Tag Archives: advice

Tips for women travelling alone

Simon's Town, South Africa

Simon’s Town, South Africa

Hey ladies, thinking about travelling solo? First things first, just smile and pretend to agree with all the naysayers who say it’s way too dangerous to travel alone. Next, check out some tips below for women thinking about travelling alone. Trust me, after 3 trips in 1st and 3rd world countries, the boogeyman hiding under your bed is scarier than travelling alone.

  • Be smart! Can’t stress this enough people! Yes, we all want to have fun and enjoy everything that independent travel has to offer. But does that mean walking down a dark alley all by yourself in the middle of the night in a sketchy part of town? If you answered yes, please find the nearest adult and ask them to be your travel buddy.
  • Ask locals where the sketchy parts of town are and try to avoid those at night time if you’re alone.
  • Make friends with other travellers! Especially other solo women. On every one of my trips, I’ve made instant friendships with other females travelling alone (yes, there are more than one of us out there!) and ended up travelling for a bit with them. We understand each other and can even swap hilarious pick-up stories. Did you hear the one about the guy who mooned me on the back of a truck in South Africa and then promptly asked for my hand in marriage?
  • Go out in groups. Chat up your bunk mates and fellow travellers and see where they’re headed. Yes, it’s awkward at first to invite yourself but unless they’re part of a secret organization or undercover narcs, most travellers have the same motto, the more the merrier!
  • Be polite even if someone is nagging or bothering you. You will encounter a lot of touts trying to sell you things, would-be admirers, and expert cat callers (being Asian, I often get “konichiwa!” or “ni hao!”. I even got a “Fukushima!” once, mind you this was around the time of the Japanese earthquake in 2011). Instead of escalating the situation and telling them to f-off, just ignore them or smile and move along. I usually just get a laugh out of the crazy English sayings that people come up with!
  • Avoid telling complete strangers that you’re travelling alone, you’re single, or where you’re staying. We all want to make instant friendships and have the local experience, but if you just met this shady-looking guy on the street, volunteering to him a rundown of your relationship status and where he can find you naked in the shower later may not be the best idea.
  • Stay in accommodation that’s safe. Whether you’re staying at a grungy hostel or a quaint guest house, make sure that it’s safe and secure. This means that the doors lock and no one can climb into your room if you’re near the ground floor. It may not be as cheap as the $5 per night shack that’s a little easier on your budget, but your belongings and your safety are worth much, much more. If you are stuck at a seedy place for the night, make your own safety. Whether that’s pushing furniture against the door to keep it shut (which I had to do in Bali) or keeping your important belongings under your pillow (sleep sacs and money belts are great for this!), do whatever makes you feel safe and allows you to have a good night’s rest.
  • Avoid getting into sketchy transportation. We’ve all done it, gotten into the unmarked taxi/songthaew/matatu to save some $$$, but if you’re the only one in it and it’s midnight, maybe it’s a good idea to walk into the nearest classy-looking hotel and ask them to call you a taxi. A really good way is to arrange transportation through your hostel since they’re used to dealing with tourists. It may be a bit more expensive and they might rip you off, but at least you won’t get robbed. See, silver lining.

So that’s it, nothing mind-blowing, just common sense.  You may agree/disagree with this since I usually err on the side of caution but that doesn’t mean that I’m scared of everything or suspicious of everyone while travelling alone. I’m also not saying that following these tips will 100% guarantee you or your money back that you won’t get robbed: shit happens right? However, travelling is one the best ways to let your hair down and relax so don’t let the horror stories from home stop you from being that fierce, independent woman that you are (cue Destiny’s Child) and truly enjoy your adventure!

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Macgyver backpacking

You’ll find that there’s always a competition between backpackers on who can live the most scarcely while traveling.  And with this comes a fine art called “Macgyvering“.   Those people who find themselves jamming an Allen key into a piece of IKEA press-board out of frustration at home will all of a sudden be able to rig up intricate clothes lines, fix iPods and patch up backbacks while traveling.  All they usually need, and you should bring, is duct tape and rope.

  • Duct tape – this is the universal fixer of everything! Your camera’s battery cover is lose? Duct tape.  Your shoe is ripping? Duct tape.  Need to water proof your wallet? Duct tape.  This is also very handy in conjunction with the next item when taping up a clothes line.
  • Rope – used to hold up clothes, mosquito nets, pants if necessary.  I find that yellow plastic rope is the best since it is waterproof and very durable.  You won’t need much rope (enough to hang across a room so around 3 metres).
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Thinking about a solo backpacking mission?

