Twenty-five years ago today, I was lending in Paris on my first solo trip, which also happened to be my very first trip to Europe!

After at least 15 years of dreaming, working hard, and saving, I was finally making it happen, even if nobody else wanted to come with me. People always find excuses, and I was sick and tired of waiting for them to make up their mind.

I had managed to get three weeks of vacation in a block (not easy in North America) and I was going to visit France, Switzerland, and Italy. I knew some people in France and Switzerland that I was planning to meet, and had booked a tour in Italy, in order to make things less daunting.

Still, I was a bit of a wreck when I settled on that plane for my first trip across the Atlantic!

Plane ticket to Paris, first time travelling solo, 1992!

Receipt from that plane ticket to Paris, first time travelling solo, 1992!

Since then I’ve been on dozens of solo trips, on every continent, and travelling alone seems just as natural as living alone. I’ve grown a lot more confident and resourceful as well, and I know I can take care of problems when they arise.

Just for fun, I tried thinking about some of the things I learned during all those trips. Here is a list of 25 of them (in no particular order).

25 things I learned in 25 years of travelling solo

1. Strangers who are “too friendly” often have ulterior motives

People who approach you on the street out of the blue and start chatting you up like they’re your best friend are rarely good news. Don’t feel bad dumping them. You may have to be a little rude if they don’t get the message.

2. You can communicate a lot more than you think through gestures

Miming goes a long way, even if at time it means you may have to flap your arms like a chicken or pretend to wipe your butt.

3. The first day of a trip is usually the most expensive (and the worst)

Blame this on fatigue, jet lag, and unfamiliarity with the customs and lay of the land. It will only get better from here on.

4. You make friends faster when you’re travelling than at home

Strange but true. It could be the “holiday mood”, the fact that you’re less afraid of being judged when you’re meeting people you may never see again. Or it could be because you instinctively know that you’re more dependent on others in a foreign environment.

Making friends in Boquete, Panama (travelling solo)

Making friends in Boquete, Panama

5. Water (and hot water in particular) is a precious commodity

One of the first things I do upon arriving in a new country is getting bottled water. Even if the tap water is potable, it may take your body a few days to adjust. Finding yourself without drinking water is one of the scariest things. And hot water showers are not guaranteed in tropical countries.

6. If all the meat you see in markets is hanging out in the heat and swarming with flies, you may want to become a temporary vegetarian

This is what I decided to do after arriving in India. Despite everybody’s predictions, I didn’t get sick at all during my three-week stay.

7. In the tropics, even one crumb of food left unattended will attract unwanted visitors

Most people learn this the hard way. Eat over a plate, or even over the sink, if you have to. It’s not worth spending your stay fighting off ants or cockroaches. In hot climates, even upscale properties are not sealed tight, and bugs (sometimes big ones) will come in if they smell food.

8. Always look where you’re stepping

This goes beyond the obvious dog poop as many countries (I’m looking at you Southeast Asia) have gaping holes in the sidewalk, big enough to swallow a person. It’s easy to injure yourself by bumping into things that you don’t expect to find on your path, or misstepping on the uneven ground.

Broken sidewalk in Chiang Rai, Thailand (travelling solo)

Broken sidewalk in Chiang Rai, Thailand

9. Not all organized tours are made equal

On my first packaged trip to Italy, I found myself sharing a bus for 10 days with people old enough to be my grandparents, staying in suburban hotels, and eating hospital food. Not quite what I had in mind.

10. The concept of punctuality is unknown in most of the world

In Japan you can set your watch by the arrival time of your train. Elsewhere, not so much. The hotter the climate, the less punctuality seems to be a “thing”.

11. Many toilets don’t accept toilet paper

This is more common than you may think. Many old plumbing systems, including in parts of Europe, are not built to accept toilet paper. Always check and heed the signs. I have experienced this in Mexico, Cuba, Argentina, Thailand, and even Spain, among others.

12. People lie, all the time

They don’t always lie on purpose (although some do – there are lots of scams out there), but misinformation is rampant in some parts of the world. You will probably get more accurate information from your accommodation or the tourist office, than from a random person on the street. But that’s no guarantee. The solution: check online and ask more than one person.

13. Weird crap happens to you when you’re the most confident and unworried

For a Canadian, England is probably one of the easiest foreign countries to travel through. Yet London is the only city I ever got lost in, and England is the origin of this embarrassing anecdote.

