Great ideas for stress-free travel as a solo backpacker
I always end up as a solo traveller and a female solo traveller too! It seems to be the topic of many travel forums – how to travel safely as a solo backpacker or solo female backpacker.
But how about recognising that it can also be stressful travelling on your own? It’s always you that has to work out what time the bus leaves, calculate how much money to change at the border, drag yourself out of bed to catch the early train, map-read through the streets to find the guesthouse, then still have enough energy left to cook dinner at the hostel and socialise with other travellers…
I’ve never really even given a thought to travelling on my own – it’s just what I do! I actually organise my life around travelling, as I’m lucky enough to work for half the year and travel the other half. Sometimes friends will fly out and join me for a couple of weeks but they have ‘normal jobs’ and families (poor them!) so I’m on my own for the most part.
I love travelling solo. I have the flexibility to organise my own itinerary, I can stay longer or shorter in a place depending on how I like it and I still meet plenty of people to hang out with. And I actually enjoy doing all the planning and organising of a trip. I guess that’s why I’m still a backpacker at 39! (Relevant Still Backpacking at 39 blog post here).
However even I find it a little stressful at times, not have anyone to share the challenges of travelling with. I realise I’ve developed certain routines and habits that take the stress out of bing a solo backpacker. Here are my top tips for a stress-free solo travel experience with a little pre-preparation.
Know the exchange rate and local currency before you go
I usually take cash out at the airport ATM when I arrive in a new country, rather than exchange money before arriving. In preparation I like to go online and look through photos of the currency I’m going be using, to understand the denominations it comes in.
I also check the exchange rate and try to get it firmly in my head how many Bolivian bolivianos or Lithuanian litai make a pound. I write a quick crib sheet in my phone as well as on a small piece of paper I keep in my wallet. It’s just a few calculations to show how much a pound, five pounds and ten pounds is so I can quickly get to grips with the new currency.
Have some cash for when you arrive
I’m always panicked that the airport ATM won’t work or will be empty, so my backup plan is to have about £20 in cash with me. Then I can always use a currency exchange to buy a bus ticket and try the banks in the city.
There’s also plenty of countries that accept US dollars as well as their national currency so I’ll usually have $50 in small notes too. I keep these for my whole trip just in case, tucked away inside my main backpack.
Plan to arrive before dark
I prefer to arrive at my guesthouse before dark so I can familiarise myself with my new surroundings in daylight. Of course, the cheapest flights may arrive late at night so it’s important to decide whether it’s enough of a trade off.
I once arrived into Macedonia airport at 1am, took the local bus into the city centre and walked through the deserted streets to find my hostel. I felt comfortable doing this there, but probably wouldn’t have enjoyed it after a long night flight to Asia.
Write down the address and phone number of your guesthouse
Digital bookings are all very well but if you’re disorientated trying to find your accommodation you don’t want to be whipping out your phone or tablet trying to connect and download your booking info. I note down the address and if I have a guidebook with the relevant map in it, I mark the street it’s on.
I always remember the very first time I went backpacking. My first stop on a round the world ticket (way back in non-digital 2002) was San Francisco. I’d pre-booked my hostel and I knew where to get off the airport bus but had I printed out directions how to walk to the hostel? Of course not! I had to find an internet café and check the map online.
Check the map before you arrive
Nowadays I have a good look on Google Maps to understand the location of the accommodation in relation to the airport or bus station. I’ll check out the surrounding area and see what’s on the same street.
I work out my route from the bus stop to the hostel and what landmarks there are along the way. This always makes me feel more comfortable arriving in a new area. I have Google maps open on my phone as the bus pulls into the city, watching the little blue GPS dot, which gives me a good sense of direction.
As a solo traveller you’ll find you end up spending a lot of time trying to memorise maps!
Take it one day at a time
Reduce solo travel stress by planning one day ahead at a time only. Just focus on the next steps. It gets stressful fast trying to plan every single moment in advance.
I usually have a vague plan for my time in a country, a rough travel itinerary, but I only deal with the day ahead. It’s way too difficult to think of everything you need to work out and plan over several days!
For example, before heading off on my South America trip this winter, I had the rough plan to fly in and out of Buenos Aires and to visit Paraguay and Uruguay as part of the trip. But before going all I’d done was booked a place in Buenos Aires for my first two nights and worked out how to get from the airport to the city. Once I arrived I started planning the next two days and so on.
Always carry snacks
Being tired, stressed and hungry not a good combination! It’s a pretty simple tip but I always keep a packet of biscuits and a cereal bar in my pack.
There’s usually no shortage of places to buy food when I’m backpacking but sometimes I just can’t face dealing with another transaction or I don’t have change or I simply can’t make a decision about what to eat. That’s when the cereal bar in my bag starts looking pretty tempting!
Read some travel blogs
The more I know about a destination the more comfortable l feel. I don’t go mad with research. It’s nice to discover somethings for myself, but it’s quite reassuring to read a how-to guide for the Kiev metro by another traveller.
Sometimes just some inspiration is nice. For example the best street food to look out for or a recommended hike.
Enjoy getting from A to B rather focusing on the destination
The most stressed travellers I meet are always the ones getting really irate because the bus is two hours late or no-one can tell what time it actually leaves (handy tip – it’s when the driver feels like leaving!). I never get stressed about that – I see ‘travel days’ as part of my backpacking experience rather than an inconvenience.
I loved getting the old American school buses (chicken buses!) in Guatemala that just travel one hour or so to the next town. Sometimes I’d be taking four or five in a day to get to my final destination, several towns away. Each bus change was a chance to explore a new dusty parking lot or roadside junction that functioned as the bus station and see what random snacks were on sale.
If I made it to my planned final destination that day I was happy and if I didn’t, well there’s a hotel or guesthouse in every town!
Have a good book, a travel game or download something to watch on Netflix
I definitely need to check out from travelling sometimes. This is a particularly good tip for long bus journeys.
It might be that screaming kid kicking my seat for three hours (Peru), the guy next to me chanting continuously under his breath (China) or being wedged between a sack of grain and a caged cockerel (India) – that’s when having something to watch on Netflix really helps calm my temper and forget that I have another five hours to endure before reaching my destination!
Have a holiday from travelling
On my longer trips, three months or more, I often find a place I like and stay for a few days. I love getting into mini routines, as long as the routine doesn’t last too long. There was a cafe I went to every morning for four days in Darjeeling – by the last morning I didn’t even have to tell the owner my order, he’d just bring over my banana porridge (no extra sugar) and black coffee.
Having a break from constant research about where to go next and being on a bus or train every other day can be really revitalising on a long trip. It also gives me a chance to get to know a place better.
I’ve started using Workaway a lot more. This gives me a chance to live with a local family and help them on their property or with a small business in exchange for food and accommodation. I usually stay two weeks (anymore and I get itchy feet) and it really enhances my travel experience as well as giving me a bit of a break from backpacking.
In Guatemala I volunteered with Catalina, living in an adobe mudbrick hobbit house and helping out with various projects from painting fences to digging a new compost. Have a look at my blog post here – Hobbit Houses and Wild Swimming in Guatemala.
I enjoyed swimming every afternoon in the lake, buying several chocolate covered frozen bananas from the same smiley lady, walking the streets after dusk waving at the kids playing in their front garden and waking up in the same bed for two weeks.
That’s not to say I wasn’t excited to move on again after two weeks. I enjoy routines but only for a short time!
What are your tried and tested methods and travel hacks to take the stress out of being a solo traveller? Please feel free to post below.