I've been traveling solo how many years?
And yet I still make solo travel mistakes.
Last month I was in Scotland where I spent a week in Inverness at a conference followed by 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 the hotel out 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 a restaurant down the street, I had no intention of wandering around an unknown neighborhood 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.
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, 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 attention of others usually resolves such problems quickly. Before leaving, take some time in your basement or some other appropriate place to find your loud voice. Practice yelling.
- Using public WiFi without security. Public WiFi 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 seem great but you don't really know them and you don't have the same backup 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
- Don't be a target. 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: Keep Your Cash & Cards: 10 Ways to Protect Yourself from Pickpockets.
- Distorted priorities. The hierarchy of safety priorities is: your person, your documents, your money, and 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 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 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.