Seven things to never do when traveling alone

Traveling alone can bring an otherwise unattainable perspective on the world, but there are some things that are safer to do in groups. Never make these seven mistakes!

Brendan McDermid/Reuters/File
A holiday traveler looks up at the departure board at Penn Station in New York, November 26, 2014.

For every parent, coworker, and well-meaning friend who warns you to never travel alone, there are plenty of seasoned travelers who proclaim solo travel to be the only way to truly experience the world.

Alone, you get to pick your own itinerary. You get to drink in your surroundings without the distraction of chitchat or trying to get along with someone else. Solo travelers report feeling empowered by the ability to navigate strange places on their own.

But the reality is that solo travel has its potential pitfalls, the top one being safety, especially for women. Here are some things to avoid if you want to keep solo travel safer and more satisfying.

1. Never Overlook Fellow Solo-ers

It might be tempting to think that someone traveling alone must be a weirdo to be avoided. But wait! You're traveling alone, and you're not a weirdo. So go ahead and form ad-hoc adventure teams.

"Backpackers and hostels are like the meccas of solo travelers, and you're guaranteed to meet a ton of people from all over the world if you just hang out in the lobby or coffee shop of one. You don't even have to stay there; just go hang," advises travel blogger Alyssa Ramos.

2. Never Be Shy

One of the biggest advantages of traveling solo is that, with no one else to talk to, you're much more likely to engage with locals. Even if this is hard for you (it is for me), push yourself.

"Travelling solo definitely enables you to speak directly to some locals and stop being shy with people," writes Agness Walewinder on eTramping.com. "In this way, you can make new friends and gain valuable insider knowledge about wherever you are."

3. Never Grin at Strangers

I know I just told you to be friendly, but there are right ways and wrong ways to do that.

When I was 19, I left Wisconsin for a year abroad in Paris. The August day when I landed was hot, so I put on shorts and a bikini top and took a walk, smiling politely at anyone I passed, male or female.

Before I knew it, a young man with black wavy hair was following me. Once I lost him, another man started walking alongside me. I learned that day that in Paris — as in so many cities worldwide — a big smile means more than the "Hi there!" it means in Madison, WI.

4. Never Explore Out-of-Sight Places

In the French village of Cordes-sur-Ciel, my travel companions and I stumbled upon a multi-story house with its door wide open. We walked in, and noticed it was full of art pieces but empty of people. As we climbed each flight of steps, we felt more intrigued but also more nervous, wondering what kind of place this was and whether we might meet anyone else there.

In the end the curious art house was deserted, and it was a magical experience. But it's one that I would have skipped if I had been alone.

"Keep to open and public places, especially at night," The Independent Traveler firmly warns. If I had run into someone who meant me ill on the third floor of that empty house, I would have had a difficult time escaping.

5. Never Skimp on Research

"Doing your homework about a new destination is especially useful when you're traveling solo," advises Amanda on A Dangerous Business. "Before every trip, I do a little Googling and read up on things like cultural norms, common scams, and how I should dress as a tourist."

Alison Vingiano narrowly escaped rape while hiking alone in Dharamsala, India, an experience that made her realize that despite her refusal to be grounded by fear, she could not ignore local safety issues either.

"Women should travel alone. It is not fair for us to live in constant fear, nor should we. However, we must also accept and adapt to the reality of wherever we travel, rather than challenging preexisting and culturally specific gender binaries we cannot control," Vingiano wrote for Hello Giggles.

6. Never Wander the Wilderness Alone

This is a tough one. The solo journeys of Christopher McCandlessEdward Abbey, and Cheryl Strayed look mighty appealing, all alone with their packs in the desert or the back country. But remember that McCandless, the subject of the book and movie Into the Wild, died out there. Abbey very nearly died when a stupid climbing mistake stranded him on an isolated ledge (and probably lots of other times too). Strayed was okay — but after all, she stuck to the Pacific Crest Trail and even then she had some close shaves.

Retired search and rescue expert Matt Fields bluntly urges backpackers to buddy up: "A medical emergency could be terminal if you have no one with you to go for help or render aid until help arrives."

7. Never Lose Contact With Those at Home

Even though you are on the road alone, you should keep someone at home posted about your whereabouts. Professional Travel, Inc., recommends that you leave a copy of your itinerary with contact information for points along the way, and keep your phone activated even if this costs you extra. Not only should people be able to reach you in case of emergency, but someone should notice if you don't show up at your next destination on time.

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