1. I learned how to laugh at myself.
When traveling alone, you need to come terms with the fact that you are going to fuck things up, A LOT. I often looked like a complete dumbass in public. So why not just laugh at yourself? (everyone else already is)
In my first 4 weeks, I had traveled through 8 countries in central and eastern Europe. Most countries I didn’t know a single word of their language, their transit systems, their currency (every country was different) or just in general what the hell I was doing. At first, this made me feel very uncomfortable.
I didn’t like when I had to put myself in a vulnerable position by asking something as stupid as “what kind of currency do you use?” “how does this machine work?” or “why are you charging me to use the damn bathroom?”
People laugh at you, stare at you, blow you off, or say something to you, where you know if translated, means something like “you dumb fucking foreigner.”
But after a bit I just started embracing my ignorance and “dumb fucking foreigner” self.
I laughed at my stupid mistakes, laughed when people laughed at me, and embraced how little I knew. Not only did it make it more fun, but people were more friendly and helped out more because of it.
I remember I was so damn lost in Belgrade, no one seemed to speak English, so I literally ended up playing a game of charades with an old Serbian woman by posing like statues and bridges that I knew were near where I needed to go.
I couldn’t have looked any dumber, but it worked!
2. (Most) travelers are incredibly friendly, open minded, and welcoming.
The question a lot of people asked me and I often asked myself before I set out to travel alone, is will I have issues meeting people?
Meeting people on the road was extremely easy. Almost everyone traveling is just as eager to meet others as you are.
I’m not sure exactly how many people I met on my travels, but it was easily over 50 from over 15 different countries.
I did not a meet a SINGLE person who was an asshole (maybe a couple people rough around the edges). Almost every single person I encountered was so friendly, energetic, open minded and eager to meet others.
Within 15 minutes of being in a new hostel in a new country I’d usually have a new group to explore with.
Contrary to popular (American) belief, hostels are not a place where psychos hide to kidnap you, throw you in a room, and chainsaw you to death. In fact, (most) hostels are awesome.
Sometimes I’d just walk up and introduce myself to people or other times people would just approach me, but either way the results were always the same and people were always excited to meet someone new to explore with. Many of the people I met I ended up traveling with for days or even weeks and after invited to stay with them if I am ever in their home countries.
3. Plan less, do more.
A month before my travels, I tried to plan out all the details. I booked flights, trains and hostels, mapped out all the dates, places I’d go, made a neat timeline etc.
After only my first week of travel I pretty much completely abandoned my schedule.
One thing that is exciting when traveling alone is that you are completely free to do whatever you want, whenever you want, with you who want. You don’t have to check in with anyone and see if they’re up for doing the same thing, you have no real restrictions or limitations.
Often times on my trip I ended up meeting some great people who had a bit of a different route, but one that sounded even better than my plans. So I’d say fuck it, change my plans and would travel with them.
Sometimes these were people I had known for only a couple of hours. We often didn’t even know where we’d be staying that night, or even what city we’d be in 24 hours from then.
Planning less made the trip all the better. Because of it, I saw way more places and sights, met even more people, and was much more carefree.
Sure, it’s important to plan some major things before trips like healthcare, maybe a couple major flights, clothes to pack etc.
But a lot of the fun in traveling alone is meeting people, going with the flow, and just going on spontaneous trips where sometimes I’d wake up and go “damn how did I even get here?”
4. How to deal with “down days.”
For anyone who followed my travels via Facebook or instagram you mostly saw me posting upbeat statuses about exploring new countries, pictures of tropical paradises, playing with elephants, camels, monkeys, and having the time of my life, and the majority of the time I was.
But what you wouldn’t hear about or see pictures of are the “down days” of traveling and being alone.
There are days where I was very homesick, experienced true loneliness, anxiety, and got psychically sick.
I had a day where I had to sit outside in the cold, alone, in wet clothes, shivering for 5 hours waiting for a train from Croatia to Serbia when I was very very sick. The train station was outside in the middle of nowhere, it was 40 degrees outside and my clothes were wet because the place I was before didn’t have a dryer and my clothes didn’t dry out in time. I hadn’t slept in 36 hours, and I couldn’t go 20 minutes without getting sick in a bathroom that I had to pay to use every time.
There were other times I got very depressed, felt very alone, cried on the phone to my mom, and didn’t want to do it anymore.
But you learn how to deal with it.
You learn you aren’t going to die, the moment will pass, and you have to just get through it. And you always do.
5. 2 months of traveling is nothing.
When I first planned this trip I thought 2 months was a pretty long time to travel, and most of my American friends agreed.
2 WHOLE MONTHS!
I could see the whole damn world in 2 months right? It was about a week into traveling that I saw how short of a time frame 2 months was really considered in the world of travel. The majority of people I met were traveling 6 months to a year.
I even met a woman who has been traveling for 5 years! In fact, a lot of people (especially Australians) barely even consider 2 months proper travel.
