I recently told a coworker of mine about my first solo trip when I was 18. Lo and behold, on the same day I got home to find a post on reddit: “Fifth day backpacking and I hate it”, a poor chap declared: ‘Right now I’m in hell and I just want to leave, but I would be ashamed and embarrassed to return home so soon after planning this trip for so many months‘. Both of these things have inspired me to write this blog post, about how to avoid getting completely overwhelmed on your first solo trip.
Before I travelled, I had a mental picture of how I’d feel when I arrived in Cairo. This was before pinterest and instagram, but I’d still managed to dream up a scenario where I’d confidently stride off the plane and into new adventures, soaking up the culture and making new friends. I was so excited to try new food, see history that I’d read into and watched for years, and learn about different religions. I was convinced I was about to become worldly – wise – unflappable.
Instead, as soon as the plane landed I felt blind panic. The airport minibus transfer I’d booked myself to ‘ease into’ solo travel suddenly seemed menacing, how would I know that the drive didn’t actually plan to cut me up into little pieces? He could drive me off anywhere, perhaps I’d end up buried in the Valley of the Kings! Despite my intense fears, I did manage to get myself onto the minibus (only after intensely checking the driver’s name against the email I’d been sent, just in case). Nonetheless, the sense of panic, dread and regret did not subside. Instead, when I got to the hotel, I sat, wide-eyed and terrified on my bed.
After a few hours passed, I decided to head out to get dinner. This was something I was so looking forward to in my plans – how liberating to choose anything I wanted, and just enjoy my own company! Instead, I only just made it out into the bustling streets of Cairo when the Call to Prayer came on. Around me, cars honked loudly. I smelled falafel, and exhaust fumes. The ground shimmered with the intense heat. Nowadays, I would probably find this absolutely beautiful. Back then, it an assault on my senses which sent me scurrying back into the safety of my hotel room.
It wasn’t until I’d eaten every single thing out of my mini bar and I was absolutely starving that I managed to drag myself out of the hotel. I walked approximately half a block, bought some bread and some cream cheese (la vache qui rit – I still laugh when I see it), and retreated again.
By the end of the trip, I was haggling with the best of them, laughing with my newfound friends and learning so much about Egyptology as well as modern Egyptian culture. I was hooked on travel and adventuring alone. But it didn’t happen right away. Therefore, I’ve assembled the following tips to help you if you feel overwhelmed either before, or during, your first solo trip*. (*note: or on any of your trips! Perhaps its your first trip after a break, or in a country that is different than others you have visited).
1. Don’t be embarrassed.
Of all the tips, this is probably my #1. After I got home from my trip, I didn’t originally tell anyone except my ever patient mother how bloody terrified I’d been when I first arrived. I was embarrassed, and thought people would think I was ignorant or a coward if they knew. I now realise this is ridiculous. It is totally normal to feel overwhelmed on your first solo trip. You are totally, 100% out of your comfort zone. The fact you are there is awesome, and the fact you’re feeling a bit nervous is totally understandable.
2. Consider tours
If you are a first-time solo traveller, you have probably already met some numpty who will tell you that “real” travellers don’t go on tours. Total lies. Tours can be an absolutely fantastic way to be introduced to a new place. You’ll have the benefit of the knowledge of someone who knows the answers to all your silly questions, will notice if you go missing, and knows the best things to see in a city. My first solo trip in Egypt I went on a nine day solo trip. It was fabulous! If you would prefer not to go on a multi day tour, check out a site like Viator or Tours by Locals and consider some shorter trips. Free walking tours are also a good introduction.
3. Stay in a hostel, and reach out to other travellers.
If you’re anything like me, your first reaction to feeling overwhelmed and scared may be to withdraw. Try to avoid this if you can. Consider staying in a hostel, where you are almost guaranteed to meet other travellers. It helps to make travel seem so much more doable to talk to others who have done it, and connecting with other travellers is one of the absolute best things about travel. Chances are you will be invited out on some fun adventures, where you won’t feel as overwhelmed because you’ll be in a group. Another benefit of hostels is the staff are usually really friendly, and can give you good ideas of what to do.
4. Be proud of your small achievements.
My journeys around 47 different countries started with a trip to a 7-11 to get cream cheese. I still think, looking back, that this was the biggest step I took while travelling. It was the biggest risk I took – trusting myself to jump off a hill face while paragliding in Pokhara, Nepal, was less of a challenge! For my best friend, it was trying on a pair of killer heels at a boutique in Madrid. Don’t expect too much of yourself too quickly, and be proud of your progress – even if it’s not necessarily what you’re posting about on social media!
5. Give it time, and cut yourself a break.
Don’t expect yourself to get off the plane as an intrepid solo traveller prepared for anything. It might happen, and that is awesome. However, you may also want to hide out in your hotel room for a day or two. Guess what? You absolutely can. You’re solo travelling! It might be a good idea to give yourself a few days to ease into the new lifestyle, starting slow such as heading out for coffees (or cream cheese).
Bonus tip: You’re not stuck anywhere!
I’m adding this to the end because it comes with a disclaimer. The most upvoted post on the Reddit thread mentioned above spoke about India possibly being a ‘mistake’ because it is not traveller friendly. Many commentators suggested swapping it in for the more traveller friendly Thailand. Now, I freaking love Thailand and there’s a reason it’s basically backpacker Mecca. However, I chose Egypt as my first solo travel destination as an 18 year old girl (plus, I was from the country. I wasn’t even a terribly brave 18 year old). Honestly, I think I would have felt just as overwhelmed in Thailand. It’s not necessarily the country, but the incredible sense of the unknown that got to me. I felt so damn far away, because honestly, I was. For this reason, I’m not sure that suggesting a particular “easy” place is terribly helpful.
That said, there is the chance that you just straight up hate the destination you chose. I’m going to be totally honest. I was not a fan of New Caledonia. I thought it was overpriced and unfriendly. Similarly, Phnom Penh in Cambodia (one of my favourite countries of all time) just didn’t feel safe or interesting to me. If it really is that you just aren’t gelling with a place, then don’t force it. you may be able to return one day when you’re at a different stage in your life, or you just may never like that place. Whatever it is, there’s no point inflicting somewhere on yourself just because it’s what you “should” do. If all else fails, grab your passport and your credit card and go somewhere else. You’ve already lost the money, no point chasing sunk costs. That’s another great part of solo travel: you’re the one in total control!
Egypt: an interesting choice for a first time solo traveller, but I wouldn’t change it!