The buddy system is the golden rule when exploring a new city, but sometimes you will find yourself traveling alone when studying abroad. A few weeks ago I traveled alone to meet a friend in Paris, and this past weekend I explored Edinburgh for a few hours while my friends were in class. Traveling solo brings a whole new level of responsibility and independence, but also allows you to explore a city on your own terms.
Here are my tips for staying safe while traveling alone, and ways to make the most out of your independent travels.
Do Your Research
Before traveling to any city, be sure to plan your accommodation and transportation. What area of the city is safest? How does the bus or metro system work? Is a taxi or Uber less expensive? While Dublin’s buses and taxis are safe and inexpensive, my friends in Edinburgh travel almost exclusively on foot or by Uber.
If you’re traveling to a country that speaks a different language – like France – try to learn a few phrases in their language. A little effort goes a long way in impressing and understanding locals. Also, be sure to write down information like your hotel/hostel address or the airport name and terminal, especially if they’re difficult to remember or pronounce. You can easily show your bus or taxi driver, and have all your important info on hand in case you get lost or lose cell service.
Look like a Local
When traveling, the best way to avoid undue attention is to blend in to the local scene. Try to dress like locals, whether that means avoiding shorts, dressing up or down, or bundling up when you need to.
In any public place, try to read the room and pick up on how locals are acting. While boisterous talking and laughter is quite normal in a pub, it might earn you some dirty looks in a quiet cafe or museum. In some countries, a gesture as small as a thumbs up can be extremely offensive, so do your best to research local customs before you go. Always be respectful when visiting cultural touchstones like monuments, memorials, and churches. Use common sense: stay out of cordoned off areas, do not use cell phones or cameras where marked, pay attention to traffic patterns, and maintain a respectful attitude towards the places you visit and people you meet.
Keep Your Belongings Safe
It’s an unfortunate reality that pickpockets often target foreign travelers, especially Americans. Always keep your belongings secure, especially valuables like your cell phone, passport, credit cards, and cash. In tourist heavy areas, avoid drawing attention to yourself by flaunting your foreign accent or valuables.
I always keep my cell phone and cash in a secure, zippered coat pocket and wear my purse or camera bag as a crossbody. When carrying my camera through a city, I always wrap the strap around my wrist multiple times or wear it around my neck. Since it’s quite chilly in Northern Europe, I like to wear a large scarf that can easily cover my camera from rain or a potential thief.
Even airports, train stations, and buses are not immune to thieves. As inconvenient as it may seem, always keep your bags with you. Whether you’re headed to the restroom, grabbing a bite to eat, or simply checking the timetables, always keep your bags in your sight… or even better, in your hand.
Look like You Know Where You’re Going, Even if You Don’t
When walking alone, always try to appear confident and alert. Avoid looking distracted by texting or searching through your bags. The best way to stay safe, especially at night, is to appear aware of your surroundings: if you hear a sound, turn and look. Make room for others on the sidewalk. Walk with purpose and confidence. Not only will it help you stay alert, but will show others that you are too.
Make the Most of Your Time Alone
In Edinburgh, I had a few hours to myself while my friends were in class. When exploring alone, be sure to check out the things you want to see most. For some, this might mean checking out the best shops, spending time in a museum, going on a walking tour, or finding a great local restaurant. I spent my time seeking out the best views and photo ops in the city. I also stopped in a year-round Christmas shop to find an ornament for my mother’s collection and joined a free Harry Potter themed walking tour, two things I probably would have skipped if traveling with a group.
Do a little research to figure out how you can make the most of your alone time in a new place. Be sure to leave yourself a little time to wander: seeing a new city at your own pace can be a very unique and immersive experience, so give yourself time to explore the areas you’re most interested in.
Be smart, stay safe, and enjoy your travels!