When I first moved to Madrid a few years back, I came through an American University to do a Master's program. Since it's graduate school, not a study abroad program, there was no hand-holding. If I wanted to venture out of Spain or even Madrid, I'd have to do it on my own accord.
Although I talk a big game, I was extremely intimidated by the very thought of solo travel. I'd seen the movie Hostel and my mother never fails to chime in with her take on the latest tragedy to make the newspapers. I had to get over the fear because for me, a bigger tragedy would be coming to Spain for what I thought would be a year, without ever having set foot out of Madrid proper. How can you say, " I live in Europe" or even “I live in Spain” when in actuality you live vicariously through your friend's travel photos uploaded to Facebook? You can't. I can't. So, away I went.
How did I make my decision? I used a few factors to determine my destination.
Where can I afford to go? I pulled up all the low-cost airlines I knew of at the time (Ryanair, EasyJet, and Vueling) and checked their destinations. Certain cities were eliminated based on that alone.
How long am I planning to stay and is it peak travel season? My trip was from December 28 until January 2. Beach vacations were in high demand and the prices were astronomical. I opted to go North of Spain.
I'd narrowed my search to two places: Oporto, Portugal & Dublin, Ireland. I checked out hostelworld.com and priced options. I knew I'd be traveling alone, so I wanted a medium sized hostel. Why? Too small... you'll probably be the only guest or surrounded by couples. Too big... the groups will already be traveling together.
Language, currency and culture
Do you at least know how to order food or find a bathroom in the language of that country? If not, how willing are you to take on that challenge? I'm a firm believer in making the effort to at least learn the greetings. Are you willing to deal with conversion rates, new transport systems, maps, etc.? All of those things should be considered. Although it's important to think about which sweater to pack, the main point is that you are taking it upon yourself to enter into a country that's not your own and in order to get a full experience, you should be open, aware, present and knowledgeable.
In the end, I decided on Dublin, Ireland. I stayed at Four Courts Hostel along the river. I opted for Dublin because they had a huge celebration planned for New Year's Eve, they used the euro, and as a Chicago girl, if I'm not freezing, it's not Christmas.
I had no idea what to do when I arrived, but I made a tentative list. Besides the literal travel portion of my trip, I'm extremely relaxed and flexible. I don't jam-pack my days because well, I'm on holiday, and at times life happens and plans change.
I met tons of people through the hostel-sponsored pub crawls, walking tours and group dinners. I made myself stay in the common areas as awkward as I may have looked and it paid off. One night at 3 am I found myself chatting with a group of French students until 8 am and engaging in, cough, libations, cough. Another day I met three German-French graduate students who showed me around the city. We shared several dinners together, and I'm still in touch with Luke, one the guys, today through Facebook. I made my mom proud by earning a whisky tasting certificate from the Jameson factory, well not proud per say, but I was surely beaming with pride.
I learned a few things on that trip:
- I'm awkward, that's ok and no one cares. So what?! I'm not the first or last awkward person to start conversations with: “Where are you from?” or “I can't pin-point your accent.”
- Keep a travel journal. Between the Jameson, the Guinness and the adrenaline, I could've easily forgotten some details such as the late night chat with the French group that ended with 2 Italians streaking through the kitchen.
- Keep a budget or at least have a general idea of how much you’re willing to spend. Travel is awesome, but you should come home better, not worse off than when you left.
I'm so glad that I took that first leap of faith because it opened so many other doors to solo travel. I've met some of my best friends in Europe and been able to return the favor when they visit Madrid. I actually prefer traveling alone because it brings out parts of my personality that I adore. I'm bold, outgoing, responsible, creative, spontaneous and yes, very awkward. It's when I strip away all the things that make me comfortable — my phone, my boyfriend, my friends, my language, that I truly see what I'm made of. I wouldn't trade these experiences for anything. Hello to Tess from Australia, Reisa and Gabi from Canada, Luke from France, Eric, Nathan and Joe from Cali and everyone else I've been blessed to cross paths with.
Danni, the Community Director at Las Morenas de España, is a twenty-something, Chicago native who currently resides in Madrid, Spain. She's a lover of language, words, and travel and has managed to combine all her passions through her work. In her free time, you can find her exploring the winding streets of Madrid, hunting down good flights deals, planning her next adventure and writing & researching for Las Morenas de España. Danni loves spicy food, natural hair, music and of course, her wonderful life partner. If you need to find her, she’s the girl with huge hair and her face buried in her Kindle.