By the end of 2017 I will have completed six solo international trips (London, Kenya x 4, and Uganda). I love reading other people’s travel tips, but I have found that 1) they are usually written for men (see Tim Ferriss travel advice including recommendations for men’s underwear or clothing and advice on couch surfing) or 2) are in fashion magazines for glamorous women who always bring their $300 La Mer face cream on the plane. I wanted to write a guide for a young solo traveler going somewhere a little bit off the beaten path. This is part packing list, part to-do list, and part mental health list. These are some of the tips I have learned (and am still practicing) over the past year.
- Download a comfort show (i.e., “Friends,” “Sex and The City,” “Seinfeld,” “Parks and Recreation”), you know yours. That way wherever you are you have your built-in friends and a predictable distraction. Don’t rely on wifi for your entertainment because other countries have unexpected power outages.
- Download books in advance (if you use an e-reader) and lots of podcasts. It is especially fun to read travel books while traveling. I just read this one.
- A good meditation app. Even better if it is one you have used before. I don’t tend to meditate as much abroad as I do at home, but I do always use an app to fall asleep. It makes a sketchy hotel room feel way more comfortable. I like the app, “Relax” by Andrew Johnson.
- Travel noise machine because white noise is more comforting than listening to unfamiliar sounds as you try to fall asleep and you never know what noises you will be dealing with (there are guard dogs next door to my current hotel and they have been barking at each other at random hours throughout the night)
- Travel yoga mat – This is a new purchase for me but it is because I recently became obsessed with this online yoga video series called “Yoga with Adriene.” It is helpful to stay active and mindful wherever you are. I also use the “falling asleep” video from this series when jetlag wakes me in the middle of the night.
- Mini flashlight (again power outages)
- Converter for multiple countries in one (this is helpful in case you have a layover in a place that has a different outlet type than your final destination)
- Neck pillow (I just started using this one instead of the traditional u shaped one)
- Door stop (in case your hotel door doesn’t have a lock)
- Something that smells like home. I bring a lavender spray that I always use before bed at home. It is relaxing, reminds me of home, and is useful in case there is a weird smell in the place you are staying.
- Bring a bag that you can carry close to your body that has multiple zipped pockets to prevent pick pocketing.
- Pack lots of snacks! I also like to pack ginger chews and stomach teas.
To do list:
- A note about jet lag – my latest trick is to not drink any alcohol while traveling. I do take something to help with sleep, but I find that alcohol makes me feel terrible during the trip and after. It is tempting, but it is just not worth it. Keep yourself hydrated before and after the flight(s).
- Write a detailed agenda and share with a few select people – for me it goes to my mom, my husband, and sometimes professors (depending on the security situation and if it would be useful to have them know my plans). In this plan include your flight information, hotel information, passport number, health insurance information, and phone numbers of U.S. embassy, local hospital, and local police.
- Plan how you are going to communicate with others – whether it’s what’s app, email, imessage, try to figure out in advance what might work for you. In Africa since I am 7 hours ahead of my family I always write them a morning email and it is nice to look forward to their emails early afternoon my time. It is important to have a person who is your daily check-in who always knows where you are, etc.
- Check-in with your primary care doctor at least a month before your trip. Some vaccines require time before they are effective. Get required medication as well as GI medicine and extra prescriptions for illnesses you commonly get (i.e. UTI). Bring lots of over the counter medicines (cold medicine, advil, etc.) because many countries don’t have the same recognizable medicines as the U.S.
- Get some good non-refrigeration required probiotics
- Register with the U.S. embassy and follow the embassy and other local security services, news outlets, on twitter.
- Make several copies of your passport and keep them in different places
- Check visa requirements for where you are going. More places are requiring travelers to get visas in advance and even if a place doesn’t require it, it can save a lot of time once you arrive.
- Take out cash and store it in different places. I keep some in my wallet, some in an envelope inside a notebook that I keep in another bag, and sometimes even put a little bit in my checked bag. I usually don’t exchange it all at once because it can be useful in certain places to hold onto American cash.
- Set-up travel alerts on your credit card company
- Even if you don’t plan to use your phone for calling while abroad check-in with your cellular provider so that in case of emergency you could use your phone. On that note if you are going to be in a place for a long time it can be convenient to bring an old phone and get a sim card with a local number.
- Know how you are going to get picked up from the airport. Don’t assume there will be cabs there and that it is safe to get into any cab. Also,s depending on what type of hotel you are staying at if you are arriving late make sure there will be someone to check you in.
