When I moved from Australia to Canada on a working holiday visa in June of 2013, I told myself I had to see as much of North America as possible before my visa expired in two years.
In the words of Barney Stinson from How I Met Your Mother: Challenge accepted.
I spent my time in Vancouver working two jobs — at a Starbucks and on a food truck — and saving for my adventure. I decided that I’d begin my journey the following fall, when prices were cheaper and the weather was perfect. But, alas, I didn’t have a travel buddy to go with me.
Being alone hadn’t stopped me from traveling solo before. I had visited Europe and Asia by myself and, you know, moved across the world alone. I thought an English-speaking Western country like the United States would be a pretty great place for my next solo adventure.
I had never tried Couchsurfing prior to this trip, but stayed with four different people in my time gallivanting across the United States. My first experience was in Boston, and my host instantly made me feel welcome. We played trivia with her friends on my very first night, which definitely made me feel like I wasn’t alone in a foreign city.
My host was so hospitable that I felt like I was staying with a friend, and not a complete stranger. This happened again in Montgomery, Alabama. I stayed there for just one night enroute to New Orleans, but my host took me along to her kickball game, and then to a bar afterwards.
These are the kinds of uniquely American experiences that I never would have had if it wasn’t for Couchsurfing. I got to truly see the cities I was visiting from a local’s perspective.
As a solo woman traveler, I decided to follow my gut, and only stayed with fellow women who had a lot of reviews. This was a personal choice, and it felt right when I was traveling alone.
Wanderful’s recently-launched homesharing network for women is another option similar to Couchsurfing, and I wish it had existed while I was on my trip.
Getting the inside scoop from locals can truly alter your travel experience, in the best way.
Hostels sometimes get a bad rap, but I think they are the best way to meet other solo travelers, both in the United States and elsewhere around the world.
I personally like to stay only in female dorms, as they make me feel more comfortable than mixed dormitories. Hostel dorms can range in size from 3 to 10 beds. Although I prefer staying with less people, I tend to go for the cheapest available option. I am a budget traveler, after all.
My favorite thing about staying at hostels is that they’re usually located within the city limits. This is not only convenient, but the busy environment — not to mention being constantly surrounded by other people — makes me feel safer when traveling alone.
In San Diego, met a Scottish girl in the bed beside me as we were both laughing about how hard it was to get to our top bunks (worst cardio workout ever). We ended up traveling up the coast to Seattle together.
Make the most of a hostel stay by talking to other travelers in the common areas, or even in your own room. Bond over the free breakfast or your future travel plans. Who knows, maybe you’ll make a life-long friend out of it.
I also definitely recommend grabbing a map — most hostel registration desks will give them out for free. The staff know all the good spots. I asked the staff at Chicago’s Getaway Hostel where to get the best pizza, and they directed me to Giordano’s. I still dream about that slice of heavenly deep dish goodness.
When booking my hostels, I usually read the reviews on Hostelbookers and Hostelworld, but booked my bed directly through the hostel’s official website. I also purchased a Hostelling International membership, as it gives you discounted rates at all HI hostels, so pays for itself in no time.
I used Airbnb a couple of times on my trip when a hostel wasn’t available. Sometimes you can find reasonably-priced rooms in suburbia!
Atlanta is one city lacking cheap accommodation, but the Airbnb I stayed in was basically a separate house attached to another. The owner told me that once her children moved out, she and her husband decided to use the extra space and share it with travelers. It was fantastic.
I, once again, recommend reading reviews, as other travelers will mention whether the hosts are friendly and hospitable. As you are staying in someone’s house, you would obviously prefer to stay with an open and welcoming host. I have always felt safe in the Airbnbs I have stayed in, as both a solo traveler and with family and friends.
Don’t hesitate to bus across America on a solo journey. It will allow you to see more places, and your budget will thank you.
Hiring a car was not a cost-effective option for me when I was alone, so I traveled across the United States largely by Greyhound and Megabus. I got one flight from Austin to Las Vegas and one train from San Francisco to Portland, but besides that, it was buses all the way.
The 30-or-so buses I ended up taking got me from point A to B safely and cheaply. I only purchased tickets via the official Greyhound and Megabus websites, and I usually bought them two weeks in advance. However, I heard from other travelers that if you buy them about a month to six weeks in advance, or a day before your trip, you can get discounts. Although my schedule wasn’t that flexible, my bus tickets were still very affordable.