14. Motion sickness is the worst thing ever

Well, maybe being stabbed or shot is worse, but you’re more likely to encounter motion sickness either on a bus, boat, or helicopter. If you’re prone to it, I don’t need to explain this one. Bring your favourite medication. It may be impossible to find overseas.

Cruising the Sans Blas Islands, Panama (travelling solo)

Cruising the Sans Blas Islands, Panama

15. Carrying too much stuff will make you miserable

If you’re solo, carrying more than two bags is unpractical. Having to drag around heavy luggage every time you change destination will get old really quickly (and risk injuring you). Here are my tips for packing light.

16. Serendipity can be a good thing

Some of my most interesting travel adventures have happened when plans got re-arranged at the last minute. Some countries like Sri Lanka, the island of serendipity are especially “good” for this.

17. Learning a bit of the local language goes a long way

Learn at least “hello” and “thank you”, just to be polite. If you expect that English won’t be widely spoken at your destination, also learn how to ask for the bathroom and order food/ask for the bill. Have a dictionary or a translation app readily available on your phone/tablet. (Google translate is good enough.) Even better, take a language class at the destination!

18. If you’re staying for a week or more somewhere, it’s worth renting an apartment or negotiating a discount on your hotel room

It will be cheaper and more comfortable. (Getting a discount may require you paying the whole week in advance, possibly in cash.)

19. You can do a surprising number of things for free (or cheap) in most destinations

Always do a bit of research to find out what you can do for free. Even pricey museums often have a free night. Tourist offices often have booklets with discount coupons for restaurants and attractions. Don’t pay more than you need to. Keep your money for those few top attractions you really want to see.

20. It’s easier to meet people in small guesthouses and hostels than in fancy or chain hotels

People’s sociability seems to be inversely proportional to the price of the accommodation.

Houseboat hostel in Abel Tasman Park, New Zealand (travelling solo)

Congenial houseboat hostel in Abel Tasman Park, New Zealand

21. Always have more than one way of getting at your money. And don’t keep all your cards in the same place

You never know when a bank machine will refuse or even swallow your debit/credit card. If all your cards are in the same wallet, and that gets stolen, you’re in mucho trouble.

22. Develop patience and a sense of humour

You won’t have a long travel career without both.

23. Keep your eyes on stray dogs at all times

One stupid little mongrel almost cost me the trip of a lifetime. Read about this scary story here.

24. Always use the toilet when you have a chance and avoid diuretics food/drinks just before a long bus journey

This includes coffee, fruits, and worse of all, both together! Not all buses have (clean) toilets or make bathroom stops. And the bathroom stop may be a ditch by the side of the road (not the best if you’re a woman).

25. Always recharge your devices when you have power. Don’t forget your adaptors in the wall outlets. Bring more than one adaptor!

Reliable electricity is something we take for granted. But in the developing world, power outages are common and random. And forgetting your only adaptor in a hotel room when you’re travelling with your phone, computer, and camera can be panic-inducing.

Final words and take away

I love solo travel, and although it was a little awkward the first few times, I’m now addicted to the feelings of freedom and independence it gives me.

Rome, Italy, on my first trip travelling solo

In Rome, Italy, on my first solo trip (May 1992)

Two more things I’ve learned over time are that:

  • You always feel so energized after getting out of your comfort zone.
    Doing something for the first time, especially abroad, can be nerve wracking, but you will feel so good afterwards, and your confidence goes up a notch.
  • You’re more resourceful than you think.
    Don’t worry too much thinking about every possible thing that can go wrong before you leave, or you may never leave! Whatever happens, you’ll think of something and solve each problem as it happens.

Giveaway – win a Tilley hat!

Tilley Hikers Hat - giveaway!To celebrate 25 years of travelling solo (the last 10 wearing my Tilley hat), I’m running a giveaway in partnership with Tilley Endurables, offering you the chance to win a Tilley Hiker’s Hat (pictured left), a US$100 (CDN$110) value!  This hat looks amazing, is unisex, and comes in five different colours. If you win, you’ll be able to choose your colour and size to make sure you get the perfect fit.

After you sign-in below, you’ll see a series of actions. Each one gives you several contest entries. Get as many entries as you can. If you’ve always wanted a Tilley hat but were hesitating because of the price, this is your chance! If you’re not sure, you can read my Tilley hat review.

The contest ends May 24 at midnight. (May 24 is the day I returned from my life-changing trip back in 1992.) The winner will be chosen at random and contacted through email.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

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