Solo Travel Mistakes to Avoid

hotel in havana

This is my hotel in Havana. Nice! But when I arrived at night the doors were closed and it was unlit. Plus, being on a pedestrian mall, my taxi couldn’t drop me at the door.

Traveling alone leaves less room for error.

A solo traveler doesn’t have a back-up person. Two sets of eyes and double the instinct are not operating as you navigate a new city or country. Most of the time this is just fine as long as you avoid making some basic mistakes.

Solo Travel Mistakes to Avoid:

1. Don’t leave the public sphere with new acquaintances.

My number one safety rule is “stay in a public”. Read why in: Caught in a Con Game in Paris. The social contract that keeps most of us playing nicely is enforced by people watching. Therefore, simply by staying in a public place you are protected. If you go into a private space with someone you don’t know well, there are no longer people watching and protecting you. Public is safer than private.

2. Don’t arrive in a new location after dark.

A new city always looks more challenging in the dark than in daylight – especially as a solo traveler. Arrive early in the day at a new location so that you can check out your accommodation to ensure that you are happy with it and it’s location. If you’re not, you’ll have time to change the situation.

Unless you in the fashion biz, packing too much is the sign of a travel rookie.

3. Don’t pack too much.

Dragging around a large suitcase, or worse, more than one suitcase is a hassle, expensive (you may spend a lot tipping people to carry it for you) and not particularly safe – you don’t look like a seasoned traveler and therefore you may be more of a target. Solo travelers don’t need this extra attention. Trim down your packing to one carry-on or a reasonably sized backpack to enjoy more freedom and ease when traveling. Read: Bare Minimum Packing

4. Don’t rush into a new city.

It’s important to take time as a solo traveler – to take time and relax into a new location so that you can enjoy what it has to offer. The goal is to work the city as a local, to blend in as much as possible so that you are safe at all times. Start by sitting back and watching. Take in lunch on a park bench. Spend the afternoon in a coffee shop. Pick up a few groceries if just to get the local shopping bag. Take your time and ease into the city.

5. Don’t leave without travel insurance

Things can happen when you travel. Inconvenient things and, sometimes, terrible things. That’s why having travel insurance is a good idea. Travel insurance can cover cancellations, delayed departures, personal articles, medical emergencies, accidents and more. There are usually multiple options so review your purchase carefully. Any situation where you need the insurance will likely be stressful and, as a solo traveler, you have no one advocating for you. It’s best to keep a copy of your insurance on you as well as in your luggage and always keep it in the same two places on every trip.

6. Don’t travel without a reliable credit card.

Bank machines are everywhere in the world now but, what if a machine won’t accept your card? I had this situation in Jordan and Myanmar. I had three debit cards from two different banks and none would work. Thank goodness I had my VISA card. (This is NOT a promo for VISA though I do recommend carrying one because it is so widely accepted.) If possible, just pay with your card. In my situation I needed cash so I got a cash advance. Cash advances are a last resort because of the way interest is charged on them but sometimes they are a necessity.

7. Don’t travel completely alone.

It’s good to know that you have backup if you need it. Carry a cell phone with your emergency contact numbers and the local emergency numbers programmed in. Also carry a piece of paper with information on where you’re staying written in the language of the country you’re in. Depending on where you are and how long you’re staying, you may also want the number of your consulate or embassy with you. Know how to get in touch with the help you need should you need it.

  • http://solotravelerblog.com Janice Waugh

    Thanks for adding this. The post, though still relevant in most ways, is a bit old. I recommend the Charles Schwab card as well. In Canada, you can get the same benefits through their Amazon.ca Visa card.

  • Amanda

    You should also register with the US embassy online to tell them where you will be. In an extreme case like kidnapping they will at least know where to look for you if you don’t return on your scheduled date.

  • PeacefulLife

    I would say as a solo traveler of 2 decades, know yourself and study the area you are traveling to. Inch by inch exploration in any city. No bling. More than one credit card. Pick destinations with good safety articles. Embassy is useless overseas. They don’t care and as one Canadian embassy employee stated, we are not here for people like you. We do business here … When something dreadful did happen they were the worst and caused more problems than protect. Again. Trust yourself and follow your instincts and common sense.

