I sat down to make a list of all the “things that can go wrong” when you travel, which tend to be exacerbated when you travel solo. I realized that almost every single bad situation happened to me with my trip to Russia. Almost two years ago, I set off for a two-week solo trip to Russia—despite everything that happened, it still remains one of my favorite trips of all time! But if nothing else, I learned some of my most important travel lessons during this trip. Here are 7 challenges I encountered during my solo trip to Russia, and what I learned from them!
Challenge: Not having anyone to travel with.
This was one trip that I really would rather travel with other people. Originally, two of my best friends had hoped to go to Russia with me. Due to visa constraints, finances, and in general bad timing/life happening, it happened that neither would be able to travel in Russia with me. So I had to decide: would I go solo, or not go at all? Obviously, I decided to go. This in turn led me to facing safety concerns and full-blown criticisms from a lot of people (most of which was out of love and a genuine concern for my well-being), which both scared me and became a bit overbearing as time went on.
Lesson Learned: Going solo can be one of the most empowering and freeing experiences anyone, but especially women, can give themselves. After my trip, I knew I could handle literally anything life decided to throw at me. (Also, while some places might be dubbed too “scary” to visit, that doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t go there—just do tons of research beforehand to be as prepared as possible.)
Challenge: Having a very short timeframe to apply for my visa.
Everyone going to Russia needs a visa—tourists included. You can’t buy it at the airport when you get there, you first need an invitation (hostels/hotels will do this for a small fee) and then apply online. From there, you will need to send your passport in. I needed to wait to book my trip until I knew the dates of my exams—and I was leaving the country (the UK) to travel during spring break and would need my passport. I had 27 days from when I knew my travel dates (after my exams were finished) to when I would need my passport again. This was SO stressful.
Lesson Learned: I did as much research in advance as possible: I double and triple checked (making pricey international phone calls) that the hostels I would be staying at would issue visa invitations; I knew the time limit for the visa (therefore the length of my trip) and had searched flights accordingly; and I knew that I could hand in my passport in person in London. When I found out the dates of my exams, all I pretty much had to do was actually book the flights and pay for the visa invitations. Also, I saved a week of time by dropping off/picking up my passport in London, as opposed to mailing it. Researching everything well before I actually applied for the visa was well worth it.
Challenge: My debit card (my primary card) got blocked on arrival.
When I landed at the airport, I took out a small amount of cash (rubles) from an ATM to buy my train ticket into the city and get me through my first day or two. Despite telling my bank before I left in September that “I’m planning to go to Russia in the spring, so make sure you put that down so it doesn’t get flagged,” the bank blocked my debit card (the one that had most of my money on it). I arrived at my hostel, and didn’t know they required full payment in cash. So I went in search of an ATM (did I mention that it was midnight and I was alone wandering the streets of Moscow in the dark looking for an ATM?) only to find out that my debit card was blocked. I panicked. I didn’t have enough money on my UK debit card to withdraw cash for the full 6-night stay. Luckily, I did have that backup card, with some money, that I used to get out cash to cover 2 nights of my stay—so I didn’t have to sleep on the street, in Moscow, alone. When the bank called the home phone at my parent’s house, they unblocked my debit card and the next day I was able to access my money again, pay the rest of my hostel bill, and get some food.
Lesson Learned: ALWAYS TRAVEL WITH BACKUP MONEY! Whether it’s an extra credit card, debit card, PayPal account, hidden cash, whatever—always, always, always have a backup and NEVER rely on one way to get money. Also, triple check your bank knows where you’re traveling to avoid your card getting blocked in the first place. And check and see if your accommodation requires full payment in cash on arrival—had I known this, I would have gotten much more cash out at the airport, and avoided the whole “fuck I’m in Russia and alone and I don’t have a place to sleep tonight” thing in general.
Challenge: I got really sick while I was traveling (for the first time).
Prior to Russia, I had never gotten sick on a trip—maybe it was just luck and good habits. But I got really sick in Russia and, after WebMDing myself and getting over the counter prescriptions (you don’t need a prescription in Russia except for hard drugs), I realized they weren’t working, I wasn’t getting better, and I was sick and alone in Russia. While I wasn’t seriously sick (antibiotics clear up most UTIs within a few days), it was still the most traumatic experience of my life so far. So many mortifying/hilarious stories ensued from this, but in the end I was able to go to an English-speaking clinic, get the correct antibiotics, and start feeling better—big thank you to the hostel employees who helped me in so many different ways!
