Everyone should take a solo trip once. There’s no greater confidence boost than knowing you can hack it out there in the world on your own. Plus you develop ninja-like skills that allow you to squeeze into a public bathroom stall with all your luggage and still avoid touching any of the surfaces.
Independent Female Travellers (IFTs) have an additional, very specialised knowledge base. If you’re an experienced solo flier, you’ve already mastered the following skills. If you’re an aspiring IFT (good for you!), here’s what you’ll need to know.
1. How to say no (nicely)
Single, foreign and female? You can practically see the dollar signs in people’s eyes as you walk down the street towards them. IFTs are used to extra attention from shopkeepers, touts and restaurant owners. And they know that women can be the most insistent salespeople of all, grabbing your arm and holding it hostage while they load it up with bracelets or henna.
A seasoned IFT has mastered the art of smiling while firmly repeating “no thank you.” She never apologises or explains why she isn’t buying; and when she is buying, she negotiates with the same confidence.
2. When to get loud
In some places, a woman alone in a public place is seen as an invitation to chat. Headphones are no deterrent and language barriers are seemingly irrelevant. Occasionally it’s flattering but most of the time it’s exhausting; sometimes it crosses the line and becomes downright threatening.
When necessary, IFTs seek safety in numbers by finding other travellers to hang with. But in the moment, an IFT isn’t afraid to raise her voice and alert the people around her. Unwanted attention can work both ways.
3. That it’s OK to cry in public
When you’re travelling things can occasionally go spectacularly, hilariously wrong, and when they do you’ll probably be more tired and cranky than usual. Every IFT – no matter how experienced or capable – has had a meltdown in front of total strangers.
It doesn’t mean you’re failing. You’ve just reached your temporary limit and, although it doesn’t feel like it, this experience is making you more emotionally self-reliant. Some IFTs have learned to harness this power and can summon tears at opportune moments. This is a formidable talent that should be treated with due respect.
4. How to say yes
To other people, IFTs appear approachable and perhaps even vulnerable. Travellers and locals alike might invite you to join them for a conversation, a meal, a hike, perhaps a party. Recognise that this is a unique benefit to travelling alone and do not waste these opportunities. A sense of openness and a willingness to take risks are part of being an IFT. But so is the ability to draw the line at where you feel comfortable, and knowing that you alone are responsible for your own personal safety.
5. What loneliness feels like
I’m not talking about missing your dog or wishing you could talk to your friends. I’m talking about the deep isolation that comes from being immersed in a world where nothing is familiar, and where you’re unable to have a real conversation with anyone around you. In some places you might be able to do something about it, like join an English-speaking tour or hang out at a hotel/hostel bar. But other times you’ll just have to sit with that feeling of being unequivocally and inescapably alone, miles away from the people who love you. This is one of the toughest aspects of being an IFT so you might want to go back and read No. 3 again.
6. How to talk to anyone
An IFT cannot be a wallflower, no matter how shy or reticent she is at home. She has to be able to ask directions, negotiate prices and send back her food when there’s a cockroach in it – even when she doesn’t speak the language. She gets her best tips from travellers, not guidebooks. She’s had conversations that started with “where are you from?” more times than you’ve hate-liked other people’s vacation photos. One of the best things about travelling alone is meeting other people. An IFT knows this and she’s got the friends to prove it.
7. That you’re stronger than you think
When your luggage gets lost, or you get food poisoning, or your overnight bus breaks down in the middle of nowhere – that’s when you find out how tough and resourceful you really are. IFT’s have handled challenging situations before and they know they could do it again. That gives them a sense of self-assurance that remains long after their trip has ended. If you’ve never done it before, the prospect of travelling solo can be daunting. But when it stretches you, you might be surprised at how far you can extend.