It wasn’t until a few years ago that I realised the true beauty of travelling and the meaning of the term “wanderlust”. Travel has broadened my mind and since my first trip, I have made a promise to myself to try travel abroad at least once a year.
Distant routes to distant roots
I am lucky enough to have family in the Czech Republic (which has become somewhat of a second home to me) so they housed me and took care of me the first time I went. I was quite sheltered and only ventured out on my own a few times but it was exhilarating and I was bitten by the travel bug.
I skipped the following year as I had just resigned but the year after that, I found an incredible opportunity to study in the Czech Republic for one month for free as a Czech expat – including food, accommodation and a slight compensation for coming from so far. At that moment I realised that I wanted more. I had contemplated Contiki numerous times but it kind of struck me as something I wouldn’t quite enjoy. Then I came across the Interrailing packages.
Of trams and travels
As a first timer at travelling alone and without much time to book and plan for accommodation as well as not really knowing Europe so well, this option was perfect for me. They offer a variety of packages at different prices which are comprised of the train tickets and accommodation to various countries. Depending on where you want to visit, the duration you would like to stay and even the choice between hostels and hotels.
Personally I feel it was the best option for me. I selected the four week hostel option which also included basic breakfast at most of the hostels.
I was travelling more as a student with a bit of a budget as I wasn’t earning enough money at the time to travel luxuriously. How the packages work are that you select your trip and pay in Pounds which will then give you the Interrail ticket, accommodation, trip details as well as info on each city that you are visiting. There were other little discounts and things but as a South African travelling on Wi-Fi only and not roaming, the effort to access these were a bit more than I thought I could handle.
A difficult part was getting the tickets since I didn’t have six months to wait for the South African postal service to send them to me. Which again is why I was blessed enough to have my family in Prague receive it for me.
For clarification the Interrail pass is for European citizens or those holding Europeans passports and then Eurail is for non-Europeans. I am an EU passport-holder so it was far easier as I didn’t have to get any visas. I did encounter a problem when my train came into the Czech Republic though, as I was not aware that the Interrail pass did not work there. Thank goodness I had enough money to pay the man for a one-city ticket!
Some advice for other single travellers
I think by nature – as a South African – I was far more wary than travelers from other countries. I met a girl from China who had told me about all the thing she had done, how she had gone out alone at night time and I just thought to myself how I would not do the same thing. I am quite paranoid as it is but it served me well. I feel perhaps I missed out on one or two opportunities but I came out completely fine and having been made far richer for the experiences I did have.
I was also gifted bear mace by a close friend who warned me to not get “taken” as he was not Liam Neeson and would not come rescue me.
Obviously every city and country has its bad spots and areas that you would just avoid normally and then there are street smarts which are closer to common sense.
25 Tips for the solo traveller:
- Don’t do roaming unless you absolutely have to. It is a huge cost with no real justification unless you are working and have to be in constant contact with someone back home. There is WI-FI everywhere and honestly you don’t really need to talk to people until you are back at the hostel/hotel. The rest of your time should be spent exploring.
- If you are on Wi-Fi and don’t have traditional paper maps (the enormous ones I folded and twisted and stood staring at for ages until I was able to figure out where in the hell I was). Most hostels/hotels provide maps free of charge but do be warned that more often than not, they don’t have all the street names on, only the main ones, and if you are anything like me and my poor sense of direction – it will leave you having to ask a lot of people for assistance. If that isn’t your scene then opt for the smarter option of going onto Google maps when you are online and find your location. From there, select the options and click on offline areas. This option will allow you to download the map of a specific vicinity that you select. It may take a little time but then once it is saved, you will be able to access it without internet. With your GPS on it tracks you and you and can even navigate you within that designated area. Another handy trip is to ‘star’ (on Google maps) any places you might like to visit. This will also remain marked on your offline map and you will be able to navigate there. It’s a good way to make sure you don’t miss out on anything and you get to explore the rest of the city while commuting from one star to the next.
