An expert's guide to travelling solo
Put off by the prospect of travelling alone? Ute Junker has been doing it for two decades. Here are her tried and tested survival strategies.
Most things in life get easier as we get older. Travelling by yourself, it seems, is not one of them. Your average gap-year backpacker has no qualms about setting off on their own. They know that, wherever they go, they will become instant best friends with at least some of the eight people in their dormitory, and are happy to change their next destination from Switzerland to Spain because someone they met yesterday is heading in that direction.
For older travellers, the idea of a solo adventure can be more daunting. There's the stress of having to look after everything yourself, the thought of eating every meal alone and perhaps the greatest fear of all - the fear of loneliness.
What many people forget is that solo travel has many upsides.
Not only can you have the holiday that suits you - no compromising on hotels, or restaurants, or anything at all - in many ways, it's actually less stressful than travelling with someone else.
On my first solo adventure, I seemed to be permanently surrounded by happy holidaying twosomes. Some were couples, some were friends, but all of them seemed to be having a ball, snapping photos, making plans for the afternoon, while I sat by myself with only a cold drink and my guidebook for company.
I've had 20 years of solo travel since then - everywhere from Ethiopia to Patagonia, Poland to Jordan - and the couples haven't disappeared. What I have realised over the years, however, is that they are not always happy.
Sometimes one of them wants to linger over a coffee, while the other wants to tour the castle before lunch, so they can fit in two museums that afternoon. Sometimes one is still grumpy because the other person overslept and they missed the express train. A lot of the time, one of them knows they are lost, while the other insists they aren't.
It isn't the couples that have changed, of course; it's me. Over the years, I have learned to relish travelling by myself.
I have made new friends and had adventures that never would have happened if I'd been with someone else.
And I never have to fit in with someone else's schedule.
Yes, travelling by yourself is daunting if you've never done it before - but don't let that stop you.
Just use some of the tips and techniques I've learned over the years to help make the experience easier and more enjoyable.
MAKE IT YOUR PERFECT TRIP
Let's face facts: not every trip is suitable for solo travellers.
If you've always dreamed of exploring the Venetian canals in a gondola with your lover, any trip you take there by yourself is going to be a disappointment. So put that one on the backburner, and choose somewhere more solo-friendly.
Once you've selected your destination, don't limit yourself to the big-ticket attractions. Explore the stuff that appeals to you.
Maybe you want to visit every model train store in Barcelona, or every graveyard in Paris, or try out every gelato store in Rome. Go right ahead - it's your holiday.
KNOW WHAT YOU'RE DOING
The one time that travelling solo is a downer is when things go wrong.
When you've missed the only train to your next destination, or been ripped off by a taxi driver, or gotten lost in a dodgy part of town, that's when you miss having someone to share the pain. So avoid the dramas in the first place.
Before you head off, research everything - that's what the internet is for. Book your hotels in advance, so you're not trudging through the twilight looking for somewhere that doesn't blow your budget. Know whether the cabbie should have the meter on, or roughly what the fare should be.
Arrive half an hour early for every train, plane or boat ride. When you're not sweating the small stuff, you can concentrate on the things that are actually fun.
Once you arrive, try to get your bearings as soon as possible.
The first thing I do when I land in a new city is to go for a walk. Once you have a rough idea of where things are, you'll feel more confident exploring different areas.
DO SOME MEAL PLANNING
One thing that seems to challenge people more than any other is dining on your own. If you're one of the many people daunted by this prospect, start thinking about creative ways to cope.
For instance, if you're travelling in Europe, consider making lunch your main meal and having just a sandwich in the evenings.
Lunch in a buzzy cafe by yourself is a far more appealing prospect than sitting down to an evening meal in a restaurant full of families and couples. I often see solo diners spend the entire meal focused on their phone or their book, but I don't recommend it.
