7-months Around the World as a Solo Female Traveler
During the hour or so I had left before I flew to Cape Town to start my graduate school internship, I was sitting outside my gate at JFK Airport on the phone with my friend telling him about my upcoming trip. Claudia sat next to me towards the end of the conversation. When I got off the phone, she said she overheard that I was going to South Africa and how she really wants to go there. She was on her way to attend her friend’s wedding in Spain. We instantly bonded over our mutual love for traveling and exchanged FB names so we could follow each other’s journeys. One winter break while I was home in NYC I caught up with Claudia for lunch just before she was about to permanently leave the city and embark on her 7-month solo adventure around the world.
Here's Claudia's story:
Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Hong Kong, South Africa, and Europe (Poland, Germany, Brussels, France, and Portugal)
7.5 months (Mid-January 2015 to End of July 2015)
Tell us about yourself.
I grew up in Texas, but I now live in LA. I’m 29. I worked in finance for 6 years, but now I’m a real estate agent in the Los Angeles area.
How did you decide on which countries to visit during your global excursion?
Most of these were all countries I’ve never been to before, which was a big factor in my planning. I’ve been putting off these further places for when I had more time because I didn’t think it would be worth my while to go for two weeks and use up half my vacation and still feel like I haven’t seen everything that I wanted to.
Were there any other things that prompted you to take this trip?
After working in New York for five years, I was burnt out from the city, my job in finance, and I knew I wanted to leave New York. And I decided I’ll just put a pause on my life and go traveling for a bit. It was something I always wanted to do. Although I was ready to leave New York, I wasn’t 100% ready to move and start somewhere else. I wasn’t sure where I wanted to live and what I wanted to do. I knew I was finally at a point in my life where I had enough money to travel and I didn’t have a boyfriend, husband, or kids to answer to. It was the perfect time where I can do what I want and not feel like I was letting anyone down.
How much planning did you do in advance for this trip?
About 6 months before my departure date is when I made the decision to travel and then I started mapping out the itinerary in my head. I knew I was going to start out in Australia and New Zealand and probably Southeast Asia. But I didn’t really start booking flights and really looking into what there is to do in each country and how much time I need where probably until 3 months before my departure. I probably pushed it pretty late compared to the average person. I grew up traveling. Putting a trip together is a certain skill and if it’s completely new to you, you may get overwhelmed and need more time.
Does that include booking flights? How many flights did you book in advance opposed to waiting until you got to a place to book?
I booked my itinerary on United Airline miles, which was very cost saving. They usually go by how many stops you have or how many miles you travel. Because I knew I was going around the world circumventing the globe, I knew it would be most cheapest for me that way, rather than buy individual flights. The downside of that is that you do have to book all your major flights all at one time and you have to go by their guidelines. When I used it I was allowed seven stops. I knew I had to get from Houston all the way around the globe and back to Houston in 7 stops.
A stop counts as somewhere where you are at for longer than 24 hours. If you wanted to pop somewhere for 20 hours and do some day sightseeing and move on, that’s a long layover and doesn’t count as a stop.I booked hotels and flights two to three weeks out. My mom helped me out with the miles. That was her contribution. She travels a lot for work so she was like, -- ‘ok I have miles to spare, it’s a once in a lifetime trip, I’ll just help you out’.
What was your favorite city and why?
Hands down the one place I visited that I would most like to live is Sydney. It’s because there was no huge culture or language barrier, which made it easy. Also, it’s very beachy, it’s beautiful, clean and has great weather. Another great thing about Sydney is that despite it being a huge metropolitan hub, people are super relaxed. People working in chaotic industries have balanced lifestyles. They work their 40-50 hours a week and then the rest is their personal time. NYC is a grind, not to mention they don’t have these beaches.
As far as my favorite place to visit. Probably Queenstown, New Zealand. It’s totally different from Sydney. Queenstown is a relatively small town. It’s so beautiful and the people are really friendly; it’s around a lake with beautiful snowcapped mountains surrounding it. It has two high seasons. It has ski season because it’s around the mountains. But in the summer there are a ton of related activities to the lake and hiking. You could go parasailing and skydiving. It’s the adrenaline junkie capital of the world. They really popularized the bungee jump. They have one of the tallest ones in the world.
Did you have any travel mishaps? How did you recover?
My second week in Southeast Asia, I had breakfast at the place I was staying in Myanmar, and then I went on a boat tour. Two hours into the boat tour I started to feel sick. But that night I had scheduled to take an overnight bus to a different town in Myanmar. Overnight buses in SE Asia are not luxurious or comfortable. I was in pretty bad shape, but luckily I made it. It was weird because I didn’t have to run to the bathroom, I literally just had abdominal pain for hours and wanted to be hunched over in a fetal position. During that time, I tried to not freak out. I sat next to a really nice guy who gave me some tablets. I took them and ended up being ok. Later that month I got sick again and it was a little worse. And I was on a tiny island with no pharmacy and no cars. This incident happened in March of 2015. Fast forward to June of 2015, I ended up in the hospital for three weeks in Portugal. It turns out I had ingested a parasite in Southeast Asia. Which I’m sure the previous episodes were related to. That was definitely a ranch in my trip.
No one wants to travel and end up in a foreign hospital, right? But these things happen and what can you do besides try to keep in together. The worst thing you could do in a situation is freak out because it totally throws you off. Your decision-making is shot. You aren’t thinking logically you are thinking with your emotions. When you panic your judgment is completely clouded. Center yourself. Think logically what should I do right now? Who should I call? Lets think what the most effective way to deal with the situation is. I know it’s hard because we all run on emotions and I get that. But things are going to happen when you travel. Stay level headed. It will all work out. It always does.
