Brave is not a word I would immediately think of to describe myself. I am the type to plan out itineraries, hotels, and transportation ahead of time before major trips. I check and double check and pack too much, just in case. Recently, though, I went on a trip through Southeastern Turkey to purposefully challenge all those habits. I traveled alone, in a country where I did not speak the language, without a set plan other than a list of cities, and some contacts from the website Couchsurfing. After just a week of travel, I can feel the shift in confidence.
The world often seems a much scarier place when you sit at home, watching the news, than when you are actually out there living it. This summer, I am working in Kars, Turkey. The country is currently in the news for its civil unrest in cities including Istanbul and Ankara. Watching the photos from protests, it’s easy to assume that you are in danger unless you hunker down indoors. I have enough experience to know that risk is always a part of travel, and I wasn’t about to sit around at home and miss out on exploring this region of the world I’ve landed in. The key to travel is having your curiosity outweigh your fears.
If you’ve never traveled alone, consider it. The sense of accomplishment you achieve lasts far longer than tropical tan lines. Here are some travel tips for solo trips abroad:
Learn some language basics
If you do not know your host country’s target language, do not just assume that everyone will speak English. Even if English is well known in the region you are traveling in, at least learn how to say hello, please, and thank you. You can always mime the rest. Carry a notepad to write down amounts or addresses. Many times, I had nothing but the name of my destination and vague instructions to get around with. In these cases, just saying “excuse me” in Turkish and smiling was usually enough for people to open up and help. Even if you never learn to count past three, the people you speak to will appreciate the effort.
Traveling solo does not have to mean being alone! Strike up conversations on buses and in cafes, if you can. Take advantage of websites like Meetup or Couchsurfing to meet locals—people love showing off their cities. Use your judgment when staying with a Couchsurfing host—check their references and whether they are verified.
Pause, evaluate, think. Do not be afraid to be “rude” when something doesn’t feel right—the risk of giving offense is much less important than getting into real trouble. From personal experience, I can guarantee that the way to a castle gate is not through a cemetery and around a barbed wire fence, no matter how earnestly the teenage boy tried to convince me. My initial queasy feeling anticipated the scam. Decline a coffee, a Couchsurfing offer, or a ride if your gut feeling tells you to walk away.
Stay in cities for more than a day and dig deeper. Use public transit. Don’t go to familiar fast food restaurants! Ask locals for their favorite café, gallery, and place to walk. Don’t forget to incorporate some downtime—a city is not defined by a list of museums and monuments, and you’ll exhaust yourself if you overschedule. On my favorite day of the trip, I spent hours chatting over Kurdish coffee with a Couchsurfing host, then ditched my guidebook’s top to-do’s to go pick mulberries.
Change it up
Don’t be afraid to change your itinerary! Part of the beauty of traveling alone is that you do not have to compromise or be accountable to anyone except yourself. Savor your time and your own company.
The next time you go on vacation, consider challenging yourself to a solo adventure —it may help you learn a thing or two about yourself and what you are capable of. You’ll come away with the ability to be comfortable with uncertainty, and with a stronger belief in your own self-reliance. You may also realize that you are better company than you think.
Levo Mentor Nicholas Flanders has worked in seven countries. Ask him for his best travel tips!