- Make sure that you have a comfortable backpack. Not a big one, in fact when I did the USA we used a tiny little canvas thing but it was much easier than the sling bag I used in Europe. It got heavy and started hurting after long enough which makes you just want to go home.
- In the backpack make sure to pack water. Your wallet with money and if you are going to drink alcohol then your passport as well. Your phone or camera. Snacks such as bananas and trailmix. And don’t underestimate the uses of wetwipes! Travel is a little dirty. Sometimes you have to use bathrooms that aren’t that great that don’t have sinks (I’m talking outdoors) or maybe you just want to stop for a bite while checking out a view.
- Wear sunscreen. Baz Lurhman was a smart man but what he didn’t mention was that it is way easier to do it before you leave the house. Pop it on and rub it in good and try to give it a little time to sink in before you put on your makeup as it is a little sticky and my blush was very dark and patchy the first time I tried it. I personally don’t wear hats so this was a big one for me. Also be sure to use your wetwipes to take it off properly at night when you get home because it does have the tendency to cause to you break out. A trick I learnt was to squeeze some sunblock in with my moisturiser. It helped the application a little too as it wasn’t so tacky to apply.
- Pack light. I went into Europe with the mindset that I wanted to look fabulous no matter what and I came back with new eyes and a slight feeling of resentment to my enormous bag which was close to the size of a child. Pulling it on and off the trains and through the streets wasn’t fun and I recall having to take up four seats at one stage as it wouldn’t fit in the overhead compartment. With the Interrail you also have to get from the train stations to your accommodation on your own and trust me, it’s not much fun having been sitting for six hours and still being forced to drag your bag through the city to find your accommodation. I liked that the hostels were all within walking distance from the train stations or from the public transport that you would need to get to your destination. They also offered clear and concise directions in meters with landmarks to get you where you needed to be.
- Pack good walking shoes. Unless you are going to the beach or plan on going out for a fancy dinner or two, there is actually not much of a need for shoes other than your sturdy walking ones. They don’t have to be ugly hiking boots. But a strong pair with a good sole and support because when you travel, all you do is walk. Again, determined to look pretty, I brought a pair of walking shoe lookalikes and some Tomy Takkies. Every night my feet were almost numb and I think it is part of why I was just so exhausted in the end. Especially as a person with flat feet, it was silly of me not to pay more attention to my shoes
- Money – the first time I went to Prague, I thought I would have to go to a currency converting place at home but when I did, I discovered that they did not have Czech crowns. So from thereon, I realised that it is actually better to either draw largish sums and keep them in your bag at the hotel (that way you can take out a daily allowance for yourself) or else use your bank Cards. FNB is amazing with little charges on the credit cards. Also try not to draw money at the airport as the fees are elevated.
- If you are going to use credit cards then remember to call your bank before you go to let them know that you will be going overseas and that any use of your card there will be you and not fraud. Personally I did my largish sum of about R4 000 or so which I would dole out my daily allowance from and then for any bigger items I would just pay straight from my credit card. Credit is better than a debit card because should it be stolen or lost, you can still cancel or reverse any charges that are not your own.
- Don’t skimp on the travel insurance. I have never needed it thank goodness but it is just peace of mind that you will never regret having. FNB also offer the fantastic service of free travel insurance for the ticket holder of an air ticket purchased on your credit card. Literally free. You just call in with your card and ticket details, answer their security questions, give them your dates and the cities you are going to and they will cover you. You can pay for additional cover.
- Bring a lock for your bag. Those combo ones are perfect because you can’t lose the keys. It gives sets your mind at ease when you leave your luggage back in your room. If you have something super valuable, most places do also offer a safe but rather leave it at home or till the end of the trip to buy.
- Bring two purses. One for daily use where you keep your daily allowance and the other which you keep hidden in your bag and contains the larger amount you are taking from. I promise this keeps you from going over your budget.
- Bring flip flops if you are doing hostels. It’s a pretty weird feeling to shower in shoes but better than the feeling of athletes foot I would imagine.
