I took my first international trip completely by myself. I left to study abroad without any international travel experience, without any friends along for support, and without a good understanding of how I would communicate with my family and friends back home given the more than 3,000 miles between us.
I’m sure my parents had to have been extremely worried, but they never let on. They knew how long I had been wanting to take this step, and I don’t think they wanted to dampen my excitement with any of their misgivings. They were emotionally, mentally and physically supportive (though, unfortunately, not financially) from the very moment I told them I wanted to live and study abroad for six months.
Although they had traveled abroad once in the early years of their marriage, before they were overwhelmed with the responsibilities associated with raising me and my brothers, I don’t remember them giving me many travel tips. The on-campus office handling the collegiate-specific aspects of my experience also didn’t provide much guidance in that department; I was only able to glean a few answers from a student who had studied abroad the year before, but even she wasn’t much help. Everyone’s response always seemed to be that you’ll just figure it out when you get there. Not too reassuring for a 20-year-old female traveling solo for the first time internationally.
Looking back on all of things I wish someone had told me in preparation for my trip, I’m most surprised that no one really focused on any safety tips for me to consider when not only traveling internationally, but traveling internationally alone. Of course I wasn’t traveling alone once I got there– I quickly made friends at the University of Coleraine and my travels to the rest of the U.K. and mainland Europe began right away with fellow students who had been to Europe before with family or on high school class trips. But I’m not sure how comfortable my parents really were reading my weekend recap e-mails describing my jaunts with a couple other 20-somethings who didn’t really know what they were doing either.
Aside from my actual trip to Northern Ireland for my semester abroad, I did have one other experience of flying solo. The University of Coleraine shut down for two weeks during spring break so all of my friends and I had obviously made plans shortly after arriving in January to take advantage of that ample travel time. Due to other commitments, I was spending the first week traveling through England and the Republic of Ireland while my friends were heading to France. We decided to meet up in Florence to spend our second week making our way through Florence, Pisa and Rome. However, there was some overlap in our schedules, which left me with two days to entertain myself. I booked a ticket to Venice and decided I would see Venice solo before catching a train down to Florence to join the group.
I never thought twice about the idea of being alone in a country where I couldn’t speak the language without a real understanding of how I was actually going to meet up with them in another foreign city. I was just really excited when I landed at the Venice airport and a van from the campground where I was staying was waiting outside to get me through the first leg of this experience. We pulled into Plus Alba D’Oro Camping in the dark and I was set up in a cabin of bunks all my myself with a mini space heater that did nothing to cut the chill in the room. The next morning I headed over to the shower/bath house to rinse up and experience my morning bath routine via an outside sink set up before catching another bus down to what I would consider the entry point to Venice. My first day was fantastic– I managed to buy a ticket on a water taxi to cruise around and down to San Marco where I disembarked and experienced the wonders of the basilica. I spent the day wandering through alleys amid the crowds, weaving my way back up to the entry point so I could catch the bus back to the camp grounds. I updated my journal with all the wonders of the day and fell asleep reassured that I could certainly handle traveling all by myself. Here I was conquering Venice all alone.
The second day I managed the same routine, taking a water ferry to San Paulo and again weaving around, visiting shops, purchasing Murano glass, jewelry and leather for gifts to myself as well as my family and friends. That afternoon I went to the train station so I knew where it was/how to get there and bought a ticket to Florence for the following morning since I would be leaving to meet up with my friends. I was feeling pretty good about myself as I put the ticket away in my bag and pulled out my map to see which areas of Venice I still needed to cover. But suddenly a man was approaching me, asking me if I was lost and how he could help. He was not well put together, and my heart skipped several beats. He wanted to know who I was, what country was I from, where was I staying, was I all alone?
For the first time in my three and a half months of travel I recognized that yes, I was extremely alone.
I quickly packed up my map, smiled politely and said I was actually just on my way to meet my friends– that I was just seeing where the group of us should head to next. I started walking away but he followed, for a while still calling out things and then just quietly following. I knew that he knew that I had been lying, and I was nervous about how this was going to play out when I ended up into a dead-end alley (very easy to do). I quickly joined in a group of Italian adults and kids walking together and decided I would stay with them as long as I could until either this guy went away or until I was somewhere by the bus lot where I could catch a bus back to the camp ground. Luckily he stopped and headed back the direction he came from once he realized I was not planning to stand alone in the open anymore, and I was able to walk “with” other people until I got over to the bus stop and safely back to the campground.
My Venice experience was an eye-opener, and I didn’t share it with my family until I was back home safe and sound. I didn’t want anyone to worry, and nothing bad had actually happened– I actually thought I handled it fairly well– but I knew the ‘what if’s?’ would be never ending.
I’ve traveled alone several times since the experience without any problem, but I am always more aware of what is going on around me, and I’m always thinking ahead to what I would need to do if my safety were ever compromised again. It’s unfortunate that there are some differences between men traveling solo and women traveling solo, but I’ve come to accept those and focus instead on what I can do as a solo female traveler to ensure I’m being safe while still completely enjoying my experience.
I don’t share this story to deter anyone from traveling alone; I simply suggest to others that they be cautious and have a plan.
Here are some resources to ensure you have safe travels, whether you’re traveling alone or in a group: