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Flying solo: how to plan your trip abroad

Whether it's to travel or prepare for grad school, taking a gap year can be very productive. Photo by Julian Pineda | The Signal

Although intimidating, traveling alone is the perfect opportunity for young people to build confidence, learn life skills, gain cultural experience and get to know themselves. Planning a trip abroad is a great way to learn to budget and build organizational skills, while the experience of traveling alone can help build self confidence.

MAKE A BUDGET
The biggest roadblock for many college students and young people looking to gain international experience is money. Even when funds are tight, it’s still very possible to travel. Georgia State sophomore Alexandra Plumer planned her trip to Europe carefully to stay within her budget.

“I looked up places ahead of time so I knew I wouldn’t be spending too much,” Plumer said. “I also used public transportation and walked a bunch to stay in budget. There’s also usually tons of free things to do like museums and some of the hostels had things like free bike or walking tours so you don’t have to spend tons of money to see the city.”

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Beyond thoughtful planning, there are more savvy ways to save money when traveling. Junior Jamison Tanksley used different apps when wandering to new cities, as well as utilizing public transportation and saving money from refund checks to cover expenses.

“In terms of budgeting, I save up refund check money and some amount from my small paycheck to afford trips,” Tanskley said. “When I went to Savannah, I rode the Greyhound. I also used this app called Couchsurf which allows you to request to stay at someone’s house for free for a certain amount of time.”

CHOOSE A DESTINATION
Many people view college as the perfect time to explore the world. Most students are not yet tied down by big life commitments like family, a career or maintaining a home, so it’s possible to take advantage of the freedoms of young adulthood. Plumer saved up her money and told her parents she was going to Europe alone.

“I went to London, UK and Oslo, Norway and surrounding areas,” Plumer said. “I really liked London because it’s such a fun city and I met a lot of really cool people from all over the world. And there’s so much to see and do there you never get bored and can find new things all the time.”

For a truly new, immersive experience, it’s great to go all in and travel outside the United States to learn and experience new cuisine, surroundings and fashion. But, this is not always possible when money is tight. For those whose options are more financially, domestic travel can be fulfilling as well. Places like Asheville, North Carolina and Savannah, Georgia are easy and fun destinations that Georgia State students, like Tanksley, could easily reach by car or bus.

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FIND A PLACE TO STAY
While stylish Airbnbs and five-star hotels are a luxury many people long for when dreaming of traveling the world, the more cost-efficient option is to stay in hostels, like Plumer did.

“I mostly stayed in hostels so I read a lot of reviews and tried to see what other solo female travelers did,” she said.

A hostel provides affordable lodging for groups like students, women and other travelers. Often times, hostel guests rent a bed rather than a room, meaning they are dormitory-style establishments that feature bunk beds and can be mixed or same-sex. While hostels are not the most glamorous option for lodging, they are a safe bet to save money.

“I looked up different areas of the cities to find neighborhoods I thought would be good and fun to stay in,” Plumer said.

Those looking for an even more adventurous housing experience while traveling can take a cue from Tanksley and see what’s available on websites like Couchsurfing.com.

RESEARCH THE CULTURE
Staying in a hostel can be a foreign experience in and of itself. With the added culture shock of a brand new country, many prospective travelers can feel intimidated by new places. Luckily, it isn’t hard to prepare — all the tools are easily accessible online.

“It’s good to look up tips and information about the cultures online before you go,” Plumer said. “I looked at a ton of traveling blogs and basically just read everything I could so I would be comfortable before I went.”

When traveling to places where a language barrier might make communication more challenging, it’s wise to brush up before taking off.

FIND AFFORDABLE ATTRACTIONS
Making use of public transportation and traveling on foot during day to day excursions are great ways to make the most of the city you’re visiting while saving money. Preplanning and researching the most affordable attractions in the city is essential. According to Plumer, it’s possible to experience new cities while on a tight budget — the key is to be strategic.

“There are usually tons of free things to see, like museums,” she said. “And some of the hostels that I stayed in while abroad had things like bikes and walking tours, so you don’t have to spend a ton of money to experience the city you’re visiting.”

GET TO KNOW YOURSELF
Clearly, a huge aspect of solo travel is spending time alone. This can be an intimidating, uncomfortable prospect for those who are used to surrounding themselves with friends and family day in and day out. But Plumer believes the risk is well worth it.

“I think solo travel is really important because it’s a great way to learn more about yourself and get outside your comfort zone,” she said. “Learning how to be comfortable being alone is so important and I think it’s often overlooked.”

Sophomore Ethan Mudd, who also took the plunge and traveled alone to Europe, shares a similar viewpoint.

“You really get to explore who you are and get to know yourself,” he said. “I went to France, Spain and Monaco, and I wandered around the city and went to different markets and saw sights and hiked. But I really just liked to get lost. I wanted to immerse myself.”

On the flipside, traveling alone is also a wonderful opportunity to open up to new people.

“You also get to meet so many people from different backgrounds that you usually wouldn’t have the opportunity to talk to,” Plumer said. “Meeting people abroad intimidated me at first but most people are super friendly and there are a ton of other solo travelers looking for friends too.”

Traveling alone also frees you of the limitations involved in coordinating a trip with other people.

“If there’s somewhere you want to go or places you want to see, it can be hard to find people interested or able to go with you,” Plumer said. “Instead of letting that limit you, I think solo travel is the way to go”

DO WHAT YOU WANT
On family or academic trips, travelers may find themselves adhering to a strict itinerary. Traveling by yourself opens up a new level of flexibility and can lead to opportunities that may have otherwise been impossible during a group travel experience.

“On a day-to-day basis I had some stuff in mind that I wanted to see and do but I mostly played things by ear which is a great part of solo travel,” Plumer said. “You have the freedom and can take your time where you want to and skip the things you aren’t really interested in.”

STAY SAFE
Unfamiliar sights and sounds can easily overwhelm first-time travelers. It’s important to remember to practice the same safety precautions from home while visiting a new city or country.

“Be aware of your surroundings,” Plumer said. “Never leave your drink unattended. Walk near other groups of people.”

Additionally, female travelers should carefully review hostels. According to thehostelgirl.com, they can also be extra safe by choosing a top bunk and changing clothes in the bathroom.

BEST CITIES TO VISIT ALONE

Amsterdam, The Netherlands- a great place to meet locals and fellow travelers
Bordeaux, France- a port city with fewer tourist traps than Paris
Capetown, South Africa- an affordable, cosmopolitan city with beautiful nature and art scene
Hamburg, Germany- art and architecture
Reykjavik, Iceland- safest destination for solo travel
Seville, Spain- just as much history as Barcelona, but less crowded
Taipei, Taiwan- some of the best, affordable hostels in the world and amazing street food
Tofo, Mozambique- affordable, not overrun with tourists, amazing seafood
Toronto, Canada- a North American city with both green spaces and skyscrapers
Valparaiso, Chile- a colorful and artsy community