Whenever I finish a solo trip abroad, I usually get the same comments and questions from my friends.
“Wow! How did you survive Cambodia alone?” “That’s so cool! I wish I can travel to Thailand by myself.” “I really want to travel solo to do soul-searching but I don’t know how.”
It’s been said hundreds of times – it’s a life-changing experience to embark on a solo trip in a foreign destination. You learn a lot of practical lessons and you are forced to take risks. It’s an adventure of a lifetime and it becomes more valuable the earlier you do it.
My first solo backpacking trip was after my graduation in April 2013. I put cross-country traveling in Southeast Asia in my bucket list after I discovered my wanderlust the year before. As a graduation gift, I asked my mother to fund my trip to Vietnam and Cambodia. I saw the value in investing in experiences plus I really needed a time alone to discern what I’ll do after finishing my studies.
The trip gave me a better perspective of my region. I saw how petty my concerns were compared to the struggle some people in other countries go through. I saw that no matter how different our cultures were, we still share the same humanity.
Since then, traveling solo had been an annual tradition of sorts. I visited Laos in April 2014 and backpacked across Myanmar in August 2015. I’ve been scammed in Mandalay, slept in Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi International Airport thrice, almost got stuck in Vientiane because of the Songkran Holiday, suffered sunburns biking around the 30-km long Angkor Archaeological Park, and got lost in the streets of Ho Chi Minh.
All these experiences seem scary at first. But they add to the thrill of the travel and the uncertainty of my adventures.
To answer the ever-lingering question, this is how you start a solo trip abroad.
1) Identify a country
You have to know where you want to go. What is you dream destination? What place do you want to explore?
This is the first step to your first solo trip abroad – identify a country you want to visit and make it your goal to visit that country by a certain date.
Doing this will fill your wanderlust. You will long to see that country’s sites, eat its amazing food, and meet its people.
After my trip to Brunei in April 2015, Myanmar was the only country in Southeast Asia I haven’t visited. I dreamt of wandering around the ruins of Bagan and traversing the temples of Mandalay. I made visiting Myanmar in 2015 a priority. When I finally arrived there on August, it felt amazing. It was literally a dream come true.
2) Set a budget and save up!
This is the biggest hindrance to traveling abroad. The answer I get when I ask my friends who want to travel why they haven’t traveled is that they are worried over their finances.
We live in Southeast Asia, one of the cheapest travel destinations in the world. With the right research and determination to save up, you can easily visit another country even with a tight budget.
Do your research. Because of budget airlines, airfare is really cheap nowadays. I booked my return flights to Taipei in August 2013 for only $75! But you have to be patient in looking for cheap flights. It takes experience to know when a flight is already at its cheapest price but you’ll get there.
Cheap accommodation is also easy to find because of websites like Agoda and AirBNB. For countries like Vietnam, Thailand, and Cambodia, you can easily find guesthouses and hostels that offer rooms or beds for just $5 a night!
Airfare and accommodation are cheaper during low seasons. While you risk experiencing bad weather during your trip, you can save a lot – plus, the tourist spots will not be as congested with travelers.
Once you have studied all these factors, set your budget and save up. When I want to splurge for a trip, I usually save up 6 months before I go. But if you just want to explore a new place without really spending too much, 3 months of saving will do.
For the 10 days I spent in Vietnam and Cambodia, I spent $300 excluding airfare because I visited 4 cities. For 5 days in Brunei and Kota Kinabalu, I spent $250 excluding flights because accommodation in Bandar Seri Begawan is scarce and expensive. Identifying the country you want to visit will greatly affect your budget so choose your destination well!
3) Make an itinerary! Research!
After booking your flights, determine which specific places you want to visit in a country. Aside from the tourist spots you want to see in one city, try looking for nearby cities or countries you can check out so you can get the most out of your trip. If you’re staying in Saigon for a week, for example, you may want to take a day trip to Phnom Penh since it only takes 8 hours to get there.
I usually make an itinerary first before I book my accommodation. This makes traveling in different cities and provinces easier and your trip more flexible. Depending on the country you want to visit, you can also make a rough itinerary first before booking your flights. This is what I did when I was planning for my Myanmar trip since I wanted to visit Mandalay, Bagan, and Yangon. I entered the country via a flight from Bangkok to Mandalay and left in Yangon. This saved me a lot of time traveling by land.
Research goes a long way when traveling to a new place for the first time. When I brought my family to Hanoi in February 2015, I forgot to check what happens during their Tet (Chinese New Year) Holiday. I thought it would be like Bangkok during Songkran, where most people are on their party mode. Apparently, Vietnamese go back to their hometowns when it’s Tet. While we were able to visit the city’s tourist destinations, we weren’t able to shop for souvenirs since the malls were closed during our entire stay.
What are the must-try food in Brunei? What are the common courtesies in Kerala? Where can I see the golden sunset of Myanmar? These are just some important questions you can answer if you do your research well.
4) Ask people of their experiences.
While doing your research goes a long way, experience is still the best teacher. Plus, some information on the Internet might be outdated so it’s best to ask your friends who’ve been to the country you plan to visit.
Ask them about their adventures, tips, and mishaps. There’s a big chance they can tell you the best places to eat at, the scams you should avoid, and how realistic your budget is to the actual spending you’ll do.
I always do this whenever I’m planning a trip to a new destinations. I ask my friends for their experiences so I can ground my expectations.
Nothing beats local knowledge. So when you arrive in your destination, befriend locals. Ask them for off-the-beaten-track places you can visit. When I went to Vietnam in April 2013, my friend took me to her hometown in Da Lat. It was a very picturesque province and the cool weather in the highlands was a good break from the humidity of Saigon. I would never have thought of visiting Da Lat if I didn’t ask my friend’s advice.
5) Choose to go and go!
The most important step in starting your own solo trip abroad is to decide that you want to do this – and do it. A lot of people make itineraries, research on the places they want to visit, and save up their allowances for a trip but never actually go. They’re afraid to step outside their comfort zones and explore a world they haven’t known.
Traveling alone takes courage. It requires us to take a leap of faith, to trust in the goodness of humanity, and to be truly independent. It pushes people to see the world in a new light and to acknowledge the common humanity we all share.
Go! Travel alone! Do it while you are young! Explore the world beyond your comfort zone and you will go back with a newfound sense of wonder.
“Travel is more than the seeing of sights. It is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.” – Mary Ritter Beard