Embarking on a solo adventure clear across the world is one of the most exciting things you can do for your personal growth. It's okay to feel a little nervous but if you're thinking about booking a jaunt of your own, don't let fear keep you from sealing the deal! Part of the reason that I was able to successfully travel to Istanbul alone is because I made sure to take as many safety precautions as I could up front so I could travel with peace of mind (mostly). ;-) Fresh from my trip here are my tips on how to make the best of your solo international excursion and travel like the bad ass you are!
- Register with the US Embassy. I've traveled out of the country before and never done this prior to my trip to Istanbul because I was always traveling with a partner or meeting someone at my destination. Traveling alone, however, is another story and this tip is especially important if you're traveling alone. In the event of an emergency, registering with the US Embassy at your destination lets the officials know that a US citizen is in the country and helps them quickly & easily notify you/your family in the event of an emergency (natural disaster, etc.) through the STEP program (Smart Travel Enrollment Program). Sure, emergencies don't happen very often but when they do, it's good to know that someone knows where to find you ASAP. If you have any issues while you're traveling, always call the embassy. And make sure to check the current travel warnings for your destination city prior to departure.
- Always carry a written copy of the phone number and address number to where you are staying. Phones die. Break. Get lost/are stolen. Fall in the ocean while on a ferry boat. Think ahead and make sure you have directions with you in a safe place somewhere outside of your phone. This tip especially comes in handy when you're staying at an Air BNB versus a local hotel. This didn't occur to me until I was out in the street and taxi drivers wanted to know where I was staying--I couldn't just say the name of a hotel (because I wasn't staying there!) and I couldn't pronounce the long names of the streets nearest to where I was staying. Luckily, upon my arrival my host handed me a business card that had all of the information I needed to contact him. Each night that card was my lifeline to get home so I always made sure to have it in my purse at all times (write down the number/address to the Embassy as well!).
- If you get lost/need a taxi/need a translator, head to your nearest hotel. Most hotels cater to tourists so this is a great place to stop if you're out in the streets and need assistance--you'll almost always be sure to find someone who speaks English behind the front desk as well. My first night in Istanbul I "randomly" met a front desk attendant standing outside of his hotel who mentioned that if I ever needed a taxi, I could come back and he would get one for me. Not 15 minutes later I found myself having a hard time getting taxi drivers to agree to take me to the address on the card, so I went back to that hotel and Mehmet walked me across the street to a taxi and told the driver where I needed to go (in much better Turkish than I ever could've managed). Due to his central location (& friendly nature) he quickly became an asset (and a friend!) throughout the duration my trip. Nothing is random, of course.
- Don't underestimate a smile. Especially when you're in a country where few people speak English. While in Turkey I encountered a lot of people who outright stared at me--blank, unemotional face and all. It made me super uncomfortable at first, then after a few days I started to think more about how MY face was looking to them. And I know that people were looking at me because I look different that what they're used to--from my brown skin, to my long braided hair, to the fact that I was traveling alone--and it occurred that they were looking at me because they were curious. Remember on Instagram when I mentioned being accosted by a group of moms to take pictures with their kids outside of Sultanahmet (Blue Mosque)? That all happened because I saw the young girls & their mom continuously staring at me. After I offered a smile (and pointed to my hair), the little girl nodded and a huge smile spread across her face. They didn't speak English at all but I was able to gather that they wanted to have their picture taken with me, so I obliged them. All because I broke the ice with a smile. It was interesting to see how many people appeared more welcoming after I smiled or gave a wave so don't underestimate the power of a smile. Be who you want to encounter.
- Always carry a portable charger. Always. There is nothing worse than being out in the streets, in a foreign country, with a dying battery on your phone. It's a huge safety no-no and if you're using your phone as your camera--like I was--it's a total nightmare when your phone dies and you have no way to capture those once in a lifetime memories! Even when you're in the US, a portable charger is a god-send when your phone gets low and you find yourself without a USB cord. Let's face it--there's just need to be walking around with a dead phone these days....unless, of course, you want to.
- Learn a few basic words/phrases in the local language. This is something I should've done but didn't. Traveling to a country where I had zero experience with the local language (Turkish), it became apparent that failing to learn even the most basic phrases is actually a bit inconsiderate & rude. It doesn't help that there's often a perception of Americans that we travel with the expectation that everyone should know English wherever we are--which I witnessed with my own eyes. If I could even fix my lips to say I spoke a second language it would be Spanish--the pronunciation of which is much easier to me than Turkish--so I made an assumption that I could just learn the language on the go but that wasn't the case. Be a courteous traveler & teach yourself how to say a few words in the local language like hello, goodbye, good morning, thank you, and maybe even how to ask for help. Even if your pronunciation isn't 100%, the gesture will be appreciated & you'll find it incredibly handy as you navigate your travels.
