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How to get started traveling alone

by Staff

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Boarding the plane to head to another country alone is often an emotional experience – there’s the excitement, the anxiety, the anticipation.

It can also be totally nerve-wracking.

When Angie Orth made the bold choice to leave her job and embark on a solo year-long journey around the world in 2011, her friends and family cautioned her about safety concerns. “Everyone was horrified,” the Florida native told USA TODAY. “The fear was all I heard.”

The then New York City-based Orth kicked off her 12-country solo trip in Fiji before making her way to New Zealand, Australia, and Southeast Asia. Then she trekked through Europe, including Greece, Spain and England, and stopped in Turkey and Egypt before ending in Kenya and South Africa.

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It wasn’t always smooth traveling. At times, Orth said she survived “by the skin of my teeth.” Orth was in Egypt during the Arab Spring, got unbelievably sick in Thailand, and had a bike accident in Bali. She was also robbed of 400 euros. “I was in Greece for a half an hour and had already been pickpocketed,” she said. 

Still, to Orth, the solo journey was invaluable. “It’s a confidence that I don’t think there’s any other way to get that confidence than by solo travel,” she said, referring to the problem-solving that inherently comes with navigating travel on your own. Then there’s also the compassion you gain from meeting and experiencing other cultures. 

Now more than ever, more people are deciding to forgo travel companions and embark on their trips alone. Solo vacation packages searches on Google shot up by more than 200% over the past 90 days as of Feb. 2.

Increased connectivity on our phones makes it easier to feel secure and social media shows more people – especially women – traveling the world alone. 

“Women are not waiting for permission or their 401(k) to mature. If my husband doesn’t want to go, fine. Women are having more confidence,” said Orth, who is also the author of the upcoming book “Flirting with Disaster,” which chronicles her year-long solo trip. 

Here’s everything you need to know about solo travel. 

How to safely travel alone

Safety is always top of mind when traveling, and it’s especially important for solo travelers who have to look out for themselves. 

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“Isn’t it fun to meet a person in a hostel and say yes, let’s go hiking right now? That’s fun, but it’s risky,” Orth said. “It’s about balancing it out and researching ridiculously.” 

▶ Start your research by heading to the State Department website to see if there are any travel advisories for the destination you’re interested in. These advisories are based on changing conditions and also inform you about the specific region you’re visiting.

For the most direct updates, enroll in the agency’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP), a free service that sends you the most up-to-date information on the destination. It can also help connect you to the nearest U.S. embassy and consulate if traveling and something were to happen.

▶ One thing Orth always searches for is “the destination plus scams” to see what she has to look out for when in that place. Many European cities are notorious for petty theft, like pickpocketing in popular tourist hotspots like the Trevi Fountain or public transportation.  

When doing research, it may feel like an information overload. “There is so much information now, you could read 1,000 reviews and get so many sources of conflicting information,” Orth added. “It’s hard to wade through all that and find trusted sources.”

▶ To help sift through everything, Orth recommends reaching out to others who have traveled to your ideal destination. She also recommended cleaning out your feed and only following travel content creators who “give you the good and the bad.”

“You don’t want the glossy, glossy, oh, it’s so magical because travel isn’t always so magical,” she said. 

▶ At your destination, you’ll also need at least a basic understanding of the language used there. “Translation plays a big role in safety, just being aware of your surroundings,” said Craig Ewer, Google Communications Manager for Search. 

Besides direct translation between 133 languages, the Google Translate app offers pronunciation help – “such a lifesaver,” according to Rose Yao, Vice President of Product Management at Google. You can also snap a picture of a menu and have it translated in real time. 

The Google app also has a feature called Lens that allows users to search using a picture of something like a sign. “You’d be surprised at what you can Lens: menus, what is that building or what is that statue,” Yao said. You can also capture a screenshot of your social media feed and then search for it on Google to incorporate it into your travel plans.

Staying healthy on your travels

▶ To safeguard yourself and others against preventable illnesses while exploring new places, look up any recommended vaccinations for the countries you plan on visiting. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website is a good starting point, with in-depth travel health notices and recommended vaccines and medicines posted all in one place. 

The CDC website also offers travel advice on managing non-preventable illnesses, like preventing bug bites to reduce the risk of contracting diseases such as dengue or Zika.

▶ Typically, you’d want to give yourself at least a month before departing on your trip to get everything you need from your doctor. And if you don’t know who to go to, the CDC can help you find a clinic as well. 

Orth recommends having a doctor help you put together a medical kit with you with some necessities and medications, like for food poisoning. “It’s helpful to have some things on hand so you’re not scrambling on a remote island and no one knows what you’re talking about,” she said. 

▶ As you’re making the big purchases for your trip, don’t forget about travel insurance for the unexpected. Orth said she never travels without this layer of protection. Travel insurance not only helped with her medical costs from her bike collision but also replaced her camera, which was smashed in the accident. She also recommends a service called MedJet, which offers worldwide security crisis and medical transportation assistance for its members.

Learn more: Best travel insurance

What are the most popular solo travel destinations?

According to Google, the top-searched destinations for American solo travelers are: 

  • London
  • Alaska
  • Hawaii
  • Puerto Rico
  • Italy

Tips for solo travelers

  • The Google app’s generative AI search allows you to “ask really detailed questions like you would ask a friend,” Yao said. “Ask what’s off the beaten path, what’s not crowded. What’s a great time to visit the Louvre that’s not super crowded?” 
  • For your first trip alone, it’s okay to start small and dip your toes in the solo travel pool. “Start in an easier destination, something more familiar where you speak the language or you dont have to fly far away,” Orth said. “A lot of folks see ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ and travel content creators trekking in Borneo for it to count but it doesn’t.” 
  • It won’t always be rainbows and butterflies, despite what you see on social media. Expect decision fatigue from having to make many micro-decisions, like if this taxi driver seems safe. “I think this probably hits women a lot harder than it hits men because we are never not thinking about our safety, and that’s if we’re going to Target in our hometown or hopping on a plane to a remote island,” Orth said. 
  • Make an itinerary for yourself with at least one thing planned everyday, so you don’t feel aimless but still have space for flexibility, said Madison Pietrowski, U.S. brand director at GetYourGuide, a marketplace for travel experiences, where each company listed is thoroughly vetted. It can be as casual as wanting to eat at a certain restaurant for dinner or more intensive like a whole-day tour. (On that note, make sure to read the fine print and are aware of cancellation policies for your excursions.)  

Kathleen Wong is a travel reporter for USA TODAY based in Hawaii. You can reach her at [email protected].

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