Eleven years ago, Gemma Thompson set off on her very first solo backpacking trip, heading to Bangkok via a two-night stay in Dubai, with the intention to trek throughout South-East Asia and then on to Australia. To keep her company, she brought along the works of wonderful travel writers like Michael Palin and Bill Bryson, and although they were fine companions, what she really wanted, were more travel narratives written by women.
Taking to the road alone is a brave decision. A Girls’ Guide to Travelling Alone is an eye-opening, honest and inspiring on-the-road companion. Richly varied, these witty, inspiring, challenging and sometimes uncomfortable travel stories have been written by women of all ages, nationalities, backgrounds and experiences, each with a compelling tale to tell.
We spoke to Gemma about her solo travel experiences to hopefully encourage you to do the same!
1. What are your top five tips for travelling alone?
• Do your research. For all aspects of your trip. From culture to safety, to practicalities. It can be easy to unintentionally insult someone or to find yourself in a tight spot when you arrive at the other end.
• Have a backup plan. I missed the last shuttle out of Guatemala City due to flight delays so had to find a trustworthy taxi driver as I had read about late-night buses being incredibly dangerous. A bit of Spanish and having arrived with enough US Dollars was a lifesaver (literally!)
• It’s ok to veer off course. It’s great to have your itinerary planned down to the last day but sometimes a change of plan, or even staying put in one place longer than anticipated can bring you some of your best experiences.
• Always show respect. To absolutely everyone. Chances are you will be welcomed into someone’s home, or have a chat with a local, which will give you a much better insight than any guidebook can.
• Push yourself. Travelling alone is a brave feat in itself, but there’s nothing better than scaring yourself and conquering your fears. Whether it’s attempting a conversation in the local language or taking your first scuba dive. Chances are you won’t regret it, and you’ll feel so much more alive afterwards!
2. What’s the best travelling advice you’ve ever been given?
‘Pack your common sense head’ by my friend Anna-Maria. You will have to take risks at some point when you travel solo but trust your gut. If you get a bad feeling about a taxi driver/friendly local/grotty hostel, get out of there.
3. What are the positives of travelling alone?
Complete freedom. You get to go where you want, when you want, eat where you want, sleep when you want. There is absolutely no compromise. You are also much more likely to strike up a conversation with other travellers or locals, which all adds to the experience. There are so many solo travellers, that you can be as alone, or not, as you like.
4. And the negatives?
Getting ill can be pretty grim when you’re on your own. Sometimes you just want someone to fetch you some food or medicine, or to look after you. However, if you want to see a friendly face, it’s never been easier to stay in touch with your folks back home.
5. Have you ever been in a scary situation whilst travelling? If so what advice would you give to others so it doesn’t happen to them?
Yes—a few! Sometimes it’s just unavoidable. When I arrived In Guatemala, I was on my own and the airport was closing for the night. I was exhausted having been on the go for about 30 hours with very little sleep. I knew how dangerous the city was, and it was getting late to check into my hostel, so I was keen to get out of there. The taxi driver I found spoke no English, and ultimately, it was either him or the local buses (controlled by violent gangs). I chatted to him in Spanish, nervously, and as we talked about his young children and my family back home, I began to relax a bit. I shared my cookies with him, and he ended up playing me his favourite CDs—Phil Collins and Bryan Adams! Being as prepared as you can—having the knowledge beforehand can at least arm you with the facts, and what to look out for or avoid.
6. In your opinion, which are the best countries for solo travellers?
As a first-time solo traveller, I would say the easiest countries are those on the backpacker circuit of South-East Asia, Australia and New Zealand. However, although it’s very well set up for travellers, it is relatively expensive to travel down under. It’s hard to say which are the best countries as everyone is looking for something unique to them. If you have a real desire to visit a specific country or region, and it’s safe to visit, then go for it. Just remember to do your research!
7. Which country have you felt the safest in?
Australia. The hostels are well set up, the buses are reliable, and the Aussies treat the (often harsh) environment with the respect it deserves.
8. Do you prefer travelling solo or with friends?
Solo. If I only have a finite amount of time in one city, I want to go to the museums/restaurants/neighbourhoods that I want. I may not ever return! Don’t get me wrong, I love a trip away with the girls, but if I really want to immerse myself, I’d always go solo.
9. What advice would you give to someone if they’re not sure if solo travel is for them or not
Do your research and try it out. You can survive for a couple of days on your own. Push yourself and if you don’t like it, that’s ok, at least you tried.
10. What are the top three items someone travelling alone shouldn’t leave home without?
• A good camera (or phone camera). You will never tire of looking through your pics when you get home.
• A good book, preferably about the area you are visiting. You get so much more out of your trip! And you feel like you have a little extra inside info too.
A few well-known examples are:
Marching Powder by Rusty Young (Bolivia)
First they killed my Father by Loung Ung (Cambodia)
Down Under by Bill Bryson (Australia)
• A large scarf or sarong. This can have a plethora of uses. For the beach, to cover up at temples, to cover up in the sun, a pillow on long bus journeys… I could go on!
Are you inspired to start solo travelling? Then you NEED to read A Girls Guide to Traveling Alone, available on Amazon.