I'm A Serial Solo Traveler—Here’s What I’ve Learned About Traveling The World Alone

It was early in the morning in Indonesia. Walking with my surfboard in tow and my local surf instructor by my side, we stopped to watch an assembly line of people passing goods from a small boat on the shallow shore onto trucks on the end of the beach where the road met the peppered sand. They passed sunburnt oranges and ripe pineapples as my instructor explained that they were for Nyepi, or as he put it, “Balinese Christmas.”

By Alyssa Rinelli5 min read

On the eve of Nyepi, when streets would explode with celebrations, I ventured out to watch their final preparations. I quickly found myself watching a spectacle of little kids running around attempting to sneak an orange from the stacked offering baskets. I laughed, despite myself, watching the innocence of childhood play out. At that moment, I couldn’t help but reflect on my childhood, when I rarely left the comfort of the Midwest. As of today, I have ridden homemade motorcycles in southwest France, watched a baby gorilla play in the jungle of Uganda, and made friends at a hidden alley bar in Bangkok. It was here, in the small streets of Indonesia, that I realized I live a life of adventure. All while traveling by myself. 

As I sit in a small cafe in Mexico City writing this, I reflect on a whirlwind of international and solo trips and experiences that did not come without some tough lessons, in hopes that you learn from them as you embark on your own adventure. 

The Beginnings

Thinking back to my Midwestern childhood, travel brochures and shows felt like portals to another universe. Unlike my friends, who were content with life in Wisconsin, I yearned to explore faraway places. When I turned 18, I gained the freedom to do just that, but fear of embarking on my own held me back. Traveling solo seemed daunting, and finding a willing buddy was impossible. Then, at 19, an internship abroad presented a golden opportunity. This wasn't the solo adventure I envisioned; however, it was the push I needed, a stepping stone into the unknown, even if I'd still be technically "alone" within the work environment.

Lessons from Singapore: Baptism by Fire 

I recall sitting in the airport by myself with my work laptop open, attempting to finish my first day of onboarding for my internship before they started the final boarding call for Shanghai. 

Twenty-three hours later, I touched down in Singapore, my first solo adventure outside the U.S. Excitement buzzed beneath my nerves as I juggled my overstuffed suitcase through the bustling airport. My manager's travel wisdom echoed in my mind: pre-printed directions (check), credit card (oops, debit card only), and international phone plan in place (apparently not!).

The reality of international travel quickly set in. Checking into my hotel, I was unpleasantly surprised when I learned that hotels place a much larger hold on debit cards versus credit cards. The massive hold on my debit card swallowed a chunk of my budget. Lesson learned: Credit cards and cash, both universally accepted U.S. dollars and local currency, are essentials. 

Hours later, I found myself meandering around the neighborhood near my hotel and into an outdoor food market called Hawkers. I lost track of time, mesmerized by the men and women behind the tiny counters who threw rice from the woks with surprising ease. All the euphoria of being in a totally new place hit me there. I went to call my mom to share this experience with her, only to be faced with the dreaded “SOS” symbol. I had no service. I thought this bizarre, considering I had preplanned my international plan. I found that throughout the entire city, I didn’t have international service. I found myself running into coffee shops with WiFi when I needed to use my phone.

Mala Hotpot at a Hawker stand in Singapore. Courtesy of Alyssa Rinelli
Mala Hotpot at a Hawker stand in Singapore. Courtesy of Alyssa Rinelli

I later learned from a friend that I could purchase a SIM card from a local provider, which you can usually do at the airport, that would provide me with data for the duration of the trip at a reasonable rate. The catch with using a SIM card from a local provider is you won’t have access to your regular phone number. You must download apps like WhatsApp, Telegram, or Signal to call and text people internationally. Before you leave the U.S., you must ensure your phone is “unlocked” by your U.S. provider before using a different SIM. Call your U.S. phone provider to complete this. It's free! 

Alyssa outside a temple in Bangkok, Thailand on her travels throughout Asia.
Alyssa outside a temple in Bangkok, Thailand on her travels throughout Asia.

That summer, armed with newfound knowledge and a lighter suitcase, I explored Europe and Asia. My Singapore stumbles became stepping stones, leading me to a job in that very city. I was able to explore Southeast Asia until the pandemic brought me home.

Lessons from Africa: Navigating the Unknown

Africa – a continent shrouded in mystery, even for a now seasoned solo traveler like myself. This time, the stories weren't enough. Was what I knew of Africa true? I craved personal narratives, a chance to see beyond the headlines and forge my own understanding. But where to begin?

Solo travel in Africa comes with its own set of challenges, especially for women. There's no magic guidebook, no one-size-fits-all solution. Instead, I meticulously planned, starting with research. I wrote down some places I would be interested in traveling to, like Madagascar, Nigeria, and South Africa, and found out as much as I could through the news and the state department website. Madagascar, with its rampant theft, and Nigeria, bordering volatile regions, were quickly crossed off. South Africa emerged as a potential base, but safety remained paramount.

I understood from my time in Europe and Asia that the best way to find information is to chat with someone who lives there or was recently there. I asked friends if they knew anyone, and I found influencers online who did. I messaged them about their experience. They may not always respond, but I have found that many are more than happy to give you the “low-down” on a place. 

Cape Town's neighborhoods of Camps Bay and V&A Waterfront, deemed safest for women travelers, became my starting point for finding a place to live. I found a place and committed to two months to immerse myself in the city's rhythm while seeking local advice on where to venture next in Africa.

