Moms Need To Get Away | How to Travel Alone Even if You're Scared
I got lost alone on the streets of Barcelona. While visiting my daughter, Ellis, who was studying in the city, I found myself wandering in circles. Ellis had given me directions and I’m still not sure where I took a wrong turn, but after I passed the same intersection three times I began to get a little panicky.
I found a crowded McDonald’s where I could connect to WiFi (which in Spain is pronounced WeeFee) and called Ellis. She managed to figure out where I was and get me to my hotel, being patient with my whiny voice and slightly unhinged tone.
Even during my most confused moments that day, I tried to tell myself I would eventually figure out the whole situation. But by the time I reached my hotel room and called my husband, my nerves were on edge and I began to cry at the sound of his voice, telling him I wasn’t cut out for world travel, I couldn’t do this, I just wanted to be home, and so on and so on.
My younger self had believed I would be a world traveler, but my first trip to Europe at age 51 was proving that dream even more wrong than I had wanted to believe. After getting lost, I was sure I’d never travel abroad again, especially not alone.
But with a couple more days of acclimation and reflection, I had some traveling courage and perspective on how to better manage solo travel, even when it seems scary and daunting.
On my flight home, with my confidence improved, I sketched out this list of suggestions to help you conquer traveling on your own, even if the thought of it scares the pee out of you.
Pick Your Travel Destination Carefully
There are a lot of unknowns when traveling, so choose your destination wisely by answering these two questions. Do you know the language? And have you ever been there before? Answer no to both of those and it might not be the place for you to visit alone if you’re already a nervous traveler.
If you know the language of your destination, you can choose a city you’ve never visited before. Or if you’ve been to the city on a previous trip, you can visit one where you don’t know the language.
But going to a city you don’t know where they speak a language you don’t understand could be too much for someone traveling alone, especially if you’re new at it.
Adventurous world travelers might tell you to just go wherever you want, and maybe eventually you can do that. But don’t compare yourself to those who are experienced at solo travel or who are naturally a braver traveler than you.
If you overload yourself with uncertainty, it can be overwhelming. For example, if you don’t know German and have never been to Berlin, that might not be your best solo travel alone destination. But if you choose London, even if you’ve never been there, you know you’ll be able to ask for directions, get yourself checked into your hotel and order food.
Maybe you want to visit Paris and your French is pretty strong. You’ll be able to get yourself what you need, even if you don’t know the city so go ahead and go to the City of Lights.
Granted, most tourist locations have a large number of hospitality industry workers who speak English, but you can’t count on that. And you don’t want to be “that” American, who assumes your waiter will speak to you in English.
And on that note, learn the words for “hello, please, thank you,” and “excuse me” in the language of the country you’re visiting. Just having these few pleasantries available to you will go a long way in getting you what you need.
Ultimately, it’s your call where you want to visit, but when traveling alone, make sure you don’t overwhelm yourself and end up not enjoying your trip. There’s plenty of time for more adventurous destinations after you’ve gotten your solo travel chops up.
Prearrange transportation from the airport to your hotel
Landing in a foreign airport after a long overseas flight with the jet lag and fatigue that entails is not the time to try to figure out a metro or bus system to get to your hotel.
If you book through Expedia, there are opportunities to add on a shuttle to and from the airport. Even though this is more expensive than public transportation, the peace of mind and ease of use is well worth it.
I used a shuttle service on my trip to Barcelona and I would highly recommend it. My experience was exceptionally good, but do some reading of reviews and find a shuttle provider that takes care of this part of your trip for you. One less thing to worry about is pretty important when you’re traveling alone and nervous.
Choose a hotel near your desired sights
I’m a budget traveler, but spending a little more to be near the things I want to do and see is something I would highly recommend to my future traveling self if I go somewhere alone. Travel time is precious so don’t waste it on getting to and from the places you want to see, especially if this part of travel makes you uncomfortable.
Of course, not everything you want to see will all be close together, but if you can center yourself within walking distance of at least one or two places, you’ll be able to enjoy a walk through the city, stopping at cafes, coffee shops or boutiques along the way.
