One year ago I was sitting in a cubicle surrounded by puce-colored walls and waxy plastic trees, idly pinning pictures onto my “Travel Bucket List” board.
I would browse through “all inclusive resort packages” in Thailand and try to calculate whether or not I’d still be able to pay my rent if I booked one.
The dying cactus on my desk was an accurate representation of my wasted soul.
I’d accepted this corporate marketing job because I was vaguely promised that travel would be involved. I soon found out that ‘business travel’ means drinking $14 vodka-tonics in an airport while reviewing PowerPoint presentations, not wandering around, exploring new cities.
Don’t get me wrong, I have some great memories from my business travel excursions. Like that time one of the sales guys rented out a VIP area at the top of the Rio in Las Vegas and our private DJ kept reaching over to sink his fingers into the base of my hair and moan for no apparent reason.
Or that time I stumbled approximately 87 blocks through the streets of New Orleans barefoot & phone-less (don’t ask), chasing my even-more-intoxicated co-worker who was looking for a voodoo woman to read his palm before going back to the hotel.
Or that time my (married) boss drank 8 hurricanes and tried to make out with me. But I digress.
The point was, I had only taken the job in the first place because I wanted to travel. I was 32 years old and I’d never been anywhere that required a passport.
I wasn’t one of those kids who grew up traveling. With 5 kids and a very limited budget, most of our family vacations involved camping at Lake Kabetogama near our home in Minnesota. Sometimes we even crossed the border into Canada.
I never went on a wild spring break trip (which I’m sure my parents are eternally grateful for). I never applied for a foreign-exchange program because I had such massive self-esteem issues I was sure I’d never be accepted. I never considered backpacking through Europe because I thought only rich kids did stuff like that.
I did join the high school choir after the senior class before me got to go on on a 3-week European tour. When my senior year rolled around, we went to…Canada.
(No offense, Canada, you really are lovely.)
Over the years, my slow burning wanderlust had inflamed into full-blown panic. What if I never went anywhere that required me to cross an actual ocean?
The whole rich-husband-with-a-private-jet thing didn’t seem to be panning out. I didn’t have that much money saved, but backpacking & hostels were for 20-somethings, right? Besides, I hadn’t taken a vacation in so long I’d forgotten how. I mean, nobody actually uses their PTO, do they?
Then, a miracle happened. My company “merged” with one of our competitors and some “tough decisions” were made. One severance check later, with the ‘this-is-it’ certainty of someone with nothing to lose, I bought a ticket to Ireland.
Okay, you might be saying, that’s great for you, but I can’t just walk away from my job and get on a plane.
(Actually, you CAN. Check out 8 Steps to Freedom: How I Quit My Job and Traveled Around the World on Just One Way Ticket.)
But let’s say you’re not ready to take that step yet. Maybe you want to test the travel waters first.
You want to see the world but the thought of researching, making reservations and planning an entire itinerary on your own leaves you feeling pretty daunted. Sure, you could teach English overseas or join the Peace Corps, but you’re not ready to make that kind of a commitment.
It’s cool. Don’t panic. There are plenty of ways to ease your wanderlust besides budget backpacking or overpriced luxury resorts.
So how in the world do you travel independently for the first time in your 30’s?
What’s better than traveling the world while making a difference? Note: I’m not an advocate of any volunteer program that requires you to pay to participate. I recommend you check out a program like Workaway, which lets you directly connect with hosts from all over the world.
You volunteer 4-5 hours of a your time a day in exchange for meals and accommodation. It’s a fantastic way to immerse yourself in local culture and make awesome new friends. Still not convinced? Check out 10 Reasons to Travel with Workaway.
Bonus Tip: Start with Kayak’s Explore Tool and find a destination that’s relatively cheap to fly to. Search for hosts near that area.
House-sitting is a great way to ease into the world of travel. Enjoy your privacy and all the comforts of home while getting to experience life in an exotic destination. Sites like TrustedHousesitters.com are a good place to start, although it can be a little challenging to get jobs if you’re just starting out.
Ask people you know if they know of anyone looking for a house-sitter. Build up your credentials by taking a few jobs closer to home first. Put it out there in Facebook travel forums. I’m a huge believer in whatever you put out there into the universe, it will come to you. Need some inspiration? Check out this post by my friend Kelli of Life Made to Order, From Hating my Life to Housesitting in Fiji.
Bonus Tip: Most house-sitting jobs also come with pets to care for. Create a simple, free webpage that highlights your experience in animal care and you’ll look uber-professional to prospective homeowners.
3. Book a cruise
There are tons of cruise lines out there that cater to singles. But let’s be clear here: a ‘singles cruise’ is designed to help you mingle with other singles. Perfect for someone fresh off a breakup. So if you’re looking for wild nightlife and hot hook-ups you don’t have to pretend you’re ever going to see again, head on over to Google and find you one of these.
If, however, trying to squeeze into your party dress and remember how flirting works seems like way too much effort for you, check out the 10 Best Cruise Lines for Solo Travelers. These are for people who want to see some of the world without feeling pressured to upgrade their single status. Personally, I enjoy spending time alone, so this would be my choice.
Bonus Tip: If price & destination are more of a factor than whether or not it’s solo travel-friendly, sign up for a few newsletters and watch for good deals. Often these occur last-minute because as cruise ships get ready to depart, they want to have a few empty cabins as possible. If your schedule is flexible you can often find deals at rock bottom prices.
4. Groupon Getaways
Wait, seriously? I should let Groupon plan a vacation for me? Hells yeah! Groupon has some amazingly good deals. Like an 8-day trip to Ireland including airfare & car rental for $999. Or a 5-night all-inclusive Punta Cana vacation with airfare for $549. Sometimes having someone else make all the travel arrangements is totally worth it.
Bonus Tip: If you’re looking for an international getaway, change your search terms to the nearest major city. You’re more likely to find a good deal on a package that includes airfare if it’s near a major international airport.
5. Go on a retreat
Fitness, yoga, cooking, surfing, meditation, skiing, etc… Whatever your interests are, there’s a retreat out there for you. Retreats are fantastic for first-time solo travelers, as the logistics are all planned out for you and you’re pretty much guaranteed to meet some awesome new people.
For those of us in our 30’s, this is probably one of the most appealing options. Forget about hostel dorm rooms or terrifying train rides. Do something that enriches your life and is all about YOU. For a little inspiration, check out Adventurous Kate’s article on Why Retreats are Great for First-Time Solo Female Travelers.
Bonus Tip: You don’t have to go on a retreat by yourself – you can go with a friend or two and turn it into a great bonding experience.
If you haven’t grown up traveling, it can be hard to know where to start. But the important thing is that you do. Get out there and get your feet wet. It’s a beautiful world!
What was your first trip? Did you grow up traveling or were you a late bloomer like me?