Most people’s barrier to travelling alone is that they need other people around them. This used to be my personal barrier as well. I didn’t feel the need to connect with strangers. How little did I know about what makes travelling worth doing it.
The importance of finding a nice place to stay
My first time travelling alone was in Eastern Europe in 2012. I was wandering around the beautiful city of Ljubljana one evening, looking for the hostel I had booked the night before. I found it to be in quite a distance from the city centre, and worse: the hostel was empty. I had already booked there for three nights, and the hostel remained empty for all the days to come. The accommodation was not bad. Nonetheless, I was the only guest.
I spent my days in romantic Ljubljana, remaining in solitude, not finding the guts to approach fellow travellers on the streets. This was at a time I still found it hard to be alone. It took me a while to realise that travelling alone was the best thing to happen to me. After my Eastern Europe trip, I promised never to travel alone again. Unfortunately, I had to travel solo again a year after due to a series of events. The big difference was, this time I made it work.
The secret is relatively easy!
Connecting with fellow travellers and locals is key to making travelling solo a good experience. It may sound counter-intuitive, but travelling is not about the places you visit but about the people you meet. At first, you will probably find it hard to connect with strangers. Making things a lot easier is finding the right place to spend the night. And that is what this article is about.
Staying at fellow travellers or locals?
For starters, ask yourself: do you prefer to stay with a local, or do you prefer to stay with fellow travellers worldwide? For me, this differs from day to day. Underneath, you will find an overview that should make your choice easier:
Advantages of staying at a local
- Most of the time, locals better understand the area you are visiting. They can provide you with tons of insider tips. You will go to places where no other tourists will go.
- Locals have a better understanding of the local language. This is helpful when communicating with other locals; you might also learn some useful basic sentences.
- Staying with a local is often cheaper. Doing it right, you will have a free guide, a free place to stay and pay local prices for almost everything.
- Locals have a better understanding of the culture, local habits and local food.
Advantages of staying with fellow travellers
- They tend to be broader orientated as they have often visited a wider variety of countries. This will give you insights into the best places to visit in the area and inspire you for your next trip.
- At hostels, you will meet a wider variety of people. This often makes not only conversation more interesting, but there is also a higher chance you will find someone you have a personal click with.
- Fellow travellers know what you are going through and better understand the problems you face when travelling alone. Seasoned travellers will have tons of helpful travel insights to improve the experience.
- Fellow travellers tend to have a more interesting background, especially seasoned backpackers. They build character by travelling the world and have learned things; you can only learn with life experience.
- If you like to party, a hostel is often better than staying at a local place.
Ask yourself what fits you the best. In general, you can say that you will get a deeper cultural understanding by staying at a local. At a hostel, you will meet a broader variety of exciting characters. Often, a combination will give you the best experience.
How to find a good local place
I recommend using websites/apps such as Couchsurfing. You can look for locals offering their place to stay. Most of the time, the accommodation is free, but it is common to bring a small gift from your home country or show your appreciation to the host in some other way.
Important things to consider:
- Does (s)he speak the local language and at least a bit of English?
- What are the reviews from other travellers?
- Does (s)he not have to work during your stay?
- Is (s)he willing to guide you through the area?
I recommend arranging things a month before leaving your home country.
How to find a social hostel
Picking the right hostel makes connecting with fellow travellers a lot easier. For me, it was one of the keys to making travelling solo a success (far beyond my expectations). Social hostels are well worth paying a little extra and they are often relatively easy to recognise.
Underneath, I will share my options for picking the right hostel.
Option 1: Bring a travel guidebook
I must admit, I have never used this option before to find the right hostel. Travel guide books tend to take up quite a lot of space in your backpack, and they are heavy. Especially when travelling to multiple countries, you do not want to bring a travel guidebook for every one of them. I have seen people downloading travel guides to their phones. However, when bringing your phone anyway, why not use a far bigger list of hostels? Yes, that’s right, get some WiFi or a local SIM card, and use the internet to your advantage.
Option 2: Find a social hostel using your smartphone & WiFi
Although I absolutely love the peace of mind it gives not to be online all the time, WiFi in a foreign country remains the best friend of an (introvert) traveller. Often, I use the internet only to book a room at my next destination. It helps me find a better place to spend the night. Most of the time, I start my digital quest for a social hostel one night before leaving the place I depart from.
Let’s pick up our (smart)phones and start doing this stuff:
- Shortlist hostels. Use an app and sort on price (low to high). Then look for the first two or three hostels with an average review rating higher than 80% with a reasonable amount of reviews. This way, you will find cheap hostels, popular amongst backpackers.
- Check the reviews. Always double-check the reviews to see what other travellers say about the hostel. Be aware of fake reviews of the owners – they are often quite easy to pick out. Do not get scared off by a few complaining travellers who expect VIP rooms for a hostel price.
- Check the pictures & the list of facilities. Check the images to see whether the hostel has the proper facilities for social interaction. Things that are usually a good sign are a bar in the hostel itself, a shared room, a pool or ping-pong table, 24-hour reception and free WiFi.
- Check the location. Not all social hostels are found in the city centre or on a beach. However, often they are. A good location often makes a hostel popular amongst young, social travellers.
- Choose the dorms. Dorms are a great place to meet travellers alike. It’s safer than you might think at first thoughts. Sharing your room = sharing your experience.
Finding a hostel with a smartphone and some WiFi is definitely my preferred option.
Option 3: Ask for a recommendation from other travellers
Most backpackers you will meet along the way visit about the exact locations as yourself. The conversation will almost always start with where you come from, what places you have visited and what areas you are planning to visit. If someone has already been to a place you plan to go to soon, ask them where they stayed and what hostels they recommend.
Option 4: Ask around at your destination
Needless to say, you shouldn’t use this option when you arrive well past midnight; not many people will be awake to help you. I did ask around upon arrival a few times: one time when arriving in Bratislava and a few times in Thailand. I will not be very likely to do it again – unless there are no other options.
In all situations, I walked around the city with a fully loaded backpack for several hours, which is quite a struggle when you are tired of travelling. When I asked around at the location itself, I actually found a friendly hostel in the end – it took some time and energy, though.
When disregarding my advice to not look around on the spot, don’t forget to check the good social signs listed under option number two.
Make up your mind about whether you want to stay with a local or fellow travellers. Spending the night at a local’s place will generally give a deeper cultural experience, whereas spending the night at a hostel will introduce you to a wider variety of people.
The most efficient way to find local places is to subscribe to platforms such as Couchsurfing. If you want to meet up with fellow travellers, use the internet or ask around for recommendations (preferably before you arrive at your new destination). Some hostels are seen as an attraction themselves and need to be booked a few days ahead.
Making friends when travelling alone
Finding a good place to stay is just the start. Be open, be flexible, and have a genuine interest in the stories of your fellow travellers. The golden line you can use on almost any occasion: ‘Hi guys! Let me introduce myself; I am from. Where are you from?’.
Travelling alone will teach you things no school can ever teach you. It changed my life, and it probably can change yours.