Miles Away From Home: 25 Essential Resources for Solo Travelers
I was 24 when I took my first serious solo trip, and as soon as I landed in Lisbon, I knew I was in over my head.
My sleepless red-eye came in at 10 a.m. local time, or 5 a.m. EST. That meant everyone I knew and loved at home was still snug in bed, not to mention further away from me physically than ever before.
Long story short, I spent my first hour alone abroad crying my eyes out.
But after pulling myself together well enough to meander through the beautiful, hill-strewn city — and no doubt thanks in large part to a good night’s sleep — I found myself deeply grateful I’d been brave enough to come alone.
Why You Should Travel Solo
Instead of experiencing this brand-new, foreign world through the prism of a built-in (and English-speaking) comfort zone, my decision to travel solo meant I had to rely on my shoddy Portuguese and figure out my own itinerary. I ended up having dinner with a new group of people each evening, and even — admittedly foolishly — letting a handsome local whisk me away to a fancy seaside birthday party on his motorcycle.
In short, traveling solo has its perks. And after my adventuresome time in Portugal, I ended up doing more and more of it.
It’s a great way to see the world on your own terms, and it can leave you more open to experiencing new things and making new connections.
Plus, you don’t have to worry about getting your whole party to agree on a certain destination, restaurant or activity, or even navigate the nightmare of finding a travel time when everyone’s schedules line up in the first place.
But solo travel isn’t all cocktails, sunsets and attractive strangers.
For one thing, it can be a pricier enterprise than traveling with friends or a significant other, since you don’t have anybody around to split expensive travel costs like accommodations or local transportation. If you’ve got kids you’re leaving behind, you also have to factor child care into the equation.
Finally, many people are intimidated by the prospect of solo travel regardless of cost, whether out of concern for personal safety or even just the social stigma against being seen dining alone.
But if you’re curious about traveling on your own, none of that stuff has to be an obstacle — as I soon discovered, you and I are far from the only folks trotting the globe solo. In fact, there’s a whole slew of resources and support systems, built by and for other people doing just that.
25 Priceless Resources for Frugal Solo Travelers
Here are a few resources to help make your solo travel experience affordable, safe, fulfilling and fun.
A quick note: I won’t go into the cost of actually transporting yourself to your destination, since the per-ticket cost of airfare is pretty much the same whether you’ve got ten people in your party or just one.
Nightly accommodations are one of the priciest parts of travel, no matter how many are in your party. When you’re alone, the cost can be almost prohibitive.
But if you’re willing to be a little bit scrappy, you can put a pretty serious dent in the cost of keeping a roof over your head for the duration of your trip. Here are a few of my favorite resources for finding affordable accommodations.
More than likely you’re already familiar with this peer-to-peer vacation rental website and app. And with its increasing popularity, it’s no longer a guaranteed ticket to lower-than-regular-hotel-costs stays.
But if you utilize the filters and book well ahead of time, you can find incredibly cheap and unique lodgings that include money-saving kitchens. Choose between finding a private retreat or staying in a shared space, which allows you to hang out with the hosts and get an inside scoop on local attractions.
Specifically geared towards solo travelers hoping to make friends with locals, Homestay allows you to do just that: stay in someone’s home, where you’ll get all the deets on the best stuff to do in the area. Bonus: They might even cook for you, and prices start as low as $15 per night!
Although crashing on someone’s couch might make you feel a little exposed — or like a mooch — Couchsurfing is an amazing way to sleep for free and make fast friends. After all, these people signed up for it, so they’re clearly down.
A word to the wise: If you’re couchsurfing solo, always make sure someone knows where you are. The app has built-in verification and ratings systems to ensure everyone’s safety, but there’s no such thing as being too careful on the road.
If you’ve never stayed in a hostel before, prepare to fall in love. This European model of travel accommodation features shared bathrooms and sometimes even dorm beds, but more than makes up for the lack of privacy in cost savings. You can reliably book a bed for less than $30 per night, even in some of the world’s most glamorous destination cities.
Many hostels also include a private suite option, although you’ll likely still need to share the toilet and shower. They also frequently feature community kitchens which can save you cash at mealtime.
Hostelworld and Hostelbookers both exist in website and app form, and offer an easy comparison between different hostels and even regular hotels in your destination area. Be sure to utilize the filters to find the best deal!
If you find yourself in a jam with nowhere to stay, Hotel Tonight is a great tool to keep in your back pocket. Hotels with empty rooms partner with the program to get filled up in a hurry, which means steep discounts for you — although it’s far from the cheapest option.
That $300 price tag for a weeklong car rental looks a lot less steep when you’re splitting it with a group of friends.
But even if you’re alone, there are ways to get around your destination affordably. You already know about Uber and Lyft, but here are some other options. And hey, if worst comes to worst, you’ve always got your own two feet!
This peer-to-peer car rental service offers hourly options, which can save you lots of money if you only need a car for a little bit. (Psst: Enterprise and other major rental dealerships are increasingly getting hip to the hourly, sharing-economy model, too.)
If you’re relying on a rental car to take you across a foreign country — or if your solo sojourn is a domestic road trip — make sure to use GasBuddy and other, similar resources to ensure you spend as little on fuel as possible. After all, no one else is contributing gas money!
