We all make mistakes. But solo travel mistakes? Well, it would just be better not to make any.
I've been traveling solo how many years?
And yet, I still make travel mistakes here and there.
When I was in Scotland a couple of years ago, I spent five days solo on the Isle of Sky. To get home required a daylong bus ride to Glasgow Airport, one overnight there in a hotel, and a flight the next day. The problem was my hotel.
My mistake: I didn't check out the hotel on Google's Street View before booking.
The hotel itself was fine but the neighborhood was sketchy–so much so that my dinner was chips and a chocolate bar from the snack machine in the lobby. Despite the fact that there was a restaurant down the street, I had no intention of wandering around an unknown neighborhood with no foot traffic in the dark.
So yes, there are solo travel mistakes to be made, even by those of us who have put on many miles traveling alone. I thought it worth taking a moment to review solo travel from the perspective of what one should not do rather than what one should do.
And then, I take it a bit further. There's an additional section on travel money mistakes. Have a look.
Solo Travel Mistakes
- Not enough planning. To some, planning is almost as much fun as traveling. Not so for me. I like traveling without a plan. However, there is a certain amount of planning that is important. Do your research and know the risks of your destination before you arrive by checking your government's travel advisory page. Know what documents you'll need to enter your destination, how you'll get there, where you'll spend the first night, and how you'll pay for things. These are the very basics of planning required.
- Arriving at a new destination after dark. This is a mistake I made in Havana in 2006. I have not made it since as it can be really unnerving. Schedule your arrival in a new location early — well before dark so that you can find your accommodation in daylight and have time to change it if you're not happy.
- Traveling without insurance. I never travel without travel insurance and it's a good thing. Thanks to insurance I’ve had a pair of glasses replaced that were lost in the UK – $300. I had a crown fixed that had come off a tooth in Sydney – $272. I was refunded for a flight to Peru that I couldn’t take due to my mother’s health – $1,100. Read: Going Alone? Travel Insurance is a Must.
- Ignoring maps. Studying a map to get a sense of your destination before you go is time really well spent. Knowing what's north vs. south and east vs. west will help you navigate a city with greater ease. Knowing areas you may want to avoid will help keep you safe.
- Being too polite. We are trained to be polite and to keep our voices down in public, but if you are being bothered by someone your best defense is to speak up. Yell, if necessary. Drawing the attention of others usually resolves such problems quickly. Before leaving home, take some time in your basement or some other appropriate place to find your loud voice. Practice yelling.
- Using public Wi-Fi without security. Public Wi-Fi is just that: public. As a result, personal data can be stolen when you use it. In some cases, the data is not that important, but if you are booking a room with your credit card or signing into a website you could be giving away crucial information. The solution is to use a VPN which is an app that can be added to your phone, tablet, and/or computer. Read: VPN for Travel: What, Why and an Easy Setup Guide
- Becoming too friendly with a new acquaintance. A new friend in a new land cannot be read the same way as someone from home. They may seem great but you don't really know them and you don't have the same back-up resources you would at home. It's really important to always stay in a public place with a new acquaintance.
- Being out of touch. Traveling untethered is a great feeling. But if something were to go wrong, it would be good if others knew where to find you. Stay in touch with home one way or another, on a regular basis. Read: Use Your Phone Anywhere in the World: Free and Low-cost Options
- Looking lost. If you're feeling lost or unsure of something, don't stand around looking vulnerable. Look around with purpose and draw on the support of strangers that you choose, not the ones who choose you. I tend to look for a family.
- Flashing expensive items or jewelry. This is a big mistake. Don't attract the attention of pickpockets and thieves. Read: Protect Yourself from Pickpockets: Keep Cards & Cash Safe.
- Distorted priorities. The hierarchy of safety priorities is: 1) your person, 2) your documents, 3) your money, and 4) your stuff. Money is more important than your expensive camera, your documents are more important than money, and your person, your body is more important than anything else. Try to keep everything safe, but if something has to go, make sure it's the right thing.
- Too little sleep or too much to drink. Exhaustion or being even a little drunk can compromise your judgment. Being alert is important. Always be aware of your surroundings, where the exits are, who is with you, and various landmarks to orient yourself. Don’t walk in unfamiliar areas listening to music through earphones or talking on your phone so that you are and look distracted. It makes you a mark.
- Being lax about security. This is an obvious point. Lock your room carefully. Make sure that the door actually closes behind you. Use your room safe for your valuables when possible.
- Traveling without a net. You're traveling solo but that doesn't mean that no one should know where you are. Let the desk clerk or some other trusted person know where you're off to when you leave your hotel. You needn't make a big deal out of it. Just a casual comment about how excited you are to see this or that could be valuable information should something go wrong. Also, grab the business card of your hotel so that you have its name and address on you in the local language.
- Going too solo. Be trackable. If you’re going far and for a while, make sure you register with your government as a citizen abroad.
- Ignoring your instincts. This is likely the biggest mistake you can make as a solo traveler. If your instincts are telling you that something or someone is not right, trust them. Leave the person or situation.
Traveling solo is a wonderful experience but you, alone are responsible for your safety. Take good care.
Travel Money Mistakes & How to Avoid Them
- Not having a travel savings plan. I hate living from behind. Spending money first and then catching up with credit cards and loans is not only expensive but stressful. Formulate a travel money savings plan that works for you. Read How to Save Money for Travel for 12 tips on saving money. No advice to cut lattes. No talk of shorter showers. Just a solid how-to approach to saving cash for travel.
