August – the traditional month of holidays and (hopefully) sunshine. If you’ve been putting off making holiday plans this year it’s still not too late to order an Interrail pass, buy the cheapest plane ticket you can find to anywhere on the continent and have an adventure this summer.
This year was my third year travelling more or less alone in Europe. I’m not going to lie, the first time I went I was scared stiff and half-expecting to be shot on arrival. Almost any start to travelling solo must be better than that one.
If you are worried about the prospects of travelling alone, the following tips and tricks which I’ve gathered over the past 3 years should (I hope) help you stay safe and get the most out of your solo-journey.
Take reasonable precautions
To put your mind at ease, it can help to take a few reasonable precautions with your belongings before you travel.
1) Bring as few valuables as possible to start. This includes jewellery, smart phones, laptops and large sums of cash.
2) Pick-pocket proof yourself. Divide up any cash you have and carry it in more than one place, secured inside your clothes where possible. Be careful where you are when you take money out. Mind your purse and passport extra carefully in tourist hot spots, and at night in hostel rooms. Don’t flash your flashy phone around if you can avoid it.
3) Make a photocopy of your passport and tickets, and keep them somewhere other than in the same place as your actual passport and tickets. You may also wish to note down the contact details of the Irish Embassies on the back in case you need them.
4) Bring a decent lock with you. Most hostels will have lockers you can use; some require your own lock. These are good for bags, but try put any valuables like laptops (if you must bring one) in more secure storage when available. Some hostels have safes. Most major train stations also have decent luggage storage areas.
5) Sounds obvious, but make sure you have enough of any medication you need to last your trip, and bring your European Health Insurance card in case you need to access health services.
6) Invest in travel insurance in case the above measures fail. It’s not usually expensive. If you have private health insurance, you may already be covered – check with your insurance provider.
Personal safety is a bit more tricky. Is travelling alone dangerous? No. Interrailing alone is no more dangerous than, say, travelling down the country or up to Dublin on your own. Most people use their common sense and know not to walk around on their own (drunk or otherwise) in dodgy areas after dark.
The best advice I can offer is:
7) Check out the cities you’re travelling to before you go, and book your beds at least a day or two in advance. Know your train times as well, so you don’t miss the last connection to wherever your hostel is. That way you’re not going to be caught out and end up sleeping rough.
8) Be a bit more careful than at home. For example, if you find yourself in the middle of a protest, best find your way out of it as quickly as possible, especially in areas where it could easily turn nasty and/or be violently repressed.
9) Avoid looking lost if you can. Check where you’re going and how to get there before you leave the hostel.
10) Travel prepared. Carry condoms (or dental dams, etc.) just in case you meet someone completely irresistible. Carry them even if you ‘know’ you won’t need them, even if you are on your period, and even if you already have a partner… Better safe than STI’d.
11) Specifically for women – a lot of hostels have female-only dorms. I prefer to sleep in these for a few reasons.
A) Fewer women snore (bring earplugs though, just in case).
B) Sleeping with only women in the room can feel safer.
C) You’re more likely to meet other women who are also travelling on their own, which is great for a chat.
I use hostelworld.com to book my beds, they have an option to narrow down search results to include only hostels with female dorms.
12) I find the reviews on hostelworld excellent for highlighting any security issues as well. If a hostel or the area around it felt unsafe, reviewers will mention it and you’ll know to stay somewhere else.
Dealing with creeps
13) Trust your instincts. If you’re getting bad vibes, don’t feel obliged to go anywhere, do anything or disclose any information about yourself or where you’re going that you don’t feel comfortable with. Don’t be afraid of hurting egos. Don’t be afraid to walk away (or even report them) if someone is being creepy. In all probability, you’re not going to see them again.
14) Mind your drinks. It shouldn’t be necessary for us to do this, but sadly it is. It might be best to buy your own rather than accept from strangers, or people you’ve only known a short while. And drink sensibly, if at all.
15) As English speakers we are uniquely privileged in that it is usually possible to find someone else who speaks English if you really need to. Most hostel receptionists and other people who work in tourist areas have English.
16) Outside of these, younger people are your best bet. Pick someone who looks pleasant.
17) If you’d prefer to check your language privilege, here are a few (suggested) words which you can pop into Google Translate, translate into the relevant language(s), print them off and bring with you.
Phrases: hello, goodbye, please, thank you, excuse me, help!
Questions: where? when? do you speak English?
Places: hostel, train/bus/tram station, airport, police station, hospital, supermarket, laundrette, toilet, (and places you want to visit: museum, beach, etc.)
Things: train, tram, bus, taxi, sandwich, water (other foodstuffs you like, e.g. ice-cream, bananas)
Directions: left, right, straight
I think, if you had the above to hand, you could survive most situations by stringing them together and filling in the blanks with hand gestures and a lot of pointing at maps. Where supermarket? When train? Two sandwich please. Help, where toilet?
18) Google Translate can also read out the pronunciation, so you know how to say them. People will probably forgive your appalling grammar, but if they can’t understand you it kind of defeats the purpose of the exercise.
19) Pack sunscreen. And a hat.
20) Carry a refillable water bottle, and buy bottled water to refill it (unless you have been told the local water is definitely ok to drink). Try not to get dehydrated.
21) Pack light, and wash as you travel (either in sinks using travel detergent, or in laundrettes).
22) Bring a book or two for the train. Leave them in the hostel when you’re done. Often other people will too.
23) Get yourself a paper map, preferably including transport links. If a city has a Use-it map, all the better. Use-it maps are created by young people for young people, with loads of really useful and interesting information on them.
24) Try leave some free time to just wander or hang out and chat with people you meet on the way as well. Meeting people from all over and finding out about their life is – oddly enough – one of the best reasons to travel on your own.
25) Finally, keep a travel diary, and write everyday about what you saw, where you went, who you met, how you felt, and anything else that springs to mind. The details slip away surprisingly fast, and it’s really nice to have a record you can look back on in the future.
I hope this post has been of interest. If you use any of this advice when travelling, or have additional tips, I’d love to hear. Also, I would be very interested in hearing travel advice from women who have hitchhiked, couchsurfed, or travelled around in a camper van on their own, if you know anyone!