  • jstraveler

    I have to give Chase kudos for their fraud prevention. Also, don’t email them the dates you are gone. Every step is another chance for something to go wrong. Do it through their website. I have never had a problem.

  • SA

    FYI, get a new version of your credit card that has a chip in it. Make your pin only 4 digits, all numbers. You can call most credit card companies COLLECT, number is on the bank of the card. You can also call for free with Skype. Also, you can open a free Charles Schwab checking account which has a ATM debit card that reimburses you for all foreign and ATM fees, so you dont have to worry about carrying a ton of cash. You can visit the ATM as much as you want.

  • http://solotravelerblog.com Janice Waugh

    All good tips – especially don’t even check your money belt in public.

    Thanks!

  • Chantileee

    Thanks Janice, for the wonderful solo travel hints. I have two more that have saved me from being mugged during my trips. Never stop in public when you are lost to look at your guide or map. Panic travelers become thieves targets. Duck into a coffee shop restroom or convenient store; calm down, ask for directions before you go back on the street. Store your Passport, Travel Insurance, Debit and Credit Cards, and half your cash in a secured money belt under your clothes. NEVER touch it in public, don’t even tug at it; thieves are watching; find a private place to adjust or get out more money, or reassure yourself your valuables are safe. HAVE FUN

  • http://solotravelerblog.com Janice Waugh

    Thanks so much Joanne. Very helpful tips.

  • Liz Nichols

    Irna are you on facebook Would love to catch up Im a nearly 60 year old and soo wanna do this cheers from Liz Tasmania

  • mary

    Chase is the worst. I have done the same thing, telling them ahead of time. They said if there is an issue call the number on the back. Duh! Can’t call! don’t make issues when I told you ahead of time!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Ed

    I had the same thing happen with Chase. I emailed them before my trip to Morocco, giving them exact dates, and receiving their confirmation. The left hand doesn’t talk to the right hand though! After I used my Visa to buy an expensive rug in Fes, I had a fraud alert put on my card. I had to call from my next stop from a hotel phone (since I don’t have international service on my cell phone–nor do I have a SIM card that can be exchanged, nor does my carrier offer service in Morocco). I paid a significant cost for the call, for which I got a receipt. I sent a letter over a month ago with copies of the receipt, my original email notice to them and their confirmation demanding that they credit me for the overseas call. I’ve still not heard back from them. Big banks are just awful, unresponsive, have atrocious customer service–and all this advice about informing them about your travel is worthless because they still will embarrass you by refusing your card and putting fraud alerts on it anyway.

  • Marcia

    Double check with your credit card a day before you leave. Although I informed one particular card of dates I would be in Italy, my card was refused in Venice and put on a ” fraud” alert. It was embarrassing and a real pain! So, always carry more than one.

  • Joanne McInnes

    Very good list~as a seasoned traveller I have experienced most if not all of the above. From the man with the gun in Rome (lack of judgement going with someone to see some ruins), to arriving in Mazatlan having forgotten all my debit and credit cards at home. I also arrived in Alicante, Spain after dark and was taken to a youth hostel that was not finished and had to stay there alone over night. In Madrid I had to give up my passport to stay in a bed and breakfast (most of these events occurred in the 70 and 80s).
    Also never travel with more than you can carry. I lived in London for 2 years but when I went back on a trip carrying a big suitcase and a child in a stroller, I got off at a tube station that only had stairs. Lovely helpful Londoners got me up the stairs.
    Just a note on credit cards,~always have enough money on the card and carry at least 2 or back up travellers cheques. In 2010, I went to Australia (several stops)-Singapore-Dubai-London- home – in Singapore I had prepaid my hotel for 3 days but the inexperienced man on the desk charged me again. I had to call to Canada to get my limit increased-an interesting note on that was that the credit card company said they would never leave anyone stranded in a foreign country and would always top up your card to get you home- good to know.
    This is important too~ some hotels put a $500 hold on credit cards that sometimes isn’t released for a week.
    Just a few tips from me. Joanne

