Tucked somewhere between outstanding to-dos including “learn how to drive a stick shift” and “take Latin dance lessons,” you’ll find one of my favorite 40 before 40 bucket list items:
Take an international trip solo.
Prior to my list rewrite at age 30, the idea to travel solo outside of the United States had been bubbling up for years due to a variety of factors. For a good 90% of my life, I had a vice grip on the metaphorical steering wheel of life. I aimed to control how I looked, every bite I ate, what I wore and how I spoke to help control (or attempt to control) what others might think of me.
I quickly realized during my first international trip, which was with my mom to visit my older sister in Tanzania, you need to loosen up when you travel. Things will pop up that you can’t anticipate—say, a missed flight, a chipped tooth or getting ridiculously lost (examples that are all based on real events). And those challenges present beautiful learning opportunities. You can either view them as speed bumps or mountains to navigate over; it’s all about perspective.
About 10 years after that initial step outside U.S. boundaries, I had grown enough as an explorer, as a risk-taker and as a person to consider booking a solo trip abroad. With another international trip since then and another already booked for late 2020, this has become one of my new favorite ways to test my limits and treat myself all at once.
In case you’re nearing an on-ramp where you might accelerate onto the solo trip highway, here are three things I’ve learned along the way to help maximize the experience.
1. Enlist help. Safety first, we’ve been told time and time again. So the first thing I did once I set my mind to booking a solo trip was hire a friend who works as a travel adviser to plan my trip. I asked, “With my budget and interests, where is it safe for me to travel right now as a single female?” We landed on Costa Rica, and she booked me at reputable boutique hotels and had a driver lined up to transport me anywhere that might be unsafe to commute on foot. I also had a location-based itinerary before the trip that I could refer to for specifics, and I shared this with my parents before I departed. This provided amazing peace of mind to both them and me.
2. Be curious about local customs and open to conversations with strangers. One of the biggest eye-openers on that first trip to Tanzania has become more apparent with each trip abroad since: We all have so much more in common than we have in opposition. We all seek happiness and health. We all aim for connection. We all have to eat. So if you can, share a meal with locals—or better yet, cook one together in a class based on the native cuisine. You’ll not only learn recipes that you can take home to enjoy a taste of the country later, but you will also have a wonderful opportunity to bring up icebreaker topics with your co-chefs about family dinners, traditions and daily life.
In Portugal, I booked a cooking class via “With Locals,” an app that connects travelers with local residents who offer unique experiences. Turns out, I was the only one who signed up for a pastry class. So after we baked, I sat down to dinner with her family, where we shared conversations about holiday meals. We still stay in touch via Facebook.
3. Allow time to improvise according to your True North. While it’s nice to have a rough agenda to optimize your time (and share with your loved ones back home so they know where to expect to hear from you), I treasure the windows of “explore time” I schedule into each itinerary. This way, it’s possible to pop into that cheese shop on the corner you’ve been walking past all week and ask the shop owner if you can buy a taste of her personal favorite to snack on while you catch up on that novel. (I did just that in Lisbon and still dream about the rich cheese and the lovely wine she paired with it.) Or you can tack on an extra hike to see the city from a different vantage point. Or you can sleep in—it is vacation after all.
One of the biggest benefits of solo travel—besides learning how strong and capable you are at overcoming those speed bumps—is the opportunity to truly tune in to what you want. To be totally, completely and unabashedly selfish. During that explore time, do you want to just walk on the beach? Listen to live music? Get a second massage? The rest of your agenda is totally up to you to determine what you need to refuel your tank … until the next trip.
Karla Walsh is a freelance writer, restaurant brand manager and spin instructor. Follow along with her on her next solo adventure (this time, a stateside bike trip through wine country) on Instagram @karlawalsh, and contact her at email@example.com to share your favorite travel tales.