Photo: Downtown hostel in Siem Reap, Cambodia.
Most people’s barrier for travelling solo is that they need people around them. This used to be my personal barrier as well. I didn’t feel the need to connect with strangers. How little did I know, about what makes travelling worth doing it.
The importance of finding a good place to stay when travelling solo
My first time travelling alone was in Eastern Europe, in 2012. I found myself in the beautiful city of Ljubljana one evening, looking for the hostel I booked the night before. I found it to be in quite of a distance from the city center, and worse: the hostel was completely empty. I had already booked there for three nights, and the hostel remained empty for all the days to come. The accommodation was not bad. Nonetheless, I was the only guest.
Not finding the guts to approach fellow travellers on the streets, I spent my days in romantic Ljubljana remaining in solitude. This was at a time I still found it hard to be alone.
Travelling alone through Ljubljana, 2012
Needless to say, it took me a while to realise solo traveling was the best thing that could ever happen to me. After my Eastern Europe trip I actually promised myself to never travel alone again. Unfortunately, due to a series of events, I had to travel solo again, a year after. The big difference was, this time I made it work.
The secret is quite easy: the key to make travelling
solo a good experience, is connecting with fellow travelers and locals. It may sound counter-intuitive, but travelling is not about the places you visit – it is about the people you meet.
In the beginning, you might find it hard to connect with strangers (just like me, three years ago). Making things a lot easier, is finding the right place to spend the night.
And that is what this article is about.
Staying at fellow travellers or locals?
For starters, ask yourself: do you prefer to stay with a local, or do you prefer to stay with fellow travelers from all around the world? For me, this differs from day-to-day. Underneath, you will find an overview which should make your choice easier:
Advantages of staying at a local
- Most of the times, locals have a better understanding of the area you are visiting. They can provide you with tons of insider tips. You will go to places, where no other tourists will go.
- Locals have a better understanding of the local language. This is not only helpful when communicating with other locals, you might also learn some helpful basic sentences.
- Staying with a local is often cheaper. Doing it right (I will explain how, further along this article), you will have a free guide, a free place to stay and you will pay local prices for almost everything.
- Locals have a better understanding of the culture, local habits and local food. Living like a local gives you the true travel experience.
Staying with locals in Indonesia, 2013
Advantages of staying with fellow travelers
- Fellow travelers tend to be broader orientated, they have often visited a bigger variety of countries. This will not only give you insights in what are the best places to visit in the area, but also gives you inspiration for your next trip.
- At hostels, you will meet a broader variety of people. This often makes not only conversation more interesting, there is also a higher change you will find someone you have a personal click with.
- In hostels, the groups of people you hang out with, are larger by number. This makes group activities more fun.
- Fellow travelers know what you are going through, and have a better understanding of the problems you face when travelling alone. Seasoned travellers will have tons of useful travel insights for you, to improve the experience.
- Fellow travellers tend to have a more interesting background, especially seasoned backpackers. They build character by travelling the world and have learned things, you can only learn with life experience.
- If you like to party, a hostel is often a better choice than staying at a local place.
Ask yourself what fits you the best. In general, you can say that by staying at a local, you will get a deeper cultural understanding. When staying at a hostel, you will meet a broader variety of interesting characters.
Often, a combination will give you the best experience.
How to find a good local place
I personally recommend to use websites/apps such as Couchsurfing. At www.couchsurfing.com you can look for locals, offering their place to stay. Most of the times the accommodation is for free, but it is common to bring a small gift from your home country or show your appreciation to the host in some other way.
If you got a good experience, take some time to leave a review on their accounts afterwards. Since Couchsurfing is completely built on reciprocal trust, reviews and recommendations are important on this website. You can create an account for free.
Important things to consider:
- Does (s)he speak the local language, and at least a bit of English?
- How are the reviews from other travellers?
- Does (s)he not have to work during your stay?
- Is (s)he willing to guide you through the area?
I recommend to arrange things a month before leaving your home country. This gives you time to get to know your host a little bit better as well.
Couchsurfing near Yogyakarta, Indonesia – in 2013
How to find a social hostel
Picking the right hostel makes connecting with fellow travellers a lot easier. For me, it was one of the keys for making traveling solo a success (far beyond my expectations). Social hostels are well worth paying a little extra and they are often quite easy to recognize.