And if you choose a hotel near lots of restaurant choices, you can stroll around the area looking for just the place to try for your meals.
Print or buy a map before you go
Had I had a paper map instead of depending on my phone, I would have been able to find my way back to my hotel in Barcelona instead of wandering around lost. Mark your hotel on the map and write notes on it of landmarks and streets you walked.
This suggestion would have been a “no brainer” before smartphones, but we often find ourselves at the mercy of technology and it doesn’t always work out for us. We are so used to having it work for us, we don’t plan for a life without it.
So yes, you can take screen shots on your phone of maps, but what if you’re lost and your phone’s battery runs out? Be prepared with paper.
So do a little research on the streets around where you’ll be and have that map handy to save yourself some stress and, yes, fear.
Don’t be too cool to eat at chains
I know, I know, what traveler worth their weight in Euros wants to go to Starbucks for their coffee in Spain? Um, not me, but I did. My daughter took me to a real Spanish coffee shop as my first destination to get some caffeine after my flight and I also went to another one on my own a few days later.
But on the first day when I had some time by myself, I was strolling La Rambla and there was a Starbucks. I was just getting my footing in Barcelona and being able to walk in and order something familiar gave me a little boost of confidence. I sat outside at the “terraza” and enjoyed a morning of watching people leave Easter mass or walking their dogs along this famous boulevard. Taking this baby step by myself gave me the courage to go to a Spanish coffee shop the next morning for cafe con leche and a bocadillo.
So don’t be too cool for something that suits your needs.
You will also see local chains that have multiple locations, often designed for tourists. Yes, it might be more authentic to go to independent restaurants, but if you need food and you’re nervous about knowing what you’re doing in a restaurant, these chains that cater to tourists are a great option. Again, they’ll give you a little boost of courage to try something more adventurous for your next meal.
And one quick note about dining out. Do a quick Google of restaurant etiquette for your visit. For example, in Spain, you have to ask for the bill. They don’t automatically bring it to you like they do in the States. My daughter knew this and let me know I needed to ask for “la cuenta, por favor” or I might still be sitting at the terrazas waiting for my bill. If you have a little bit of information on this, you’ll save yourself stress and embarrassment.
Book a tourist bus city tour for your first day
More advanced solo travelers may tell you to skip these overpriced, tourist traps. But they are actually a great way to get an overview of the city and learn some historical facts along the way. Many of these buses have a “hop on, hop off” option so you can wander around a portion of the city you’re interested in and then get back on another bus later.
Again, with more experience you may decide this type of group travel is not what you want when you travel. But for a beginning solo traveler in a new city, it’s a quick overview of where you are and what you might want to see and do.
Organize your purse for convenience and safety during travel
Choose your purse carefully before you go. I recommend using your purse for a couple of weeks before you go so you know quickly where all the pockets and zippers are and you know what you’re keeping where.
Put items in the same place each time, so you always know where your passport, money or phone are. I never had to dig for anything on my trip and was able to quickly and discreetly get to important items because I always knew where I had put them in my purse. (Now if I’ll just keep that same habit here at home, it will save me a lot of stress).
Research as much as you can about the city before you go
Part of the fun of travel is the unknown, but when you’re traveling alone this can be what makes it the most scary. Knowledge is power, so gain as much information as you can before you go to increase your comfort level on your trip.
After you’ve become more confident traveling alone, then you can leave more things to chance and explore the city with completely fresh eyes. But if you’re on your first trip alone or if it’s just something you have to make yourself do in spite of your anxiety, the more you know the less you’ll fear.
I learned so much from travel time alone. Even though my daughter was with me for a large portion of my trip, I had to get to and from Barcelona and around the town several hours on my own. The information I gained will help me be much better prepared for any future trips I might take.
And don’t be embarrassed if you’re nervous about traveling by yourself. There’s a reason most people don’t do it. It’s intimidating and can be downright scary at times, especially for women.
But as is the case with most travel experiences, the risk is what makes the reward even greater. Don’t let that fear win.
Put on your big girl panties and go, even if it scares the pee out of you.