Hiking in Kings Canyon in the Northern Territory, Australia

13 Lessons I’ve Learnt from Travelling Solo

by Nicole on October 18, 2012

At home I am a fiercely independent woman – I don’t go to the bathroom with a group of girls and I am happy to eat at a restaurant alone – and this has translated into the way I travel. As much as I try to deny it because of the stigma attached to it I am a solo female traveller, and that’s just the way I like it.

Spending June through August in Europe was the first time that I’d ever travelled with anyone with mixed results; but this time also meant that I had time to reflect on what it meant to be a solo traveller and the lessons I had learnt from both sides of the mix.

1. The first step is always the hardest

My Mum walked me to the gate, the first time a family member had ever gone to a gate with me; She gave me a kiss and wrapped me in a hug.

“Come on Mum, don’t cry. I’m only gone for three-months… or maybe two-years!” I laughed, flashed her a smile and gave her another hug before walking down the gangway waving.

It wasn’t until I was sitting on the plane that I stared out the window back towards Adelaide Airport, thick tears welling up in my eyes, wanting nothing more than to race off that plane to find my Mum and take her for a coffee and laugh about my plans to work at a summer camp or live in the UK.

For me, planning my overseas adventures were easy. I’d saved, signed, and been accepted almost before I could stop and reflect on what I was actually doing. Having lived interstate for 8-months meant that I was used to getting on a plane and flying, but it was the flying to somewhere which wasn’t a quick phone call away or an hour flight home that scared me – it was the thought that I was leaving and that perhaps my family and friends would forget about me and leave me behind when I returned because I’d disappeared for so long.

If you want to cry, do it. Get it out of your system but then remember that tomorrow you’ll be waking up in a new city, perhaps even a new country – and it’s just the first step to conquering your fears and taking on the world.

Claypot restaurant in Hong Kong's Mong Kok

2. Eating ‘foreign’ food won’t kill me

I’m going to make a confession. For the first 20-years of my life when visiting Hong Kong I had never eaten Chinese food – well, I tried once but there was caviar in the rice so I stuck with the steamed broccoli and carrots because I knew they were ‘safe’. The funny thing is, is that in Australia I eat Chinese takeaway once a week.

It was the fear of the unknown, the fear that it’d taste different or that they’d slip in something I didn’t like and I would eat it without knowing. The fear that it would taste funny, make me feel funny or I’d be sick from eating it. It was just a whole lot of fear that I needed to conquer.

So I walked through Mong Kok to a place where the tourists wouldn’t normally visit, the most crowded place so I knew that the locals thought it was good and I’d get something authentic, and I ordered a clay pot in broken Cantonese because no one knew English there – and the meal they put in front of me was delicious.

Tapas which has looked like it was from yester-year in Spain, I ate it; sushi, despite being worried about mercury poisoning and never eating seafood, was consumed in Japan; and one kinda nasty hot dog in Denver, Colorado have been added to the list – and that’s just a few of the items. These foods haven’t killed me, they haven’t made me sick, and I didn’t die because I tried – I did it, I conquered my fear of food one mouthful at a time.

3. Sometimes over-preparing leaves you unprepared

Thinking that I was going away for up to two-years meant that I tried to pack my entire wardrobe into a suitcase. Thankfully, though it was deemed unfortunate at the time, because I was flying standby I wasn’t guaranteed to get a seat on the first international flight – it actually took me three-days to get on a plane and each night it meant that I had to take the hour flight back to Adelaide because it was cheaper than staying in a Melbourne hotel.

After unpacking and repacking each night my bag was still heavy – I replaced most of the bag with more appropriate things like a light rain jacket or a pair of sneakers to save buying a pair in America. I still had too much ‘stuff’ that summer – I send a 3-kg box back to Australia from camp which is still sitting in my bedroom unpacked two-years later – but it meant that I was better prepared with the items I did choose to take with time to think just a little more practically.

Dylan Lowe from the Travelling Editor cooking dinner for me in 2010

4. Not all people you talk to on the Interwebs are scary

We’d arranged to meet and go to the Eid festival in London but he’d decided to take me to his favourite coffee shop in the back streets on London’s Soho. Winding our way through the narrow streets, sex shops, and abandoned buildings I began to freak out; perhaps I should have listened to my parents words of “Don’t talk to strangers” as my fight-or-flight instincts kicked in.