My “bus bag” included my computer, travel pillow, a cardigan, and some snacks. Sometimes we’d would stop for lunch, but it is always good to have trail mix or a granola bar, just in case. As most buses today have electronic outlets, and free Wi-Fi, I definitely recommend bringing your computer to pass the time. I caught up on a lot of TV during my bus journeys.
Just remember to label your bag with your name and phone number, so that if it happens to get lost in Florida, you are able to find it — at least, a lot quicker than I did (I’ve learned from this mistake, trust me).
Fortunately, I was able to get public transport from nearly every bus station in every city I stayed in to my accommodation. Though in Austin I grabbed an Uber, and in Charleston I got a lift from my Couchsurfing host. Charleston is such a cool city, but their bus depot is literally in the middle of nowhere!
I love free tours — particularly the company Free Tours by Foot. I did one of their tours in every city possible, including Chicago, New York City, Charleston, Washington DC, and Boston.
They allow you to learn so much about specific areas of a city, such as Midtown Manhattan at night in New York, or The Loop in Chicago. And all you have to do is tip your guide at the end.
The tours can range in time from two to four hours. I did a two hour tour of Cambridge, near Boston, where I got to learn a lot about Harvard University. It was so cool to finally see a place mentioned in so many books, movies, and TV shows.
In Washington DC, our guide taught us a lot about the different monuments along the National Mall, which I would never have known unless I spent the entire time looking at Google on my phone.
But even if they aren’t free, organized tours are a fantastic way to see more when you are traveling by yourself and don’t have access to a vehicle.
I was dying to see Las Vegas, for instance, but was worried I wouldn’t get much out of it being alone. So I opted for a night bus tour that took us all along the strip and to Fremont, which allowed me to see Vegas safely and not feel like I was missing out. Tours were made for solo travelers.
Although you can get by these days relying on WiFi to communicate, I recommend getting a cheap SIM card for your phone while in the United States for an extended period. I purchased one through T-Mobile that just cost me $50 USD per month, and also included data. It made me feel better when walking around cities by myself.
It is also a great way to communicate with home, as my mum could ring me unlimited on Skype, and it only cost her about $7 a month. It’s a good precaution to have.
No matter where I am in the world, be it New York City or Vancouver or Melbourne, I never like to walk around in the dark by myself. So, when I’m traveling, I avoid doing this as much as possible.
Fortunately, if you stay in hostels, you are usually close to amenities in the city, or a short walk from public transport. If you are out at night, just make sure you know how to get home, whether that is a bus or Uber, before you leave. It will make you feel a lot more secure.
Most hotels and hostels have business cards you can take, but if you choose an alternative accommodation option, ensure that the address is saved in your phone.
Further safety precautions I took daily included ensuring all my possessions were securely in my locker at the hostel before departing. In the United States, I could use my debit card in most places, so I didn’t carry a lot of unnecessary cash. However, in case something did happen, I had $100 “emergency money” in my locker.
I also used a backpack during the day, but changed to a cross body bag at night. I feel so much more secure when my belongings are in front of me.
This trip was the longest journey I had undertaken alone, which made me become a lot more independent and self-reliant. Trusting my gut paid off. If a situation doesn’t feel right to you, whether you are abroad or not, always follow your instincts.
Looking back on this trip makes me realize just how much I accomplished.
I traveled by myself over 9,000 km across one country.
In everyday life, I am a total introvert, who is so uncoordinated that my old boss used to call me “Hales Fails” because I seemed to always get myself in ridiculous situations. So let me tell you, if I can do this trip, there is nothing stopping you.
I did make some mistakes, but I learned from them and now I am here to share my experiences in the hopes that others won’t do the same. (Did I mention you should always label all of your luggage?)
I loved my solo trip across the United States, and now that I’m back in Canada for my second working holiday, I am already trying to decide which states are next on my bucket list.
This adventure only makes me want to travel more, and to take my time when I do. Yes, in two months I could have probably seen 20-something European countries. But I got to visit so many unique cities in America, which I could never regret.
The country is established to make it very easy for solo women travelers like myself to get around and explore its best cities. I hope you get to experience it for yourself, whether or not you have a travel buddy by your side.
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Got any more tips for solo travelers in the United States? Share in the comments!