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  • Kitty

    I get asked for directions everywhere I travel to. Guess I’ve acquired the knack of blending in. :)

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  • Inspired to travel

    Whether the trip is several weeks, or shorter, my best tip is taking lightweight, below the knee shirts in any color with a little black in the pattern. I choose a poly or rayon, non-wrinkling material and then roll them up. The skirts take up the size of a large banana, so I can easily put 4 in my bag. I mix and match the skirts with different tops and I look like a well dressed local anywhere in the world. I think blending in is the safest thing for female solo travelers, especially when entering churches and galleries. It’s also respectful of the different cultures. I recently went on an African Safari, Turkey, Greece, and then a stop over in NYC with no more than a carryon. My other tip is to take a few items that are not worn out but maybe you’re a little tired of. I wear the item and then leave it in the hotel room. I gave all of my safari clothes, at the end of my Africa trip, to the girls at the desk and they were thrilled to have them. This gave me room to buy a few treasures in Greece, Turkey, and NYC.

  • Lele

    I have been living here for 13 yrs, yet to come across an ATM that doesn’t accept VISA. Some shops might deny visa though.

  • http://travelholid.wordpress.com/ Seema Chauhan

    I’d like to prefer option no 3 that we should never go pack too much because It is so difficult to travel. Too much pack is known as tiring travel so we should avoid it. Moreover, all tips useful for wandering…

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  • http://www.clippingimages.com/ Clippingimages

    Very helpful advices really. Thanks for sharing.

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  • Aseema

    Very useful tips.thanks for it.I want to share my experience in Dubai, in one line if you really want to experience Dubai please visit http://relishyachtdubai.com/

  • Jasper

    Good advice. One thing I’ve learned the hard way: when you leave your hotel, leave one debit/credit card in the hotel and bring the other. That way, if you get robbed on the street or they break into your room, you’ll always have at least one card left.

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  • Strevs

    Travelling anywhere…..take a sink plug )))

  • John

    Before leaving for your overseas trip, always check the expiry date on your various credit cards when making photocopies of them. Earlier this year, I got caught out while holidaying in Tasmania after flying there from Sydney, my home city. Fortunately, I had plenty of backup but the lesson learnt was a good one. Also, check your cards beforehand to make shore they all work as I was once caught out on this one as well.

  • http://www.yoldaolmak.com/ Kemal Kaya

    Nice tips, but I usually travel completely alone, but can connect easily with friends via iphone.

  • Footloose

    I have travelled alone for a long time. I love the tips that are offered in this post. In 30 years of travelling alone I have learned that the you meet some of the most interesting people along the way and I have written some stories about them. Meeting other solo travelers is fun, they are easy to talk to and have different reasons to solo travelling. Love this Blog. Check out another solo travelers blog in Thailand. I hope to go there sometime soon next year. http://travelersdoor.com/about/ Thanks to all the solo traveler’s here for your tips. Threading without leaving a footprint creating Instagram moments along the way…ahhhh love it!

  • sa

    I’m 56 lady and like to Europe every year, nice to share with you.
    from Thailand

  • Irna

    Hi everybody! just to share that last may I did my first solo travel! to Europe, and was a Great experience! and I think I get the courage to do it, here! reading all this information, after been waiting almost two years to friends,….finally I said, NOW or NEVER! (I am 56 woman) and I did it!!! now I am just thinking about my next trip…and still I need to learn a lot more…but I feel I overcome the worst, my fear! now I feel I can do it! I still wishing to meet somebody special to share the experience…but, now I am not seat waiting for somebody….is a lot to see! and WAS A GREAT ADVENTURE!! thank you for the encouragement!

  • http://www.hikesedona.com/ hikesedona

    These tips apply to men and women alike but the simple truth is that
    women alone are going to be targeted more often than men. Women are
    kidnapped for sex trade and rape and women are generally thought to be
    easier targets than men, especially in male dominated societies.

