If you're itching to explore a new city on your own this year, you're not alone. In fact, 1 in every 5 travelers reports having embarked on a solo international trip for his or her most recent leisure vacation, according to the 2015 Visa Global Travel Intentions survey, which included more than 13,600 participants across 25 countries. And thanks to the growing demand for solo trips and tours, an increasing number of companies are rolling out enticing packages geared toward single globe-trotters. But while flying solo offers the chance for self-discovery and cultural immersion in vibrant, far-flung destinations without having to factor in companions' schedules, tastes or budgets, there are some unique challenges that single travelers, especially women, can experience trailblazing alone.
"There's something for everybody," says Carol Margolis, the publisher behind Smart Women Travelers, a website for female travelers that offers smart expert and user recommendations for maximizing enjoyment and safety while traveling. The key, according to Margolis, is "really finding your comfort zone and stretching that." With that in mind, we got the inside scoop from veteran solo travelers and industry experts to bring you savvy tips and recommendations before venturing on your own.
Map Out Your Plans Ahead of Time
There's no reason to feel intimidated by the prospect of traveling somewhere unfamiliar on your own, but to dodge unnecessary headaches later on, it's smart to plan ahead. Take it from Dr. Arjun Sharma, a frequent solo sojourner, who knows from personal experience how alarming it can be when you encounter a setback on the road alone. "I was in Tokyo this past December when my passport was lost. Although I was with my wife […] and a couple of other friends, this was my first time there. When I found out that I would have to stay an extra day after the rest of the group left, I was pretty anxious and, frankly, scared," he says. But today, his anxiety has diminished somewhat, he says, relaying his excitement for an upcoming trip to Tokyo, where he'll be traveling on his own with his itinerary details locked in from start to finish.
Sharma's trick is following his own version of Maslow's hierarchy of human needs before planning a solo trip. Sharma likes to establish where he'll stay early on, map out specific locations to visit and pinpoint easy-to-navigate running (or biking) routes before his trip. That way, he can easily immerse himself in new destinations once he arrives. And according to Sharma, ensuring that directions to places on your itinerary are easily accessible with a few quick taps on your smartphone is key. He suggests using Google's Offline Maps. Here's how it works: When you're in a location with a Wi-Fi connection, use Google Maps on your phone or tablet to search for a desired destination and select the "download" button. That way, you'll have access to step-by-step directions to must-see destinations even if the Wi-Fi in some areas is spotty.
Ligaya Malones, a San Diego-based travel blogger at The Curious Passport, also points to the importance of keeping directions within easy reach, particularly in non-English-speaking countries. "Getting lost at some point is inevitable. In the planning process, I've begun to pad my itinerary with an extra hour or two between activities and destinations to account for this," she says.
[See: Top 5 Countries for Solo Travel.]
Take Extra Precautions to Optimize Safety
Before your trip, it's also critical to take care of a few practicalities to save you time, hassle and, most importantly, ensure safety. First and foremost, be sure you know which areas are dangerous in the city you're planning to visit, and check out the latest U.S. State Department advisories. Second, print out copies of your passport and ID to prep for your trip. Lastly, make sure to contact your credit card companies to alert them of your travels to prevent your accounts from getting suspended due to your issuer monitoring potentially fraudulent activity. And while on your own, Margolis suggests carrying your credit cards in separate places. She also suggests carrying the local currency, but she cautions against using any stand-alone ATMs, since they pose the highest risk for identify theft. Instead, only use local ATMs inside a bank, she says.
Beyond these safety measures, you should also make sure to register for the U.S. State Department's free Smart Traveler Enrollment Program at the closest U.S. Embassy or U.S. Consulate to ensure you receive up-to-date travel advisories and alerts in the event of an emergency.
