Culture Trip: Let’s talk solo traveling. Tell us about your very first trip and what made you decide to travel alone in the first place?
Valerie Wilson: My first time traveling solo, I went to London and Paris on a complete whim in 2009. I had been ill with Lyme disease for just over a year and couldn’t stand sitting still any longer. I mustered up every bit of energy I had and booked a flight from JFK to London Heathrow. I had always wanted to travel the world, but hadn’t ever left the country (with the exception of Mexico and Canada) because I thought it was too expensive. I learned shortly after that trip, that international flights are often less expensive than domestic flights. It’s a huge misconception in the US that international travel is too expensive.
Before I left, I studied maps and looked up all of the best things to do and see. I felt so empowered that I could navigate foreign cities by myself. I wandered the Louvre for hours finding paintings that I studied in my art history class in college, and made friends with strangers every day. I strongly feel that Europe & the United Kingdom are a great wading pool for new solo travelers. It’s easy to navigate, safe, and not much of a language or cultural barrier. That trip gave me the travel bug, and once you have it, it never leaves!
CT: Are there certain cities or countries more conducive to solo traveling that you recommend to Culture Trip readers?
VW: Any country can be great for solo traveling, but it really depends on what stage you are at in your life. If you are getting over a breakup (a la Eat Pray Love), I would suggest avoiding a romantic city like Rome or Paris. Instead, I would head someplace more adventurous and exciting.
If you love the idea of traveling where it’s easy to meet other solo explorers, I would head to destinations like Costa Rica, Thailand, Myanmar or Cambodia. These destinations attract outgoing individuals and offer a lot of culture and adventure. As a rule of thumb, I would steer clear of anything all-inclusive, because you might end up surrounded by couples, making it hard to meet friends. Besides, where’s the adventure in that?
CT: In your opinion, what are some of the benefits of solo traveling?
VW: The best benefit of solo travel is you will be guaranteed to go someplace since you won’t be waiting around on others. I cannot tell you how many trips I passed up on waiting for other people to have the time, money or desire to go. Once you become a solo traveler, other people’s schedules no longer affect your travels. If you don’t wait around for people, then you will get to your desired destination instead of sitting at home dreaming about it.
When you arrive at your destination (although it can feel overwhelming at first) there is a great sense of freedom. You are able do whatever you want, whenever you want and you don’t have to negotiate with anyone else. If you want to eat 17 times that day to try ALL the best pasta in Italy, no one is there to stop you! You have complete control over your trip, and it’s very freeing.
Lastly, traveling solo builds self-confidence faster than anything else I have ever experienced. Knowing you can navigate a foreign country, make friends on a whim, communicate with others who don’t speak your language and open yourself up to new cultures is empowering. Finding out that you can be your own best company is a powerful asset that will serve you in so many ways even after your journey ends.
CT: What are some of the negatives of solo travel?
VW: Solo travel can sometimes get lonely. I have experienced some of the most incredible things on this planet, but had no one to share them with in the moment. There are many times I have wished to share something I have experienced on my travels with friends or family; however, if I had waited for them to come along, I may have not experienced any of those things in the first place.
Taking photos alone is also challenging, although I have mastered the art of a tripod and a remote trigger. Another negative of solo travel is nightlife; sometimes I want to go out and experience the local nightlife but I don’t, for fear of being a target.
CT: Speaking of negatives, unfortunately we live in a time where terrorism is a real threat for travelers. What would you say to people keen on experiencing solo travel but afraid of what could happen to them abroad?
VW: I want nervous travelers to know that although threats of terrorism are real across the globe, you are not any safer from terrorism or any other disasters staying home, than you are traveling. The likelihood of being caught up in an act of terrorism is so low, that it’s nonsensical to worry about it. I don’t want anyone to think that I don’t have a grasp on terrorism, because I do. I was in New York City just days after the September 11 attacks and witnessed the chaos and despair in the city I loved, and know people who lost family that day.
But, let’s please put it into perspective so we can live without fear, because if you are afraid to live your life, the terrorists will win. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), every year about 235,000 people over age 15 are either admitted to the emergency room with injuries or will die in the safety of their own homes. That means it’s more probable that you will die in your bathtub than you will while visiting Tehran. You are 35,079 times more likely to die from heart disease than from a terrorist attack.
CT: Are there any specific safety tips, tricks, phone apps, etc. you personally use and would recommend?
VW: The most important solo travel tip is to never look lost and to always act confident. If you exude confidence, it’s less likely someone will bother you. For example, I never look at an actual map unless I am in a hotel or bathroom, to prevent looking lost. Instead, I love the app Maps.me because it’s free and they work offline. You can download a map before your trip and it will tell you exactly where you are without using data. It will even give you walking or driving directions to restaurants or hotels.
A few other tips are: never admit you are traveling alone to strangers, know where your country’s embassy is located and carry a copy of your passport (both printed and electronic). It’s also a good idea to have a friend to check-in with who expects to hear from you once a day and has an idea of where you will be.
Today, technology can also be a big help for solo travelers. Utilizing large social media communities on Facebook—like Girls Love Travel and my group, Globetrotters & Travel Friends—help connect travelers and lend a hand to those in need of assistance while abroad.
CT: Tell us about what inspired you to start Trusted Travel Girl and how launching a blog ultimately affected your solo travels?
VW: Trusted Travel Girl was started by accident when I was working a miserable office job right after graduating college. Everyone said that I should be doing something in travel, but I didn’t know what that something was. I built TrustedTravelGirl.com in my free time, as a way to showcase my travel expertise, should the right job come along.
Soon enough, my Instagram account started to take off and people were sharing my travel content from my website. Eventually, I quit my job, and after some hard work, tourism boards began paying for me to travel all over the world. I couldn’t believe it! The first time I was invited to write for a tourism board, my parents thought I was getting scammed.
Travel blogging is not always easy, I work 15-hour days more often than not, but I love what I do. The most incredible feeling is when I get an e-mail from a reader saying they stepped out of their comfort zone and booked a solo trip because I inspired them!
CT: For first timers, what are some things they can expect from their very first solo trip?
VW: Expect that anything can happen! Be prepared, but don’t over schedule yourself. Expect to surprise yourself with how well you can get by on your own, and expect to be shocked by the generosity and kindness you will receive from strangers.
CT: Where are you off to next?
VW: I just got back from Estonia, and now I’m heading to Lake Tahoe to work with Vail Resorts promoting their summer activities. After those trips, I will be hosting my own Trusted Travel Girl trip for my readers to join me this autumn to one of my favorite destinations, Myanmar!