  • Kevin Wade

    you have to avoid travel mistakes when you are travelling outside the country. It’s good to know that you have backup if you need it. Carry a cell phone with your emergency Contact Numbers and the local Emergency Numbers programmed in. Also carry a piece of paper with information on where you’re staying written in the
    language of the country you’re in.

    MontgomeryConvention

  • Grammietravels

    Last week I was in Paris, and for the two weeks prior, I had been in the UK. My USA debit card was no problem until I was in Paris and there I ran into problems since my card didn’t have the new pin system. I withdrew cash to help the situation. But just wanted to share that I when paying for lunch in a Vietnamese restaurant, when my card wouldn’t work, the owner put my card into a plastic bag, smoothed it down, ran it through the machine again and, Voila! It worked.

  • JR – the Worldtraveller

    Very good Article. I am a solo traveller myself. And yes I agree you can travel alone but still be in touch with people. More less it makes you more open to the community.
    Check my thoughts at my site
    http://www.excitingworldtravels.com
    and leave me a kind comment

  • http://www.facebook.com/brendon.knight.75 Brendon Knight

    I was in the Netherlands 3 months ago and had no problems with my VISA card.I bought train tickets and also got cash from atms.

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  • http://solotravelerblog.com Janice Waugh

    Thanks Jitka. Yes, having more than one card is a really good idea. I didn’t know the the Netherlands don’t accept Visa often.

  • Jitka Kuratko

    6. Well I thought so and that’s why I chose a “reliable card”. BIG problem if you don’t have Maestro card or Master card in the Netherlands!!! VISA’s are useless there especially when you want to buy tickets for a train.

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  • Rafael

    Great tips! Just found your blog and has valuable advices for all kinds of solo travellers. Congrats!

  • http://www.facebook.com/fiala.l Fiala L

    I never get travel insurance but it’s probably a good idea. It could give some people peace of mind.

  • Banana Adventure Tours

    Great advice. The most important! do not leave the public sphere with new acquintances!!! http://www.bananaadventuretours.com

  • Angela

    I live in Toronto and I have started registering with the Canadian Government whenever I travel.  On the form they ask for the name of two friends, your destination, etc.  I put down my two Power of Attorney’s names.  They also ask for your travel insurance numbers.  I have two, so I put them down.  One covers my medical, etc., from work.  In this way, I feel that the Canadian Governent knows my movements, where I am staying, how long I am going to be away.  If anything happens, they would know exactly what to do.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=619793302 Zaina Brown

    Wow! I follow NONE of these rules 😛 it’s good advice though..

  • Ronin Abhi

    i would suggest keep a scanned copy of your passport , travel insurance and visa on your email , that way you can access it , plus also check which sort of mobile operators support in the area your going, mostly Gsm is there but Cdma is also used at some places. I also carry my ID in which it has my blood group details and allergies details you know just in case. i may sound over cautious but it helps, one my friends is allergic to peanuts and he ate some food in which they had peanuts , he couldnt speak due to swelling but he showed them his allergic to information card and received immediate treatment.
    Solo traveller since 2005 kudos to Janice

  • Junemoonchild63

    I wish I would have done #4 on my first solo trip but will make sure to do so subsequent trips.

  • http://www.architecturetravelwriter.com/ Nichole L. Reber

    Indeed having a photocopy of your passport is key. That’s what helped me secure a replacement visa when my purse, money, iPhone, and passport were stolen in India. Also, were it not for staying at the same guest house for an extended time and having made instant friends there, who knows how I would have secured lodging.
    Cheers to all solo travelers.
    @NicholeLReber:twitter

  • http://www.architecturetravelwriter.com/ Nichole L. Reber

    Concur! Once while waiting for a friend in mid-morning outside an in-city Mumbai train station, I noticed three men talking clandestinely to themselves and giving me furtive glances. For the first couple of times I thought it was just Indians starting at my gori (white) skin. Then they made their way closer to me. This time they were keeping a watch out to the side. Fortunately they weren’t watching anything else closely. A occupied police truck was parked not 20 feet to my right. I looked back and forth between it and the men before the men finally saw what I was looking at. Immediately, they turned back and left me in peace. That was a scary moment.
    @NicholeLReber:disqus  

  • http://florine-foulon-portfolio.weebly.com/ Flotravel

    Another hard way to learn the lesson is when you realize that you need to seat on your luggage to zip it!

