[UPDATED 3 Jan 2020]
Solo travel has been on the rise lately, but perceptions of it are still muddled with fears, uncertainty, and misconceptions. While it can be a uniquely enriching and fulfilling experience that group travel won't give you, there are understandably many concerns about security, safety, and even practicality that can make a traveller hesitant to try it out.
That's why we're going to tackle some of the unspoken expectations and realities of solo travel to show you a more realistic portrayal of both the highs and lows of taking a trip on your own. It may be intimidating, and hey, maybe this article won't convince you to book a single-seat flight to the country of your choice anytime soon - but we hope that it'll open up your mind a little bit more to what solo travel is truly like ?
Expectation: Solo travel is unsafe! You'll be kidnapped/robbed/pickpocketed/etc.
Anyone who's floated the idea of a solo trip to family members for the first time is bound to have heard worried but well-meaning concerns that they'll run into a whole gang of criminals once they step off the plane. Safety is the biggest concern for any traveller, but for solo travellers, there's a general idea that you have a higher risk of being targeted and if you do meet with any trouble you won't have anyone to depend upon for help. For female travellers
, there's also the greater and more constant worry of harassment (or even worse) that male travellers just don't have to worry about. Plus we've all heard stories from friends and friends-of-friends - cases of injury or thievery happen even in the 'safest' of countries, so it's unsurprising and even natural to feel apprehensive about solo travel.
1. Reality: There are many precautions you can take to avoid dangerous situations.
Solo travel involves being aware of how to deal with other people, as well as your own situation. There are people who venture into dangerous territories and emerge unscathed, and there are also people who do everything 'correctly' and still get pickpocketed or harassed, meaning there's no set of rules that will guarantee you won't run into trouble. But if you let the fear consume you, then the fear wins because it holds you back! Solo travel can test you in so many ways that group travel won't, and you'll emerge from any solo trip more aware of yourself and what you're capable of. Take bad experiences as learning opportunities
, and you'll learn how to guard yourself even more during future trips.
Knowledge and preparation are 2 of the most important ways you can arm yourself against such threats, and these are some of the precautions you can take to try to keep yourself safe:
- Research thoroughly and prioritize your safety above everything else. Never leave things up to chance. Plan as detailed as possible beforehand, and you can even use apps such as Safeture, Chirpey (it's women-only too!) or RedZone to see what other travellers are saying about a place's safety. There are some countries that aren't so friendly to solo female travellers - in these cases, it's more worth it to travel in a group than to go alone. Don't think of this as missing out on the solo experience, but as the best possible way to get the most out of your trip by making you feel comfortable and safe!
- You can never be too cautious. It's worth it to pay more for a credited airport transfer or even a boutique hotel if those are options that will make you feel safer. If you're booking an Airbnb for example, search for Superhosts who have a good track record of positive reviews. If you're looking for a hostel, sites such as Hostelworld have a detailed database of reviewed options so you can see the general profiles of other travellers.
- Be mindful of your money. Separate your cash into different amounts and pouches so that if you do get pickpocketed, you won't find yourself cashless. Keep an eye on your bag, and don't hesitate to carry it in front of you (even if it may look odd).
- Always let someone you trust know where you are. Send someone your itinerary before your trip and inform them of any changes you make along the way. Apps such as bSafe or the Livestream feature on Instagram will let your loved ones know where you are.
- Learn basic self-defence. This doesn't just mean learning martial arts (although there are more courses now dedicated specifically to basic self-defence) but keeping implements such as sharp keys or pepper spray on you at all times. There are even apps that will sound a loud alarm if someone disarms your phone, and you should always memorize the emergency numbers for a new country.
- Trust your instincts. If something feels suspicious or too-good-to-be-true, get out of there immediately! Even if things turn out fine, it's not worth the risk to yourself for a bit more fun. Use your common sense, and stay alert at all times.
P.S. Check out some Muslimah-friendly destinations here
2. Expectation: I'll face lots of racism/discrimination as a solo Muslim traveller.
Muslim travellers face a unique set of challenges due to our dietary requirements and religious obligations. Not being able to find authentic local food options can be disappointing, and not having a safe or sheltered place to pray can be anxiety-inducing. Islamaphobia is also a big concern, and even though we know that a majority of people in most countries are kind or at the least apathetic, there's that lingering fear that just one bigot out there will ruin our trip. For hijabis, it can be nerve-wracking to wear the hijab in a foreign culture where you're not sure how the local population will react too.
P.S. Our contributor, Maliha, shared her personal experience of travelling around Europe while wearing the hijab. Check it out here!
Reality: The world is becoming much kinder, and bad experiences are rare!
But the reality is that the world is becoming a lot kinder towards Muslim travellers, giving us lots more opportunities for new experiences and adventures
! There is an increasing number of countries focused on improving their Muslim-friendly tourism, and no end to the heartwarming accounts between Muslims and non-Muslims who met on a trip and formed a bond
. For every country or city that seems hostile, you'll find at least two others that are welcoming and hospitable. There are also Muslim communities everywhere
that are worth reaching out to - if there's just one mosque in the entire city, chances are that the community attending it is tight-knit and dependable. Here are some tips for navigating new environments as a solo Muslim traveller:
- Be open to new food experiences while drawing your own boundaries. Eating halal doesn't just mean eating halal-certified meat - there are always seafood, vegetarian, and vegan options available and most eateries will accommodate to requests to exclude alcohol from the cooking process if you ask politely. For countries with a drinking culture, it can be difficult to find a restaurant that doesn't serve alcohol. In these cases, while we advise that you dine at your own discretion it's also important to remember to be open-minded to the local culture.