Playing volleyball in Cape Town. Courtesy of Alyssa Rinelli
Playing volleyball in Cape Town. Courtesy of Alyssa Rinelli

The sunset lasted the entire 45-minute taxi ride from the airport to my hotel when I landed in Cape Town. The vibrancy of the colors filled the sky, almost as if I were being welcomed to this faraway place. It was late when I got into the city, so I stayed at a hotel where I knew there was security before I moved into a longer-term rental property, where getting ahold of the owner can be difficult. 

Two days later, I arrived at my apartment with a code to get through security. I typed in 1879. Nothing. I tried it again for several minutes with my suitcase next to me and exposed on the street outside the gates of my apartment. I had asked my driver to wait, but he quickly became impatient and left. I was alone for several more minutes until another resident let me in, but not before questioning me. As I ascended in the elevator, I thought of the potential consequences if this had been at night, or if I had not properly researched a safe neighborhood. 

Thankfully, the rest of my journey was smoother. Cash, a working SIM card, and shared location details with loved ones provided peace of mind. I befriended fellow volleyball players on the beach and found a hidden reading spot in a secluded cove, where the foreign slowly became familiar.

Alyssa in Uganda on a Gorilla Trek with Mission Africa Safaris.
Alyssa in Uganda on a Gorilla Trek with Mission Africa Safaris.

Towards the end of my time in Cape Town, in a cozy gin bar with friends, I met a man who sat with gorillas in the jungles of Uganda and Rwanda. He showed me videos of himself just feet from the beautifully terrifying animals. Seeing my awe, he said I could do it and introduced me to a local guide, a necessity before going into the jungle. Upon extensive research, conversations with the company, Mission Africa Safaris, and a review from my new friend, I made the trek to East Africa to take part in the experience. 

A baby gorilla plays in Uganda. Courtesy of Alyssa Rinelli
A baby gorilla plays in Uganda. Courtesy of Alyssa Rinelli

The sun had barely risen when we entered Bwindi National Park in the northwest corner of Uganda. We began our hike to find the gorilla colony we would spend time with. The rainforest swallowed us immediately, and I was thrown into its thick canopy with my guide. The signs of life were abundant, but the gorillas themselves were elusive. Our guide, with a keen eye, spotted them first. 

I watched as a baby gorilla jumped between the vegetation. I found amusement in watching the baby play. The baby, just figuring out life, was open to the possibilities the world offered to her. 

Africa taught me more than just navigation; it taught me resilience, the power of local knowledge, and the profound impact of connecting with nature and others. From the initial unknown to the life-altering gorilla encounter, it became a testament to the rewards of venturing beyond the familiar, proving that even the most foreign places can become a part of who we are if we are willing to put in the research and work to get there. 

Lessons from Argentina: You’re Never an Expert on a Place You’ve Never Visited

By the time I touched down in Buenos Aires, I had traveled solo throughout Europe, Asia, Africa, and North America. My usual meticulous planning hummed with confidence. 

This time, however, Argentina had other plans. ATM withdrawals were limited to the equivalent of $15 USD with high ATM fees. I paid upwards of 35% in ATM fees the entire time I was there. There were no SIM cards available at the airport, leaving me, like in Singapore, without cell service until I could find a carrier. 

I sat virtually phoneless in the back of a taxi without enough local currency to cover the trip, hoping the driver’s credit card machine would work, but not being able to communicate this because I couldn’t translate anything on my phone driving through a country I had no experience in. I was sobered by my arrogance in thinking I knew how Argentina would be because I had traveled to so many other places. 

This humbling experience was a sharp reminder: Every journey, regardless of past experiences, demands research and preparation. Argentina taught me a valuable lesson: humility. The world, with its diverse cultures and ever-evolving landscapes, will always have something new to surprise, challenge, and, ultimately, teach us.

Alyssa stands in front of a mountain range in Patagonia.
Alyssa stands in front of a mountain range in Patagonia.

The Takeaways

As I sit in a cafe in Mexico City, reflecting on the whirlwind of solo adventures I've completed, I realize it wasn't just about ticking countries off the map. It was about the transformation – from a girl dreaming of faraway lands to a woman confidently navigating them, alone and empowered.

Sure, there were stumbles, like navigating Singapore without phone service, fumbling for cash in Argentina, and facing the initial fear of solo travel. But these mishaps weren't roadblocks. They were stepping stones, each one teaching me invaluable lessons about adaptability, resourcefulness, and preparation.

And to you, the one contemplating your own solo adventure, I say this: Embrace the fear, pack your curiosity, and don't be afraid to ask for help. The world is waiting.

Temple decorated with offerings for Nyepi in Indonesia. Courtesy of Alyssa Rinelli
Temple decorated with offerings for Nyepi in Indonesia. Courtesy of Alyssa Rinelli

More practical advice:

  • Get locks for your luggage.

  • Print paper copies of your passport and carry them separately from your actual passport. If something happens to your passport, having a copy can expedite your replacement at an embassy.

  • Give yourself a minimum of one month to obtain a visa for countries that require one. 

  • Get trackers, like an Apple AirTag, for your luggage and other important items you travel with in case it’s misplaced. 

  • Pack a small flashlight. Power outages are more common than you think, and you don’t want to waste your phone battery on light. 

  • Bring a medicine bag with essentials. 

  • Pack tampons. Many countries only sell pads.

  • Never put essential medications in checked luggage.

  • Keep a running list of important addresses and phone numbers to share with close friends and family for each place you visit.

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