After my last post I did a shout-out to see whether people would be interested in some of the practical aspects of travelling overseas as a woman alone, and the response was a pretty resounding yes. Ideally, I would really like to inspire people to take the opportunity when it’s available to them, but to be super-realistic as well. Some of the advice will be totally gender-neutral, but nonetheless, being a woman is my lived experience and my perspective.
It’s Expensive. Say goodbye to your money.
Context is important. Firstly, it was Europe at the end of peak season, and because I literally was going to escape Melbourne Winter I was hardly going to at any other point (apart from maybe….more peak season). Dreaming of less expensive parts of the world? You might be able to do it on a tighter budget.
The second part of context is that I won’t even pretend what I did was ‘budget’ travel. The $5,000 tax return I got last year because I was out of work for a while formed the basis of my travel budget, but certainly didn’t cover it. I’m now working full-time and earning something around the average wage for a woman in this country, so I knew I could pay off the few indulgences on my credit card when I came back.
Budget-wise, as a solo traveller you cop it hardest really in a couple of places: accommodation, and private transport (taxis and Ubers). Travelling with someone else won’t really bring down your costs for flights, food, trains, experiences, etc. Accommodation doesn’t need to be the end of the world…unless you’re a kind of fussy arsehole like me. Obviously, there’s backpackers’ and similar budget accommodation options. That’s fine if you’re in your 20s or are an ‘I can sleep anywhere’ type, but I’m in my 30s and I can barely sleep anywhere. I mostly stuck with 3-star hotels, and I tried to adhere to a budget of about $AUD150 a night. Plenty of hotels also have ‘single rooms’ for a lower tariff. These rooms are generally shoeboxes and have single beds. I made the decision that I do not sleep in a single bed at home, so I certainly wasn’t going to when I was on holiday. In the end, I paid for accommodation what any couple/duo travelling together and staying in hotels would have…but they can split it in two.
If you’re a woman travelling alone, you really need to invest some time here. I spent….many weeks organising my accommodation. Partly that was because I was trying to keep my itinerary loose to factor in meeting up with my bestie, but I locked that down about ten weeks out from my trip. If you know which cities you want to visit and when, it’s time to start getting down to the nitty-gritty of neighbourhoods. In Paris, for example, there’s twenty different arrondissements (neighbourhoods), all with their own character, all with their own problem spots. Allow some time to ask your friends and networks (who might need to be asked three times before they let you know) the areas they stayed in and what they liked and disliked. Read online articles. When you’ve narrowed down areas where you’d like to stay, now you need to devote some time to reviews. Prioritise the opinions of solo female travellers. They will understand your safety concerns. I mostly stayed in hotels because I had a lot of trouble actually securing Airbnb bookings thanks to flaky hosts. The one Airbnb I ended up in (in Berlin), only had reviews up until April or May, when it wouldn’t have warmed up in the city yet. Turns out in summer when the weather’s warm, people like to drink outside the convenience store downstairs until 2 or 3am. You better believe I left a reviewing warning women they may need to elbow their way through half-pissed men who have literally set up a table and chairs in front of the door to the apartment in the evening. Because we live in a world where women have to be constantly vigilant, and if I could have avoided that experience, I would have copped the price.
So, you may end up paying a little more to stay somewhere that other women travelling alone felt comfortable, felt like they were in a good neighbourhood where they can come and go at night, and that there weren’t staff who made them feel less safe (which reminds me I need to go leave a review for the Munich hotel where the guy on the front desk assigned the guy who checked in after me the same room so he could just wander in…).
You will need to learn to be truly shameless with selfies
Look, we have to thank the Instagram age for something – it’s really not all that weird to whip out your phone and take a picture of yourself, particularly in tourist areas. I always thought maybe a selfie stick was a bridge too far, but I did end up buying one and used it a few times until I forgot to put it in my day bag and it never went back in. You’ll find if you want some scope beyond the length of your arm, most people are willing to take a photo of you if you ask politely. It’s good traveller karma. But all in all, be prepared to ditch the shame. Your Mum won’t forgive you if there’s not photos of you in amazing spots.
Hi Mum! Just in Versailles, thinking about how I’ll never even be able to afford a one-bedroom apartment
Preparation prevents piss poor performance
It’s generally acknowledged that the Paris Metro is not exactly the safest place in the world, and if you don’t have anyone to keep an eye on you then you’re gonna feel that more. Now the truth is, I actually felt less safe on the Berlin U-Bahn travelling to and from Neukölln, but it would be naive to think that people don’t get robbed in big cities. My aim before I left was to try and look as much as a local as possible, so I ended up grabbing this bag – one I could convert to a backpack, a crossbody, or a shoulder bag depending on the situation, which also wouldn’t be too large for me to need to ditch at museums (I believe the Neues Museum in Berlin was the only spot where I had to cloak it, and I went to a lot of museums, galleries and attractions). A small backpack is great, but harder to keep an eye on in crowds, and some places make you wear backpacks at the front which turned out to be a horrific safety hazard on the tight, crowded stairs of Neuschwanstein Castle where I couldn’t actually see my feet. So the converting aspect was great, but I will note after a while the ‘handle’ type bit would slip through and the backpack was uneven and it would get annoying.
