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Fran, Ale, and Cam – Lovely young Chilean women I met while in Ecuador

I have been asked the following questions numerous times:

1. Why are you going on this RTW trip?

2. Aren’t you scared to go alone?

3. Don’t you have to plan everything out, such as making reservations for your hotels; tours; ground transportation (Eurorail pass); what you are going to do and see in each country; etc.?

Most people when they hear the term “solo travel,” they take that to mean “all by yourself, all the time, always alone” – and nothing could be further from the truth. Unless you are antisocial, a monk, or an introvert, you’ll find that you will meet plenty of people on your journey. This may sound counter-intuitive, but you will in fact have plenty of opportunities to meet people versus traveling with a companion. Why is that? 

One travel site says this, “Simply because you are much more approachable and far less intimidating than a pair or a group that’s already got their own thing going. I wont lie to you though. Single travel has its perils too — such as safety concerns, including occasional bouts of loneliness.  But a little preparation and common sense can save you money and get you through the rough spots.”

For me personally, I might have an advantage over others, i.e., I am a recovering alcoholic (27 years clean and sober) and going to AA and NA meetings is not only one of the ways I maintain my sobriety, but it’s also a fantastic way to meet people.  For example, when I was traveling in South and Central America for 2 months, I went to many AA and NA meetings, where I met many, many wonderful people. Just about every day I traveled, I was invited to lunch, dinner, or an activity, e.g., going to the beach, a National Park, museum, market place, etc.  I still communicate with many of these people via the internet. A half hour ago, I was communicating with my friend, Aquilino in Bocas Del Toro via Facebook.  We do this frequently.  I know that if I ever go back to any of these places, I will be welcomed back with open arms and friendship.

Additionally, many of the places I stayed at were hostels, where typically the mornings were opportunities to chat and have breakfast with fellow travelers, many of whom were traveling solo as well. Often, I would be invited to an activity or I would invite a person(s) to accompany me to a museum I wanted to visit or a tour I was thinking about going on.

Most RTW travel sites will strongly suggest that you consider going alone, especially if that is the only thing holding you back from a RTW trip. Besides, the reality is that very few people can afford to take such a trip and/or take time off from their job.

When I traveled alone to South and Central America earlier this year, it was similar to a religious or spiritual experience.  Each day I saw something new. I was able to view my surroundings without my perceptions being filtered or influenced by the prejudices, tastes or preferences of a companion. Traveling alone gives you the opportunity to indulge yourself fully. I wont get into too many details, but I actually dated while I was in Panama (two women), Costa Rica (once), and Ecuador (two women).  In only one instance, was language a major barrier. Ironically many locals spoke excellent English that I met while in Latin America. On one date I went on, we visited a major museum in Quito and she was able to interpret signage for artwork pieces we viewed. This was invaluable!  Similarly, a monument we viewed on the other side of town was made much easier and less expensive, if only because she negotiated the taxi fare.

In Ecuador, I was also able to travel a few days with 3 wonderful young women, who were all from Chile. While with them, we visited the artisan marketplaces in Otavalo and Cotacachi; as well as went to dinner and Mardi Gras Carnival in Quito, where we danced at a couple of discotheques. I was old enough to be their father, but I had a blast!

As I alluded to earlier, traveling alone can be the ultimate in self-indulgence – you take a break when you want to or you can put the peddle to the metal. Sure, all your mistakes are your own, but so are your successes. If you screw up by going to a place that is closed, no biggie and no worrying about a traveling companion being pissed off because you didn’t double check to see if the museum was open on a Sunday. It’s your own day to salvage or chalk up to a learning experience. You can do exactly what you want to do — all the time. Always wanted to try ocean kayaking or zip lining? Sign up for a class and go for it; there’s no one sitting on the proverbial sideline bored while you have the time of your life. Have no desire to see the biggest ball of twine in the world? Just frickin’ drive right by.

The last thing I will mention is safety. For a solo traveler, this is paramount. Without a companion to watch your back, you are more vulnerable to criminals and scam artists, as well as simple health worries. But the saying “safety in numbers” isn’t necessarily true — a solo traveler can blend in more easily than a group, and not drawing attention to yourself as a tourist is one way to stay safe. Here are a few tips:

  • Know how long it takes and how much it costs to get from the airport to your hotel or to the city center. Solo travelers are more likely to be “taken for a ride,” so ask the taxi driver how much it will cost before you leave. If it’s considerably different from what you know to be true, take a different cab.
  • Find out if hotels at your destination are open late, so you don’t end up sleeping out in your rental car or worse.
  • Be your own best counsel; if it doesn’t feel right, don’t do it.
  • Carry good identification, in more than one place. Including copies of your passport and itinerary. Do not travel without a money belt. Also, keep money in more than one place on your person.
  • Keep to open and public places, especially at night.
  • Exude confidence and walk purposefully.
  • Do not wear expensive jewelry or watches. Leave that stuff at home.
  • When traveling on a bus, train, or other mode of transportation, such as a rickshaw, you are very vulnerable to being robbed. For example, on a rickshaw, many people get their bags or purses stolen from passing motorcyclists. Similarly, if you are in a rental car, you are vulnerable in traffic jams or at lights. Why? Many major cities have street sellers, where it is not unusual for people to be seen on the actual street, highway, or road, selling food or trinkets. Among these people, are thieves who are looking for purses or bags on seats. Store this stuff in a trunk or on the floor of your vehicle, with your doors locked (albeit, some will break the windows if they think the item is valuable enough).
  • Carry a small LED flashlight. These are extremely small, but powerful. I arrived late at night in Boquete, Panama and I knew what hotel I was staying at, with directions on how to find it. However, it was extremely dark out and most of the hotels in this area had signs that were unlit. Problem solved with this small LED light.
  • I do not like to check in bags. Ever. Consequently, I am taking a back pack and lumbar pack that will meet carry on requirements. No way, no how, will I lose my belongings to a dysfunctional airline that sends my gear to Morocco, while I am going to Nepal. However, this means I can’t bring along my Swiss Army knife that is invaluable. So, you need to determine if that Swiss Army knife should go with you. If it does, you will have to ensure it is in a bag that is checked in.
  • Travel light. The lighter the better. If I have to move fast or am attacked, I don’t want to have to worry about multiple pieces of luggage. Even at 57, I am in good shape and very quick . . . Considerably less so, if my hands are not free or am burdened with suitcases, etc.

Insofar as planning everything out, I would suggest that you only plan one country ahead. Museums, tours, hotels, and national parks can all be planned out a few days before you arrive.  Don’t stress about pre-booking everything, such as hotels. In fact, you will probably save money by cutting out the “middle man” . . . You know what I am talking about – the Expedias, Orbitzs, Travelocitys, etc.  When I am traveling for a long period of time, I wing it – I show up at a hotel that I have researched on the internet and just drop in and negotiate a rate (that is even below their stated website rate).  Sure, have a back up hotel, but the idea is to save money and moreover, not be structured during your trip. For example, I may find that I don’t like a city, so I don’t want to be locked into a hotel for a week or more at a time there. The same thing can be accomplished with tours, as many operators will negotiate a price.