A Solo Traveler’s Companion for Airports

Often travel guides are written for predictable people in predictable situations where everything goes according to plan, and let's be real, learning in real-time from real experiences is what we are actually after.
Solo travel in airports

Imagine, you have committed to your first solo trip. You are very excited and a bit nervous about what is to come, but you have confidence in yourself that you possess the ambition and drive to make this dream of traveling independently happen, and you have spent plenty of time preparing for this very moment and experience.

You step into the bustling airport, and another wave of nerves comes over you. It is a combination of intense thrill and utter disorientation. Standing just beyond the sliding doors, as air breathes in from the street, you almost forget why you are there, and that you are by yourself.

Your next instinct is to immediately identify someone looking official, someone who might offer guidance through these important and memorable next steps. This is not wrong, but it feels somehow like you were not as prepared as you thought you were. In this instance, you might even become discouraged or develop self-doubt regarding your ability or whether you were ready to take this trip. Now you wish you would have picked up another guidebook at the bookstore, done more research, or set different goals.

The reality is that what you are experiencing is not something you could have read up on, because everybody’s experience traveling solo is in fact different and unique as is how we cope in new situations. In this moment, what ultimately means more than someone else’s advice is how flexible, creative, and outright brave you can become when you are put in situations that challenge you. As someone who has taken many solo trips over the years, I can tell you, the perfect guide for traveling solo does not actually exist. In fact, there is a sea of guides out there filled with all kinds of essential advice on everything from recommendations on arrival times to info about security, local regulations, and customs. These are most certainly important and valid things to know before going anywhere, but like everything we experience outside our control, there are just some things we will not know until we know. Often travel guides are written for predictable people in predictable situations where everything goes according to plan, and let’s be real, learning in real-time from real experiences is what we are actually after.

Real Considerations for Real-life Experiences

This is a guide that has been born out of my experience as a solo traveler. It is for those of you who feel you might be ready to broaden your comfort zone and travel independently. It is for those of you who feel emboldened to navigate bustling terminals without a companion to watch over your belongings or save your place in line when you have to do the quick bathroom sprint before boarding.

We also note that solo travel may not be for everyone, however if you are considering your first solo experience in the near future, there are some things I wish I had known before I embarked on my first journey as lone female traveler. I write this as I embark on yet another solo trip, and it is my hope you will find this info not only helpful and relevant, but encouraging of that big thing you want to do.

To check or not to check. It’s a personal choice whether to check luggage or not. As a minimalist at heart, I lean towards the carry-on route for its simplicity and time-saving perks. If you do only take a carry-on, remember, some things are only allowed to be transported with checked baggage. As an example, peanut butter and Nutella are recognized as liquids by TSA, so while they make a great snack addition, keep it under 3.4oz and be mindful of those around you with potential nut allergies.

Hands free fanny packs and security belts. Keep all the essentials close at hand without sacrificing freedom of movement.

Power up with longer cords. Opt for lengthier charging cords to reach outlets, reducing the need to sit or stand awkwardly or in crowded places while charging. I’ve reduced my paper trail during travel. Tickets, reservations, directions, and really almost everything needed for travel can be maintained on the phone, that being said, this also means there’s more of a need to keep my phone’s battery alive. So, have a plan for that. Also, don’t be afraid to ask for help. I’ve charged many a’persons phones during travel due to a forgotten charger.

Embrace the airport carts. Don’t be shy to grab an airport luggage cart. After hours of travel, their raison d’etre becomes very clear and using them can feel like, well, a backpack has been lifted off your shoulders. Airport carts aren’t always allowed in eating areas in some airports, which may not sound like a big deal until you’re traveling solo and get stuck in a long line for food you so desperately need, while trying to stay awake and hold luggage that has gained weight (and, maybe should have been checked) for the return trip. Also, the carts make bathroom trips way easier, as the doors don’t always have baggage hooks.

