Solo Domestic Travel 101

This month, I am going to Europe for 3 weeks, spending a whole week of it completely by myself! I am not new to solo travel. I’ve traveled throughout the United States alone as a travel nurse, and I flew to Chile alone to meet up with my college roommate.

However, I am nervous. Regardless of how many times I have traveled by myself, there’s something about being in a foreign place and well-intentioned friends and co-workers telling you how dangerous it is to travel alone for your brain to go into overdrive. When I went to Chile, I was focused on the transition from the airport to my friend’s hotel for weeks. I was so freaked out the movie Taken was going to play out in real life that I cried when I got into the cab. The protest in the airport and jetlag probably contributed too…

International solo travel is a whole new set of skills and likely the fodder for a future blog post, once I successfully survive (and God-willing thrive!) in Europe. I’ve been reading a lot of blogs and articles about the best places for solo female travelers. SoloTraveler and JetFarer have been particularly great resources. I am trying not to focus too heavily on airport to city transitions, the fact that I don’t speak the language of a couple of the countries, and have adamantly refused to watch Taken.

However, domestic solo travel is woefully underrated. The thing about the United States is it is huge. We have all kinds of terrain, cities, and cultures, all under one flag and currency! We even all speak English! And don’t use the metric system!

Solo domestic travel is something I highly suggest. As a travel nurse, I was blessed to be able to traverse the country and get paid for it. Travel nursing taught me a lot about solo road tripping (part I), but I’ve also learned a lot about solo flying (part II) in the process. Visiting my “tax home” aka my parent’s house and legal address was something I did semi-frequently while a travel nurse! 😉

Part I: Solo Roadtripping

Roadtrips are an experience. I’ve gone to Nashville twice in a Ford Focus with 3-4 other girls in the car. I’ve traveled from Connecticut to Wisconsin with my brother (and we were at each other’s throats for a good chunk of it. I blame Canada and the lack of GPS signal.) Roadtrips are an experience.

Solo roadtrips are a completely different experience. Instead of being annoyed by another person, you get annoyed at yourself. You can belt out the same song for an hour. You can stop to use the bathroom whenever you want. And you get a lot of quality time to think about life, and in my case, cry and work through some things.

A couple essential things for a solo roadtrip:

  • Make sure your oil change will last you until your destination. While in southwestern, rural Utah, I needed to make an emergency pit stop to change my oil because I was foolish and thought my car could make it from Connecticut to California on one oil change. Needless stress right there.
  • Make sure your car (and particularly your tires!) are in good working condition. I cannot tell you how many cars I saw with blown tires and abandoned while driving through the Rockies in Colorado. There was a least a blown tire or an abandoned car every mile. You don’t want to be stuck with a flat somewhere. People talk about buying that stuff that can instantly fill a flat. I never bought it and never had a tire problem on the road.
  • Get some audiobooks or podcasts. Music gets old. Silence gets old. Driving gets oooooold. I love Malcolm Gladwell in general, and his book Outliers made for a great roadtrip audiobook. I love The Catholic Feminist Podcast. I listen to Radio Ambulante to learn about various things going on in the world and practice my Spanish. I also love Up and Vanished, but it’s about a beautiful woman going missing, so maybe not the best for a solo roadtrip…
  • Print out directions with mileage and highway exits. Yes, it’s old fashioned. Yes, you have GPS. But GPS fails in rural areas and out of the country (depending on your plan). My brother and I drove through Ontario, Canada, and my pre-printed directions saved us. It was 3 hours of extreme stress and no GPS signal. Too, it allows you to save some phone battery. I also carry a  United States road atlas in my car now!
  • Plan interesting breaks. You’re going to need them. You might as well see interesting things and eat good food while you do. My favorite roadtrip planner website is RoadTrippers. It also helps you calculate gas, which is great for budgeting. Too, I like Yelp for finding alternatives to usual roadtrip food like Subway and Chick-Fil-A (though I do love Chick-Fil-A!).
  • Plan for weather and other unexpected events. Driving is like a shift at work. I always go into it with the mentality of “this will be my day.” I find 8 hours of driving manageable, 10 hour awful, 12 hours exhausting, and 14 hours unmanageable (and smelly!). Have some wiggle room in your schedule for weather. My 14-hour drive day was supposed to be a 10, but then it rained in the Ozarks. My 12-hour drive day was scheduled and went according to plan, but then my day off in Denver was ruined because I caught some sort of 24-hour bug and slept on a friend’s couch the whole day. Personally, I would schedule nothing longer than 10 hours.
  • Pack a cooler. Healthy road snacks are hard to come by. I love keeping a cooler in my front seat with chocolate, fruit, popcorn, and other snacky things.
  • Visit some friends. Roadtrips are a great opportunity to plan with your route and stop by to see someone you haven’t in a while! Plus, free housing 😉
  • Find good (but inexpensive) hotels or hostels. When in a city, I love being off the beaten path and staying in AirBNBs. However, while on the road, I prefer a free breakfast and a hotel bed. While travel nursing, I used mostly Hotels.com. However, I found some of their hotels to be just awful, and they lacked a good reviewing system. I now prefer Booking.com because it also includes hostels, which tend to be less expensive and more social than traditional hotels. Booking.com also includes bed and breakfasts and apartments, which can be a good change of pace as well.

