Anyone can be a solo traveller, regardless of age, nationality or experience. That said, there are certain habits, characteristics and attitudes that, when adopted, facilitate maximizing your trip. As with anything in life, you’ll only get out what you put in. Here are six tips on how to give your adventure your all.
“Hey, I dropped out of university to go backpacking and now I gotta do homework?!”
In a word: yes. A temple is just a temple, a castle is just a castle and a field is just a field if you don’t know what you’re looking at. While some landmarks may be visually pleasing in a Pintrest sort of way, you won’t experience the tingling sensation of tangible history if you don’t understand the context. Most guidebooks offer brief blurbs about each sight and city. For more in-depth coverage (and for those of you with plenty of space on your phone), Wikipedia has a downloadable app which gives offline access to about half of its articles.
Also consider reading books or watching movies about a region before you visit. For example, anyone with plans to travel through Cambodia should pick up a copy of First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung to learn about the tragic genocide under Pol Pot’s regime (available in bookstores throughout Southeast Asia, especially on Bangkok’s Khao San Road, as well as through Amazon). Even fictional novels set in a specific region during a momentous time can give readers an idea of the significance of a place, as Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut does with Dresden, Germany.
Forget (Almost) Everything You Know
Now that you’ve learned about a specific culture or area, forget everything you know. Okay, not really—but remember your preconceived notions are simply that, and be open to the fact that they might be skewed or incorrect due to the biases of your sources. The best way to understand where you are is to be taught by those who live there. There is a chance that your version of their history and ethos differs from the locals’; listen and inquire respectfully, and allow them to inform you of who they are as opposed to vice versa.
Go for It!
Have you decided shopping is boring? Then you’d better avoid the Sonora Market in Mexico City where get-rich-quick potions, anti-ghost powder and voodoo dolls are hawked alongside Mexican jumping beans (that do in fact exist outside of Saturday morning cartoons) and Santeria paraphernalia. And don’t even think about visiting the food market in Sa Pa, Vietnam, where you can purchase all sorts of creepy-crawlies for your dinner—some of which are still in fact creeping and crawling. If you suddenly think you’re missing out (which you are), then you’d better reconsider your stance on shopping.
A general rule of thumb to ensure you don’t accidentally skip out on something worthwhile is to visit whatever site or engage in whatever activity earns a region its notoriety. You may discover a new passion or have a fascinating adventure—or you may realize that, no matter how fancy Milan’s Galleria Emanuale Vittorio II may be, shopping remains a hit-and-miss experience for you.
Make a Plan—But Stay Flexible
While discerning a route as you go is a romantic notion, it can become expensive if you haven’t arranged transportation or accommodation in advance and are forced to take whatever is available. Plus, you may end up having to double back or miss out on something if you’ve moved along without foresight; instead of a sensible loop-shaped route around the region, you could end up following a trail that resembles the London underground. That said, often the most exciting and memorable components of an adventure manifest unexpectedly, so don’t shy away from spontaneity. Remember, your plans aren’t set in stone (because if they were, you’d never be able to afford the excess baggage fees).
Get off the Beaten Trail
It was either a sage Latin proverb or an encouraging beer coaster that declared, “Fortune favors the bold,” and nowhere is that sentiment more applicable that in regards to travel. While that isn’t license to try anything your health insurance won’t cover, it is encouragement to venture beyond your realm of comfortability and pursue whatever lured you into the great beyond in the first place. After all, you may not get another opportunity, and will be eternally haunted by the hidden gems you never set out to discover.
You’ll never encounter a greater plethora of people than while on the road; seize the opportunity to get to know someone you wouldn’t typically meet in the “default world.” Whether it’s the 70-year-old Californian backpacker in the Parisian hostel or the aspiring Buddhist nun on the Tibetan plateau, everybody has a story to share and a laugh worth hearing. After all, travel friends are awesome!
Anybody can be a backpacker, and every backpacker has their own modus operendi. These six habits are a general guideline; what’s important is to contemplate what individualistic approach(es) will ensure you extract the most of your time abroad.