Updated June 11th, 2015. Contributions by Colin Heinrich.
So, you want to travel long-term but your best friend, sister, cousin, neighbor from down the street and best friend from third grade are all unable to pack up and take a year off to travel with you. That's OK -- you might be better off this way.
Traveling solo is one of the most empowering and enlightening physical and spiritual journeys available to us in life. While it can sometimes seem scary to take on a solo gap year, especially for female travelers, it's one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself.
Solo travel naturally presents a whole new host of challenges that simply aren’t present at home, but it also presents the opportunity to confront and overcome them. Are you considering taking a solo gap year? Here are some questions to ask yourself to gauge your level of preparedness.
1. Can I Afford It?
Where in the world will I be traveling? How quickly do I intend on moving?
Generally speaking, a solo gap year could cost you more than if you were splitting the costs with someone else. Things like taxis, hotel rooms, and tours are all cheaper when there is at least one other person to share the financial burden with.
You'll likely find new friends on your gap year to share expenses with, but it’s not always a given -- so write your initial gap year budget as if you're shouldering everything on your own.
You’re worried about traveling alone? Don’t. You’re never really alone.
In the end though, if you're mindful of your daily expenditures, it is possible to do a gap year on a budget.
Moreover, you gap year route will greatly impact how much money you should save. Will you spend the year in Southeast Asia? Plan on spending less. Are you heading to Australia and Europe? Plan on saving a lot more in order to make that trip a reality.
Also consider how much you plan to see in a year. Will this be a proper RTW (round-the-world) trip, or will you take it slow and really get to know one part of the world? Things like plane flights and bus rides add up, so moving slowly results in huge savings over time.
2. How Will I Meet People?
Am I comfortable staying in dorms? How will I come out of my shell if I’m a shy person?
The instant you walk into the hostel, you’re going to put down your bag. It will have barely hit the floor before somebody asks you where you’re from, how long you’ve been traveling, and how long you’re in town, and by the way, you hungry? There’s some good pad thai up the street.
Boom, it’s four weeks later, you’ve been traveling with the same three people the whole time, and you’re bawling your eyes out because you finally have to go your separate ways.
While on your gap year, you'll encounter spaces where other solo travelers hang out. These people aren't just open and friendly, they’re so outgoing that they want to meet you! Even the shyest person can come out of his shell in a hostel or travel setting.
If the prospect seems daunting, consider asking a few common ice breakers that everyone is happy to answer:
- Where are you from?
- Where have you traveled to?
- How long have you been traveling for?
- What's your story?
Before long, you’ll be swapping travel stories and making friends with people from all over the world. And actually, you'll be more likely to meet others as a solo traveler -- you're more approachable that way.
Don't forget, there are other ways to meet new people in a new city. Tap into local expat communities or peruse Couchsurfing for ideas.
3. Could Your Friendships Survive A Gap Year?
On that note -- think long and hard about whether you could survive traveling around the world with that one friend who is interested in taking a gap year with you.
Traveling with friends is hard. You may think it will be like all those sleepovers you had when you were a kid. But then you’ll be three weeks into a trek through Cambodia, you’ve been eaten to hell by mosquitos, and if Ben keeps snoring like that, you’re going to smother him with his pillow and leave his body in the jungle to rot.
When you travel with friends, there’s very little solace from each other. Arguments, disagreements, and differences in opinion can be intensified with all the other changes and challenges going on around you. And that can ruin friendships. A solo gap year avoids that.
4. Am I Physically and Mentally Able?
Am I okay with long-haul bus rides and long travel days? Can I carry around a backpack?
A big part of traveling is, well, traveling. While driving somewhere an hour away might seem like a long distance if you were back in your home country, 6, 8, and even 12-hour bus or train journeys become the norm on the road.
Even if you fly everywhere (which is fairly unreasonable for an entire year of travel), you’ll still experience delays and end up on long flights. The hours can passed easily with a good book and some decent music to listen to. Who knows? You may even meet some new friends on the way to your next destination -- it happens all the time to travelers!
But at the same time, dealing with this on your own is different than if you were with a friend. You'll have no one to help you decipher when exactly your bus is leaving, or to avoid the panic when you've been dropped off by a bus who has now taken 4 hours to return to pick you up again. Are you physically and mentally able to deal with traveling on your own? Facing new situations without anyone by your side to consult?
Pro Tip: Pack less -- it makes it easier to move around on your own, to jump in on a road trip with your three new hostel friends, or run to the bathroom while waiting for your flight to take off.
5. Will You Be Safe?
What will I say to people who think it’s not safe for me to travel alone? Is it even safe, at all?
This is probably the most common question friends and family back home will be asking. Media peppers our TVs, computer screens, and newspapers with the worst news possible from around the globe. How can you be sure that you’ll stay safe?
In reality, it’s almost never as scary or ‘dangerous’ in these destinations as it is made out to be. Always watch out for your belongings, don’t get too intoxicated, and read up on each country you plan to visit in order to familiarize yourself with dangers and scams.
If you’re a solo female, take steps to cover up in certain countries and make sure you respect local customs in order to stand out less and attract less potentially negative attention.
Here are some additional resources that may help alleviate some of your worried nerves:
- Everything you need to know about travel insurance for students abroad
- How to deal with sickness or injury abroad (without crying)
- Safety tips that are parent-approved
6. What if I Prefer an Organized Program?
Can I break up my solo gap year with an organized internship, volunteer project, language study, or work abroad opportunity? Where can I find some good options?
