So you’re a classic introvert i.e. most times you prefer your own company to that of others. Your energy levels deplete quickly in a crowd. Meeting and talking to strangers does not come naturally to you. You feel awkward with people you don’t know, more so when they’re a lot in number and very loud. You can’t make small talk because you feel and experience things deeply and need to make that sort of connection. Your best friends are your thoughts, and you rather be with them than seek out external stimulation. But all of the above doesn’t mean you don’t like people. You do. But on your terms, not theirs.
And now you want to travel solo, to a new country, where talking to people you don’t know is a necessity to get around.
How are you going to cope?
You are planning to travel solo because either you prefer it, or everyone else’s too busy. And you have a terrible case of wanderlust. So it needs to be done.
Let me tell you, contrary to popular beliefs, introverts make for great solo travellers. They travel richly, have a lower need to seek companions to have fun, and thus, completely soak themselves into the local culture and ways of life.
But it’s also true that for an introvert travelling alone can get lonely. Also dangerous, because you’re not going to have a companion to look out for you. Or plan with you.
Many years ago, before I embarked on my first solo trip, I almost did not, plagued by the exact same fears. I decided to ease myself into it — starting with the easiest terrain of them all, the most sanitized expanse to travel solo — Western Europe. That was ten years ago. That went so well, I was addicted.
It’s not always easy. Before every trip, I’m overthinking everything, and wondering if I’ll be okay this time. Will I be safe? Will people be nice to me? Will I have fun? No trip is completely uniformly fun and enjoyment. There are pockets of despondency and questions to self — why am I doing this? But with some easy hacks, these isolated periods gets manageable. And every trip becomes memorable.
Here is what I learned help when travelling solo.
1. Get a local SIM card
When I started travelling at first, I used maps all the time. But playing to the cliché, I don’t read them very well and I landed up asking a lot of people directions, oftentimes standing right where I wanted to go. While asking people can no longer completely be replaced, especially in remote parts of the world, nonetheless, buying a local tourist SIM card is invaluable. SIM cards are available at airports, tourist offices, or in grocery shops. Get a scheme with a lot of data. Google maps are my constant travel companion, my saviour.
2. Plan your city to city connections in advance, never arrive too late and too tired anywhere
Many people thrive on the uncertainty of travel, and I dislike anything too planned myself, but knowing how you’re going to travel from one city to another beforehand helps a lot. I ensure two things:
- I know before how to get from the airport to my B&B and how much it costs. I try taking public transport whenever I can and knowing about my options beforehand
- I have purchased the train or bus tickets to the next location, and again, I know how to use public transport to get to the B&B
3. Stay in a room let out in an Airbnb
For introverts, the atmosphere at a youth hostel can be overwhelming. There are a lot of energetic, friendly people and while it’s an easy way to find travel companions, it’s difficult to detach oneself at will. I’ve since moved on to booking a room in a house possibly let out by a family or elderly couple, and better if they have other boarders too, for the occasional company. Of course, if you’re feeling rich, single rooms in hotels work best.
4. Start the day early, end early
Starting early gives the best perspective of any place minus the tourists — you’ll probably only see locals going about their business — milkmen, grocers, people getting ready for the day’s work, mothers with babies, all of who’d retreat once the tourist throngs start. I get the best photos at dawn with the just-awakened sun and empty streets. Recently, I went to Venice and while I was trampled by tourist’s feet during the day, early mornings were just gorgeous. I vowed to myself I was always going to be up early to catch the sunrise at every place.
5. Hang out in locals-inhabited cafes, libraries, and parks
I was travelling to Boston one time, and it’s a really busy city where people are purposeful, and go from place to place to do something. It’s an easy place to blend in, which worked well for the most part, but this one time I wanted to really talk to someone. So I wandered over to the Boston Public Library, talked to people who were coming in to get books, loitered in the study room, and then in the beautiful courtyard. Talked about books with people (yes, I whispered). Lingered on until I’d had my fill. I learned a lot about the city that day.
6. Do tours by locals
After all, learning about local life and culture is the crux of travel and if you hate to talk and socialize, how would you get to know the local culture, right? Do tours by locals. At Ho Chi Minh, two young college girls from Hanoi Kids showed me around the city, for no charge, not even tips and I remember every minute of that 2-hour walk. Recently in Venice, I went rowing a Batella and learned a lot about life in the canals which I wouldn’t have otherwise. This was part of a lesson cum tour organized by a nonprofit group called Row Venice. Also, this is good for photos. Local tour guides are more than indulgent (and easier to request) to take photos of you in all angles. It’s good for their business too, especially if you tag and review them—so a win-win.
7. To experience the nightlife, join a pub crawl
I’m very shy about eating or drinking out alone. I’m also worried about going out with people I don’t know very well. But I still want to check out the nightlife in the cities, especially in cities well-known for it. Organized pub crawls are the answer. One of the most fun ones I went to was in Prague, where I had a great time and also met a bunch of very nice introverts like me. And after we’ve downed a drink or two, we do tend to socialize more.
Of course, if you’re travelling as a woman of colour, things can get pretty interesting.
8. Carry a good book
Before I travel to a place, my Kindle is fully charged and updated with a dozen books — fiction set in the country I am travelling to, and crime thrillers for backup. How wonderful it is to sit admiring the hills and tenements of Anatolia while reading Birds Without Wings. A few months ago stumbled upon TripFiction which list books by places of interest (disclaimer: my book is listed there and I’ve written for them)
9. Bring a notebook, journal like hell
We introverts hate socializing but we do want to tell people about the experiences we’re having. A travel journal is an answer. Most introverts are passionate diarists, and to me, a diary is like the ideal travel companion — always around, doesn’t talk too much. Online apps such as journal.com work as well, but I prefer small handmade-paper-and-ink-pen variety.
Or there is Instagram.
10. Carry some food in your backpack
You get tired of wandering about alone, you want to eat, but have no energy to sit and order in a café. Carry nutrition bars, dry fruits and small packets of juice in your backpack. Sit in a park and refuel your energies. Rise again now to conquer the world.
11. Dark sunglasses, earphones
The introvert’s shield since ages. I also recommend a shawl and socks, for the nice huggy-stay-at-home feeling. And yeah, an introvert’s backpack is going to be very heavy.
To recap, what you need in your backpack are Sunglasses, earphones, a shawl, a book or Kindle, a journal, energy bars, and water/ juice. It’s like carrying your home around with you.
12. Be polite, but rude too, if need to. Trust your gut.
People everywhere are largely good, but there are some of those weird ones who just won’t leave you alone, aren’t there? The pesky man at the bar offering you drinks you don’t want, the over-friendly cab driver insisting on taking you everywhere, the shopkeeper who wants to take you home to show you an exquisite gift, the tour guide who wants to accompany you to a bar later… be polite but firm with them. Say NO when you want to. Don’t be afraid to trust your gut. It’s better to err on the side of caution.
And lastly, throw the guilt out of the window. You’re great as you are, as you want to travel because hey, there’s no right way!
The right way is what feels right for you.