Right around the time of college graduation, when people were signing up for grad school or local internships, I made an announcement: I got a working holiday visa and I’m moving to Europe! Who’s with me?!
Now, how many of my friends do you think put up their hands to join me on this adventure of a lifetime? That’s right. Exactly zero. But it didn’t stop me from going, and it shouldn’t stop you from taking a solo gap year, either. Was I scared? Heck, yeah! Nervous? You bet. But excitement and anticipation outweighed all of that, so I boarded a plane and arrived in Dublin, alone, and on my 22nd birthday to boot.
Best decision I ever made.
Why Take a Solo Gap Year?
Travel, on its own, forces you out of your comfort zone. Traveling on your own shoves you so far out of that zone that you have no choice but to create a new one. You’ll be amazed at the ways you adapt to situations and learn to listen to your instincts. No one can tell you where to go or what to do, and it’s a great chance to work out what you really want.
It’s totally normal to be a bundle of nerves before you go on your gap year, especially if you consider yourself to be an introvert. There will be moments of homesickness. There may be times when you feel lonely. With that said, when you travel you don’t ever have to be alone. Hostels, volunteer programs, online communities, and the constant stream of planes, trains, and buses give you ample opportunities to meet people from all over the world.
Are you ready? Let’s get started.
How to Gap Year on Your Own
If you’re worried about being on your own, ask around. Do you know anyone who knows someone hospitable in your destination country? I was amazed at how many people crawled out of the woodwork offering me the contact details of their cousin in London who would love to show me around. You don’t necessarily have to meet up with these people, but it can be nice to know that they’re there.
Make a rough itinerary for yourself and calculate your budget. The beauty of travel, and solo travel especially, is its flexibility - your plans may change dramatically as you go, but you have to start somewhere. Scan your important documents, like travel insurance and passport, and keep a backup copy in your email. Determine how you will access money while you’re abroad. Through an ATM? Get a travel-friendly bank account with minimal fees. Give yourself ample time to get any required visas before your departure date.
Think long and hard before you buy the biggest suitcase at the department store; a sale doesn’t mean it’s a bargain. You thought you were traveling solo? Oh no. Your luggage is your new BFF. The two of you are about to embark on a life-changing journey, one where you are responsible for your bags everywhere you go.
Was I scared? Heck, yeah! Nervous? You bet. But excitement and anticipation outweighed all of that.
Choose a pack that can come with you into crowded bus station bathrooms. One of the cons of traveling on your own is that you can’t leave it with a friend, not even for a second. You'll also likely want to save money by taking public transportation since there's no one with you to split the cost of a taxi, and dragging a cumbersomely huge suitcase on a bus is, well, a pain in the butt. I’m a big fan of carryon-only (okay, plus a handbag), because it makes getting on your own around much easier.
Pick a Program
Remember that thing I said about how when you travel, you’re never really alone? That’s more true now than ever, with a plethora of awesome travel programs to choose from. Incorporating a volunteer, teaching, or internship program into your gap year is a great idea. It can be part or even all of your time abroad, and a surefire way of meeting like-minded people. You could even kick off your trip with a study abroad language program to prepare you for a trek through South America or a self-guided culinary tour of Italy.
When you do choose an organized program, do your research. This is one time when you don’t want to play it by ear and skimp on preparation. Read online reviews, get recommendations from others, and make sure that you know what you’re getting into. Like choosing your luggage, cheaper is not always better.
Make a backup plan in the event that you lose access to your cash. Unfortunately, these things do happen: ATMs eat your card, your wallet is pickpocketed, you leave it on the bus -- and you don't have a buddy to spot you some cash while you sort things out. Write down the contact number for your bank. You could also leave a spare card with someone you trust back home and ask them to mail it to you in the event of an emergency. Hopefully you won’t have any trouble, but it’s good to be prepared.
Staying in Touch
Today’s world is much smaller than it used to be. You can talk to family and friends back home through Skype, FaceTime, emails, texts, and a variety of apps. Establish which time zones are best for talking to each other and make an effort to keep in touch. It’ll make you feel better, and it’ll make those who love you less worried.
For the solo traveler, hostels are your friend. This is especially true if you’re new to the game and aren’t quite confident with meeting strangers. As a rule of thumb, the more beds in a dorm room, the lower the price. I suggest 4-6 bed dorms, but you should experience the 20+ at some point. (Hint: Once is often enough).
Traveling on your own shoves you so far out of that zone that you have no choice but to create a new one. You'll be amazed at the ways you adapt to situations and learn to listen to your instincts.
You could also try Couchsurfing, Airbnb, or even those friends of friends we talked about earlier. Accommodation can play a huge role in your trip. It’s not just where you sleep, but where you make friends, learn about the local hotspots, network for work, and more.
Solo travelers, like any travelers, need to be safety conscious. If you’re in a situation that gives you a funny, not-so-good feeling, get out of it. Listen to your intuition, avoid walking around alone after dark, and be careful with your alcohol consumption.
To be clear: being out at midnight, buzzing on a local brew, does not mean you deserve to become a victim. However, it can put you in a dangerous position and is best avoided. Ask at your hostel if there are any areas of town that you should steer clear of, and follow their advice.
When you’re traveling alone, you can’t divvy up the tasks or expenses with anyone. You’re responsible for doing the research, stumbling through the local language, buying the tickets, and getting to the bus on time. Want a picture of you in front of the Taj Mahal? Either suck up the nerve to ask someone to take it for you, or get a handheld tripod to save yourself the trouble of cropping out your arm. There’s no right or wrong way to navigate the logistics of traveling solo, and you’ll figure it out as you go along. Don’t worry, it’s all part of the fun!
When I arrived in Ireland all those years ago, I was obsessed with the idea that someone was going to steal my laptop. I carried it everywhere in a backpack, even though it was a clunky 7 pounds of useless plastic. (Looking back, it’s fairly clear why no one stole it.) I also agonized about reaching out and meeting new people. It took me half an hour to work up the courage to talk to someone in the hostel kitchen. Within weeks, I had no idea what I was so worried about. Nervous energy is a part of your adventure. Embrace it. Use it. Overcome it.
If all of this advice is overwhelming, don’t stress. There’s no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to do a solo gap year. Remember, it’s your gap year - grab your passport, book flights, and make it count.Photo credits: IES Abroad and Lauren Fitzpatrick.