I first travelled alone at the age of 20, going through most of south-east Europe and the Balkans and spending four weeks in Italy, with an interlude sleeping on a friend’s floor in London. It was one of the best things I ever did in my life; it improved my confidence in myself immensely and helped me get motivated to get my life back on track when I was going through a very difficult phase. I learned a lot on that trip about how to make the most out of travelling alone – so here is my advice for first timers!
1. Work out your budget and how much time you have
Lots of travel websites push the line that you don’t need money to travel. While it’s true that it’s possible to travel long-term on less money than you might think, realistically, you need some money to get started. Although we often don’t like to admit it, having the resources to travel is a huge privilege. I think a budget should also stretch to enough money to get you home (or somewhere safe) in case of emergency, and comprehensive travel insurance. Work out how long you want to go for, how much money you have, and subtract from that any fixed costs (flights, trains, insurance and emergency money, rucksacks, visa fees and other things you may need to buy), and then your daily budget (anywhere from 10-30 euro is enough in Europe). This website allows you to calculate your budget very effectively and comprehensively.
2. Work out an itinerary
Think about where you might like to go: places you have been recommended, places you’ve read about in newspapers or blogs, places that you have an interest in. The next step is to investigate transport links between the cities you want to travel to. For this, the site Rome2Rio, which allows you to build up an itinerary and shows travel options, is invaluable. Bear in mind that its coverage is better for some parts of the world than others, but for Europe it is fairly comprehensive.
3. Make and packing list and buy anything you need
Travelling is a lot like camping: you will get a lot better at knowing what exactly you need and don’t need after your first trip. That said, there is nothing worse than being on the road and finding that you’ve brought far too much stuff with you. Especially if you’re carrying a backpack up 3 flights of stairs to a hostel dorm. It’s worth remembering that most of the essentials like toiletries and extra clothes, underwear, and so on, will almost certainly be available to buy in any country you travel to, so don’t sweat the small stuff too much. I find Rick Steves’ packing lists really useful for preparing this aspect of a trip, but remember that you have the right to alter your packing lists according to your own preference and comfort levels – it’s your trip after all!
4. Book your flights, trains and hostels (optional)
A lot of travelers like to “wing it” and book things when they get there, but if it makes you feel more comfortable to know everything’s already booked before you get there, you should go ahead and do it. Personally, I like to have at least one night booked somewhere before I arrive, so I have the security of knowing that I have somewhere safe to go when I arrive, especially if I will be arriving at night.
5. Consider work-exchange options
This is a great way of getting to know local people in any place you travel to, and also to make your budget stretch much further. Generally, you will be working for 15-30 hours per week in exchange for room and board, so it doesn’t grant you the same freedom as simply staying in hostels. Options to consider are WWOOFing, Helpx, Workaway, house sitting, and hostel volunteering. Think about your aptitudes, what kind of work you enjoy, and what you could offer to a host, and remember that working in a hostel or organic farm for a few weeks is not exactly like going on holiday. Alternatively, particularly if you are an EU citizen, you can look for summer jobs in resorts, or winter jobs in ski chalets. These jobs tend to provide room and board, as well as wages to go along with it.
6. Take the pressure off
Last of all, remember that there is no right and wrong way to go travelling. There is no requisite amount of socializing you have to do, no places that you absolutely have to go and see, and no amount of local food that you absolutely have to try. There is no obligation to take 100s of photographs, bring back dozens of souvenirs, or keep a blog. There is also nothing wrong with spending a little bit of extra money here and there to make your life easier or more comfortable (sometimes, after a long train journey, when you’re facing a complex and unfamiliar public transport system and carrying a 50L rucksack, that taxi fare to your hostel really is worth it). There is also nothing wrong with hitchhiking and couchsurfing, for example, if you enjoy it and it saves you money.
It’s your trip, and you have to do it in a way which works for you.