What were some of your favorite memories from the trip?
I found that a lot of my favorite memories were tied to people. When you are traveling by yourself you spend a lot of time alone. Which is great, I highly recommend it and I love my alone time. But you find that your most memorable moments are when you connect with other people.
My first one was probably when I was in Queenstown. That was the first place that I really spent an extended period of time and really felt like I had made friends. I met these two English people who were also travelers, Jodie and Joe. We spent the whole week together. Even though Joe is now in England, and Jodie stayed in New Zealand, we still talk all the time. These are people I will probably be friends with for a long time.
And a similar story was in Thailand, my last stop in Southeast Asia, I had finally seen a lot and I was on the beach ready to relax, when I met an English couple. They were about 23/24 years old, significantly younger than me. I would never usually hang out with a 23 year old in my regular life. Nothing against 23 year olds, but there tends to be an age gap and a life experience gap. We hung out together for 4 or 5 days. We were in the same hostel in the same room. We literally woke up together, hung out together, partied together, and did it all over again.
Begon in Myanmar was a very memorable place. It has hundreds of stunning temples spread out across the old ancient city. In Begon, you rent electronic bikes, and bike through all these temples. I was with some friends from my hostel and this local stopped us when we were taking a photo and he was like, ‘ hey I can show you my favorite temple, I’m from here.’ Initially I was hesitant, but then I got my friends on board and we did follow him and it was great. He was super nice. He let us inside this temple that I never would have known we could go inside of. And we went to the top and took photos with him and our group. He was a local artist and we ended up buying some art from him, which I have in my apartment now.
South Africa was incredible. I went on a safari in Kruger National Park in a group of 12 of my close friends. You have spotters in your jeep and everyone is looking for animals. And somehow miraculously, I was the first one to spot a lion’s cub and its' pride in the high grass.
During my travels I go on a lot of wine tours and really try to educate myself on different wineries around the world. In Europe, I did a week long road trip through Burgundy, which is one of the oldest, most prestigious wine regions in the entire world. Most wineries there are family owned. People live on their own property where they grow their grapes. And you can taste in their house. Its not a tourist thing where they have 100 people a day come in. They don’t necessarily have opening hours. Sometimes you literally knock on someone’s door and ask are you the person who owns this vineyard.
We found this really cute old man and he took us to his family wine cellar and did a tasting for us. And that’s where I had my first Grand Cru. Grand Cru is the highest Appalachian of Burgundy. It’s the fanciest wine (~$400 per bottle) you can get there. And there he was pouring us glasses for free. In some places you have to pay for tastings. There are old school people who love wine and want to share it with you because its their blood, sweat, and tears and they want you to get to know it.
What apps, gadgets, pre-planning tips that made your traveling easier?
I highly recommend using apps versus constantly logging into the internet. It’s so much more accessible.
For hostels, hotels, & Air BnB, I checked for different rates on Booking.com, Hotels.com, Air BnB, and Agora (Australian/New Zealand/Asian Booking.com). For discount experiences & excursions I used Bookme in New Zealand.
I backpacked and stood in hostels for the most part, so I didn’t have my own room. Which effects what you’re packing and how you’re traveling. I did a ton of research and read all of these blogs. You have to shift through a lot of information and ultimately make smart decisions because you cant pack all of the stuff you read about. Some of the most essential items I packed were the following:
A Plug with multiple outlets: Sometimes when you are in a hostel there are limited outlets. I got one plug that had multiple outlets and that was really useful.
Packing cubes: These are really good to keep things organize. If I had to pack and unpack and find stuff in my backpack every single day in one giant compartment I would go crazy.
Simple code Lock: Not every hostel has a lock for you. You are going to want to lock up your whole backpack or at least your valuables. Some places didn’t have lockers so I would just leave my backpack in the room, but I would make sure I had mini locks so that I could lock the zippers together.
Copies of your passport: If your passport gets lost, stolen, or damaged, have two copies of your passport, one in your backpack, one in your wallet. That way you can easily go to the embassy and get sorted out.
Credit card that doesn’t charge international fees: Charles Schwab offers a debit card that reimburses all of your ATM fees. I don’t want to constantly go to the ATM and take out small amounts and I also don’t want a whole bunch of money left over. That alleviated stress.
What advice would you give to someone planning such an extensive trip?
On a more broad level, have a good idea of what you want to accomplish while you are traveling. You will meet people along the way that are going to have different advice, but it may not be important to you. Be aware of what you want to accomplish and prepare to allocate that time accordingly. Go in with a master plan, so you won’t get there and get overwhelmed. A combination of solo and group travel is good. The shell of my journey was solo, but people dropped in and out to meet me along the way.
How has this particular trip impacted you?
It definitely did impact me. I didn’t set out on this trip to find myself or get life direction, I just wanted to travel. However, it definitely made me realize that life is too short to waste it doing things you don’t love. When I left I was still very open to working in finance. It’s a lucrative industry and I have experience in it. If you go with the rational decision, it probably would have made more sense for me to get back into the US and work in finance again. It would have been the path of least resistance, and lucrative. But you know what. Life is too short to work in a job you don’t like. Traveling just made me realize that there are a lot of different ways to make money, a lot of different industries, and a lot of different lifestyles.
Traveling really opens your eyes into what is important to you in life. I think people get so stuck in their daily grind and rat race that they lose perspective. When traveling, you take a step back from your daily life. It really allows you to tap into what makes you happy and reflect on what brings joy to your life. Traveling allows you to hit a pause button on all the noise in your life and have “me time” where you think about what you want to accomplish in life. How do I structure my life in a way to make me happy?