If you're putting all your energy inward, you'll miss out on all sorts of opportunities. I always have my notebook with me, but spend plenty of time gazing around the room, checking out other diners or just reflecting on what I've experienced that day. It's a technique that makes you much more approachable - you would be surprised how often people at the next table will strike up a spontaneous conversation, or even invite you to join them.
I have two golden rules for solo dining. One, don't let the waiters stick you in the dark corner table just because you're by yourself. When this happens, I say pleasantly but firmly, "I'd rather sit at that table, thank you", and pick one with a better view. I've never yet been turned down.
Second, if you're desperate for social interaction and have a bit of spare cash, book for dinner at the poshest restaurant you can afford. The more expensive the restaurant, the more the staff will look after you. It can be a real pick-me-up if you're having a lonely moment.
KEEP TO YOUR COMFORT ZONE...
The more fun you're having, the less time you'll spend thinking about the fact that there's no one to share it with. So avoid things that stress you, and go for the things you love, particularly if it's your first time by yourself.
If you get flustered by foreign languages, choose a destination with lots of English speakers. If you get distressed by poverty, stick with developed countries. If any day in the mountains is a good day, choose a range - the Alps or the Andes - and off you go.
...BUT STEP OUTSIDE IT AT LEAST ONCE
That said, it's the challenges you overcome that will remain with you long after your holiday is over.
Schedule at least one activity that seems a bit daunting - whether it's a no-holds-barred hamam (Turkish bath) experience in Istanbul or a canopy walk in the Malaysian jungle.
You may get butterflies beforehand but I promise, it will be one of the highlights of the trip.
LEARN YOUR LINES
Learning some key phrases in the local language is always a good idea.
In some countries, however, you may need to have a few extra lines up your sleeve, especially if you're a female travelling solo. From Istanbul to India, pushy merchants love to pounce on solo women - when they catch you unaware, it can be hard to talk your way out of it. So have some lines prepared in advance.
I deflect insistent vendors by saying, "I'm sorry, I can't buy anything because my husband's not with me". It may go against the grain of every independent woman, but it's the quickest way of getting them to back off. My non-existent husband has helped me out of other sticky situations, too.
More than one man blocking my path has moved out of the way when I've said, "Excuse me, but can I get past? I'm meeting my husband and I'm running late".
SHARE THE EXPERIENCE
One of the joys of travelling with others is that you will always have someone to reminisce with. That doesn't happen when you're by yourself, so take plenty of shots to remind yourself of trip highlights.
They don't have to be of particular sights. If you find yourself walking down an ordinary street on a sunny morning, feeling happy to be alive, take a shot to remind yourself of the moment.
Rather than posting 20 shots a day on Facebook, when I have a particularly memorable experience, I dash off a quick email to a friend who I know will get it. Their response becomes part of the experience.
Having said that, however, don't get caught in the trap of trying to capture everything on social media. Enjoy being in the moment.
By which I mean pack light. You're going to be dragging your bag around by yourself: why make it harder than it needs to be?
If you do need to pack bulky items such as winter gear, consider taking two small bags instead of one larger one.
It's easier in all kinds of ways, not least at the train station if you need to use the toilet. Smaller bags will also fit beside you on the back seat of a taxi, instead of being stored in the boot.
If you do end up with a taxi driver who tries to rip you off, you suddenly have a huge advantage.
Luggage in the boot is a hostage. Luggage at hand means you can pay him what's fair, grab your bags and go.
GET GOING EARLY
Even if you're usually a night owl, consider resetting your body clock.
Chances are you won't feel like staying out all night drinking or dancing by yourself. Instead, start the day early, with a pre-breakfast walk: watching a city wake up is always fascinating.
By the time you have returned to the hotel and had breakfast, the attractions will be opening. Finish your day of exploring with dinner, a few emails or a few pages of your book, and you'll be ready for bed.
BE ALERT, NOT ALARMED
You know which tourists get hassled the most? The ones who look uncertain and lost. If you're looking calm and confident, you'll generally be left alone. Common sense will take you a long way.
