How to Plan Your First Solo Trip on a Budget

A pink desert and water in the Atacama Desert in Chile

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I have to start off with a confession here — I never thought I’d go on a solo trip. It’s true, I never thought I’d even like solo travel. I had a million preconceived notions about it …  it would be boring, I would be lonely, I’d have no idea how to plan a solo trip … you get the point.

It wasn’t until I accidentally found myself on a solo trip to Chile and Argentina (a story for another day), that I had no choice but to embrace solo travel. And you can probably guess, I loved it. 

It completely turned every belief I had about solo travel on its head. In fact, it felt super empowering and freeing to be completely in charge of my days — something that you don’t normally experience when traveling with others, or your day-to-day life at home thanks to work and life responsibilities.

In fact, it went so well, that I even had the confidence to take a more ambitious solo trip to Brazil after that. (If this calls to you, get my ultimate 3-week Brazil itinerary here). 

Of course, I’m not going to sugarcoat things — solo travel does come with its challenges. But don’t worry! If you’re reading this post, you already have a leg up, because unlike me, you actually have the chance to plan your first solo trip. With some preparation and research, you’ll have an amazing experience traveling alone for the first time. This guide is packed full of tips to plan the best solo travel experience, all while on a budget!

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Step 1: Decide where to go

First things first, to plan your first solo trip, you will need to figure out where you’re going to go. This is an exciting part of the process!

Maybe you have a dream destination in mind (in which case, skip ahead to Step 2!). If you’re feeling nervous about the whole idea of solo travel, maybe a trip to a city within your state or country is the best first step. You don’t have to worry about navigating a different language, getting travel insurance or having cell service. For a couple easy U.S.-based trips, check out my guides to Santa Barbara, California and Williamsburg, Virginia for some ideas.

Or, if you’re on the opposite end of the spectrum, and none of that worries you, then the sky’s the limit! If you’re open to wherever a good flight deal can take you, check out Skyscanner’s “Explore Everywhere” feature where you can look at worldwide flight options.

If you fall somewhere in the middle of those two, then let’s do a little self-evaluation and think about what it is you’re most interested in.

Waterfalls in Iguazu Falls, Brazil
Iguazu Falls in Brazil

Some questions to ask yourself

  • Does a relaxing beach vacation speak most to you?
  • Do you want to explore a big city?
  • Is trying local cuisine one of the best parts of visiting a new place?
  • Do you love exciting outdoors experiences?

Let these questions serve as a guide, but you also don’t have to stick to just one category. My favorite trips have combined big cities with cool museums, culture, night life, and great food, with some new landscape or nature experience. 

What I would suggest for your first solo trip is to keep things simple, and stick to just one to two cities. More cities mean more logistics to figure out (and money spent), more places to navigate, and less time to get comfortable in each place. But you do you, especially if you already have some travel experience under your belt.

Since my first solo vacation was unplanned, like I mentioned, I visited several cities during that trip. My time in Chile included stops in the Atacama Desert, Santiago and Valparaiso (get my 10-day itinerary here!) While in Argentina, I just stayed in Buenos Aires. I personally found all these locations super optimal for solo travelers. If Buenos Aires calls to you, check out this guide with 30 things to do, see and eat in Buenos Aires

A unique building surrounded by trees in Buenos Aires, Argentina
Buenos Aires, Argentina

Guatemala and Costa Rica are also great for those new to travel or solo travel. They’re both easy to navigate, smaller in size, and its touristy areas are considered relatively safe. Check out my 9-day guide to traveling to Guatemala here for some inspiration.

Another consideration is the cost of various destinations. I typically like to travel to places where the dollar goes further. But, I truly believe that you can make any budget work in any destination.

Lastly, consider what season you’re traveling. What will the weather be like this time of year? I personally hate being cold, so when it’s the winter in the U.S., I like to travel to the Southern Hemisphere, where it’s the summer. Also, some places don’t necessarily get cold, but do get extra rainy at certain times of year. Consider what would be a dealbreaker for you, and what activities you could do if your luck isn’t great and it rains the whole time. 

Step 2: Pick a budget

The next step to planning the best solo trip isn’t as fun to talk about, but is unfortunately necessary. Whether you choose a super-specific number or a range is up to you. But before you move forward with booking anything, you should have a rough amount in mind. I typically choose where I want to travel based on my overall budget too. 