Turns out Flat White is a real coffee shop in London and the guy wasn’t trying to kill me, and two-years on Dylan is now my best friend.

I took a risk and, although I’m still hesitant, some of the best people in my life have been people who I’ve connected with over the Internet – both bloggers and otherwise; But be sure to take a phone and tell someone where you are going if you decide to meet them, just in case.

5. You have to make your own decisions

I am the most indecisive person in groups. I’m a people pleaser and I have massive FOMO – for you non-Gen Y’s that’s ‘Fear Of Missing Out – and that made travelling hard, at least in the beginning it did.
It didn’t take long for me to relish the freedom of making my own decisions. I didn’t have to wake up at 7am to see that god awful piece of art, I didn’t have to see the fish markets and when I wanted to visit the vintage fashion markets. It even meant that I got to spend the day parasailing, snorkelling and walking around Key West, Florida instead of tanning and throwing-up on a glass bottom boat like some of the people I was travelling alongside.

I’m still a bit of a wallflower but I’m much more receptive of new people and willing to talk. So if I ever meet you I’m sorry if I seem a little distant, but introduce yourself and then I’m sure you won’t get me to stop talking!

Tim Ho Wan in Hong Kong's Pork Bun

6. Travelling solo has its upsides…

Continuing on the theme of food in Hong Kong, travelling solo has had its upsides. Lining up at Tim Ho Wan, the world’s cheapest Michelin starred restaurant, I was expecting a wait time of 2-3 hours as predicted in an article I had read in Australia. Prepared with a book and a movie to watch on my iPad I sat on the pavement.

“Number 48″

I checked my ticket absentmindedly.

“Number 48 – Ni-Cool”

I checked my ticket again – I was number 48! Waving the ticket the old woman looked at me expecting me to follow her into the restaurant as she pointed to a spare seat with three other young people.

Turns out that Tim Ho Wan is all for communal dining and getting as many bums on seat as possible, and being the solo traveller meant that I was able to fill in the gap more easily than a couple or bigger group.

It’s just one of the advantages I’ve had whilst travelling. I’ve also been granted a number of upgrades, most commonly in hostels from a dorm bed to a private room; gotten within two metres of the stage at the Muse concert in Wembly Stadium, and met some fantastic people in the process.

Eiffel Tower in Paris, France

7. …it also has it’s downsides

Spending time in Paris, whether it was time in my Parisian apartment or walking through Montmartre, I felt that something was missing. Watching couples holding hands or taking photos of each other with the Eiffel Tower left me feeling that something was missing – a lover or even just a friend.

Travelling solo can be a lonely business. It not only means that you have to suffer through taking selfies instead of having someone else line the camera up just right, but you are the person eating alone at dinner. It means that if you want to stay in a hotel the costs can’t be split, and it means that you have to finish that bottle of cheap French champagne you bought – uhrm wait a second, that’s in the wrong column…
For me, my travel schedule of three-months in Melbourne and then three-months in Australia makes it difficult to hold down a relationship because, well it seems that most men like a little bit of stability (that or knowing they can just ring you up for sex.)

8. Money matters, but it’s not the end of the world

Before travelling the world I believed that having money was the most important thing in the world, and I’m ashamed to admit it now that I can reflect back. I firmly believed that I had to go to university and then get a high paying job for me to find happiness.

Fast-forward to today and my perceptions on money have drastically changes. I believe life is about finding your passion, doing what you love, and you don’t need piles of money, just enough to be comfortable.

The perception change occurred when I was homeless in London. I had to rely on the kindness of an almost-stranger to let me sleep on their couch, I ate one meal a day, and worked a job I hated; all a million miles away from the warm summer and my cushy lifestyle in Australia. I didn’t have ‘stuff’ like I normally did nor could I couldn’t go shopping to ease the pain; it was me, my notebook, a lot of tears and a few new-found friends, only one of which knew the situation I was in, who helped through this time and ultimately have a better outlook towards money and life.

I’m not a broke-backpacker and I still like to indulge in a little bit of luxury but money can’t buy happiness and experiences. Having no money is not the end of the world.

9. Go with your gut and the Police are your friends

I had a funny feeling from the time I got off the train I got off the train, but I associated it with the thoughts that in just a few days I’d be meeting up with the guy from my summer camp romance.

Our train had arrived in Belfast just before midnight, well behind schedule, and as the taxi drove me through the streets of Belfast for some reason I was longing to be nestled within one of the comfy big chain hotels whose neon signs I could see gleaming – I should have listened to my gut instinct that something was going to happen.

Pulling up at the hostel the taxi had already left by the time that I’d realised that I was locked out of the hostel and had no credit left on my UK SIM card. This is when the creeper appeared and made some sexually lewd remarks about a part of a body that is below the belt and all my anger about the night got he best of me.

Having not been in a situation like this before I didn’t know what to do and my anger got the best of me as I switched off International mode on my Australia phone, that I take with me anywhere I travel, and began chewing through data looking for the number of the police station.
Two-hours, two police car rides, a statement, a phone call to my Mum asking her to find me somewhere to sleep and a night tour of Belfast, with police sirens on, through the eyes of its local law enforcement and I was safely tucked up in bed at the Raddison Blu Belfast and had a new-found sense of just how strong and street-smart I could be… outburst aside.

Nicole Jeannie Oneika and Nicole - Girls Running with Bulls in Pamplona Spain

10. Choose carefully who you travel with

Sometimes being a solo traveller can drive you mad and you long for companionship on the road. That’s where the handy-dandy travel partner becomes useful, though choosing the wrong partner can render you frustrated and driving 100+ miles an hour to the nearest airport, true story!

I’m privileged to have had three of the best travel experiences. The first being with the girls I met whilst working at summer camp when we road tripped to Florida and just recently reunited to drive the Great Ocean Road; the second being with the girls from Girls Running with Bulls, and the third being with my best friend, Dylan, who has travelled with me across six countries and we still haven’t killed each other yet.

I have had one bad travel partner experience and from that I say choose your travel partners wisely. Choose people you know and not people who you’ve only recently met.

11. Where Wales is (aka:  navigation skills)

I am a woman. I read a map by angling it so that the street I am on is in line with the way it is shown on the map, but I’ve gotten better!

On my first solo trip around the world I was taking a train from London to Holyhead to get on a ferry to Dublin. At the summer camp I’d worked at one of my best friends lived in Bangor, Wales, so I thought it was a happy coincidence that the train I was on was whizzing through a town called ‘Bangor’, and so I messaged her only to get the following reply;

“You idiot. You’re in Wales!”

Yes, I had learnt my geography well in High School because I thought that Wales was up North nestled snuggly next to Scotland. I knew that there was a reason why I liked history better…

My navigation skills have improved somewhat – I have a feeling that’s through the huge amount of data I spend on using Google Maps – but I have also had a frame of mind change after this. Not knowing where I was or being lost has become part of the fun of travel, when before it was a panic inducing event which rendered me losing my mind.

I’ve also learnt that there are places outside of London! Who’d have thought…

12. Don’t worry if you’re scared

When I headed to Japan for the first time I was so excited to be meeting my friends in Kyoto – but I had a long weekend in Tokyo to navigate first. Europe was easy – I speak basic French and Italian, as well as have some knowledge of German – and Hong Kong and the areas of China I have travelled to are a breeze because they are special economic zones and have a high rate of basic English speakers. But I’d never learnt Japanese and the foreign characters and lack of signage in English, as well as not being able to find anyone who spoke English, set me into having a mini panic attack – and so I hid.

I spent the majority of the days hiding out in my hotel room, only venturing out once when I realised that I might not ever have the chance to be in Japan again. So I found a way to combat the scardy cat within.

I used Google to map out two locations I wanted to see – Shibuya and Harajuku- and wrote exact instructions on how to get there; and then I followed them. I took the train the wrong way, and had to guess where I was going when in Harajuku but I managed to navigate my way through Tokyo by myself and even buy a few knick-knacks and order dinner.

I conquered my fear of getting lost due to a language barrier and by the end of the week in Kyoto I could say a few little phrases which made all the Japanese friends I ran into smile.

