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My work has taken me to (clockwise from top left) Geneva, Seoul, and New York. IMAGES: GWEN TAY

How I Survived As A Solo Traveller On 3 Continents

Travelling solo has always been on my bucket list. Ngl, I made “you have never YOLO-ed if you have never travelled solo” my mantra. Being the only child in my family, I was always closely guarded by my parents and never allowed to venture out on my own, which only spurred me to explore beyond my comfort zone.

Fortunately, thanks to my work, I have been able to travel solo to cities on three different continents. And now, the lessons I've learnt from these solo travels will forever be my badge of honour and a keepsake for facing life's challenges. If I can navigate three continents by myself, so can you!

The Gyeonghoeru Palace. | IMAGE: GWEN TAY

...and the park surrounding the palace. | IMAGE: GWEN TAY

ASIA: Seoul

Seoul was the first trip I went on my own ever. The city welcomed me with its blend of old and new. I wandered around Gyeongbokgung Palace, dressed up in a hanbok (traditional Korean attire), and felt like I was in a period drama. The bustling streets of Myeongdong were a shopper's paradise, where I splurged on Korean skincare and street food. This was also the first time I’d tried many Korean dishes that were foreign to me, which shaped my love for Korean cuisine later on in my life.

Language was the first hurdle. Although many young Koreans speak English, older folks often don't. I had to rely on gestures and a translation app. I was also prone to getting questions from random strangers in Korean. After having to apologise profusely for not speaking Korean for the umpteenth time, I finally learnt the Korean phrase for “I don’t speak Korean”. After this trip, I always made it a point to learn a few phrases in the local language before travelling.

The subway system was another maze on its own. Even with the English signs, it was easy to get lost in the sprawling underground labyrinth. In fact, I once got off at the wrong stop and ended up in a completely unfamiliar part of the city. Instead of panicking, I used it as an opportunity to explore a new place. I stumbled upon an underrated gem and had one of the best samgyetang (Korean ginseng chicken soup) of my life. Sometimes, getting lost leads to the best experiences.

Taking a stroll along Lake Geneva. | IMAGE: GWEN TAY

EUROPE: Geneva

I had almost a 10-year hiatus between my first and second solo trips – by now, I’d been slogging in my career for nearly a decade, and I’d gotten hitched! My company sent me to a conference in Geneva, and I jumped at the chance to take an additional week of leave to explore on my own, once again!

Coming to Geneva was like stepping into a picture-perfect postcard. My favourite spot was Lake Geneva, with its crystal-clear waters and stunning views of the Alps. The Jet d'Eau fountain was a sight to behold, and the old town, with its cobblestone streets and charming cafes, was a delight to explore.

Being a nature junkie, I had planned to hike to Lac Blanc, one of the most gorgeous alpine lakes. Lo and behold, on the day itself, the staff at the gondola station told me I couldn’t access the hiking trail as it had snowed heavily the night before (it was May!). Having travelled all the way to Chamonix, I was not one to give up.

And so I went on a random unplanned hike on an alternate trail. While the views were extremely beautiful, the hike was very steep and technical and there was hardly anyone around. At one point I realised that my phone battery was dying, and I had to abandon my hike midway. It's best to plan early, check the weather, and bring a charged power bank with you.

My random unplanned, but equally beautiful hike. | IMAGE: GWEN TAY

One of the biggest challenges holidaying here – prices are steep! As a budget-conscious traveller, finding affordable meals was a daily challenge. I splurged on a fancy Swiss meal one night, leaving me with barely enough cash for the rest of my trip. From then on, I stuck to supermarkets and local bakeries for affordable yet delicious eats.

The New York skyline from SUMMIT One Vanderbilt. | IMAGE: GWEN TAY


My most recent solo travel was a trip to the Big Apple as my company was based there. Once again, I took a few extra days to explore the "concrete jungle where dreams are made".

I’ll never forget the first train ride into Manhattan from the airport, where I had hurdle after hurdle getting to my hotel. One literal hurdle I faced was when my luggage and I got stuck in the turnstiles (I was wedged between two metal bars). “That’s it", I thought to myself, as countless commuters streamed past me. “I’m never gonna get out until a metro staff comes along”. By some stroke of luck, another fellow traveller got her luggage stuck in the turnstiles next to me, but she managed to yank hers free and promptly came over to help me push my luggage out.

Armed with a dented luggage, I made the switch to another metro line. Oh boy, little did I know there were almost no elevators, and I had to carry my 20kg luggage up the stairs all by myself. Girlies, this is why we need to lift.

Waiting for the next train and wondering why I didn’t just take a cab to the hotel. | IMAGE: GWEN TAY

When I finally stumbled out into the evening air after checking in to my hotel, it was an assault on the senses – the bitter cold, the heavy stench of pee and hemp and the background noises that define NYC. I had to be on full vigilance here and tune into my surroundings as there were certainly some dodgy areas and people around, IYKWIM.

I looked out for weird behaviour so that I could manage ahead of time, to avoid unpleasant situations from materialising. It was a city where I did not get distracted by my phone at all, which was unusual since that tends to happen in Singapore.

The pace of life in New York can be overwhelming. Keeping up with the city's famously fast rhythm was exhausting, and I think I burnt plenty of calories simply walking from place to place, as I did my best to avoid taking the subway.

Speaking of hitting 40,000 steps a day - my third day in NYC was the coldest day of the entire trip, and I foolishly chose to wear a dress without stockings on a day where I had MoMA, walking the High Line, and crossing the Brooklyn Bridge all in my agenda. I had earlier ignored my inner voices asking me to wear something more appropriate for the weather. Always listen to your gut!

I was certainly freezing my socks off at this point. Oh wait, I had no socks. | IMAGE: GWEN TAY

My key solo-travel takeaways

1. Trust your gut

Listen to the alarm bells going off in your head and err on the side of caution when it comes to solo travel. If something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t.

2. Be prepared but also be flexible

Planning is crucial, but so is adaptability. Weather changes, wrong turns, or missed trains can become highlights if you go with the flow.

3. Budget wisely

Splurging is fun but balance it out. In pricey cities like Geneva, find free activities to balance out the wining and dining.

4. Cultural immersion

Always research the dos and don’ts in the country you’re visiting, and it wouldn’t hurt to learn a few useful phrases in the local language – you never know when you’ll need them!

5. Self-discovery

Travelling solo pushes you to rely on yourself, boosting your confidence and resilience. It also shapes your sixth sense and makes you street smart, which is a truly invaluable life skill to have.

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