Stay fit on the fly. Don’t skip your exercise routine just because you’re traveling solo. Pack a resistance band, find a quiet spot for stretching or yoga, a wall for squats, stairs, and make use of the lengthy halls for some cardio. If you don’t want the weight bearing portion from luggage, grab a cart. It is becoming more common to find a gym or designated exercise spaces in airports such as SFO and ORD that have free yoga rooms and mats!

Create your airport oasis. If Mehran Karimi Nasseri did it for 18 years living in Charles de Gaulle airport, you can make it work for a few hours. Transform the airport into your temporary office or relaxation zone. Find a quiet corner, set up your space. And don’t forget to treat yourself to a chair massage if you’re feeling fancy! It will also help reduce your nerves. Many airports will have lounges for a fee and/or membership, but some airports, such as Istanbul and Seoul, have amazing free rest areas. These areas are first come first serve, but there are always other areas to be found if you need a quiet space.

Reusable water bottle. Eco-friendly and waaaay cheaper than buying a bajillion bottles. I prefer something that is flexible and durable like a HydraPak for travel as it can go in my pocket while not in use.

Food options.  Airport food may not be cheap, but there are generally plenty of healthy food options at most airports today, some more than others. Though it doesn’t hurt to bring a backup snack to cut costs and I’ve found offerings vary by terminals. If you are departing or arriving early or late and want to eat at the airport, it may be worth checking beforehand to see what will be open or bringing a backup. A survey by Radical Storage rated the top 100 airports in the world based on number of cafes and restaurants, average customer ratings, number of Gluten Free options, number of Vegan and Vegetarian and average price of meals. Incheon International Airport in South Korea received top place per this criteria and methodology. 

Make the Most of Layovers. Who says layovers have to be boring? Turn layovers into an adventure inside of an adventure. Get outside the airport for a quick city tour or explore nearby attractions. Some airports have rental lockers so you can drop your bags and move around with ease. A five-hour layover in Austria wasn’t enough time to see the whole city, but sure was perfect to get some sunlight, coffee, fruit and sausages. Just make sure you return to the same airport as some areas will have multiple airports. A handful of airports with frequent layovers such as in Istanbul, Tokyo, Taipei, Doha, Singapore, and Seoul offer tours (some free) for those on a layover. Check beforehand if a visa is required for the tours and any other eligibility requirements (eg: layover is for a number of hours). If it’s a nighttime layover, I typically opt to stay in the airport.

Sleep like a boss. Sleeping in airports can be surprisingly pleasant. If you know you’ll have an overnight layover, pack your eye mask and earplugs, set up your makeshift bed with an airplane blanket and pillow from the previous flight, and embrace the tranquility of an almost quiet terminal. Just be sure to set an alarm. Alternatively, if you prefer bit more comfort and guaranteed privacy, check for airport hotels and sleeping lounges open to all fliers on a first-come-first-serve basis or consider another lounge with fee/membership.

Maintain the power to adapt. Manage your expectations and stay flexible. Solo travel is an adventure, and it’s all about embracing the unexpected twists and turns along the way. Speaking of power and adapting, don’t forget to check which power adapters are needed at layover locations.

Make friends. The act of waiting together or traveling alone together can spark many a conversation. Don’t be afraid to engage with others who look open to chatting. Maybe they have some awesome travel tips and experiences to share with you. You will be surprised how quickly the time passes when you have lively and interesting conversation going. Just be mindful of how much personal information you share.

Explore. Some airports have many amenities and beautiful architectural features. If you have the time to wander, do it. Get comfortable around the crowds and being in a new environment. Observe and people watch. Sometimes you can even find great art installations, local cuisine, and information booths that have additional travel info that might get you inspired for your next trip.

At Create Joy we have all kinds of tips and tricks up our sleeve to ensure you are ready to take on the very real thrills and challenges of solo travel. Reach out and begin your journey today.

What did we miss? Let us know what you like do to make your solo travel experience in airports more enjoyable by joining our Create Joy Travel Community and sharing your experiences and candid photos. Got a favorite airport you like going back to? Tell us about it.

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