The etiquette of solo travel

Georgina Smith

With these tips, seeing the world by yourself may be even more rewarding.

Going solo

If you're a seasoned solo traveller, you may have perfected your peregrinations long ago.

You've equipped yourself with a highly sensitive internal radar that detects possible incoming irritants like hustlers, hagglers, and overly chatty charlatans.

You can swoop through crowds, confidently order food, and feel free to either keep to yourself or strike up conversations with fellow wayfarers / future friends.

But if you're on your first autonomous adventure, you may feel unsure about how to handle yourself. 

What are the rules of engagement with other travellers, particularly other soloists set on seeing the world by themselves? How do you talk to the locals and avoid possible trouble in an unfamiliar environment?

Here are some tips to help you on your way. Before you know it, you'll have your tactics and travel technique down pat - or, you may decide that adventuring unaccompanied isn't your bag.

But travelling the world without fellow companions can be a hugely rewarding experience – and it doesn't have to mean being alone all the time.

In fact, you may meet more people and make more friends than you would otherwise.

1. Wining and dining for one

When you're travelling by yourself, much of your day may be spent on the move, whether that's trekking across town or countryside, meandering through museums or moseying around shops.

So when it comes to meal times, when you're forced to sit and stay still somewhere, you may wonder what to do.

The first question to ask yourself is: how sociable do you feel? If you feel like you've not spoken to another human being for days, then you may want to position yourself somewhere that opens up the possibility of talking to others.

For instance, if your restaurant has a bar, why not ask to eat your meal there? With the comings and goings of other patrons and staff, it'll be a lot easier to strike up conversations than if you're hidden away in a corner.

But if you're exhausted from a day of meeting people or taking in the sights, sounds and smells of a new place, you may just want to sit in peace and plan tomorrow's itinerary. In which case, the table for one in the corner is the way to go. 

And never forget, dining alone can be a wonderful experience: you can truly savour the flavours of your meal without pausing to talk (your delicious morsel of food temptingly poised on your fork in mid-air, getting cold). 

You can even write in a journal, spend time Instagramming the perfect pic of your grub to the envy of the folks back home – or simply organise the photos of your trip so far, saving the keepers and deleting those surplus to requirements to make sure your memory card is good to go the next morning.

Choosing the best digital camera for your needs

Wining, on the other hand, can be problematic when you're travelling by yourself. If you don't have your wits about you, you may leave yourself open to silly mistakes like leaving bags in bars and missing the last bus back to the hotel.

Worse still, others may perceive your vulnerability and try to swindle the unsuspecting tourist.

So, unless you have someone you trust with you, try to take it easy on the tipple.

2. Send off the right signals

If you're simply enjoying the peace and serenity of sipping a cappuccino in a sun-dappled piazza, soaking up the moment alone – and want to keep it that way – you may not be in the mood for small talk with some chatty chappy who's itching to offload their life story.

This is where clever body language can come to your rescue.

As lovely as they probably are, this is your time. So…

Rule One: Don't make eye contact.

Rule Two: Open a book and look so engrossed they think it'll probably be too taxing to wrench you from your read.

Rule Three: Sometimes looking unhinged can be a good people-repellent, so do your best disturbed look and exude an air of murderous intent.

Rule Four: However, if like attracts like, scrap rule three in a hurry.

Rule Five: If they do gain ground and try to engage you in chitchat, give them the old conversational cul-de-sac, where you politely answer their questions, but don't elaborate, and don't ask any questions of your own. Blocking them off like this at every turn should - hopefully - allow the conversation to trail off, at which point you say something along the lines of,"Well, it was lovely to chat..." whilst glancing meaningfully back at your book. 

Rule Six: Go and find yourself another sun-dappled piazza.

Or, perhaps give in and have a chat. They may have a really interesting life story, good local tips and you may even find you have a lot in common.

3. Be a culture vulture

If you're travelling abroad alone, the last thing you'll want is to stick out like a sore thumb and unwittingly invoke the wrath of locals by transgressing a strict social code or religious rule.

Which is why it's ever so important to read up about your destination and understand the culture before you arrive. Whether it's observing dress codes in some Muslim countries, behaviour at sacred sites in Europe or the nuances of eating a meal in Japan: good etiquette, according to the country you're in, is your best travel companion.

Learning a few phrases goes a long way, too. And you'll never be criticised for trying, no matter how silly you feel.

Even if you accidentally tell a Japanese mother that her baby is scary (kowai) instead of cute (kawaii). Oh yes.

4. Put experience first

If you're worried about how to talk to other fellow travellers and what sort of things to talk about, don't be.

If you're fully immersing yourself in your holiday, and soaking up the experience – whether that's enjoying art, architecture, music, theatre, walking or shopping – you'll probably find that when it comes to conversations with strangers, the words come freely.

So put experience at the forefront of your solo foray. The less you worry about what others think, the better.

5. Dip your toe into solo travel on an organised tour

If you love the idea of travelling by yourself, but are unsure about jumping straight into the deep end, an organised tour may provide a good balance between independence and the security of being in a group.

If there are people you get along with in your group, you may decide to stick together for activities and meals.

If not, or you're intent on staying as independent as possible, no one will think it strange if you politely excuse yourself from joining the pack.

An important thing to remember if you are travelling solo, but on an organised group tour, is that, like you, other travellers may also be seeking that perfect balance between independence and group engagement.

So, always be friendly, but respect others' desire to keep to themselves, just as you hope they would respect yours.

And if you feel you're being pestered more than you'd like, you can always enact Rule Five: the conversational cul-de-sac.

If you'd like to try travelling on your own, why not check out Saga's range of solo holidays?

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.