‘It’s all about stepping out of your comfort zone’: 10 tips for solo travellers | Travelling solo
Young adults, new remote workers and empty-nesters on “gap” years are all fuelling a post-lockdown boom in solo travel. Figures from the website Solo Traveler suggest most of them are women and quite a few are in relationships: solo is not the same as single. Google searches for solo travel have quadrupled since 2020. Going on holiday alone means you’re in charge of the schedule and are more likely to make new friends. Here are 10 things that can make trips for one more fun, offer structure, security and company (for those who want it).
Stay in a hostel
Hostels vary from rock-bottom budget to luxury, but they usually have communal areas such as bars, kitchens and sitting rooms, where travellers can swap tips, food, books, anecdotes and even agree to team up for a while. At the lovely Dolphin Inn (twin rooms from £44) hostel in Dunbar, on the East Lothian coast, I shared a takeaway with the woman on reception. Klara Zhao from Sydney, who has travelled in a dozen countries on her own, says: “In Helsinki, I stayed at a hostel by the woods with a cafeteria where guests had breakfast. I met a nice German family and another girl my age and spent a couple of days travelling around the city with them.”
Hostels don’t have to mean sleeping in a dorm; many now have private rooms. Some city hostels are famous for their parties, with happy hours and DJs. But hostelling could equally involve board games in a Georgian mansion at YHA Stratford-upon-Avon (private rooms from £29), communal saunas at the 7 Fells hostel in Finnish Lapland (private room from €65) or surfing and sunrise yoga on the beach at the Salty Pelican in Portugal (three-night package €349).
Stay in a house
Klara also recommends staying with a family (good for “cultural and linguistic immersion”) through homestayin.com, or booking an Airbnb room where you share the rest of the place with a resident host, who will often be “a source of many local tips”. Couchsurfing is a well-known scheme for sleeping on spare beds and sofas around the world for free, and many cities have weekly coffee shop meetings for people wanting to connect. Nomad Sister is a couchsurfing community for women.
Toronto-based Janice Waugh, founder of Solo Traveler, has lots of tips about planning and safety (prevention is key). She recommends booking a tour with Worldwide Greeters, which offers free introductory strolls through 130 cities worldwide.
Tours of all kinds are great for travellers on their own. Tips-only tours, such as those at freetour.com, can often be more thought-provoking than a pre-paid whistlestop guide to historic sights.
On a recent free walking tour of Amsterdam, anthropology student Katjalisa (who has since joined sustainable guiding firm Tours that Matter) used Amsterdam’s cityscapes to introduce tourists to Dutch concepts such as gedogen (illegal but officially tolerated) and gezellig (convivial). There were three of us on the tour travelling solo and we joined forces afterwards for a bar crawl.
Ride a tram
One of the best ways to get a sense of the layout of a new city is to spend time exploring by public transport, where travelling alone is the norm. Rather than wandering dark alleys on your own or navigating a strange one-way system in a car, sitting on a bus or tram can be a relaxed, affordable way to see the sights.
Riding a tram across a new city is often a mini-adventure in itself and there are always routes that pass major city landmarks. In Helsinki, for instance, tram 2 is the best sightseeing route and a day ticket is also valid on the ferry to the island fortress of Suomenlinna.
Amsterdam’s great routes include tram 14, which runs past the Hortus botanical garden and out to the reeds and willows of Flevopark. On the way, it passes one of the old city gates and a huge, octagonal wooden windmill that sits at at the junction of several waterways.
Go for a walk
The Ramblers, Britain’s energetic walking charity, offers free Wellbeing Walks as well as longer guided walks for members. Non-members are allowed to try three of the wellbeing walks for free before joining (from £38.50 a year). For members, there are 50,000 group walks each year across Britain. PR director Jardine Howlett says they are an excellent option for solo travellers wanting to explore spectacular off-the-beaten-track landscapes with confidence.
In Carmarthenshire, Lisa Denison runs a firm called Quiet Walks (from £10pp). It’s aimed at less-extrovert walkers who may not want to socialise the whole time, but still prefer to be in a small group. “Most of my customers come on their own,” she says. A favourite is the five-mile round-trip hike up to Garn Goch, one of the largest iron age hill forts in Wales.
Find your tribe
The website Meetup is a great source of worldwide group walks, and can include winter hikes but also skating in Stockholm’s popular Hellasgården park and year-round sea swimming in Barcelona. Enthusiasts will be able to find like-minded friends at activities from chess clubs and climbing walls to jazz bars in lots of cities.
Eat and drink
Eating and drinking together is often a short cut to friendship. Cookery classes are always a good bet, as are foraging courses. Kerry Bowness of the Foraging Course Company leads lively walks, complete with samples of hawthorn ketchup or elderflower jelly, in areas ranging from Norfolk to Gloucestershire.
Foodie walks have sprung up around the globe. Brewery, distillery and vineyard visits are fun too, especially once the tasters start flowing. There are hundreds of these to check out in the UK alone, including friendly hydro-powered Deanston distillery near Stirling (£15) or entertaining year-round tours at the Yorkshire Heart vineyard, in countryside between York and Knaresborough (from £25).
By sharing a 16-seater mini-coach, Edinburgh-based Rabbie’s Tours keeps trips affordable and sociable while taking guests to some spectacular landscapes. Among its many tours is a 12-hour round-trip from Edinburgh that packs in a lot of dramatic scenery, including Glencoe and Ben Nevis, the UK’s highest mountain (£59).
Cotswolds in a Day (£55) is a small-group minibus tour that picks up from railway stations and kicks off with a big view from Dover’s Hill, followed by towns and villages full of old stone bridges, rose-wreathed cottages and beamed pubs. Lisa and Tom Benjamin, who founded the company Go Cotswolds, met while each was travelling solo in South America. Lisa says: “When we later set up our business, it was very important to us that our tours were welcoming and affordable for independent solo travellers, because that’s where we were coming from.”
Be a pilgrim
More than half the 350,000 annual walkers on the Camino de Santiago are women. Many of them set out alone and make long-term friendships on the way. Carolyn Gillespie is the author of Pilgrim, a book about walking the Camino. Lots of peregrinas, she says, are walking at a transitional phase of their lives, and going solo is part of the plan. “It’s all about stepping out of your comfort zone and seeing what you’re made of.” At the same time, it’s reassuring to become part of a “travelling caravan of people” all with the same destination. “We’d laugh, talk, put the world to rights, but we were just as contented with silence, listening to the cuckoo,” she writes. Camigas is a Facebook page that puts women on the Camino in touch with each other.
Keep a journal
Not only will this help you remember details of all your experiences, it also gives you something purposeful to do when you’re sitting on your own in a restaurant. “I always keep a journal while travelling,” says Zhao, “as a means of jotting down impressions, observations, little sketches of the moment. It’s also a nice souvenir of the travels to look back on.”