  • Travel_and_Escape_Community

    Traveling solo can be such a wonderful experience.  Sometimes journey’s are meant to take alone rather than with a partner.  For example, the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage in Spain is said to be most enjoyable when done alone: http://www.travelandescape.ca/2012/05/alone-on-the-camino-de-santiago/ 

    These are great tips!  Thank you for sharing.

  • Bikebloke

    Learn to listen to your intuition. Whether it be an area of a city you’re exploring (if you like to go walkabout, like me) or with someone you meet.

  • Samadhi67

    All points well noted! thanks

  • Summi S

    Very useful post for solo travelers. Having traveled solo I find every point listed here is true!

  • solotraveler

    Yes, confidence is a very big factor in being safe. I have a post on that in the archives. I’ll bring it forward on Facebook tomorrow.

  • VacayGirl

    Very good blog on solo travel indeed. I just recently took a solo trip to Cabo and I feel exuding confidence is helpful too. And with that I mean walk with your head up and not down staring at your feet or acting nervous. Perception is key when traveling alone and you want surrounding people to believe that you aren’t a frightened tourist but a confident tourist. They might even be under the impression that you live there.

  • http://solomatetravel.com/ SoloMate Travel

    This is a fantastic article with some really great advice for traveling solo. In addition to the tips you have, I would also make sure to read up on the area’s local customs and mannerisms so that you don’t offend any locals while you are traveling. For example, it may be disrespectful to look directly in someone’s eyes or to wear a sleeveless shirt inside a church. These are good things to learn before you visit so that you don’t do anything to compromise your safety.

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  • Dan

    if anyone ever pulls a knife on you, toss your money/purse/wallet at the feet of the assailant then run like hell. never hand it to them. the thief will be more interested in the loot than grabbing you which will give you time to get away

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  • solotraveler

    Good for you! Less is definitely more on the road.

  • Thetravellingfool

    #6 is always a must I would also suggest contacting your credit card company and telling them where you will be traveling so they don’t deny the cash advance or purchase thinking the card is being misused.

  • http://nomadicsamuel.com Nomadic Samuel

    Point 3 really resonates with me.  I remember on my first backpacking trip feeling I needed to take everything with me – especially WAY too many toiletries.  Now I’m a minimalist.  

  • http://twitter.com/latinAbroad Maria Alexandra

    As a solo traveler myself, I believe this article speaks truth. Great post!

  • http://whywelovegreen.blogspot.com Christine at Why We Love Green

    Thanks for the advice! It’s always important to stay safe when you’re traveling! –Christine at http://whywelovegreen.blogspot.com, visiting from Triberr

  • ruth kozak

    Very good advice from a long-time solo traveler.

  • http://www.fangirlconfessions.com Robin Burks

    I would like to add that most airlines now offer travel insurance through a third party when you purchase your airfare, and as you said, it is inexpensive. Definitely worth it to have peace of mind to know you’re covered in the event of an unforeseen circumstance!

    I would also add registering your trip with the US Embassy and emailing a copy of your passport to yourself (as well as having a copy on you). 

  • http://twitter.com/travelphant Travelphant

    Great article on solo travel and mistakes to avoid – point 5 is critical. Do not under estimate the value of travel insurance. Sadly I had a friend who tragically died out in Spain in a moped accident and did not have travel insurance. It cost his parents thousands of pounds to have his body flown back, they had to remortgage their house. Depressing story I know…but just don’t want anyone else to make that same mistake. The cost of travel insurance is cheap nowadays and i’m glad you linked to the Post Office as they are one of the best providers. Keep up the great work with your site, keep safe :)