Carry Hotel Business Cards
"Always have hotel business cards with you," Margolis says. When you check in at the front desk, make sure to grab a card displaying the property's name and address. If you're exploring Hong Kong alone and you trip or fall, nobody would be able to contact loved ones unless you have this information on hand, she explains. To that end, it's also a smart idea to ensure somebody, whether it's a friend, colleague or family member, knows your itinerary details, she adds. There are also plenty of logistical advantages of carrying hotel business cards. When you hop in a taxi in a foreign country where you don't know the language, you can easily hand your driver a business card to ensure you reach your desired destination.
Familiarize Yourself With Local Cultural Etiquette
Before visiting a foreign country, "at least know a little bit about the culture," Margolis says, recalling a time when she said "Good morning!" on an elevator ride in Dubai and quickly felt out of place; the proper greeting is "al-salaam alaykum," which translates to "peace be with you." It's also a smart idea to pick up a few key phrases to better communicate with locals and maximize safety.
Beyond understanding basic cultural cues, it's also important to know what to expect at restaurants and public areas to prevent putting yourself in an uncomfortable situation, such as being dressed inappropriately at dinner or traveling places on your own when it's advisable to be escorted, Margolis says. For example, in Dubai, there are female-only cab services, easily identified by their pink rooftops, that many Muslim women prefer to take on their own. And if you're traveling to a place where English is not the native tongue, Margolis also advises hailing taxis from your hotel and asking the bellhop what's customary in terms of tipping.
[See: How to Travel Solo.]
Master the Art of Packing Light
One main allure of traveling on your own is the freedom it offers, but "checking bags sort of feels like a drag," Sharma says. Beyond the benefit of staying flexible in case you need to adjust your plans and schlep your suitcase for longer than anticipated, paring down your suitcase to strictly the necessities is key for comfort. It's best to bring a suitcase that meets the carry-on dimension requirements for multiple airlines and is filled with extra compartments to squeeze in essentials like a laptop and is well-designed to maximize organization, Malones says.
Find Places That Cater to Singletons
For solo travelers interested in joining a singles-friendly tour, there a plenty of small- and large-group options. Susan Eckert, founder and president of AdventureWomen Inc., a Montana-based company that organizes group-led trips for women, knows this all too well. "For 34 years we've been doing this. … A lot of women in the beginning were a little nervous, but once they make the decision, they're hooked," she says, adding that they "come back [home] feeling very empowered." Geared toward women ages 30 and up, the company offers a variety of adventure vacations for women, from hiking the Amalfi Coast in Italy or the Himalayas in Nepal to culturally oriented trips to Cuba. The best part of joining a group: You'll automatically have something in common with fellow travelers, enabling you to easily embrace new experiences, Eckert says. "Going solo opens you up to being with like-minded people," she adds.
Other singles-oriented travel companies include the Britain-based Solos Holidays, which offers expertly crafted trips for singles across the U.K., spanning everything from adventure-oriented to beach-focused holidays, and luxury outfitter Abercrombie and Kent, which offers small-group tours. Currently, Abercrombie & Kent is reducing its single-supplement fee by $500 for select land-based small- group trips and European river cruise itineraries for bookings made by June 30, 2016.
Get a Local Perspective
An easy way to absorb the local culture life is connecting with city-dwellers at communal tables in restaurants, Malones says. Though she cautions the importance of remaining cognizant of your surroundings, striking up a conversation with strangers on your plane, train or bus is another simple way to meet new people. "Hostels seem to be the place where like-minded travelers congregate. These days, there's a hostel for everyone," she adds. "I've gone canyoning in Queenstown, New Zealand, lazed on the beach in Melbourne and dined in Panama City's Chinatown neighborhood with new friends I've met in hostels," she says.
And if you're not comfortable staying in a hostel or utilizing travel forums, the free Global Greeter Network is a great platform for meeting residents who share your interests. Here's how it works: After filling out a form on the Global Greeter website, the nonprofit organization will match you with a volunteer to provide you with a free tour, which might include anything from a guided walking tour in Paris to tucked-away, lesser-known gems in Florence, Italy.
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