6 Lessons From 8+ Years as a Solo Traveler

6 Lessons From 8+ Years as a Solo Traveler

Written by Shannon O’Donnell on

Shannon O'Donnell is a long-term traveler who has been on the road since 2008 and has lived everywhere from Southeast Asia to Barcelona, where she now calls home. She travels slowly and supports responsible tourism along the way, winning numerous awards for her work advocating for the communities impacted by travel and tourism.

6 Lessons From 8+ Years as a Solo Traveler

6 Lessons From 8+ Years as a Solo Traveler

At this point, I’ve been on the road traveling nonstop for more than eight years. Over the years, I’ve picked up lessons and knowledge—about myself, about other people, and about travel. These are my six takeaways from my years as a solo traveler. They cover the practical advice that I wish I had known in my first years on the road, and the profound lessons that continue to shape my worldview.

1. Pack lightly enough that you can easily carry all of your belongings.

There are many good reasons not to over-pack when you take off to conquer the globe by yourself. First of all is safety: If your bag is always on your person, it is less likely to get pilfered. It is definitely easier to keep your belongings secure this way. Also, keeping things light allows for a freedom and spontaneity that you lack when you tow multiple heavy bags. What I have learned is that you can buy almost everything on the road, so there's no need to stock up on shampoo, soap, or even many clothes. But there's one exception to that rule. The one thing that I have had trouble finding on the road is my favorite brand of solid deodorant. That’s one necessity that I always pack. For everything else, I run it through the “Do I absolutely need this?” test. Then I pack everything into Eagle Creek’s packing cubes to keep it organized—I’ve used these cubes since my very first solo trip back in 2008.

2. Pay for your own safety and take care when calculating currency differences.

A world traveler needs to be frugal, but also needs to know when to skimp and when to splurge. Any expense that results in a safer experience for you is worth the price difference, especially for solo travelers. This may mean shelling out for a taxi instead of walking somewhere after dark, or choosing a guesthouse that's located in a more centralized part of the city. Also, keep currency differences in mind when you are choosing whether or not to spend your money. World travel is about making memorable experiences, and these, too, are worth your money. I once balked at a 120,000 kip day trip in Laos before remembering that it was the United States equivalent of $15—not so alarming a figure. Keep the bigger picture in mind. You could haggle a local merchant over every last penny, or you could remember that your purchase helps pay his salary and that it is more respectful to know when to quit.

3. Solo doesn't mean lonely—travel creates an environment that readily fosters fast friendships.

While I am often by myself on overseas trips, I seldom feel alone. The world, I have found, is inherently kind, and people of all walks of life are apt to take a traveler under their wing when they discover that he or she is by herself. As a woman, I have been accepted into spaces where men are not allowed and have been invited for tea or to share a bus seat with another woman. But it’s not just women. Women and men alike have offered me help, company, and safety by virtue of the fact that I was on my own. I have fostered deep friendships as a result of putting myself out there and opening myself to new people and experiences.

4. Leave room for spontaneity on your trip—only plan enough to stave off panic.

When I depart for a new destination, I often have only two things planned: two nights’ accommodation and directions from the airport to my guesthouse. If you are a Type-A, meticulous planner, this may sound insane to you. What it comes down to is that it is easy enough to sort the rest of the details out on the ground, and that openness leaves room for quick changes and flexibility that can add a dimension of excitement to your trip. I always plan just the first day in a new place, and then leave the rest to the travel gods as far as food and activities are concerned. This leaves you open to locals’ recommendations and gives you the chance to make new friends.

5. Travel style is highly personal, so learn yours and enjoy it.

No two people like all of the same things, and the same goes for travelers. Once you get on the road, you will learn which experiences appeal to you. Some travelers, for instance, love the excitement and frenetic energy of big cities. I, myself, do not and would rather visit small towns that have fewer than 500 residents. I don’t love museums, but I geek out on hiking and learning new languages. You will have your own experiences and will figure out a travel style that makes you tick. Embrace it.

6. Accept kindnesses offered by locals, as these will become your most memorable experiences.

I have spent hundreds of hours on trains, buses, and planes in my time traveling, and I am never more content than when I am in deep conversation with a stranger who becomes a new friend. Every person I’ve talked to has something to offer, some bit of wisdom or advice that I can apply to my own life. To break the ice, smile often. While other gestures are cultural, smiling is one that opens doors. Of course, there are those few cultures where a smiling woman is seen as promiscuous, but in the vast majority of places, this simple expression of kindness on your part leads to a reciprocity of kindness from those around you. And this is how memories are made.


Related links (from Eagle Creek blog):

How to Plan a Safe Solo Getaway

Solo Travel In Europe: How To Stay Safe

Insider Knowledge: How to Meet Locals on a Solo Trip