Whenever I tell people that I’ve backpacked alone, the normal reaction is either “Good for you!” or “Are you crazy?!”. Travelling alone is not for everyone and it doesn’t mean that you’re more or less adventurous or selfish. It’s a matter of preference – similar to whether you like boxers or briefs, salad or fries as a side, or rom coms or blowup action movies (all the latter for me!). My first backpacking trip was with a travel buddy to Europe but after I felt comfortable with being new environments and gained some travel savvy-ness, I decided that my next trip would be a solo mission to South East Asia and this continued on my trip to Africa.

So here are some pros and cons with travelling alone. Some of my pros may be your cons so I suggest you make your own list and regardless or which way you go, you’ll end up having a great time as long as you open yourself up to experiencing new cultures and commit to having a memorable trip!

Pros

  1. You can be selfish. Feel like sleeping in all day? Go ahead! Rather go hiking instead of checking out a museum? Who’s stopping you? Travelling alone lets you decide what you want to do, when you want to do it. You don’t have to compromise and whatever you want to accomplish on your trip is up to you. You don’t have to play with your friend the awkward mind game of “I don’t know, what do you want to do?” and ultimately, you are responsible for your decisions, whether good or bad.
  2. You’ll be more open to meeting new people. You don’t have a social crutch anymore. If you don’t want to eat alone, you’ll have to chat up that nice-looking Brit staying in your hostel. This is one of the main reasons why I travel alone. I get to meet other people like me and discover those instant best friends forever connections. Sure, there are times where you may just want to be alone, but you’ll find while travelling alone that if you make the first move and chat up your bunk mate or bus seat partner, almost everyone will be more than open to tell you all about their trip experience so far and where they’re headed next. After you get through the small talk chit chat, you may find that these people will become your trusted travel buddy or maybe just an interesting story to tell your friends back home. 
  3. Curious locals will want to talk to you. Once you pick pass the touts who are trying to sell you things or for the ladies, creepy guys that are picking you up, talking to locals is a great way to gain insights into the places you are visiting outside of the “tourist bubble”. This is especially true for solo female travellers. Locals will see you taking selfies and ask questions, maybe even have no shame asking very personal questions (“Are you married? Why aren’t you married?”). Just be nice, smile, answer whatever you feel comfortable with and ask them questions in return. This is the way I found out that certain Thai islands have a strong Rastafarian culture or that there’s a witch doctor in Tanzania who’s a pastor and can apparently cure heart diseases and diabetes.
  4. You will get preferential treatment. It may be a demoralizing situation but when you’re travelling alone, you will get special treatment from people who feel sorry for you. Hey, they can feel sorry for me all they want, I don’t mind as long as I get something out of it! In South Africa, it was the spacious front seat of a smelly, packed minibus, beside a friendly local driver, Rob, who told me all about his 7 kids and taught me phrases in Xhosa.

Cons

  1. Everything is divided by…1. The costs of your trip will be higher if you’re travelling alone simply because you can’t share the costs of  accommodation or taxi trips with anyone else. However, if you are good at #2 above (making friends), this will help bring down your costs. If you’re in an anti-social mood, look for shared accommodation in hostels or just take local transportation like everyone else to lower the drain on your wallet. 
  2. You’ll have to keep funny things to yourself until you can tell someone. Every time I meet someone new after being alone for awhile, I get a major case of verbal diarrhea. It’s just that I literally haven’t talked to anyone for awhile (talking to yourself doesn’t count, although you’ll start doing that after about 3 weeks of travelling alone. Don’t worry, it’s completely normal. Right?) and have seen/experienced so much that I just need to tell someone. Travelling alone means you won’t have someone to confirm with that yes, those are blatant abortion ads plastered on lamp posts in Durban or laugh with you over the random child that was tossed in your lap for an 11 hour minibus ride to Tofo. Keeping a journal helps remember and get some of those funny moments out on paper. I still laugh reading through my journals because it brings me back to those exact moments.
  3. You have to be more aware. Travelling solo means that you don’t have someone else looking out for you, this doesn’t mean that you should be yelling “back off!” to anyone who comes within 2 feet of you but you will need to be more cautious (especially women). I’ve experienced some shady situations (getting dropped off the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night or sleeping with my tiny Swiss Army knife under my pillow) but in the end, I’ve never been robbed or harmed while backpacking. This is because of a simple rule I made: I vowed never to put myself in any dangerous situation. This meant not going out by myself at night in a shady neighbourhood or getting so drunk at the bar that I couldn’t put myself to bed. Use your common sense, street smarts, buddy system, peripheral vision, instincts, whatever it takes to keep yourself safe.
  4. It gets lonely. Even after all my trips, I still get home sick around the 4 week mark. It’s just human nature to miss creature comforts – your family, friends, your bed, etc. This coupled with being alone will give even the most optimistic people the case of the Mondays. How to prepare for this is to tell yourself that it’s totally fine to feel lonely, and instead of having a pity party for one where you’re the guest of honour, it’s your trip and you can do whatever you want. So eat your feelings with that tub of ice cream on the beach but remember to look around and take in your beautiful surroundings because when you’re back home in your tiny cubicle at work, the place where you rather be is on that beach eating a tub of salty tear-infused ice cream.