Hiking Kings Canyon in the Northern Territory, Australia

13. I CAN do anything

I have run with the bulls and been homeless in London; I have broken down language barriers and climbed mountains; I have survived a summer in America and driven almost 200km/h on the ‘wrong side’ of the road; I have proven that I have street smarts, developed money skills, developed lasting friendships and I’d like to think that I’ve created a kick-ass blog in the process which is only going to be improved on over time. If I can do any of these things I firmly believe that you can do it too.
So find something you want to do – something that has you have doubts about but want to do – and find a way to make it a reality! Kick down that wall and prove that yes, you can do anything!

What have you learnt from travelling solo?

{ 32 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Nomadic Chick October 18, 2012 at 12:03 am

Oh love that pic of us! I had the best time with you girls even in the midst of all that madness. Hugs and stuff!

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2 Nicole October 18, 2012 at 12:38 am

Dave did a good job taking the photo, didn’t he? :)

Hope we can have some more adventures on the road soon Jeannie! xox.

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3 Simon October 18, 2012 at 6:05 am

I enjoyed the read so much, Nicole! I have been traveling solo for such a long time that I had forgotten a few of the truth you tell so well.
The most important one, though, is your last lesson: I can do anything!
Once you tried, you get to know it. And the world of travel becomes so much more awesome.

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4 Nicole November 3, 2012 at 8:05 pm

So true, Simon. Anyone can do anything if they set their mind to it and it’s that knowledge that helps you on your journey!

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5 jenny@atasteoftravel October 18, 2012 at 8:06 am

A great post Nicole. I agree with you- solo travel is so empowering. I haven’t done too much solo travelling but I can remember the fears of the first trip followed by the confidence and pride of having mastered those fears after a few weeks. Everyone should try it once!

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6 Nicole November 3, 2012 at 8:06 pm

I agree with you Jenny! Solo travel is most certainly something everyone should try one. :)

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7 Sammi October 18, 2012 at 9:25 am

Hey Nicole,

Well I am new to this travel malarky, and blogs like yours are really helping me learn how to get by. But I love being a female solo traveler. There are, of course, things I am so glad for people like Busabout for- I just did Oktoberfest with them and it was the best thing I have ever done- but when I first went to Amsterdam, alone, I loved it! I can’t imagine traveling in another way!

Xx

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8 Nicole November 3, 2012 at 8:07 pm

Group tours are a great option for solo travels. Give you a chance to travel outside of your comfort zone but still in safety and comfort… the new friends you meet are a perk as well! :)

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9 Hayley October 18, 2012 at 11:54 am

Step 1 resonates with me the most. I always have a cry when I leave my mum, but once I am in a new city walking around discovering new things I can’t wipe the smile off my face :) x

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10 Nicole November 3, 2012 at 8:04 pm

So true, Hayley! It’s hard but sometimes you’ve got to do it to make those memories. =)

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11 Lindsey October 18, 2012 at 12:26 pm

:) Excellent post! I love that I can relate to so much of this. Solo travel empowerment for the win :)

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12 Nicole November 3, 2012 at 8:03 pm

Woohoo! Solo travel is definitely for the win :)

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13 John the Adventurer October 19, 2012 at 11:06 pm

#13 is the best advice. You must be very brave :)

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14 Nicole November 3, 2012 at 7:57 pm

I like number 13 as well but it’s applicable to everyone =)

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15 Ricado October 20, 2012 at 2:06 am

Hi Nicole. Excellent blog. I found it searching information to made an article about travel tips. Best Regards,
Ricardo

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16 Stephen Schreck October 22, 2012 at 1:26 pm

I mostly travel solo for extend amounts of time. It does have it’s up and down but in the end I prefer it. You meet more people, learn more about yourself, and become a stronger person. I think a key to be a good solo traveler is knowing how to entertain yourself, when you have hours before a layover or a bus.

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17 Nicole November 3, 2012 at 8:02 pm

Agree with you on everything, Stephen!
Even solo travelling for a short period of time is a great chance to learn more about yourself and helps you to get out of your comfort zone and into the culture of the place you’re visiting.