This app matches private drivers and passengers, allowing them to split costs and negotiate on their own terms. That is, it’s more social network and less paid taxi service (i.e., Lyft).
No matter how you get around, you’ll probably need a map to figure out where you’re going. This app lets you download one ahead of time so you won’t get lost, even if you don’t have access to WiFi or data.
Don’t underestimate the power of public transit. No matter how far you’re going, Rome2Rio will give you all the options for getting from point A to point B, including estimated prices.
Communicating & Logistics
Even if you’re alone — actually, especially when you’re alone — communicating with locals and loved ones back at home is imperative. These tools will help you stay in touch.
It might not be much use to you at your destination, but if you devote just a few minutes to studying each day in the weeks leading up to your trip, you could be chattering away like a local. Duolingo is one of the most powerful language-learning tools available, and it’s 100% free.
13. Google Translate
Want to know what that menu description says? Can’t figure out what the cute guy or gal at the bar is trying tell you? Whip out Google Translate and you’ll be on your way to understanding in no time.
Although there are ways to get cheap data and SMS while you’re traveling abroad, your total cost depends on your carrier and also where you’re going. Chat apps like Whatsapp and Kik can keep you connected without paying per-message prices, and they’re popular in lots of non-American countries.
Bonus mentions: Skype, Google Hangouts and FaceTime are all free ways to stay connected to loved ones back at home — or the new friends at your destination you’ll want to keep in touch with after your trip is over.
16. XE Currency
When you’re dealing with foreign currency, it can be easy to lose track of your budget. XE Currency provides up-to-the-minute data on exchange rates, no matter where you are, which means you won’t have an excuse to overspend.
Although they won’t help you when you’re standing at the counter about to order an overpriced espresso, these cost-of-living sites can be great tools to consult while you’re still deciding where to travel.
Part of the benefit of traveling alone is that it’s a lot easier to meet new people. After all, you don’t have a familiar face around to fall back on. But in case you’re a little too shy to start up a random conversation in the wild, here are some resources to help break the ice.
Mealtime is, for many, one of the most uncomfortable parts of solo travel — although if you’ve never treated yourself to a restaurant meal with nothing but a book for company, I’d highly recommend it.
But if you’d like to find some friendly folks to share an incredible, local, scratch-made meal with, this website is pure gold. In many cases, the hosts are incredible chefs sure to put together an unforgettable meal.
20. Rent a Friend
We’ve written about this unique app before as a weird way to make money. But if you’re really uncomfortable being alone at the bar or need a date for an event at your destination, you could consider spending a little bit on (platonic!) companionship.
Airbnb recently rolled out this exciting new feature, which helps you find well-informed locals providing once-in-a-lifetime local experiences — think cheese tasting in Paris or hanging out in arty clubs with a DJ in Miami.
These “experiences” can be surprisingly affordable, and allow you a chance to be social and also get a genuine glimpse of your destination’s lifestyle.
There’s no way around it: Traveling solo leaves something to be desired on the safety front, especially for women.
But nothing worthwhile in life is risk-free, and as long as you’re well-prepared and keep your wits about you, you can minimize the chance of disaster. Here are a couple of tools to help.
This brilliant app acts as a failsafe, notifying your loved ones if you don’t reach out to check in with them after a given amount of time. It also includes GPS location services, which can be lifesaving in a (super unlikely!) abduction scenario.
This app is like Google Maps with a built-in “bad neighborhood” filter. It uses publicly-sourced crime data to show you exactly which areas of your destination you might want to avoid.
Finding Cool Stuff
Although I doubt you’ll have trouble finding something fun to get into just by setting out into your destination on foot, here are a few apps that can help you discover hidden gems — or just a place to pee.
A little like geocaching, but with phone-snapped photos, Sighter can alert you to cool local sights you won’t find on TripAdvisor.
23. Google Goggles
Think of Google Goggles as a tour guide in your pocket. Just point your device at an eligible painting or landmark, and you’ll be regaled with interesting facts and historical information. The app can also translate text on the fly — crazy useful. It’s the future!
I don’t know about you, but finding the best local plates is one of my favorite parts of traveling.
Foodspotting is kind of like Twitter (or maybe Tinder?) for foodies; think crowd-sourced photos and ratings of everything delicious in a one-mile radius. Decisions, decisions!
25. Sit or Squat
Hear me out — because when you’re in need, a clean public restroom totally counts as a cool travel find.
This app by Charmin identifies nearby potty locations, and allows user ratings so you can make an informed decision about where to, uh, go.
Solo Travel is Anything but Lonely
Still on the fence about making the lone travel leap? It might make you feel better to know that lots of others have safely leapt before you.
Browse the vast array of solo travel blogs — some of my favorite figures are Nomadic Matt, Adventurous Kate, Interstellar Orchard, Technomadia and Free Candie. These folks are generally full-time nomads who can provide insight and inspiration, as well as from-experience travel tips and secrets you won’t find anywhere else.
You could also consider becoming part of a caravaning group, like Sisters on the Fly. These groups host events and activities for those who prefer to travel alone… together.
Happy trails, Penny Hoarders!
Jamie Cattanach (@jamiecattanach) is a freelance writer whose work has been featured at Ms. Magazine, BUST, Roads & Kingdoms, The Write Life, Nashville Review, Word Riot and elsewhere. Her writing focuses on food, wine, travel and frugality.