Obviously, there are many other reasons that I haven’t included so feel free to post them below. For those who rather travel with a buddy, you can check out TravBuddy, FindMeetGo or search the Thorn Tree travel forums for travel companions. Whether you decide to take the “table for one” route or make it an extended group hang with your closest friends, your trip is what you make out of it so go out there, chat up your neighbour and try to learn as many swear words in different languages as possible (we all know those are the first words we learn so don’t even try to deny it)!

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Essentials for a comfy trip

Yes, you can rough the backpacking trip and only bring 1 change of clothes and a Swiss Army knife like Bear Grylls on Man vs. Wild but if you have the extra cash and prefer some comforts to backpacking, there are some items that will make a huge difference but not weigh down your bag.  Most of these items can be found at the drug store, Walmart, bartering with friends or for those Canadians out there, Mountain Equipment Co-op.

  • Ear plugs – to drone out a noisy hostelers, fighting geckos, snoring bed mate
  • Quick-dry towel – when you don’t have time to properly dry your towel or if you’re visiting humid places, this is a must to keep your towel bacteria and odour-free.  I have the Adventure Towl which has lasted me 3 backpacking trips so far.
  • Travel wipes – shower replacement, wipe your hands, face, butt (although hopefully not all with the same one)
  • Laundry detergent – just bring a small travel-sized bottle to wash your clothes along the way
  • Sink stopper – you’ll have to eventually wash your clothes (at least underwear) so you’ll need to plug the sink.  This will make any sink your personal washing machine.  Find one that’s a flat mat to fit most sinks.
  • Swiss Army knife or Leatherman multi-tool – I joked about this above but it is very handy to have in case you need to cut anything, open beer bottles, measure something? (why is there always a ruler?!)
  • Head lamp – if you’re going to be doing any camping or be in areas with no electricity, there’s nothing worse than going to bathroom in the dark.  Check out this awesome head lamp!
  • Hostel sheet/sleeping bag liner – this is a MUST to prevent getting bit by bed bugs! You can either buy one or sew a bedsheet in half (very easy instructions here)
  • Plastic and Ziploc bags – these will make it easier to find and pack your things since everything is compartmentalized (i.e. put all your clothes in one bag, toiletries in another, shoes in another etc.), also used to put wet bathing suits, shoes or laundry

As always, open for suggestions so please suggest anything you found that was helpful on your trip!

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Questions to ask yourself while planning a backpacking trip

So there’s really no good/bad way to plan a backpacking trip and it really depends on where you’re going.  But here are some questions you should ask yourself (along with my 2 cents) in order to plan a trip that you will truly enjoy.  I’ve followed these general guidelines for my backpacking trips  (Europe, Southeast Asia, India and Africa) and found they worked for me.  However, some may think this is too much/too little planning so you can chose to follow it or not.

 

  • Where do I want to go? Once you’ve figured that out, get a travel book.  This is KEY for backpacking since none of us are experts on a country we’ve never visited before.  Most travel books have sample itineraries and highlights for each country.  Skim through it, google some itineraries online and start mapping a rough path based on what you find interesting.  For example, do you want to do more historical sightseeing? Or go to party hot spots? Or maybe both? You don’t need to plan every single place you’re going to visit but a rough path (like what countries are you visiting? Are you going north to south or east to west?) will help with further planning, especially length of trip and budget (question #3 and #5 respectively). 
    My 2 cents:
    I personally use the Lonely Planet books like a bible while on the road but there are other great books out there like Rough Guides, Frommer’s  etc.  Also, check out the Travel Independent.info sitefor tons of info aimed at backpackers and region specific websites like travelfish.org (for SE Asia).