Underneath, I will share my experience picking the right hostel:
Option 1: Bring a travel guide-book
I must admit, I myself, have never used this option before to find the right hostel. It can be useful at times, especially when bringing the Lonely Planet. I am not saying the Lonely Planet guidebooks are of extra-ordinary quality (although they probably are), but it is by far the most used travel guide-book by backpackers.
If a place is recommended by the Lonely Planet – and in the cheapest price range – this is usually a place where you will find a lot of other backpackers.
The thing is, travel guide books tend to take quite a lot of space in your backpack and they are heavy. Especially when traveling multiple countries, you do not want to bring a travel guide-book for every one of them. I have seen people downloading travel guides to their phones. However, when bringing your phone anyway, why not use a far bigger list of hostels?
Yes, that’s right, get some WiFi or a local SIM card, and use the internet in your advantage.
Option 2: Find a social hostel using your smartphone & WiFi
Although I absolutely love the peace of mind it gives to not be online all the time, WiFi in a foreign country remains the best friend of an (introvert) traveler. Often, I use the internet only to book a room at my next destination. It helps me a lot to find a better place to spend the night.
Most of the times, I start my digital quest for a social hostel, one night before leaving the place I depart from. Let’s pick up our (smart)phones and start doing this stuff:
1. Short list hostels. Use the Hostelworld or Booking.com app and sort on price (low to high). Then look for the first two or three hostels with an average review rating higher than 80% with a reasonable amount of reviews. This way you will find the cheap hostels, which are popular amongst backpackers.
2. Check the reviews. Always double-check the reviews itself, to see what other travelers have to say about the hostel. Be aware of fake reviews of the owners – they are often quite easy to pick out. Do not get scared off by a few complaining travelers that expect VIP rooms for the price of a hostel.
3. Check the pictures & the list of facilities. Check the pictures to see whether the hostel has the right facilities for social interaction. Things that are usually a good sign:
- A bar in the hostel itself
- A common room
- Organized social events (such as a BBQ)
- Games such as a pool- or ping-pong table
- Shared couches and lazy boys
- A shared television
- 24 hour reception
- Free WiFi
One of the best hostels I stayed at: Slumber Party hostel in Krabi, Thailand
4. Check the location. Not all social hostels are to be found in the city center or next to a beach. However, often they are. A good location often makes a hostel popular amongst young, social travelers.
5. Choose the dorms. Dorms are a great place to meet travelers alike. It’s saver than you might think at first thoughts. Sharing your room = sharing your experience.
Finding a hostel with the smartphone and some WiFi, is definitely my preferred option.
Option 3: Ask for recommendation from other travelers
Most backpackers you will meet along the way, visit about the same locations as yourself. The conversation will almost always start with the place you come from, what places you already visited and what places you are planning to visit.
In case someone already been to a place where you are planning to go in the near future, ask them where they stayed and what hostels they recommend.
Option 4: Ask around at your destination
The fourth option I have been using just on a few occasions: asking around on the spot. Needless to say, you shouldn’t use this option when you arrive well past midnight, not many people will be awake to help you.
I did ask around upon arrival a few times: one time when arriving in Bratislava and a few times in Thailand. It will not be very likely I will do it again – unless there are no other options. In all situations I ended up walking around the city with a fully loaded backpack for several hours, which is quite a struggle when you are tired of traveling.
Most of the times when I asked around at the location itself, I actually found a nice hostel in the end – it took some time and energy though.
When disregarding my advice to not look around on the spot, don’t forget to check the list of good social signs, which can be found under option number two (bar in the hostel, a common room, social events, games etc.).
Make up your mind about whether you want to stay with a local or with fellow travelers. Spending the night at a local’s place will generally give a deeper cultural experience, where as spending the night at a hostel, will introduce you to a broader variety of people.
The most efficient way to find local places is to subscribe to platforms such as Couchsurfing. If you want to meet up with fellow travelers, use the internet or ask around for recommendations (preferably before you arrive at your new destination). Just remember: some hostels are seen as an attraction itself and need to be booked a few days ahead.
What’s next: making friends when travelling alone
Finding a good place to stay of course, is just the start. Later on, I will write about making friends while travelling alone. For now: be open, be flexible, and have a genuine interest in the stories of your fellow travelers. The golden line you can use at almost any occasion: ‘Hi guys! Let me introduce myself, I am <insert your name here> from <insert your home country>. Where are you from?’.
Travelling alone will teach you things, no school can ever teach you. It changed my life, and it probably has the ability to change yours.
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