But then again, nothing was more annoying than this suitcase. It was never the right time to convert it and carry 15kg on my back, and the motherfucker would go off balance, flip over and twist my wrist at the slightest provocation. I missed my 4-wheeled suitcase, even on cobblestones. I ended up taking more Ubers because of it.
I will note, the plan to look like a local was a total bust. Europe is a wonderful place for walking. But if you’re walking 10km a day, day-in day-out, you need to be wearing something like Skechers. Sorry. On the plus side, people only need to see your shoes to start speaking English to you?
The bit where you eat alone
I wrote about this in my last post, how I sometimes found myself (particularly in Paris), shoved away in corners like my existence as a woman eating alone was something terrible and shameful. And hey, if you’re not used to going out to eat alone, you might find it a little uncomfortable at first. Even I did not go out to eat every night. Often I’d fill up on lunch (Florence does an excellent Fucking Huge Sandwich) and then have something light from the supermarket for dinner, or just grab some street food. If your budget (or complete lack of need for real fresh nutrients) extends to the ability to eat at restaurants every night, good for you! My one spot of advice: take your book or Kindle. It’s the key to eating alone and not feeling like a people-watching odd bod, and you won’t feel the need to rush because you’ll be enjoying your time and your food. Not a big reader? I dunno, maybe follow some more people on Twitter.
Now, here’s the secret advantage to eating alone: as long as you’re not mortally offended about ending up in some pokey little corner, it’s way easier to get in to popular restaurants quickly than if you’re with a group. I rolled up to Cafe Constant slightly before the dinner rush, got set up at a little round table by the door for some bistro-style food, and got to watch group after group turned away to wait for the upstairs section to open. It is my opinion that wine tastes even better when people are looking at you enviously and slightly hungrily.
Which leads me to:
Doing whatever the fuck you want
Apart from when I was travelling between spots, I rarely started my day before 11am. I didn’t set alarms. I am well aware that this would send….a reasonable part of the population crazy, but I don’t wake up early on weekends, I’m not waking up early on my three weeks off work. Summer days are long and offer you plenty of time to see the sights. It also meant if I wanted to subsist solely on pastry eaten on walks between places until dinner, no-one was there to beg me to sit down for a meal. Excessive researching as well as mining recs from friends and communities meant I had handy-dandy maps of attractions to check out, places to shop, and most importantly, food I wanted to eat (by genre, even):
It meant that the night before as I was going to bed, or even on the go, I could pull out the map and make a vague itinerary. Always, preferably, with some time to wander and discover.
And I don’t think I need to extol the virtues of going on holidays and only doing the things that interest you. No more wandering the Museum of Sports and Borts for four hours. Feel like the attraction you’re at is overrated? Just leave!
If you’re in a relationship and haven’t experienced the No-Compromise Life in a long time….it’s probably time.
Craving human company? Need to go further afield? Go on a tour
I’m never going to be a Contiki-style girl. I’m an introvert, and one obnoxious person could ruin my entire trip. But there may come a point where you’d just like to have a sustained conversation in English, or there’s something you’d have trouble getting to on your own. It’s not always the cheapest option, but it breaks things up. My entire trip was kind of inspired by Under The Tuscan Sun (yeah that’s okay I’m farewelling the last shred of respect you had for me) so from my base in Florence I chose to do a day trip to Siena and San Gimignano (particularly difficult places to get to without a car) with lunch at a winery in the Chianti region. In Florence city, I did an evening food tour of Oltrarno, which is the less heaving area of Florence across the Arno from the Duomo, the Uffizi etc. Both of these tours were run by Walks of Italy (with the same guide, which was a little awkward) and were English-speaking, small-group experiences which gave me an opportunity to chat to people over meals and generally enjoying breaking bread and hearing other people’s tales. Another one I went on was my tour from Munich to Neuschwanstein Palace and Linderhof Castle. This was a small-ish group (~30) and I certainly paid a premium for it, but I had spent enough time dodging large groups in museums at that stage to know a big tour wasn’t for me. This tour had a great mix of informed hosts, free time for wandering around, and guided portions. I never thought I’d be a tour person at all, given how enthusiastic I am about research, but they definitely have a place on a solo trip.
My wish list
It’s pretty short. It has one item. I wish Google Maps had a Woman Walking Alone At Night In An Unfamiliar City feature. I don’t care if it takes me a little longer to get back to my hotel. When you’re hopping from city to city, you rarely ever spend enough time anywhere to get to know a neighbourhood so well that you know where the dodgy spots to avoid are, like you would at home. Just a feature, that sends you down populated, well-lit streets, rather than quiet back-streets like I experienced in Paris. Surely machine learning is far enough along for that, right?
It’s okay if it’s not for you
It’s okay to want to share your experiences with people. I was overjoyed that I still got to spend some time with friends on this trip. But even if a long trip isn’t for you, I hope this prepares you for a business trip or a small break, because time spent on your own and exploring is incredibly valuable.
If you’ve got any specific questions, let me know!
In other news, Victorian Values is back at PAX Aus this year, playing more bad dating sims and hopefully drinking on stage if I have my way. If you’re around on the evening of Saturday October 27, come check us out!