- Choosing the wrong rewards credit card. Every year I earn about $600 just by using my credit card. It's worth choosing a card well but the card that's right for you will depend on your lifestyle. Read: How to Choose the Right Travel Rewards Credit Card.
- Not asking to have the single supplement waived. The single supplement is a major frustration for solo travelers. We try to show you some of the best single supplement-free deals with our Solo Traveler Advisory of Deals and our Deals page. But if you're looking at a trip that isn't included in our list there are still things you can do. Read: 10 Tips to Avoid the Single Supplement.
- Traveling without a budget. This results in the same problem as living without a savings plan; you end up behind the eight ball with your finances, paying for the last trip rather than saving for the next one because you've overspent. Read How to Plan Your Solo Travel Budget – On Any Budget. Also read Travel Money: When It’s Okay to Break Your Travel Budget.
- Traveling without a plan to find freebies. From free tours to free entrance to museums on specific days, there are many ways to enjoy free things as you travel. Read Solo Travel with Fabulous Travel Freebies.
- Not knowing the hidden fees before you go. When you plan your travel budget you need to include all expenses, including fees that you might not think of off the top of your head. Hotels and airlines are notorious for fees. Know before you go. Read How to Avoid Hidden Hotel Fees.
- Neglecting the security of your cash and documents. As mentioned above, I have a safety hierarchy. It goes like this: yourself, your documents, your cash, and your stuff. Yes, your cash and your documents are important.
- Ignoring the need for travel insurance. I have claimed on my travel insurance a number of times. I would never, ever travel without it. To learn more about the importance of insurance, what I recommend and why, read Going Alone? Travel Insurance is a Must, Best Travel Insurance for Senior Solo Travelers, and Travel Planning: Morbid Stuff You’d Rather Not Think About.
- Using a credit card with a foreign transaction fee. Foreign transaction fees can be as high as 3% on everything you buy in a foreign currency. That applies even if you choose your home currency when in another country as the exchange still needs to be made. Fortunately, there are cards with no foreign transaction fees. Read Manage Money. Avoid Fees. Keep Cards and Cash Safe.
- Carrying only one credit card. You never know when a credit card is going to give you trouble. I've had it happen in Jordan and Myanmar. Having a back-up is essential.
- Incurring unnecessary ATM fees. Your bank can charge you as much as $5 for every ATM withdrawal you make in a foreign country. One strategy is to minimize the number of times you withdraw cash. Another is to choose a bank and account type that doesn't charge this fee. Read Manage Money. Avoid Fees. Keep Cards and Cash Safe to see how I get this service free.
- Exchanging money at the airport. Every time I'm at an airport (like right now as I write this) I see people at the currency exchange kiosks and I want to run up to them and say “No!” But how rude would that be? The exchange rates at airport kiosks tend to be quite high. I typically go to a bank ATM as soon as I arrive in a destination to get some local cash. If you really want some cash before you go, order it from your bank. Read Save Money When You Change Money and Travel Currency Confusion? Tips for Coping with Shifting Exchange Rates.
- Not understanding the exchange rate. It's an easy Google search to find out what your currency is worth relative to the currency of your destination. Turn it into simple arithmetic so that you can easily calculate in your head the cost of something.
- Not understanding the cost of living at your destination. My travel budget was hit hard when I traveled to Australia. I knew that the Canadian and Australian dollars were worth about the same amount but I didn't realize how much less the Australian dollar actually buys. Research the economy of your destination before you go. Read How to Avoid the #1 Travel Budget Mistake.
- Ignoring your data plan restrictions. While most people have this under control now it is still worth mentioning. You don't want to incur huge data charges. Read Use Your Phone Anywhere in the World: Free and Low-cost Options.
- Using public Wi-Fi without a VPN. Read VPN for Travel: What, Why and an Easy Setup Guide for all the details and a discount code for my recommended provider.
- Choosing your home currency at check-out. In the last couple of years stores have started offering the option of paying with your home currency or theirs. Bottom line, choose theirs. Read Your Currency or Theirs? The Decision Makes a Difference for the details.
- Not researching tipping practices for your destination. There are countries where tipping is expected and countries where it’s not done at all and, just to make it even more complicated, there are places where you tip only in certain circumstances. Given that tips are usually in the 15-20% range, not knowing tipping practices could cost you a lot of money unnecessarily.
- Incurring extra charges for your luggage. When you purchase your air tickets the terms around luggage are made very clear. Make sure you read these so that you aren't stuck with unexpected fees.
- Not informing your bank and credit card company that you'll be traveling. Some banks still require this. Some don't. To be on the safe side make sure that your bank and credit card companies know where you're traveling so that they don't shut down your access to money.
- Using your credit card to get cash. This is a big no-no. Not only do credit cards charge high interest rates but when you take cash from your credit card that interest starts accumulating immediately. When you buy goods with a credit card the interest doesn't start accumulating until your next billing cycle.
- Reacting when you see a sign about pickpockets. When you see a sign indicating that pickpockets frequent where you are and urging you to be careful with your wallet, do not check to see if your wallet is safe where it is. Pickpockets hang around such signs to learn where people keep their wallets.
- Not checking the deals sites. You may think of Groupon and LivingSocial as great sites to get deals at home. But they have sections of their sites devoted to most major cities. Check them out for coupons and special deals to save money.
- Forgetting the membership benefits that could save you money. Read Take Your Membership Benefits on the Road: 11 Ways to Save.
- Paying too much for airport lounge access. If you haven't racked up sufficient frequent flyer miles to get free lounge access there are still options. Read Cheap Access to Lounge Luxury: 5 Tips.