The moment has come: You fought the naysayers, made all the preparations, saved some money and left for your first solo trip. Congrats! Now the adventure can start.
But first, we need to talk about how to stay safe on the road. These are several tricks that I adopted myself and are now normal for me:
The first thing you should do when you want to book a trip to a place you don’t know is check safety information. In Germany, we have the Auswartiges Amt (Ministry of Foreign Affairs) which gives a lot of information about entry regulations and safety’ for every country. As a German, I would check there first, because it probably the one takes the latest information into consideration. For example, when news broke of the high Zika virus risk in Latin America, the Auswartiges Amt website had regular updates on the situation. If you are searching for an international equivalent, you will probably find what you need on the site of the American government.
- The advantage of official websites: You get the latest possible information about all safety, entry or health-related topics.
- The downside of official websites: They are often very conservative and seem slightly exaggerated. They talk about high risks in countries that are pretty safe for backpackers when they know where to go and where to avoid.
After that, I would start searching for travel blogs with articles about my destination. Travel bloggers very often have unique angles on places and people. You can learn about hidden places and tourist traps – and all by reading their personal story. Bloggers are not faceless voices. They take you along on their trips and will answer you if you have questions about a destination that didn’t get answered in the blog post. So, if you want to hear more about safety, write to them and get their opinion.
- The advantage of travel blogs: You get a personal opinion based on the experience of somebody who spent some time there.
- The downside of travel blogs: The bloggers stay at the destination may have been some time ago and the situation could have changed in the meantime.
If you are not the reading kind of person, you can search for vloggers on Youtube instead. It’s more time consuming to get an overview because you can’t scroll through, but at least you can speed up the video. Just click on the little wheel for the settings and put in on 2x speed. It can take a while for you understand everything and can be a bit stressful in the beginning, but you will soon get used to it and get through the videos you want to watch much faster.
Another thing you can do is use Facebook groups as a fount of knowledge. There are groups for traveling in general, for special genders, for solo traveling or groups and, of course, for specific countries or regions. If you have a specific question, it’s probably best to ask there, since you’ll likely find a member who had a same problem and therefore knows the answer you’re searching for.
I would also suggest checking travel guides. I had a Lonely Planet e-book for South America when I was there and really liked having offline information about individual places on hand to read on the bus while going from one place to another.
- The advantage of travel guides: You have all the information you need in your pocket and you can read it offline as often as you want.
- The downside of travel guides: Travel guides are only up-to-date for a short time. Although I liked my South America guide quite a lot, I realized that prices had already changed and I couldn’t rely on what my Lonely Planet told me. At that point, you start doubting the safety information as well…
Behave like a local!
This is my personal favorite. I know that it’s not always possible to look like a local because if you’re a Western-looking guy in Thailand, you probably didn’t grow up there. But, you might still study work or live there! So, try to pay attention to how locals behave, what gestures they make and what they wear.
Another thing is that locals normally don’t look lost. So, even if you have no clue where you’re going, don’t let people know that you’re lost by the look on your face or your intimidated posture. Walk upright, look ahead as if you know exactly where you’re going, and don’t take out maps or your phone to search for the way.
This might sound strange at first, but I can assure you that you make a totally different impression if you behave like this. I have been doing this for a long time and, at some point, started to wonder why people were asking me for directions in the local language. In the beginning, I was confused that, wherever I went (London, New York, Rome, Madrid, Paris), it happened again. “Do you know where the street XYZ is?” Only recently – when it happened in cities in Asia where I definitely do NOT look like a real local – did I realize that it was simply because I always acted like a local.
I took this rule to the extreme in Buenos Aires, as everybody had told me how dangerous the Argentinian capital was. On the first evening, I left the house where I was staying and went left instead of right, causing me to not find the bus station. Instead of turning around – which would have made me appear lost – I just kept walking and walking, searching for another bus station, but there was none. In the end, I was walking for almost an hour until I finally asked a local and needed another hour to get back home.
My advice: When you really need to take a look at a map or your phone, simply go into a shop, restaurant or bar. In there, you can find your way and not make yourself too much of an obvious target. You can even ask for directions.
Learn the local language!
This is strongly related to the previous point: If you want to behave like a local, you should know at least some of the local language. This is helpful for two reasons:
- When you really need help you can tell people what is happening, and they will probably be more able to help you if you speak their language.
- If somebody is searching for a target, this person will not search for locals. One sign of being a local is interacting with other locals in the local language. If you feel like somebody is following you or looking at you in a strange way, just start a conversation with somebody at the next bar, kiosk or bus stop. Show them that you are able to communicate without language barriers.
Obviously, the first words that I always learn (almost no exception, even in Cambodian or Hebrew I really tried my best) are “hello” and “thank you”. After that, I usually try to pick up words from the conversation that sound familiar and repeat them. When I ask people for the meaning I can memorize them more easily.
Also, when I go to the same place to eat several times, and the waiters start to say “hi” when they see me, I ask them to write down how I can order my favorite dish in their language. Or when Ym in a hostel, I do the same, for example, asking the names of things I just bought in the supermarket. Most people will be super happy that you made the effort to learn some of their languages.
If you like a more structured approach to learning, you can use tools, apps or (online) courses to improve your language skills. There are several possibilities, some of which I have listed in the resources section at the end of the book.
Learning a language by going to a local language school is a great opportunity to connect with locals and other travelers who are staying in one place for more than a few days. It’s ideal for meeting people and learning something together.
For me, learning the language is simply a question of respecting the people of the country in which you are a guest. So be respectful and act as you would like others to act in your home country.
Know when to lie!
I don’t know about you, but I literally hate lying. The worst thing about lying is that you have to remember what you said to whom to avoid telling the wrong version of a story (even if it’s the true one) next time you see each other. BUT: There are lies that I would definitely encourage. No, I urge you to NOT be too honest to everybody. If you meet somebody and one of their first questions is “where are you staying” you shouldn’t tell this person the name of your hostel.
If you want to give an answer, you can be vague by pointing in a direction, just say the name of the part of the city, or simply make up the excuse that you forget the name.
When I was young, I met a local during my stay in Cyprus who was extremely insistent. I didn’t consider lying, so I told him where I was staying. After that, he came to my hotel several times to talk to me uninvited. Luckily I was smart enough to tell the reception staff about the situation so that they wouldn’t give him my room number.
Trust your gut feeling!
Have you ever been in a situation where something inside you told you not to go on, not to continue or not to do something in general? I am sure you know exactly what I mean. If your answer was “yes, absolutely!”, then do you think you should still trust this inner voice when you’re on the road?
I know it can be scary to go to a new place, but trust me: your gut feeling will always help you. Perhaps you need to listen better because you’ll find some wonderful situations when you’ll feel like you shouldn’t listen to your inner voice, but it will rarely be wrong!
People tend to feel safer if others know where they are and what they are doing. So be sure to tell your family and friends about it! Stay in touch with them, write messages on Facebook or Whatsapp or make voice calls with Facetime or Skype. It will give you a great feeling.