 

 

  • Why do I want to travel? This may seem like a no brainer or existentialist question but if you know why you want to go, it’ll give you the drive to plan your trip in advance between 10 hour workdays and having a social life.  It’ll also give you a goal for your trip and get your butt out of bed at an early-ish time every day while on the road.  Sometimes backpacking can get exhausting but if you always keep in mind your goal, it’ll be easier to get through the weeks, months and maybe even years of traveling from city to city.  It can be as simple as “I want to see the Eiffel Tower” to “I need to find myself and figure out my path in life”.

 

 

  • How long do I have to travel? This may be the restrictive factor on how many places you can visit and how fast paced you want to move from city to city.  If you have an indefinite period of time to travel, budget may come into play (see point #5) or something that people sometimes forget is how long can you last living out of a backpack and without sleeping in your own comfy bed at home? You’d be surprised how long you can stand wearing the same clothes and having all your toiletries in a plastic bag once you get into the routine of backpacking. 
    My 2 cents:
    Build up your “travel immunity” – pick a comfortable period of time for your first backpacking trip, then double that on your next trip and then double that on the subsequent trips etc.  If you can come up with a number of days based on the list of cities you want to hit, factor in sightseeing and travel time, you should still DOUBLE that time to give yourself buffer for the unexpected (like loving a city and staying longer than planned, getting tips from fellow travelers along the way on must-see places or unreliable transportation).  It’s always better to have more time to see unplanned sights than to rush through your itinerary and miss sights.  TIP: If you come from North America or Europe, do not expect transportation to take the same amount of time in less developed countries than at home.  Hardly any buses go over 70km/h (even on highways) and “express trains” means it’ll stop maybe 15 times instead of 20.

 

 

  • What is my travel style? More on the grimey side or luxurious side? This will be a big factor when deciding your budget (see point #5) and vice versa.  Are you trying to see how far you can push yourself on the hygiene scale or does the thought of squat toilets make you shudder? You’d be surprised on how much you can live without on the road so don’t rule out squat toilets just yet (they’re apparently cleaner and easier to use than Western style toilets).  Ask yourself, do you really need 1000 thread-count Egyptian cotton sheets, A/C buses with tinted windows that block the sights/smells/sounds of the landscape rushing by or hot water showers in 45C weather? But don’t go too far off the deep end, everyone needs to keep a certain level of hygiene to avoid getting sick or smelling like B.O. (for your sake and for the sake of the 40 other people packed in with you on the 10 hour bus ride).

 

 

  • What is my budget? Keep in mind that different countries require different budgets.  For example, you can easily live off $30/day in India or SE Asia but if you keep that budget for Western Europe, you’ll be eating sliced bread from the convenience store for every meal (true story) and run a higher risk of getting bed bugs from the 14 bed dorm you’re staying in.  Most travel books have a typical budget/day for each country and a range of accommodation/restaurant choices from low, mid to high end.  If you’re looking for more of a backpacking budget, the Lonely Planet “on a shoestring” guides are great for low budget suggestions. 
    My 2 cents:
    Take your budget/day at home to start with (especially if it’s your first backpacking trip) and start logging how much money you’re spending/day once you start traveling.  After a week of logging, review your expenses and readjust your budget based on that (if you’ve underspent your initial estimate but hated the moldy bathroom then increase your budget or if you found that you didn’t watch the TV that was in your room, maybe you can live with a less expensive place to stay in the next city).

 

 

  • How adventurous am I? This may be a vague question but it’ll help decide whether you want to backpack on the beaten path or venture out on your own.  It also depends on the region since Southeast Asia and Europe has a fairly well-traveled backpacker path with an established tourism industry whereas Africa may not be as easy to travel through.  However adventurous you decide to be, always do it in a safe way – remember, no one cares how hardcore of a backpacker you are when you’re being robbed at gunpoint in a shady alley at night.

 

In the end, as long as you backpack smartly and keep an open mind, you’ll have an awesome and unforgettable trip! If you have any other suggestions on how to plan for backpacking trips, feel free to add your 2 cents in the comments section.

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