Just because you have a vetted gap year company organize some excursions or activities on your gap year does not make you any less of a hardcore traveler. In fact, many first time gappers will be asking whether they should gap year solo or choose one of these companies for guidance and support, especially when venturing to a particularly unfamiliar corner of the world (what? You mean you don't speak Damara/Nama or know the Moscow public transit like the back of your hand?).
Choosing a gap year company will leave all the logistical hoo-ha up to the experts, giving you ample time to enjoy the ride and snap an awesome photo or two (or fifty).
Oftentimes, having a more organized gap year, complete with volunteer projects or language studies, will make your year of adventures more marketable to future employers.
Whether you opt to get involved in a volunteer project or seek out the ultimate adventure, there's a gap year or travel company out there ripe for the picking. Be sure to read reviews of gap year programs before handing over your hard-earned dollars to anyone.
Remember that oftentimes having a more organized gap year, complete with volunteer projects or language studies, will make your year of adventures more marketable to future employers. No one wants to scramble to justify a international party lifestyle at a post gap year job interview. Instead, why not do something worth being proud of?
7. Can I Live Out of a Backpack?
Can I downsize my life for a full year? What will I do with my belongings back home?
Do you have an entire apartment of furniture to get rid of? Do you own a home? Do you have a car? How many of your belongings can you sell off to both fund your trip and save in storage fees? If you don’t own much, then it’s easy. If you have a lot of stuff you want to come back to, then consider what the fees will be to store everything. If you can bear to part with your things, that’s the way to go!
It may seem like living with less will be challenging, and it might be at first. That said, most travelers end up having an ‘ah-ha!’ moment where they realize that they will gladly live out of a backpack if it means they can see the world. It’s amazing how easy it is to live with less when the reward is constant stimulation and amazing new cultures to discover on a daily basis.
8. How Much Control and Independence Do You Want?
Are you willing to compromise with a travel buddy? Or do you want full power over how you spend your gap year?
Like any relationship, traveling or taking a gap year with someone else means you'll have to make decisions based on both of your wants and needs.
With the right travel buddy, this may not be a problem. Your goals and preferences will be aligned. Maybe you'll even be comfortable splitting up when you want to spend four days chilling out on the beach, and they're more interested in hiking up an intense volcano.
However, finding that perfect travel buddy is hard, and traveling solo will allow you to have full control over your itinerary and activities. You'll make your gap year totally your own -- which is fantastic if you have very specific goals in mind for your travels.
9. Do You Want to Challenge Yourself and Get Out of Your Comfort Zone?
Why are you taking a gap year? How much do you want to grow? To test yourself?
Whenever people consider traveling alone, the qualifier is the biggest obstacle they have to wrap their mind around. Alone. Most people going on their gap years -- possibly you included -- have never spent a real substantial amount of time on their own.
Traveling with friends gives you a safety net. You don’t feel the need to try new things, take new risks, or form new habits when you’ve got those constant reminders of your old life hiking up the hostel steps beside you.
Have you ever sat next to a new group and felt excluded because their conversation included so many references and inside jokes that you simply couldn’t contribute? When you travel with friends, the entire world feels that way about you, no matter how consciously you try and prevent it.
The idea of cutting those ropes is daunting. But come on, do you want to have yet another story of hanging out with your friends, or do you want to create some entirely new ones?
Choosing to Go Alone
Making the choice to go alone can be hard, even if you do understand just how awesome it will be. There’s loyalty involved. Telling friends you want to be by yourself never really goes over that well, and for a gap year, there’s the real risk of drifting apart. By the time you return, you may not have the same friends in the first place. You may have grown and changed in different directions.
And that’s not even getting into the personal implications and specific goals you may have for taking a gap year. To determine if you really want to travel alone, ask yourself some questions:
How important are your friends to you? Please don’t read any implication in that question, but it’s an important one to answer. Facebook has revolutionized the ability to stay in touch with people, but it’s not a panacea. You will lose touch with some. Maybe many, depending on how little you decide to use Facebook.
Are you introverted or extroverted? Traveling alone means that you and you alone are responsible for meeting people. If you sometimes find it difficult to talk to strangers (and let’s be honest, talking to foreigners with different language skills is never the easiest thing), then traveling by yourself may be a lonelier affair at times. Not that you shouldn’t do it, as nothing builds social skills like being forced to use them.
What kind of trip are you looking for? Traveling alone is great, but there’s so much talk about “finding yourself” and other sentimental grand ideas that, ultimately, many people just don’t really care that much about. A lot of people just want some light-hearted fun on distant continents, and that usually involves your friends coming along.
If you do want to travel with friends: can your relationship survive the experience? Travel is stressful and comes in close quarters. A gap year abroad will involve a lot of highs and a lot of lows, and when the lows come, you may see a side of your friends you never knew existed. Make sure you’ll be able to handle the view -- test things out with a quick weekend trip somewhere and see how you can navigate a short trip on your home turf together before taking the leap into a whole gap year gallivanting across the globe together!
If you can answer these questions and stay psyched by the prospect of gallivanting the globe Lone Ranger style, then you’ve come around to the brighter side of travel. Get out there, kiddo. Take that solo gap year.Photo Credits: Colin Heinrich.