Part II: Solo Flying

I started solo flying frequently as a travel nurse when I would visit home on assignment. I used to use Kayak almost exclusively to book flights, but now I’m more of a Google Flights fan. Kayak was clogging my inbox too much, frankly. However, it’s always worth noting that airlines like Southwest don’t advertise on collective flight websites. Too, the cookies in your browser will sometimes artificially increase the cost of a flight, so I tend to view flights in an incognito window. I’m not very tech-savvy, so please don’t ask me how it works exactly!

A couple essential things for a solo flight and weekend:

  • Have flexible travel datesI love using Google Flights to book tickets. Unfortunately, Southwest does not appear on this platform or others like Kayak. Having slightly flexible dates for your travel can save tens to hundreds of dollars.
  • Use Incognito Mode when searching flights. I used to like Kayak for booking, but I started to notice price inflation when I saved a search. The listed flights would be $50 or more less expensive when I looked at a flight at work! This is because online booking uses cookies in your browser to remember you. This is why I always search flights in Incognito Mode. Some sites also say to book on particular days, but I have personally never found that helpful.
  • Don’t be afraid to call if the airline switches your flightsFor a recent trip to Boston, Delta changed my outgoing flight so I would only have 30 minutes at La Guardia to change flights. Heck. No. Whenever airlines switch your flights, you can call and ask for a re-book if it interferes with your plans. You should not be charged for this service since it’s their fault. Sometimes, it can take a while to get someone on the phone, but it’s worth it.
  • Use your phone as your ticket and utilize online check-in. I love walking into the airport, not checking a bag, and walking right up to security with my phone as my boarding pass. It saves me so much time. Granted, I always disproportionately worry that I’m going to lose my phone (which I have never done), but online check-in is great! For companies like Southwest, it even determines your seat and where you line up for boarding.
  • Make sure it’s feasible to rent a car if you rent one. Going to Philadelphia for a conference, I knew it made no sense to rent a car. Parking in the city is expensive, and it has a variety of options for transportation and is rather walkable. I tend to cab/Uber/Lyft to and from the airport if public transportation is not an option. Usually it is, especially on the East and West Coasts and around Chicago in the Midwest.
  • Pay attention to your carry-on. I tend to pack light for flights, taking full advantage of the free carry-on. Baggage fees and the time spent picking up luggage is just not worth it to me. I’ve found when traveling with a backpack compared to a roller bag, I am less likely to be asked to put my carry-on in the undercarriage. If I’m flying direct, I have no problem waiting for my bag to be pulled out. However, if my connection is short, it wastes precious time. I recently got the Osprey Farpoint 40L for Christmas, and it’s my backpack for Europe. It held up well for a long weekend in Boston, so I’m excited to see what it can do for 3 weeks!
  • Don’t waste space with a bulky pillowTravel pillows are one of the most annoying things I see while traveling. I get that sleeping on a plane is hard, but that U-shaped thing is so clumsy! I’ve been using a Voyage Pillow recently, and I love it! It’s very lightweight, compact, and functional. I’m a fan!

Hope this helps a bit! Safe and fun travels to you!

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