To say my study abroad in Spain as an undergraduate in 2008 was life-changing would be an understatement. As cliche as it sounds, after that experience I caught the travel bug full force. All I could think about was travel and where I’d go next.
In 2011, I had finished grad school and was working a 9-5 job like most of my friends. When the time came to use my 10 vacation days, no one’s schedule aligned with mine. Rather than forgoing a trip or waiting until someone else was free, I decided to do something I had never done before: travel solo.
Ever the ambitious adventurer, I planned to visit not one country but three. I booked my ticket from DC to Amsterdam with a 3-day layover in Reykjavik, Iceland. I would also travel to Germany from the Netherlands by train.
It was an unforgettable experience but I got a lot of things wrong the first time. Here is what I wish I had done differently as a first-time solo traveler.
1. Planned my itinerary ahead of time
Maybe this sounds like a no-brainer, but planning ahead is key for your first solo trip. Winging it may sound fun, but it will usually lead to stress and wasted time. My first time solo traveling, I had my first two major destinations planned but all the other details were nonexistent. I wanted to fully embrace the wandering backpacker vibe. As a newbie, it turned out this was a bad idea.
In Amsterdam, I had a big night out with a couple of Australians I met in the shared dorm at my hostel. The next morning, I woke up foggy-headed 10 minutes before check-out, staring down a hefty 50 euro penalty fee should I be late. As I frantically shoved clothes and toiletries into my backpack, the awful realization flashed before me: I had nowhere to go. Though I had the general idea to go to Germany, I had nothing booked and no exact destination pinpointed.
I did a quick and panicky search looking into a few nearby German cities but many had no hostels with available rooms in my price range. The time was ticking and I felt completely helpless. Due to my poor planning, I had to extend my stay at the low-quality, sketchy hostel in Amsterdam and subsequently wasted precious hours figuring out my next move.
Read more: 10 Tips to Boost Your Solo Travel Experience
2. Booked everything in advance
Planning and booking should go hand-in-hand. My lack of planning for the last leg of my trip to Germany meant a lot of the accommodation options were already booked by other savvier travelers. Because my first choices weren’t available, I ended up going to Hamburg. By that point, I was sufficiently flustered so when I bought my train ticket, I didn’t understand that I hadn’t reserved myself a seat but instead booked an open ticket.
Apparently, on trains in Germany, you either reserve a seat or you get on the train and have to look for an open seat that no one else has reserved. Because I didn’t do the research, I simply boarded the train and sat down somewhere. Shortly thereafter, I was faced with an older couple, barking rapid-fire German at me. I had no idea what they were saying or why they were talking to me so I just grabbed my stuff and got up. I stood there, completely confused, with the whole train car staring at me.
Booking tickets, accommodation, and activities in advance will save you from more than just public embarrassment. Having set places to go means you spend less time flailing, searching for options, and more time enjoying the things you want to do.
3. Packed appropriately
When my brother dropped me off at Dulles Airport in DC, I asked him to take a picture of me. There I was, smiling and giving a thumbs-up, with a ridiculously huge backpack on my back. I had bought one of the biggest ones I could find on Amazon, thinking it made me a “real backpacker”. Instead, it just made my body hurt.
One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned about traveling, especially solo traveling, is that less is more. On my first trip, I should have minimized the amount of luggage I brought. Having a giant backpack made getting on transportation awkward and trekking to my accommodation a living nightmare.
Planning ahead will help guide your packing. Don’t be afraid to make a list and pack and repack your bag until you’re happy with it. You may even want to try things like packing cubes and other travel essentials to keep you organized.
4. Adjusted my expectations
I made the mistake of idealizing my trip before I even left. I envisioned all the amazing things I would do and see and the grand adventures I’d have. Truthfully, I did have some pretty great adventures but not everything went the way I thought it would.
My big day of sightseeing in Amsterdam was ruined by my inability to read a map. Instead, I wandered around the city for hours only managing to see one thing on my list. My anxiety took such a toll that by the end of my trip, I was going to the same bar every night in Hamburg like a safety blanket after hanging around the hostel all day. Of course, these deviations from the visions of my perfect trip led to some hefty disappointment.
You can absolutely be positive and excited about your trip but don’t convince yourself that it’s going to be ground-breaking or that you’ll reach some new stage of enlightenment. High ideals almost always lead to a letdown. Being realistic leaves you open to being pleasantly surprised by what comes along.
5. Been kinder to myself
I suffer from social anxiety which can make it hard to even leave the house some days. By solo traveling, I was taking a big leap and pushing my boundaries farther than I ever had. Knowing this, I should have gone easy on myself on days I was feeling particularly anxious. Instead, I beat myself up and gave in to a major feeling of FOMO on a couple of nights I couldn’t bring myself to walk into another restaurant alone.
Solo travel will teach you a lot about yourself if you take the time to listen and reflect. On subsequent solo trips, I found a balance between pushing myself and giving myself space when I needed it. Traveling alone is a big step for many people. Remember to be kind to yourself as you take on this new experience!
Learn from my missteps!
Everyone learns best by experiencing things for themselves. But, a little advice from someone who has been through it can help you avoid classic mistakes. So start your research and planning and prepare for your very own first solo trip!