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This is a guest post written by a dear friend and an inspiring traveler, Caroline. She recently came back from her first solo trip to Europe and has lots of great tips for ladies looking to do the same! Enjoy!
How I became a solo traveler
I finally did it. I graduated. I had two college degrees and two whole months before I’d start my “big girl” job. This was the perfect time to treat myself to something I’d always wanted to do: travel to Europe.
Finding a friend to go with me would be the easiest part, right? After all, I had tons of friends, an adventurous boyfriend, and a lot of extended family members. Who wouldn’t want to jet off to Europe for a few weeks?
Well….life got in the way and none of these great people in my life were able to skip out of work and drop $1K on a plane ticket.
So, much to my parents’ dismay, I decided to travel to Europe all by myself. Now, I’ll admit that they had valid reasons to be concerned. They saw me as the young, monolingual, not-so-street-savvy traveler I truly am.
However, even a young, monolingual, not-so-street-savvy, solo traveling female can safely travel to foreign places while having a blast. I did it, and you can too. Here’s what I recommend for every young woman traveling Europe solo:
Choose your Cities Wisely
Stick to larger cities where you’re more likely to meet other travelers and English speakers. It helps if some of the street signs are in English too. Here’s where I went and why I picked each place:
- Paris – I’ve had a crush on Paris for a couple years and I originally wanted to travel here to see the French Open tennis tournament. Though that timing didn’t work out in 2018, I hope to go back to see it soon! Nonetheless, I knew there’d be a ton of exciting history and food to explore here, which is why it was a must-see!
- Barcelona – Simple! This all came down to my love of hot weather, sangria, Spanish tapas, and nightlife. This was my “party” stop.
- Bordeaux – I didn’t want to take a trip to France without a stop in one of the renown wine regions! Bordeaux is a smaller city and I also wanted a smaller, more quaint stop like this during my trip so I could relax. This was my “off the grid” city.
Pay Attention to Housing
If you’re traveling cheaply, like me, you’re looking at hostels abroad. If you’re young and looking to meet other travelers during your vacation, I’d recommend booking something that feels more like a “party hostel”.
For instance, the Generator Hostel in Paris had an in-house rooftop bar, bistro/restaurant, and a club. This environment attracts other people in their 20’s and is a generally good space to meet other solo travelers. On the flip side, my hostel in the rather rural area of Bordeaux was coincidentally filled with a LOT of older travelers who were staying there strictly for work.
So, the vibe of the city and the feel of the hostel definitely matter when you’re considering if you’ll be able to connect with other travelers there. In my Paris hostel, I ended up making some great friends to adventure and sightsee with.
Must-Have Apps for Solo Travelers
Download Google Maps of your cities ahead of time. Here’s how you do it:
- Open Google maps
- Search the city map you’d like to download
- Press the menu button in the top left
- Click offline maps
- Click custom map
- Adjust your frame and click ‘download’ when you have the entire perimeter you need visible in your map.
It really is that easy and it will save you a lot of headaches later. You can use these pre-downloaded maps for great walking directions (but not transit directions, unfortunately) when you don’t have WiFi or data access abroad.
Download an English translation dictionary easily in the Google Translate app. I pre-downloaded the Spanish, French, and Catalan dictionaries meaning I could translate to and from these three languages even without data or WiFi access. To download the dictionaries do the following:
- Open the Google Translate app
- Click the blue ‘English’ over the text box
- Browse all other available languages
- Click the ‘download’ button for the ones you need
This is simple too and came in handy for me when I needed to translate signs.
Getting Around the City
- Rely on public transit to get you around the city. It’s the cheapest and truly is the safest (safety in numbers, people)! As long as you’re mindful of your belongings when you’re on a train you shouldn’t have any problems. I personally prefer riding the metro around versus a city bus because the metro only has two possible directions it’s ever going and it’s guaranteed to stop at every single stop on the line.
- If you must take cabs, use only legitimate, marked cabs with meters. We’ve all heard horror stories about kidnappings happening in unmarked taxi cabs. Never never never get in an unmarked taxi cab even at a place where it seems reputable like the airport.
- Bring a business card with an address. I never personally took ubers or taxis abroad, however, I’ve heard it’s helpful for you to bring a hostel or a hotel business card along with you so you can clearly show your driver your destination address.
- Cash. Always keep a little bit of cash on you in case you come across a shop/restaurant/mode of transportation that only accepts cash. The most I ever felt like I needed on me at any given time was about 30 Euro. Once I ran out of that cash, I’d simply go to one of the many ATMs. I saw ATMs on about every block or two in these large cities!
- Plan your transit travel for the day. If you will have data access and/or you’re a wizard at interpreting city public transit maps, then this bullet point is not for you. Since I’m a cheap-o with no international data and since I’m definitely not map-savvy, I carefully planned my daily travel in the morning while I was still on WiFi at my hostel. Every day I had notes saved on my phone that looked something like this:
I’d recommend planning out you tourist attractions for the day as well as exactly which routes you can take to get there. Of course, you can always be flexible and switch up routes as long as you stop somewhere with WiFi along the way (like my personal favorite, McDonalds).