- Take advantage of the disconnect. By far, one of the unintended highlights of my trip was the fact that my phone only worked as long as I was connected to WiFi. This meant that when I was out during the day, I didn't have access to ANY social media so I couldn't peruse Facebook while my taxi driver drove me home, check Instagram as I rode the Metro through the city or text message my friends while I waited for my breakfast/lunch/dinner to arrive. And you know what happened when I didn't have my face in my phone every 15 seconds? I paid attention.And interacted with strangers.And met an incredible Spelman sister on a random street corner, all because I was being present. It gave me time to think about my next steps, reflect on my business and really absorb the culture of the city in an uninterrupted manner. One of the main points of vacationing by yourself is to be WITH yourself--not constantly checking in with everything that's going on back home (the place you're supposed to be taking break from). You're the best company you'll ever have, so take advantage of it as much as you can.
- Book a food tour. One of the best ways to learn about a country/culture is through its food and if you can only book one tour on your trip, consider making it a food tour or cooking class. During my 5 hour tour with Turkish Flavours I tasted all kinds incredible local Turkish cuisine and was able to experience the city in a way I wouldn't have been able to on my own. A food tour is also a great way to see how the locals live as your guide will often take you through markets in neighborhoods filled with residents doing their everyday shopping. An added bonus? Because these markets are often off the beaten path it will translate into better deals for you! During my tour of the Asian side of Istanbul I scored a Pink Himalayan Salt Bar for $3TL which equals about $1.07 USD. 2 days later I bought the same bar from the Spice Market--a tourist area--for $10TL ($3.57 USD) which is still a deal but.....I'd much rather pay $1. Next time I return I'll know exactly where to go!
- Bring a ring. If you're a woman traveling alone, consider bringing a faux wedding ring along for the journey. Even if it's a basic gold washer from the hardware store that can do double duty as a wedding band, buy it & carry it in your purse at all times. You don't have to wear it (or can take it off whenever you need) but it's ALWAYS good to have. I can't tell you how many people--especially men--wanted to know where my husband/friends were and if I was traveling alone. After awhile I just started telling people that I was meeting a friend at another location because it occurred to me that I could be unintentionally making myself a target. Most of the time it was just innocent inquisitive conversation but there a few conversations, particularly with 1 cab driver, that got my antenna up and had me thinking that a ring would be a great thing to have. Leave the feminist pride at home and, if someone asks and you feel uncomfortable/don't want their attention, tell them you are married. With kids. There are still a lot of places in the world where this means something, and it was my experience that the men would back off immediately.
- Use cash if you can. Swiping your card in foreign lands makes you much more susceptible to fraud while away so use cash whenever possible. Depending on the exchange rate, start out with about $300 USD you can exchange at the airport, then use a local ATM to take out cash as needed. Not only does dealing with cash help you keep track of your spending but if you bank with Chase (like I do) they'll refund all foreign transaction fees incurred at an ATM once you return stateside. Keep in mind that they can't do this for POS (point of sale) transactions, as the fee is added into the charge, so in this case using cash can actually save you money. Not a Chase customer? It's worth a trip to your branch to find out if they'll extend this courtesy to you as well.
- Find a mall. Yup, I'm serious. It seems basic and very "American", but if you're like me and enjoy seeing how the locals live, the mall can be a great place to visit. You'll get a chance to tour the city en route to your destination, experience local architecture, see retail brands we probably don't have here in the US and it's always a safe bet for the days when your plans didn't turn out like you expected. Not to mention, malls are generally safe places for solo travelers.
- Take pictures. Of yourself, yes, but consider taking pictures for other people as well--I must've taken at least 40 pictures for strangers while I was in Istanbul. As I toured different areas I constantly saw couples alternating taking pictures of each other in front of special sites, entire families trying to fit in a picture on a selfie stick or even a few solo travelers who looked like they really wanted their picture taken but were afraid to ask. Were there language barriers? Absolutely. But one thing you'll find about offering to do something nice for others--no matter what language they speak, your kind gesture won't go unnoticed. Everyone was so grateful that I offered to take their picture (and took several at that!)...it felt good to know that such a small gesture on my part could help people memorialize a special moment/trip.
- Give yourself permission to feel scared. Feeling scared is only a feeling (which doesn't make it true!) and it's only natural--you're in a new land where you don't speak the language with zero friends, navigating your way on your own. It's unrealistic to expect that you'll feel comfortable all of the time....plus, traveling alone inherently means you're bound to be a bit uncomfortable in the process so just lean in! Learning how to navigate on your own will give you a new level of self-confidence that just can't come any other way....and it will also make you mindful of how much we all tend to default to sticking to our comfort zones in our daily lives. Take this time to consciously stretch your limits & live a little! You'll never, EVER, regret spending money on an experience that honors the core of who you are.