Some budget-related things to consider

  • How does a country’s currency compare to the U.S. dollar?
  • What does average daily spending/food costs look like in this city/country?
  • How can the season impact cost? The time of year with the best weather may not only be the most crowded, but hotels, flights and other tourist destinations could even be more expensive because of higher demand. In some cases, traveling during the shoulder season or off-season may be the most cost-effective.

Then, let’s think about those priorities we mentioned earlier. Are you the type of person who wants to try the top-rated restaurants in a city? Are all the popular landmarks on the pricier side? Is staying in a nicer hotel more important to you? 

This will all determine where you can dedicate more of your budget, and how much you have to spend on your accommodation. Make sure you’re also factoring in any emergency money, as well, and money for souvenirs and other miscellaneous spending.  For instance, what if your flight home gets canceled at the last minute and you need to book a new one? Travel insurance will likely be able to reimburse you depending on the circumstances, but you’ll still have to front that cost. (Sadly this has happened to me, and yes, I’m still a bit salty about it.)

Although this sounds like a lot of things, depending on where you go, it’s really not difficult to avoid over-spending!

A unique landscape of water and algae in the Atacama Desert
Atacama Desert, Chile

Tips to cut costs on your trip

  • Stay in a hostel instead of a hotel.
  • If staying in a hostel, stay in a shared or dorm room.
  • Don’t eat out for every meal and try cooking in your hostel kitchen.
  • Opt for street food for some meals instead of going to restaurants.
  • When you do go out to eat, walk at least a couple blocks away from whatever main tourist attraction you were visiting. These spots tend to be more catered toward tourists, and are typically more expensive, and not as good!
  • Find a hostel or hotel that includes breakfast to save on one meal.
  • Prioritize tourist attractions that are free. I love finding free walking tours that are available in lots of cities. Just be sure to tip your tour guide!
  • Research free museum days or other discounted rates like student discounts for tourist destinations. 

For even more budget tips, check out my 10 best tips to traveling on a budget.

Step 3: Find your flight and hotel

Now that you have your budget for your first solo trip, it’s time to get your biggest travel expenses out of the way. 

First, you’ll want to book your flight. 

Flight-searching tools

  • Check out Skyscanner as well as Google Flights. 
  • Another tool I like to use is the Hopper app. You can choose to track certain routes, and it will help guide you about when to buy based on price. You can also freeze prices, which is a super helpful tool.

How to pick where to stay

  • I always check HostelWorld first for my international trips. Hostels can have a bad reputation, but I’ve stayed in lots of really nice places through HostelWorld. 
  • If I’m traveling within the U.S. I go with Booking.com, which I end up sometimes using internationally as well. 

I try to balance affordability with comfort. For instance, I usually choose a cheaper hostel where I can get a private room. This costs more than sharing a dorm room, yes. But this way I feel safer and also have a space to recharge alone after a long travel day. Plus, I still feel like I can comfortably spend money going out to eat and on day-to-day activities. However, if you’re looking to save more money or are worried about meeting people, staying in a dorm room will make it even easier to make friends.

When booking, look for places that have lots of reviews. You’ll also want to look at location and security ratings. Is it located near the city center or most of the sightseeing destinations? What security measures does it take? 

Congratulations! This step is always the most exciting part for me. You’re officially going on your first solo trip!

Step 4: Research your destination

Now that you have the basis of your trip planned out, it’s time to start looking at what things there are to do! 

There are plenty of travel guides out there to help you with this. Lonely Planet and AFAR are two of my favorites, and I always consult lots of travel blogs too. 

If you have no idea where to start, make a rough list of what looks fun to you. You don’t have to stick to this, but think about which activities cost money, and which things are free. Free things can be as simple as exploring a neighborhood, checking out a museum, or relaxing at the beach. If there are a couple pricier things I’m particularly interested in, I try to fill the rest of my itinerary with free or low-cost activities.

The ocean with rocks and pink flowers
Laguna Beach, California

Know before you go

  • Any visa requirements for your destination
  • If you’re traveling to more than one city, how will you get there? Will you fly, take a bus, Uber? If a flight is required, you’ll want to book this as soon as possible. If you’re going with a train, a bus, or a shuttle, is this something you should book ahead of time or is it easy to book when there? This will depend on your specific destination.

