An Egyptian Woman’s Guide to Solo Travel
Originally published on Safareya in May 2019.
Click here for the Arabic version.
I remember the first time I stepped into Cairo’s airport alone while heading abroad. I have been passing through airport security all my life, but the first time I stood in that line alone clutching my passport I was terrified. That was in 2013. Today, solo travel has become a preference; I enjoy moving at my own pace, exploring only what I want to see, missing trains because it’s perfectly okay, stopping for coffee where and when I want, and the list goes on. More importantly, nothing will teach you about yourself as much as traveling on your own does.
Don’t get me wrong, nothing beats traveling across Europe with your closest friends or exploring Africa with your loved ones. However, it is ingrained in us as humans—not just Egyptians —to flake out on long-term plans, which due to expenses, work, and commitments often translates to canceled group plans.
If you are constantly struggling to find a travel partner and think solo travel takes guts, then this is for you.
Your First Destination
Most will advise you to begin with Western countries, ideally one where you speak the language. While that is excellent advice, truth is, it rarely matters. You will be able to maneuver any country as long as you have Internet on your phone, and in many cases even without. However, for the sake of making the most of your solo trip, I do recommend picking a destination with a solid transportation system. Venturing into countries where you need a whole list of mediators to go from one destination to the next is amazing, but requires time and remarkable patience.
Example A: It took three lengthy conversations with shop owners in Bangkok to figure out how to reach a pedestrian street that turned out to be a 10 minute walk from my hotel.
Example B: Standing in the outskirts of Rome, realizing that Google Maps’ version of nearby transportation has nothing to do with reality, it took me a couple of minutes of wandering to find a nearby bus station. True, it was smack in the middle of where a large group of homeless people are taking refuge, but that’s part of the experience.
The point is, begin with a simple, easy to maneuver destination. Leave your bucket list for later.
The typical nightmare for any Egyptian passport holder: how will you convince the visa center that you will definitely come back? I am here to assure you that it rarely matters that you are traveling alone, as long as you have all the needed papers and sufficient finances to cover your expenses. Of course, the more visas you have in your passport the better.
Setting a Plan
Now comes the important part: research the hell out of your destination. Setting a plan doesn’t mean planning every single moment of your trip, but rather knowing how to maneuver the country you are visiting, needed cost, expected pitfalls, and not to miss experiences.
Begin with a list of the main areas you want to explore and the activities you want to try. Don’t plan every moment of every day; keep your plan fluid but cluster all nearby excursions together to make sure you spend your time efficiently.
I typically binge-watch travel vlogs of my next destination during the planning phase. You get the raw (sort of) reality of their trials and errors.
Google Street View is also an excellent resource; on my trip to London, I memorized how the roads look from the train station to my hotel. While in Geneva, I took a screenshot of the buildings surrounding a restaurant I wanted to try. While Google Maps is my primary asset during travel, it can and it will find ways to screw you. So always make sure you planned enough time to accommodate those incidences where the location is incorrectly marked, or when Google thinks you are going in the opposite direction, or when the map keeps rerouting to entirely different routes while it’s raining and you have been walking for over an hour. All of that will happen, no matter where you are – trust me!
Once you have a solid idea of what you want to do, begin planning your accommodation. How many hotels, hostels, or Airbnbs do you need to book? What are the options within your price range that are also a walking distance from main transportation stations? Which is a higher priority for you – luxury, location, or cost?
I personally am a huge fan of Airbnb; you can find an excellent apartment in an incredible location at a fraction of the price of a hotel room. You even get to mingle with locals and get a few tips. As an Egyptian woman, however, aim for a female host. You will feel more comfortable and so will your family.
Test Drive Transportation
Download every transportation app your destination country offers, they will be a huge asset. Test the different apps as if you are going from your accommodation to a few of the main destination planned. Compare them with Google Maps’ public transportation route option, do they match? If not, then cross check them with travelers’ blogs and vlogs about how to get to specific destinations. This will save a lot of time and frustration when you travel.
Example A: In Italy I discovered that the transportation app does not include a lot of stops and found Google Maps to be a much better indicator; however, bus times on both had no resemblance to reality what so ever.
Example B: The transportation options mentioned on Google Maps in Germany are a joke to say the least; they don’t include a lot of stations and travel options. I mainly managed my commute using their two main transportation apps.
Setting a Budget
Now comes the important part: how much should your trip cost? The two main chunks of the pie are plane tickets and accommodation, each deserves a separate article to cover their budget options.
I am not the best person to give advice on how to minimize your spending during your travel, but here is how I make the most of my budget. After setting aside the cost of travel and accommodation, I put a cap on the total amount I want to spend during my trip.
Once that’s decided, I discount 10 to 15 percent of that as a safety net. At any given point in time, I should have enough cash on hand to manage a trip to the airport and a ticket change wherever I am. After that, I simply calculate the cost of transportation and excursions. For example, the cost of an all inclusive ticket or weekly transportation card, the entry fees of main attractions, train tickets, and so on. Add to that an estimated cost of at least two additional adventures you are yet to plan.
Depending on your preferences, divide what is left between shopping and dining out. Personally, I like to travel light and buy mainly cosmetics that aren’t available in Egypt. I invest the rest in exploring the tiny coffee shops, bakeries, and restaurants recommended by travel bloggers. This is also a great way to meet people and learn about hidden treasures. I can’t tell you how many amazing conversations I had with people I will probably never meet again.
Pro tip for budget travel: You should try to do an entire city on foot at least once in your life. It is the best way to truly explore a town or a city.Be Smart
While the best part of exploring new countries is wandering off into unknown adventures and meeting new people, you need to always be smart. This ranges from avoiding a beautiful hiking trail because there is absolutely no one on it but you at the time (sadly my story) to ending conversations with strangers at the same place they started. My list is maybe harsher than many other solo travelers, but I guess the sheltered Egyptian upbringing kicks in when I’m abroad by myself.
The most important thing to always remember is that everything may go wrong and that is a beautiful thing; it allows you to fully immerse yourself in the experience. Relax; you will always manage to go home.