- Invest in one of those toiletry bags that can hang from a hook. And decant all of your toiletries into smaller bottles. Shampoo especially. Again, hostels usually have communal showers or ones that are not in the dorms. So you will have to walk holding everything you need to get clean and back. Also bring a towel for this reason.
- Keys. Things have changed a lot. All of the hostels have to electronic credit card looking keys that you swipe up against the door card reader and which allow you entry. It is a little hard to remember because it is so small and obscure so it does take a little getting used to. I saw multiple people locked out of their rooms. The hardest for me was having to use the loo in the night. I always just kept it underneath my pillow and made an effort to think of it as something I could not live without. The USA was far easier as they had keypads that you would key their pin into and they would magically open for you. Easy enough unless you are terrible at remembering numbers like me.
- Camera. Most phones have the ability to take incredible photos so a camera isn’t really necessary but if you are going for award winning shots then you will need something a little more powerful.
- Souvenirs. I know it seems lame but getting tiny souvenirs from each city is wonderful. People say you don’t look at them and they are a waste of money but I truly regret not buying more. Even if it is just a fridge magnet. Try to avoid tourist traps though. The same goes with meals too. If there is an iconic monument within your line of sight, you are going to pay ridiculous amounts of money for anything. Try wandering a few blocks down to lesser known places. The food is cheaper and more authentic as well as the experience of trying to order from a waiter.
- Keep a phrase book if you are in a particular city for a long time or else try to learn a few key words. ‘Please’ and ‘thank you’ are the staples. And maybe how to ask for the bill. Pretty much anything else you can gesture your way through.
- Don’t be afraid to spend a little more than your budget. When you set a budget, be sure not to get too restricted by it. I regret a number of things that I didn’t buy- champagne in France, leather in Florence, more perfume in Nice and a number of small things. My rule of thumb is usually – “can I get this at home?” I am pretty good except for the one time I needed a stern talking to when I was in the biggest bookstore in the world and attempted to buy half of it.
- Pack light. A few staple items that you would wear. Leggings are wonderful. Shorts too and then one dress and skirt are really all you need. Besides, the less you pack, the more space you will have for what you buy there.
- If you are a reader then invest in (or borrow) a Kindle or an eReader. Far easier than carting books around.
- Most of the hostels I went to also had some or other info on walking tours and if not, then the staff were able to guide and tell me what I did and didn’t want to see. My trips have all had at least one big thing I wanted to witness or view and nothing can beat the feeling of standing before one of those icons in person.
- Be safe. Always. Watch for pickpockets. Don’t leave your bag open and when you put money in your purse in the hotel room, make sure that the notes are individually accessible so that you don’t have to take out the whole wad and show everyone that you are carrying.
- For single ladies, practice safe sex. Don’t drink so much that you lose your bearings, make sure you know how to get home. Don’t go home with a guy you are not 100% sure of and don’t accept weird things. If you are going home with someone, then make sure your roommate or someone knows where you are going. I will never forget, my first morning in Amsterdam when a girl walked into my dorm wearing just a t-shirt, laughing and saying she woke up without pants on and didn’t know what had happened with previous night. I pray nothing happened for her sake but her cavalier attitude freaked me out! Just street smarts as I said. I think a European fling would be awesome but make sure it is filled with no regrets. For those that are dating, a handy trick I learnt was popping my normal ring over onto my ring finger and pretending I was engaged which usually gave anyone trying to make unwanted advances on me leave.
- Make friends. These are your connections for future travelling expeditions but also people to explore with! Take some days to do a few things on your own, but also do go down to the hostel bar and make friends. Personally I always got on along better with Australians and if they were guys, then I would make sure to disclose from the start that I have a boyfriend and then allow them to decide if they wish to still hang out but know that it is purely platonic.
- Discover yourself. Travel is scary. Exhausting. Frustrating. Eye-opening. Beautiful. Wonderful and life changing. You don’t have to come back with dreads, new tattoos and an aversion to shoes. I think anyone who returns from travelling abroad is changed in some way so embrace it. Try new things, new foods and experience the way of life that is different to your own.