The key is to plan, but not over-plan. This is still a vacation after all! I personally like to have an idea of what I’m going to do, but I don’t make it too specific or plan out my days fully, but you do you! To me, part of the beauty of solo travel is going with the flow and deciding what to do based on what you’re in the mood for each day. One day you may meet some other people at your hostel and decide to head out on a hike with them. The next day, you may have wanted to go to a bunch of museums but are feeling tired so you take the afternoon to sit at a cafe and read instead. 

Sure, you may not get to see every top landmark or tourist destination. But sometimes it’s best to balance activities with some down-time and relaxation, plus some time to just explore. 

Step 5: Prepare

Your trip is finally coming up! In the time leading up to your trip, there are some things you can start getting ready to make your trip go smoother. 

Atacama Desert, Chile
Atacama Desert, Chile

Some things to do before your trip

  • Look into travel insurance.  World Nomads offers coverage for more than 150 activities as well as emergency medical, lost luggage, trip cancellation and more. I’ve used them for all my international trips in recent years. Get more information here. 
  • Download the country’s language on Google Translate. Not only can you speak directly into the microphone and it’ll translate, but you can also use the camera function to translate menus. It doesn’t always work perfectly, but will definitely make your life easier.
  • Try to learn some key phrases. “How are you?” “Thank you,” “Excuse me,” “Where’s the bathroom?” “I’m lost,” and “Can I have water, please” always come in handy. 
  • Download the city map ahead of time, so you can have access to it even if you have issues with WiFi or cell service. 
  • Download the app for whatever airline you’re using.
  • Download the Currency app. As you can probably guess, it allows you to quickly convert different currencies. If you’re like me and math isn’t your strong suit, this makes it way easier to figure out how much things cost. 
  • Prepare your packing list. Be sure to research weather as well as any cultural customs that could affect your dress code. For some countries or destinations like religious sites, you’ll want to be sure to pack some modest clothing, for instance. Check out my 10 travel must-haves that I bring with me on every trip for even more tips. 

Step 6: Think about safety

Safety is a valid concern, but it doesn’t have to hold you back! Feeling prepared is key to feeling safe. 

Top tips for feeling safe when you travel solo

  • Make sure to bring a copy of your passport and itinerary (with hotel addresses and phone numbers, any flight information, your emergency contact’s info) in case anything happens to your phone. 
  • Avoid landing in a new destination at night. 
  • Check in with someone at home every day, and make sure someone is aware of your full itinerary, including where you’re staying.
  • Take extra precautions like not wearing expensive jewelry or walking around with your phone in your hand. 
  • Don’t carry all your money with you. Take only what you need for the day — one card and some cash, and leave the rest in a couple of different places in your suitcase/backpack/etc back at your hostel.
  • Be careful about who you tell that you’re traveling alone or where you’re staying. Trust your gut! Don’t be afraid to lie and say your boyfriend is back at the hotel, or that you’re staying somewhere else.

For even more tips, check out my in-depth guide to feeling safe on your solo trip. 

A view of Rio de Janeiro from the Jesus statue, a place you must visit if in Rio de Janeiro.
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Step 7: Release expectations

At this point, you’ve done all you can to set yourself up for success! Taking the leap to your first solo travel adventure is a huge step, and one you should be proud of no matter what. Sure, there may be some moments of loneliness or discomfort, but it’s all part of the process of pushing yourself out of your comfort zone. 

Bring a journal for reflecting on your feelings and experiences, and a book or Kindle. I always bring mine with me everywhere in case I ever feel awkward eating alone or just feel tired and want to recharge at my hostel. (The one I have is no longer in stock but it’s similar to this one.)

Sometimes things do go wrong when you solo travel. That famous landmark you’ve been dying to see may be over-crowded, it could rain during all your beach days, or the museum you’ve been wanting to visit could be closed. 

When things don’t go as planned or a challenge arises, I always just remind myself how excited and happy I am just to be traveling and experiencing a new place. Somehow, this always helps me keep calm. And to be honest, although I’ve had plenty of things go wrong throughout my trips, I still look back at every trip fondly and with good memories. 

If things ever start to feel stressful or exhausting, you can always go back to your room and call a friend or take a Netflix break. The trip is entirely yours to do whatever you want with it, and that’s the real beauty of solo traveling. It’s an experience I hope you love as much as I do. And hopefully by following all these steps, you feel confident that you can take the leap.

If you have any other questions about how to plan a solo trip, or solo travel in general, please let me know. I’m always happy to help.

-Tess

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