see something you wouldn’t have gone to see on your own. Often these unexpected experiences end up being the ones you tell your friends long after you’ve come home.
- There is nobody to talk to, so you end up chatting with a lovely German couple whose very impressed with your German skills, or you exchange niceties with the waiter, or concierge. But unless you are staying at a hostel where people are looking to hang out with fellow travelers, you’re really alone. That panda you travel with isn’t going to talk back.
So whether you are on the European Continent or the African one, there are few tips I thought I’d share for the lone female traveler:
Don’t Be Afraid
There’s that old adage that people can smell fear. I think this is particularly true when you are traveling: your fear makes you a beacon. And being American, you are already a target, because for the most part, everyone can tell where you are from. By your sweatshirt, or your beat-up chucks, or the way you walk, or in a lot of cases, by how much you smile. Any fear, or perceived fear, will just draw even more attention to you. You don’t want this as a traveler, so try to do everything you can to avoid being nervous. Plan your route, so you aren’t fumbling with a map in front of the metro station. Ask for help when you need it, and be aware of your surroundings.
How many pairs of shoes do you ACTUALLY need. A pair to walk in, a pair to dress up and go out in, and maybe a pair to hike in (if you are into that sort of thing). Be frugal with what you bring.
I also recommend getting a good purse. I actually bought a theft proof purse on Amazon before going on my recent trip to Kenya. But what I like about my ugly purse isn’t its snatch-proof prowess. It’s the durability. The material can easily be wiped down by a paper towel, getting rid of the dirt collected just walking around. There are pockets galore, so I can hide my valuables strategically. I even pre-loaded it with a dummy wallet just in case someone held me up demanding it.
Packing a scarf is always a great idea. That was especially true when I visited the predominantly Muslim island of Zanzibar (located off the coast of Tanzania). Keeping my shoulders covered worked both as a sign of respect, and a great way to protect against unexpected rain, cold, sun, etc.
Know your transportation plan
I sort of touched on this earlier, but it is important before you travel somewhere to know how you are getting from the airport or train station to your hotel, hostel, apartment, etc. What type of public transit is there? How much does it cost? Is it safe? What’s the best way to get to where you are staying? Asking yourself, and figuring out the answer to these questions before you leave will better equip you once you arrive at your destination city.
Talk to your friends
Obviously, if you have friends that have visited whatever city or country you are going to, ask them for advice. Friends are a safe space to ask as many questions as you like, no matter how ridiculous. It is also good to let people know where you are traveling so that they can connect you with their contacts. You’d be surprised how many friends of friends I have in Kenya. Chances are someone you know knows someone to put you in contact with.
When I talk about recording your trip, I mean doing more than just snapping a few pictures on your iPhone. We can all agree that iPhones take amazing pictures, (until you realize you don’t know how to take a selfie and there is nobody else around to take a picture of you), but journaling, emailing, and blogging are just a few of the ways to make sure you keep track of everything you’ve done on your journey. For me, I will forget what I did yesterday unless I chronicle it. While in Nairobi, I actually sent a daily email recap to my friends and family. This served two purposes: 1) I was able to recall and really digest what I was seeing, learning, doing, and 2) it allowed me to stay in touch with everyone. It was a whole lot of fun and I highly recommend it to anyone looking to do some serious time abroad.
So what are you waiting for? Go book your next trip!
And whether you are traveling with others, or alone, I hope I’ve given you an idea or two of how to make the most of your future journeys.