If you're heading out for a day exploring and you really are worried about straying off the beaten path, ask at your hotel whether there are any areas to avoid. Usually, however, your instincts will tell you if you have strayed into an area that's perhaps not where you want to be.
Stay calm - just retrace your steps and you'll be fine.
If you find yourself facing unwelcome attention - or perhaps a man with wandering hands - draw attention to it. Loudly telling someone to stop usually has the desired effect - it's worked for me everywhere from India to Iran.
As for money belts, I have never used one. When I'm in a foreign city, I carry the same sort of handbag I would at home, one with a secure fastening. I leave everything in the hotel safe except what I need for the day, and (touch wood) I have never had a bad experience.
The single best way to avoid unwelcome attention - from anyone who targets tourists, which includes touts as well as thieves - is not to look like a tourist. In a foreign city, I wear pretty much what I'd wear at home, occasionally adjusted to reflect local sensibilities.
GIVE YOURSELF A BREAK
If you're worried about spending too much time on your own, consider adding walking tours to your itinerary. They give you expert insight into a destination, and provide a couple of hours' conversation with interesting people. It will brighten up your day.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Ute Junker has been travelling internationally since she was six years old, and relishes the insights travel gives into being human.
Destinations for first-time soloists:
ENGLAND AND SCOTLAND Could it be easier? They speak the same language (sort of), they eat much of the same food, they drive on the same side of the road. Bonus points to Glasgow for being one of the friendliest cities on earth. If you leave without making new friends, you're really not trying.
NEW YORK Scientists have conclusively proven it is impossible to get bored in New York. Explore a different area each day - uptown, downtown, Brooklyn, Chinatown, wherever - and you'll discover one highlight after another.
GERMANY It's clean, it's safe, the trains run on time, most of the locals speak better English than you do - but that's not what makes Germany one of the world's most underrated travel destinations. Gorgeous mediaeval towns, soaring alps and scenic lakes, big cities both buzzing and baroque. The superb rail connections are a bonus.
BRAZIL Brazilians love to show off their country to visitors, and with so much to enjoy, this is a top choice. If you want to cram in all the heavy-hitters, such as the Amazon, the Pantanal and Salvador, you will need to invest in some plane tickets. If you're staying closer to the big cities, destinations such as Paraty and Buzios can be reached by bus. In smaller towns, there may not be that many English speakers, so have some Portuguese phrases up your sleeve.
VIETNAM Vietnam ticks just about every box for solo travellers - it's cheap, safe and there's plenty to see and do. The scariest thing is the Saigon traffic, so once you have mastered the technique - just start walking at a regular pace and they will stop, promise - you will be fine.
Where going solo can be a no-no
INDIA I've written before about my experiences travelling solo in India, which were overwhelmingly positive. Women travelling by themselves will be surprised at how protective many local men are - it's the same in the Middle East. What many travellers find challenging, however, is the extremes of rich and poor on display - and that's harder to process when you're on your own.
PERU There is much to love about Peru, from Incan ruins to the Amazon. However, many of the country's most memorable experiences - from exploring Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley, to hiking the Colca Canyon - are more enjoyable with a friend.
PAPUA NEW GUINEA On my first stay in Port Moresby, ready for my morning walk, I asked the hotel staff how far I was safe to walk on my own. "You can't leave the hotel by yourself!" they exclaimed, horror-struck. Port Moresby, it must be said, is not a place for solo adventures. However, other towns such as Madang and Tufi are perfectly lovely.
CHINA In some ways, China is a great country for solo travellers. Not only is it safe, but you are likely to be approached by Chinese students wanting to practise their English, so lack of social interaction isn't a problem. However, the big cities can be tiring - the traffic, the pollution, the sheer mass of people. Not a great choice if you are prone to culture-shock.
TAHITI One word for you - honeymooners. Tahiti, along with the Maldives, is the modern equivalent of Noah's ark, a place where everyone arrives two-by-two. No matter how desperate you are for a scenic beach holiday - and both destinations are exquisite - for your sanity's sake, choose somewhere else.