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18 Ruth (Tanama Tales) November 3, 2012 at 6:37 am

I learned many of the same experiences when I used to travel alone (specially 8, 9 and 10). I haven’t traveled alone since I got married. It would be interesting to see what lessons I can learn from becoming a solo traveler again (you know, going on a trip by my self not that I am getting divorced or anything).

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19 Nicole November 3, 2012 at 7:52 pm

It’s always good to take some time to inwardly reflect on yourself whether it be at home or whilst travelling. =)
I’d love to hear what you learn about yourself if you do ever take a trip without your husband.

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20 Johanna @ The Zigazag Mag November 3, 2012 at 8:36 pm

Great post, Nicole and I love the little insider ‘bits and bobs’. I travelled solo when I was much younger and can relate to quite a lot of what you say, and it brought back lots of good memories too :)

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21 Brian's Coffee Spot November 4, 2012 at 3:49 am

Beautifully-written piece, Nicole. I’ve always been a solo traveller, though my trips tend to last a couple of weeks at most, rather than months!

Point 8 was the one that resonated most with me; I gave up the nine to five job five years ago to make more time for the important things in life, including travelling and, more recently, starting my own blog.

Sadly you need some money to travel, otherwise I’d be off far more often than I currently manage, but it saddens me when I see so many people working so hard to earn money, but then having no time to spend it or enjoy life. The obsession with having money and the fear of not having money blight so much of modern life.

The one big downside of travelling alone for me is eating alone. That’s the one time I wish I had company.

Loving the blog,
Brian.

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22 NaEun Park November 13, 2012 at 5:39 am

This is so great. I love this. Exactly what I needed to hear prepping for my solo travel coming February! Hopefully I’ll see you on the road? I’m ending up in Australia eventually too :)

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23 Nicole November 14, 2012 at 8:05 pm

Wow, that’s super exciting! Not long to wait now. =)
For sure! Just let me know when you are in Australia or London – I’ll be bumming around somewhere in between.
Look forward to hearing more of your travel plans!

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24 Chris November 19, 2012 at 8:30 pm

I love solo travel!
But that’s always a lie really, the biggest thing I’ve found about solo travel is you never really travel alone…you meet heaps of people and always share the adventure!

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25 1258miles December 4, 2012 at 12:57 am

Great stuff you’ve got here!

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26 Nicole December 4, 2012 at 4:05 am

Thanks for reading and commenting! =)

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27 Christine |GRRRL TRAVELER February 16, 2013 at 3:38 pm

Nice post! I was surprised about Hong Kong’s communal dining system too recently and then, I just had to laugh. It’s fun. Second, yeah, the money thing… totally agree with you there. My perspective of money & what I need in life are currently making me rethink a lot in my life.

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28 Revati Victor February 21, 2013 at 11:21 pm

What a fabulous read. Damn. Must get out and travel sans husband some time. (PS: Thank you for making me jealous jealous jealous!)

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29 Nicole February 22, 2013 at 6:12 pm

Thank you for commenting, Revati!
Hope you get to get out and explore sans the husband sometime :)

(PS: you have a wonderful blog!)

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30 Julie May 7, 2013 at 8:00 am

Hey Nicole,

This is my first time visiting your blog, and I just wanted to express that you are very brave! I have always waited to travel and be super adventurous, but never really had the time or courage to do so, especially alone. After founding out about your blog, I find you so inspiring and it really motivate me to explore and learn more about our world! After all, we only live once right- so might as well as be audacious!

Looking forward in hearing about your next adventure!
-Julie

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31 Genevieve June 8, 2013 at 4:14 pm

Love this post!

I agree that it can be lonely – I remember one time sitting in front of the Notre Dame and I did feel that sometimes a place can lose a lot of meaning without someone to share it with, or reminisce about it with later, but it’s such a great opportunity to make new friends! I have some of the most amazing friends from all over Australia and the rest of the world, so it’s definitely worth boarding that plane by yourself!

I’ve learnt also to be braver – I think when you are 100% by yourself you just get in there and figure it out, you become quicker to reach out to people and ask for help when you need it too – it’s a nice surprise how lovely and helpful ( especially the French! ) can be!

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32 Matthew Fine March 12, 2014 at 5:53 am

Great list! I have been fortunate enough to travel, but have never taken the leap to solo traveling. I think your post might have just pushed me over the edge.

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