Finding Groups and Tours
Go on group outings that will allow you to explore the city with other people. I really loved booking free walking tours with Sandeman Tours. They’re free, donation-based, walking tours around various European cities guided by a local.
On these tours I learned about history, art, pop-culture, language, and hidden areas of the cities that I totally would have missed otherwise. Of all the free walking tour groups I tried, I definitely liked Sandeman the best.
This is my Sandeman tour group in Paris…I’m not even going to point out where I am because I’m making such a dumb face.
Consider longer-distance guided group outings. These are another great way to explore various cities in a group with a guide who can provide historical and cultural information. For example, I booked group tours from Paris to the World War II sites of Normandy and from central Bordeaux to local wine country.
While these were both awesome excursions that I don’t regret doing, they both entailed about six hours on a coach bus round trip. Travel time made up a large proportion of the excursion. I’m not saying to avoid these longer coach bus rides, but remember to consider how long you will be on the bus when you’re booking tickets. If you can swing it, consider spending a night in a hostel closer to the site you want to see.
Dealing with uncomfortable situations
Stay calm if you get lost. Don’t stop and ask just any regular ‘ole Tom, Dick, or Harry for directions. You really don’t want to highlight your lost touristy-ness any more than your backpack and bright converse are already doing. If you get lost then speak with someone legitimate: a tour guide, a police officer, a shopkeeper, etc.
Speak up if you have an issue with a hostel roommate. If you’re in a situation where a hostel roommate that feels unsafe, absolutely tell the front desk! Listen to your gut. Even though it may be slightly more expensive for the hostel to stick you in an all-women room, your safety is their number one priority and they will likely switch you for free.
This, unfortunately, happened to me when a male roommate in my mixed dorm of 10 was making me feel unsafe and I was so relieved when I was easily able to switch to an all-women room. I would absolutely encourage every solo traveler to do the same if they have a bad gut feeling.
Don’t let waiters bully you. *Sigh* People perceive solo travelers as gullible sometimes. I had this one terrible waiter who insisted three times throughout my meal that I absolutely need to leave a cash tip on the table. Truly, this is not a customary thing in most of Europe. It’s usually polite to leave about 1 Euro but anything more than that can honestly be perceived as offensive. Needless to say, I didn’t fall for his shenanigans and I don’t feel bad about it. When in doubt of the cultural appropriateness of something like this, ask a trusted local such as hostel or hotel employees.
Literally just get up and walk away from men who are bothering you. Being raised in the south means I’m used to really polite drawn-out endings to conversations. However, on the occasions that some random man wouldn’t stop talking to me when I clearly have nothing to say to them, I felt safest simply walking away to nip that conversation in the bud. There were some odd, very forward, flirting instances such as one man who asked if he could take my photo in front of the Louvre (no.) and another whose first words out of his mouth to me in broad daylight was whether he could French kiss me (NO.).
There’s nothing to say in these situations, so just walk away.
Pro Tips to keep your trip running smoothly
- Make two copies of all passports, credit cards, licenses, etc. that you will be bringing abroad with you. Keep one copy of these items hidden away in your suitcase in case the real one gets lost or stolen. Leave the other copy of these items with a trusted friend or family member back home.
- If you are a U.S Citizen, register for US STEP (Smart Traveler Enrollment Program). STEP registration takes less than 5 minutes and it’s a way to officially document with the government where you’ll be staying and what phone number you can be reached at, in case of an emergency. You can register for STEP at this link
- Pack lightly! It’ll be so much easier to get around the cities, especially if you’re switching hostels a couple times. I am a majorly guilty over-packer (I’ll sometimes have 3 different bags for one weekend trip) and even I managed to condense my 2-week vacation needs into one single carry on suitcase. I watched this Youtube video to give me ideas about how to consolidate.
- Two must-pack items are World Travel Adapters and a Travel Towel!
- Plan to do laundry once on your trip.
- Buy a couple items ahead of time to make sure your belongings are safe. I’d recommend buying the following:
- Padlock (to lock up your locker at the hostel)
- Small TSA Approved Luggage Locks for your suitcase. You can use ones with a combination or key. I kept the key to this locked hidden in the inside of my purse. Having these items made me feel a lot safer both in the hostel and walking around the city with my belongings!
Would I travel alone again? Yes.
Am I surprised by this? A little bit.
My final words of wisdom? Be prepared, be confident, enjoy yourself, and treat yourself to the self-reflecting, empowering solo trip to Europe that we all deserve!
Caroline is a speech-language pathologist who enjoys helping people, playing tennis, and watching Sharktank. She has traveled to Mexico, Costa Rica, Greece, Italy, France, Spain, and counting! Her goals while traveling abroad are waking 10 miles a day, drinking local wine, and limiting her McDonald’s stops to only a couple times a week. Cheers!
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Aww Caroline!! I’m proud of her and I love hearing about first time solo travelers. Gosh Nic, it seems like so long ago that you were a first time solo traveler, and look at all the amazing places it’s taken you!! Cheers to you!!
Hey, I am travelling to Europe first time on next month. I would love to explore the places you shared in this post. These are really some amazing places. Thanks for sharing these beautiful travel destinations.
So happy to help! 🙂
Awesome I enjoyed reading your blog post. The places listed here are too good.