Australians considered two months just a vacation. A vacation?!
Good god America, can we get our work/life balance in order and take some fucking notes from the Aussies?!
6. How to worry less
When I first set out on this trip hundreds of questions/worries flooded my mind.
“What if I can’t do this? What if I get sick, get hurt? What if it’s hard to meet people? What if I get lost or robbed? What if I run out of money? What if I can’t pay rent when I get back? What if I have to move back home with my parents? What if I lose this amazing girl I just started seeing at home? What will I do for work when I get back? What if I have anxiety attacks, break down?
What if, what if, what if?!
The day I was set to leave I had so many worries running in my head, I almost broke down and didn’t go.
With traveling (and really anytime in life) it’s so easy to get caught up in worries.
But I came to realize that worries have zero purpose, literally none. Something bad might happen, it might not, so why worry? But it’s often not that easy to just say “don’t worry”.
So I started using a mental exercise I had learned years back. Every time I had a worry in my mind I would combat that worry with 3 potential positive outcomes instead.
For example, I worried “What if I have trouble meeting people on my travels?” Right when that worry popped up I twisted it to a positive “What if I meet someone who will change my life? What if I meet a group of new long term friends? What if I have new and exciting experiences with these new people?”
Suddenly, I had much less worry about it and instead actually became more excited.
This is a mental trick that can be used for anything in life and is very powerful. Worries will always pop into your mind, but you can choose whether it limits you or pushes you.
Try this next time you catch yourself worrying about something or someone.
7. How to explore.
Remember when you were a kid and you just explored without any thought, worry, or concept of what the world was or what you were doing?
You saw something that sparked your interest or curiosity and you just went after it without considering any consequences. Your mind was wide open to the world and anything in your path. We get older and we lose that.
We think we know everything, we label things we see, lose our imagination, and just stop exploring.
I decided on this trip that anything that looked interesting I was going to explore. Anyone that seemed interesting I was going to meet and learn more about. There’s a great saying “when you open yourself up to the world, the world opens itself up to you.”
So I opened myself up.
I raved in an underground national monument that had been bombed in WWII, pretended to raid castles with people I just met, got chased by the hungarian mafia (not pretend), ran through a monsoon completely lost in the dark, sandboarded in the desert, meditated with buddhist monks, hiked mountains, forests, caves, and waterfalls, rode and crashed motorcycles, snorkeled with sharks, jumped ropes lit on fire, rolled in mud with elephants, lived on a wooden ship for days, and met some incredible people.
Looking back, some of my decisions were pretty stupid, reckless and if I hadn’t been in that mentality maybe I would have thought twice about some of them.
But there is something extremely profound, liberating, and refreshing when you let yourself just wander and explore without worrying what might happen or what someone might think of you and just do it. It’s a sense of freedom and aliveness I had long forgot.
8. No one cares that you’re American.
When I started traveling I thought a lot of people (for better or worse) would have more of a reaction to me being American. I figured some locals are going to hate me because of it (especially when I was in Vietnam), some will think it’s cool (especially me being from NYC).
What I came to realize is people are really indifferent about it, no one really cares one way or another. Sure sometimes I’d get people asking me about what I thought about Obama, our government policies, etc. but for the large majority, people were neither excited or pissed I was American.
Other countries think about America about as much as you think about Guam, pretty much never.
9. Traveling is SO easy.
Every city I experienced was so catered to tourism it blew my mind. When planning to go through certain cities like Bratislava, Belgrade, and many areas in southeast, I (like a closed mind american) expected to have to deal with some third world poverty, beat up cities, scary mean locals, and no access to the outside world via phone or internet.
What I realized was almost the opposite opposite.
Everywhere I went was catered to tourists. Wifi is everywhere, there are SO many travelers out there to help you, hostels and cities are so much nicer and technologically advanced than you’d think, transit systems in most places are easy and efficient, and there thousands of apps, websites, blogs etc to tell you what to do everywhere you go.
Vang Vieng, Laos. Had faster Wifi in their bars then my home Wifi
10. Smiling and acting like you’re trying gets you VERY far.
In the 12 countries I had traveled, I only knew how to say hi, bye, and thank you in about 4 of them. And that was it.
Very often I’d find myself in situations where I needed to ask a question or get help from a local who didn’t speak a word of english. These interactions usually involved me asking the question in english, 5 seconds of weird hand gestures to describe the question visually, a confused looking person, and both the stranger and I walking away frustrated and annoyed. I complained to other travelers about it and someone asked me.
1. “Are you smiling?”
2. “Are you really trying to work with them to get the answer?”
What stupid questions, I thought. But they ended up being huge.
I started approaching every local with a big warm smile. I’d ask my question slowly and really try to understand and often laugh with the person about how we were struggling to communicate.
I got infinitely better results. Instead of people viewing me as some ignorant, asshole tourist people were going out of their way to explain, help, and sometimes just walk me as far as a mile to help me get where I needed to go.