- Do your research. Before I go on a big trip I love the ritual of ordering the Lonely Planet book for that country. I find it very useful because it has so much information in one place and while it is kind of old school (now that all of this information is online) you won’t have internet everywhere you are. If you are going on a weekend trip and don’t want to take the whole book with you sometimes I will cut out a section. If you don’t buy the lonely planet do your research on local customs, security risks, and top attractions. You can also crowd source information. I love following the itinerary of friends when I got to the same place they have been.
Once you arrive:
- If you can, find routines or familiar things in the place you are going to. Even if you are only somewhere for a short time you can find “your things” there. Since I have been to Kenya several times over the years my routines are,
- Use my same driver who I have known for four years
- Read my favorite daily Kenyan newspaper
- Get Dawa (ginger lemon tea) at the coffee shop chains around the city
- Go to the same Indian and Ethiopian restaurants every time I am here
- Learn a few words in the local language and ask people to teach you more. It is a fun way to connect with people and locals often appreciate it. Similarly, you could listen to local music or read a book by a local author. These things will help you feel more connected to a place and engage with locals.
- Meet up with everyone you even slightly know or knows someone you know in the place you are going. Traveling can be lonely and it is always comforting to connect with someone familiar. It also gives you a chance to try a new restaurant and get a read on the city. It might be awkward for a minute, but I promise it is worth it.
- Depending on where you are going you might feel exhausted and disoriented for several days from jet lag. I also never sleep to through the night with jet lag (I am writing this a 3:30am). I think the only option is to accept you will just feel tired for a few days and try your best to push through and carry on with whatever you need to be doing.
- Feel advanced nostalgia – every time I am in Nairobi I feel a special connection to the city and its quirks. I think about how I will feel nostalgic for it when I am at home which does happen to me. If you can feel that nostalgia before you leave a place it is a form of gratitude.
- You will probably feel lonely. Plan for that and accept it. It is part of the experience.
- Reach out to people at home when you do feel lonely. Technology and social media can make you feel so connected to people even when you are so far away. Also, your friends and family will like to be a part of your adventure.
- “Treat yo self” –massages are usually cheaper outside the U.S./Europe so get a massage, take yourself out to a nice dinner, or buy yourself a present. Even if you are on a budget, when you are in a challenging place, or just exhausted from traveling, it is important to take care of yourself and indulge.
- Talk to local people and appreciate the uniqueness of where you are. Be as present as possible – smell the smells; listen to the birds, the language, the local noises; people watch; observe everything; try new foods. And my favorite, ask about local political or societal traditions.
- As someone told me recently “remember you don’t get these moments back.” For some reason that really struck a nerve with me. We don’t get any moments back in our life so yes we should appreciate them all, but travel moments are especially unique. If you are lost in your own head and not appreciating something beautiful or magical you don’t get a re-do of that moment. Each moment can be something to appreciate (even the tough ones or as Cheryl Strayed wrote especially the tough ones). The scary times or the lonely times or the bored times or the exhausted times are all part of the experience. Sometimes I think, “how will I feel about this experience five years from now?” The answer usually is, “I will be so thrilled I did it” or “I will feel so proud” or “I will look back on it with fondness.” I also like to think when I am scared about things going wrong or things have gone wrong, “well that will make a good story.”
- Everything feels scarier, lonelier, and sadder at night. Remember morning light changes EVERYTHING. If you tell yourself you can just get through the night it feels more manageable. Also with time difference it is often a great time to text friends or family for a reality check and reminder that you aren’t totally alone.
- I used to feel like a poser when people would say things like, “you are so brave” or “your life is so exciting.” I felt like I was lying because they didn’t know about the anxiety I felt before each trip questioning whether I wanted to go. They didn’t know the moments I longed for home and cursed myself for being away. But these feelings don’t negate their comments. I am learning to accept those comments with a thank you and realize I would probably see someone else who was doing things like me in a similar way. At the same time, I deeply believe you don’t have to sugar coat things. I want to be grateful, but I also like to share with people when I am nervous before a trip or tell them about some of the more challenging moments on the trip. None of us are helping each other by making our lives look exciting, perfect, easy, fill in the blank. Deep power can come from vulnerability (see work by Brene Brown). I am practicing being vulnerable, but also not discounting someone’s comments. Yes. my life is exciting even if the excitement involves anxiety or fear!