- Learn some useful and simple phrases. Most locals we've met are accommodating once you take some time to explain what halal means and will try their best to help you out. You can also print out simple phrases including "How do I get to ___?" or "How much does this cost?" to help you out.
- Remember that Islam never imposes upon you. Above all, Islam is flexible and God is merciful. For example, you can combine or shorten prayers while you're getting used to the routine of travel. Read up on how to pray in public and plan your days around prayer times and mealtimes. Placing your faith first while you travel will only enhance the experience, and allow you to appreciate the worth and beauty of travel to Islam ? (You can rely on some of these duas to relieve some of your worries before and during your trip!)
- Keep an open mind and never generalize. Sometimes we also let our own fears cloud our judgement, but it's important to always keep an open mind and greet others with warmth while on a trip - looking at the world through fresh eyes can teach us lots of things too. As Muslims, we bear the importance of being good 'representatives' of our faith to others and one of the best ways to do this is to see travel as a path to peace, understanding, and breaking down of barriers. ☺️
3. Expectation: I'll feel isolated/lonely :(
If you're going from always travelling with family or a large group, it can be intimidating to manage everything from transport to food on your own for the first time. In the same vein, if this is your first time travelling (or even solo travelling) it can be exhausting just getting used to being on your own. Simple things such as eating alone, asking a stranger to help you take photographs
, or just facing the prospect of spending hours with no one for company that can feel really exhausting and leave you more stressed than relaxed.
Reality: You won't always be alone, and being alone on your trip can be a good thing!
As we've mentioned already, you'll hardly be actually alone for most of your trip. Between the people in your hostel or accommodation, other tourists you'll run into, the local Muslim community, or just friendly strangers on the street you'll have plenty of chances for meaningful social interaction! Having a positive attitude towards this will also make a huge difference, as you'll come to see being on your own as a way to improve and strengthen yourself, and not as a vulnerable weak spot. ?
- Rethink what 'solo' means. Solo travel doesn't mean being alone the entire trip. There are Facebook groups for travellers looking for travel buddies, with lots of women-only groups too. Tour companies such as Intrepid Travel are also one way to meet new people on an adventure. Having a buddy along for even a few days can ease your mind a lot, while still giving you that independence and freedom of going solo.
- Enjoy the alone time! Most of us aren't used to eating or spending time on our own, so solo travel gives us a rare opportunity to get in touch with ourselves and rethink our priorities in life. Eating alone in a restaurant may seem completely alien, but no one else around you will be judging you for it, we promise ? If it feels like they are, remember that this trip isn't about them - it's about you!
- Get some time away from your phone. With our smartphones on us, are we ever truly alone on a solo trip? So much of travel these days revolves around Instagram or keeping up appearances, and solo travel can help you take a break from that. Look inwards for comfort and solace and use long periods of 'nothing' (such as train rides, bus rides, or flights) to reconnect with your faith or just rejuvenate with some light reading.
4. Expectation: Solo travel is impractical/expensive/unrealistic etc.
We can't forget all of the practical concerns when it comes to solo travel either. Going off on your own means no one to split the cost of train passes or accommodations with, no one to help you read a map, and so many more worries that can really build up and cause you lots of stress. If your family doesn't approve of you solo travelling, that can be one of the biggest obstacles that's difficult to overcome, even if you really do want to have that short break of independence.
Reality: Solo travel covers a wide range of prices, experiences, and opportunities!
Solo travel doesn't always mean going to far-flung and expensive places - even a short weekend trip to somewhere nearby
can be a short exercise in planning a solo trip, giving you just enough time to recharge from a busy work or school week. If you still have lingering worries:
- Stay connected with your family throughout the process. If your family has concerns over your travelling solo, remember to listen to them and understand why they feel this way. Being reckless would not make your solo trip any easier, and it's important that we appreciate our family's concern for us. Running over your plans with your family might even help them get excited on your behalf, and you'll hopefully be able to depart for your trip with ease.
- Don't rush yourself into it! If you're starting out with solo travel, ease into it by having solo days during a family/group trip, or book a tour for a few days. If you're not sure what to expect, plan a more relaxed or flexible itinerary and take it easy on yourself. Start saving and planning early, and you'll be rewarded for your diligence at the end. Each trip will bring its own unique challenges and obstacles to overcome, and it's all part of the learning process ? If you decide to go even further and backpack, read up and make sure to prepare for it thoroughly.
- Know your own limits and priorities. There are always affordable experiences to gain in each country, and a lot of it will depend on what you want to do. Once you know what you want out of your itinerary, you can decide how your trip will go.
In the end, there's no straightforward answer to whether solo travel is safe, suitable, or ideal for you. Some travellers may never enjoy going solo, whereas others can spend weeks on their own with no worries. No matter what, there's no need to rush into it - solo travel isn't the only way to travel, and there will always be ways you can see and experience the amazing world out there ?