By Jamarr Black
It’s not always easy picking up to go on a solo excursion, especially if money is tight or you are accustomed to prioritizing other people and things. As someone whose embraced solo travel on a budget for the past decade, I’m due to share some tips for the independent traveler.
1. Lodge like a local
Let’s face it: where you stay can make or break a trip. The same goes for how you stay. As a self-proclaimed ambivert, I fall somewhere between an extrovert and an introvert. So, hostels tend to make me claustrophobic and hotels tend to be isolating. I prefer services like Airbnb or Innclusive because I enjoy the live-like-a-local experiences they provide. Airbnb has mostly been a reliable and affordable means to lodging since I began using it in 2012. However, you always want to consider who’s hosting you and their rules before booking a spot to crash during your stay. It’s also wise to message the host with any questions and concerns prior to booking to set your expectations accordingly. You never know how you might mesh with a host and if you value your privacy like I do, you might opt for a vacant apartment versus a vacant room in someone’s home. No matter your reason or preference for travel, you definitely want to start by being sure the place you choose to book on Airbnb is available during the dates you plan to travel. The built-in calendar on the website comes secondary to your location choice, so unless you choose specific dates, you will get results for all the properties listed in your host city.
2. The lighter you pack, the less overall hassle.
Most airlines will charge you at least $50 for overweight baggage, so unless you don’t mind surprise fees, it’s best to pack light. A good rule of thumb is to pack everything you think you need, then eliminate half of those items. This helps free up space for whatever souvenirs or other items you decide to bring back. If you own a home scale, you might want to weigh your bag before arriving to the airport. If you still find yourself at the airport with a bag that’s a few pounds overweight, you have few options. First, you could always throw away any item(s) you feel comfortable parting with. Also if time permits, you could step to the side and reweigh your bag after you’ve removed items from your bag. Proceeding to add layers of clothes from your suitcase to your body can significantly decrease the weight of your bag. Lastly (and probably the easiest option depending on how your wallet), you could pay whatever the fee is for the extra weight.
3. Meeting and connecting with locals is easier if you learn the local language, or at least try.
If I’m visiting a new city where I don’t know anyone, I like to be creative in the ways I meet people. My most successful tools have been asking locals in person or in apps like Instagram, Tinder and Grindr. Although those last two come with a reputation, there are people who are willing to offer insight or simply meet up with a foreigner in their city. Of course, this involves using your own discretion, filtering through messages and taking precautions before meeting with anyone. It’s wise to be specific about the activities you’re into when approaching people online for suggestions or meetups. I realize, this isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. Sometimes we visit a place for the mere marvel of being there, without the desire to socialize very much. Many Uber, Lyft or taxi drivers can also offer advice on where to go and where not to.
It’s wise to learn to communicate in the local language, or at least try to if it’s different from your own. There’s an idea that travels with some people that they should to be accommodated and everyone should speak English. This is false. I’ve found that no matter how embarrassed I am to speak the local language to locals, they appreciate the effort. Study some basic phrases on your flight. Download your favorite translator app or Duolingo offers free mobile language classes. You may butcher the accent but perfection isn’t the goal –common courtesy is. Be an informed and respectful representative of your country.
4. Don’t be overly cautious but remain aware of your environment at all times.
Part of the thrill of traveling alone is becoming familiar with your new environment on your own terms. But that could also spark a sense of caution that can make or break your trip. It’s true there are bad guys out there looking to take advantage of tourists for whatever reason but there are also good people who are happy to help you discover the city. As a rule of thumb its good to use your mobile device to guide you but be prepared to minimize your distractions while out and about in unfamiliar settings. If there’s wifi where you lodge, research your routes before leaving. Whichever maps app you use should be stored in the background of your phone, showing how to arrive for easy access while roaming the city. The idea is to appear as if you know where you are going but if you are going to use your phone in public, look around you and see what others are doing so you don’t stand out. Head to a coffee shop or some place indoors with free wifi if you need it. Don’t rule out asking patrons for directions or advice, but trust your instinct.
5. Relax and be flexible
One of the beauties of traveling solo is that the only person you are responsible for pleasing is yourself. Plans may go off course – in which case, if you are a serious planner, you probably have a Plan B. Situations inevitably arise that will be out of your control (think: unexpected events, delays and expenses). It’s always good to have a back up plan for those moments, but sometimes the Plan B arrives in the moment that the original plan fails. Don’t be afraid to improvise if you meet an unexpected circumstance and make lemonade if you’re handed lemons.
Jamarr is a communication, cultural studies and professional writing scholar who offers language training, itinerary planning and writing services. He currently calls Cali home, though his journey has led him from North Carolina to Finland, South Africa, Washington DC. You can connect with Jamarr online at The Afro Expat.