Traveling alone may seem daunting, but its appeal is undeniable. Suddenly your schedule is just that -- yours. Feel free to take as long as you want in the markets. Splurge (or don't) on shopping excursions or fancy restaurants. Breeze through museums, or spend hours dissecting every piece. Free from the burden of traveling companions, you can experience each city your own way. But with such freedom also comes great responsibility. Read on for tips on how to stay safe, meet locals and enjoy your time exploring alone.
Resist the urge to be an adrenaline junkie
Yes, rock climbing to see the sunrise in Turkey may seem like a wonderful story, but if you injure yourself while alone, you may not live to share it. Save the extreme sports until you have a partner by your side. And as an added safety precaution, invest in travel insurance.
Keep in touch online
Drop by Internet cafes to socialize with other travelers and send a few emails updating loved ones on your itinerary. Always let at least one person know the location of the hotel you're staying at, as well as the next city you'll be stopping in. Post a few jealousy-inducing photos while you're at it.
Take out your headphones
Music and travel go hand in hand, but walking around a new city with your headphones in is an easy way to let your guard down. Stay aware of your surroundings and save the music for your hotel room.
Don't brag about traveling alone
Solo travel sounds dangerous, brave and downright sexy. You're right to want to brag about it, but save the stories for emails and Facebook posts, and not for strangers at the bar. This is not information you want to share with people you don't know -- it sets you up for trouble should you meet the wrong person.
Mind your drinks
Some travelers swear by only ordering unopened beer, as these can't be tainted with any unknown substances. If you plan to imbibe, order sealed beer, or watch the bartender make your drink and then guard it like you would your passport. Also, plan accordingly, as walking home on cobblestone streets is a test unto itself.
Dress and act for the culture
The key to traveling safely -- whether alone or with a group -- is to blend in. Nothing makes it more obvious that you're a tourist than dressing or acting inappropriately for the city you're exploring (unless, of course, you're holding a map). Before you go, research cultural norms. For instance, in fashion-conscious Italy, some restaurants and churches will deny entrance to visitors who are wearing flip-flops. In Ukraine and Russia, having unpolished shoes, or dressing too casually (think jeans and a hoodie) is frowned upon. In Dubai, public displays of affection are inappropriate, and in China, smiling at strangers is considered bizarre. Research the customs of the places you're visiting and respect the differences. If you're planning an open itinerary, pack a couple of scarves as these can be used as a shawl, a skirt, a hair cover and an even eye mask for sleeping on long bus rides.
Register your itinerary
The Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) is a free service that allows U.S. citizens traveling abroad to enroll his or her trip with the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate. Signing up for the program provides the embassies a way to contact you in an emergency (i.e. a natural disaster, political turmoil), so that the embassies can provide important safety and security information or support during a crisis.
Be open to meeting others
Connect with other travelers and locals by choosing accommodations that foster a communal atmosphere, such as hostels or bed-and-breakfasts. Talk to your host, or check to see if they have an events bulletin board for group activities. Check online for activities posted on Meetup.com -- a site that allows users to search and connect with like-minded group activity organizers. A quick search revealed an upcoming walking and hiking group in Edinburgh, Scotland, an English comedy workshop in Berlin and a Zumba class in Paris.
For those interested in making use of their professional skills, volunteering is a great way to meet locals while having a positive effect on the local community. Consider researching opportunities online through Idealist.org, which focuses on ethical and sustainable volunteer opportunities. If you're looking to dive into learning a new language, check the calendars of local embassies and museums. Many larger cities host various culture and language meet-ups where members host visitors in exchange for the opportunity to practice their English with a native speaker.
Finally, don't be afraid to dine alone. Not only will you be more easily accommodated at popular restaurants, but finding a seat at the local pub is the best way to meet locals and glean tips from the owner about where to go and where to avoid.
About the author: Ashley Hardaway is a Washington, D.C.-based food and travel writer and the author of "Other Places Publishing guide to Ukraine." You can follow her on Twitter at @ADHardaway, connect with her on LinkedIn or keep up to date on her travels at AshleyHardaway.com.