Lesson Learned: Fill prescriptions for any type of common infection/illness before you go, in your own country, where the instruction labels are in a language you read. Go to a doctor right away if you think you will need a prescription (I waited 6 days from when I started feeling sick to when I went to the doctor). Also, looking up the address and phone number of the nearest English-speaking clinic where you’ll be isn’t a bad idea.
Challenge: My travel insurance was expired.
This was the stupidest mistake I think I’ve made while traveling—after finally getting myself to an English-speaking clinic, I found out my travel insurance had expired 6 days ago and I had to pay the $450 up front for my doctor’s visit. (I filed a claim with my health insurance—HealthPartners—in the US, and for some unknown reason, they reimbursed me the whole cost of my visit minus a $35 co-pay fee. I have no idea how this happened, but shit am I lucky.) I had assumed the travel insurance that I bought through my study abroad program would end the same time my visa did (in August). It didn’t, and so I paid out of pocket.
Lesson Learned: For god’s sake, buy travel insurance when you go abroad. And make sure your policy covers the entire duration of your trip. And double and triple check those dates. This was the mistake I could have most easily avoided in this whole post. You live and learn.
Challenge: I got seriously creeped out by a guy at the train station.
The scene: Leningradskij Train Station for my train to St. Petersburg. Enter me, nearly crying, looking lost and confused, very sick stressed out, as I tried to figure out which platform my train left from. A guy (young, maybe late 20s) came up to me, spoke English to me, offered his help, and then told me I needed to get my ticket stamped to get onto the platform. Red flag—no one had told me anything about getting a stamp. I followed him back to the ticket desk, where I asked a guard who told me my ticket was fine. Another red flag—this guy was obviously wrong about something. I knew I looked incredibly vulnerable and my instincts were screaming that this guy was trouble and I wanted him gone. I finally managed to get rid of him as we were waiting on my platform. About 3 hours later the train stopped for an hour-long break, and I saw this guy walking past my train car, then getting on and walking through. I turned away and hid my face, and I don’t think he saw me. I have a feeling he was searching my train car, looking for me.
Lesson Learned: Trust your gut instinct at all times. You never owe anyone the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he was just a nice guy who wanted to help me. But I wasn’t going to let “well maybe he’s just a nice guy” overpower my instincts. He gave me a bad feeling and I trusted it and I think I was right. For all solo travelers, but especially women, go with your gut at all times.
Challenge: I showed up to the airport for my flight to London and there was no airport. #RussiaProbs
St. Petersburg has 2 airport terminals—Pulkovo 1 for domestic flights, Pulkovo 2 for international flights. I was flying to London via Riga, so I naturally assumed that I would leave from Pulkovo 2 (international). I got on the bus to the airport and knew something was wrong—I was the only person with luggage. I get off at the airport stop and it is deserted. There was no airport. The doors were locked, there was no one around to direct me, I was lost and alone in the suburbs of St. Petersburg. My solution: get on the next bus I see, which wasn’t going to the airport or the city. I was saved by a very nice man (or was it an angel?), who spoke English and told me I could take this bus and then switch at the end to go back to the city. From the city, I could get a bus to the right airport. I showed up to Pulkovo 1 with plenty of time to catch my flight, since I had left 3 hours early.
Lesson Learned: ALWAYS PLAN TO BE EARLY FOR EVERYTHING!!! Had I not left my hostel at 8am for my 11:30am flight, I would probably have missed my flight (spending an hour on my journey to Pulkovo 2) and I don’t want to think about that. Also, always ask/double check at your accommodation for how to get to the airport—this whole situation could have been avoided if I had just asked someone—ugh so stupid.
So there you have it! From getting sick, to being broke, to turning up to the airport and there being no airport, my solo trip to Russia tested me in so many ways. It is still one of my favorite trips to date, despite all the setbacks! I learned so many incredibly valuable travel lessons the hard way, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. More than anything, it gave me the validation of my own independence, and the confidence that I can do anything I set my mind to. Until next time, Russia!
Have you ever traveled solo? What lessons did you learn? Share your thoughts in the comments below!