Some people find it hard to go to a restaurant down the street by themselves. Try experiencing a foreign country for the very first time on your own! I had driven across the Canadian border with my family while growing up in Ohio, but Canada is not quite “foreign” for an American.
Shortly before my trip to Brussels, Belgium, I had begun working as a student employee at an airline and obtained the acclaimed travel benefits. I chose Brussels because it was the only easily accessible city that had empty seats on the plane. For a standby passenger like myself (someone who takes one of the remaining, unsold seats on the plane), my destination decision was made for me. I took my trip in December 2016 and in two days I was able to see all of the main attractions in the city including the Atomium, the Grand Place, and the National Basilica. Manneken Pis was also a great hit. For those unfamiliar, Manneken Pis is a bronze statue fountain of a boy,…well,…taking a piss. The statue is often decorated in one of the thousands of costumes created for it from famous soccer players to musicians to historical figures. It was quite entertaining to learn about the history and humor behind this statue.
My sightseeing was complimented by the festive Christmas market sprawling through the downtown streets. Little log cabin huts popped up everywhere selling homemade jewelry, soaps, art pieces, food, and more. And of course, I had to try a Belgian waffle and Belgian chocolate while I was there. 10/10 for both! Some of the chocolate stores even sold bricks of chocolate with wooden hammers to break off snack size pieces.
Though this trip was short, I have had the opportunity to travel alone many times since then, and I have some tips to pass along for those looking to travel independently for their first time. Hint: Europe is a great first-time destination.
- Language. Europe is very multi-lingual, and you will almost always find someone who speaks some English especially in customer service roles. And in the rare times when they do not understand you, hand gestures, pointing, and google translate should get the job done!
- Safety. I would say Europe is no different than the U.S. when it comes to safety. However, because you will be in a foreign city by yourself, PLEASE pay attention and remain alert. Especially for the ladies reading this. Walk strong and proud. Do not stop to look at your phone on the streets if you can avoid it. I do most of my planning in my hotel or hostel before I leave for the day and I typically use a small paper map of the city to get around. I know this probably sounds archaic, but my phone service is variable overseas, and I believe staring at a phone draws more attention to you when you are standing alone on the sidewalk. Lastly, be sure to make note of the crisis/emergency number for your destination. For example, in the U.S., it’s 911. Even without service you should still be able to dial the emergency code for the country you are visiting. I was extra cautious on my first trips and even recorded the U.S. embassy address and phone number if for some reason I needed some serious help.
- Phone service. My cell phone provider is a small company that operates off AT&T towers and does not offer international service. So, the thought of being stranded without internet did make me a bit nervous when I started traveling, but I would outline and prepare everything I needed for the day at the place I was staying and at meal times when I would stop in a café or restaurant. Pretty much every business has Wi-Fi for you to connect to. That being said, if your phone provider offers one of those deals of $10/day for international service, I would take it!
- When in Rome. Seeing that you are a visitor to a country you have never been to before, I would recommend standing out as little as possible. Drawing attention to yourself is not going to do you any good and may very well make you a target for assault on the streets. Keep your eyes open, observe what everyone else is doing, and blend in for your own well-being. Dressing like the locals will help you with this. T-shirts and short shorts for instance are rarely found worn by locals and do make you stand out as a tourist.
- Don’t be “American”. In a way, this is a follow up to reemphasize “When in Rome”. Unfortunately, much of the world is under the impression that Americans are loud and boisterous. They have obviously experienced people like this to make these assumptions about all Americans, but I challenge you to prove the stereotype wrong. Sometimes you may encounter someone who treats you differently or rudely because you are American. It is unfortunate, but I want to give you a heads up that it happens. If they have their minds made up about you, then so be it. Please do not get in a fight with them and risk being detained/put in a foreign jail over it. We don’t want to see your trip ruined!
- Commuting Across the City. If you are physically capable, walk as much as you can! I really believe walking is the best way to visit somewhere new. No matter what city I am in, I often walk anywhere from 8 to 12 miles a day. I know it sounds like a lot, but you get the chance to see the nice side streets, residential areas, and corner cafes. Plus, the more walking you do, the more you can happily indulge in the exciting food and dessert options! If the walking becomes too much, buses and trains are very efficient means of travel in European cities. Pay attention to your routes though so you do not end up stranded somewhere that you do not want to be.
- Where to Stay. Europe has SO MANY hostels available. These are cheap, communal places to crash for a night or two. Often you share a bedroom with 4-6 people and use a community bathroom off the main hall. Think college dorm type setting. They are cheap and some even offer breakfast options to start your day. Some things to look out for when booking a hostel: 1. Do they have towels to use? 2. How steep are the cleaning fees? 3. Do they offer Wi-Fi? Also, most hostels have some form of locker for you to use to protect your things while you are away for the day, so remember to pack a padlock or combination lock. The sites I have used to book a hostel are HostelWorld and Hotels.com (the hostels in their database are specified as such). In addition to hostels, there can sometimes be cheap hotel options, especially near the airports. And Airbnb is always a go-to as well, but if your reservation requires you to meet with the landlord to gain access, be cautious and aware. Try to meet in a public area if possible. Take the same precautions as if you were meeting up with a random stranger for the first time. This does apply a bit more to the ladies again, but it is best for everyone to remain alert.
- Selfies. Yes, I said it. You’ll be traveling alone meaning you have no witnesses! Take at least one picture of yourself on your trip to prove to your mom, your best friend, or your boss that you were actually there!
You have probably picked up on my common theme of staying safe and protecting yourself. Obviously, I am not saying any of this to scare anyone, and the entire world is not out to get you, but be smart and diligent as you get a feel for your destination.
These are some of the most common thoughts that still cross my mind every time I take a trip, especially by myself. I hope these pointers help make the travel experience smoother for you. If you have any further questions or concerns on what to expect, or topics I did not touch on, please comment below!