I’ve done my fair share of solo travel at the ripe age of 22, and a lot of it was done in America.
But in a nation so vast and with so many states to choose from, it can be difficult to know where to begin – especially as a female traveller.
My first experience as a solo traveller in America was by working in a summer camp during college, something I 10000% recommend for all Irish students, regardless of gender or age. It not only gave me my first taste of travelling abroad, alone and young and scared, but it also immersed me into a part of America that I wouldn’t have visited otherwise (sorry Indiana!).
Knowing what I do now, there are definitely some things I would do differently – most notably, pack less luggage – but with 15 states under my belt, I’ve put together a guide on planning your first solo trip to the US of A, whether you’re a college student, fresh out of school or just looking for a career break.
Let’s talk visas
If you’re planning to work in the US, which is what I did, you’re most likely going to need a visa.
In my first three-month stint in America, I travelled on a J1 through Camp Leaders Ireland, now known as USA Camp Leaders. If you’re a college student and looking to go on a J1, but don’t have friends to travel with on a typical bar-restaurant working holiday (usually in places like California, Chicago and South Carolina), then I highly recommend considering the camp route.
It’s an easy introduction to solo travel because, while you have to fly solo and make your way there alone, you’re instantly guaranteed to make friends. From the start, these camp companies are usually very helpful and guide you along the way, so that’s half the work done. I haven’t met one Irish person that didn’t enjoy their camp experience, and many return to their camp year after year, when time and money allows it.
My one tip would be to not hold out for a camp in a state you’ve always wanted to visit, like New York or California, but to take the plunge and visit somewhere new. I ended up in the midwest, in southern Indiana, and had the time of my life. It took me to Kentucky, Tennessee and Illinois on my travels afterwards – and I wouldn’t change a thing! It’s been four years now and I’m still best friends with one of the American girls I worked with over there.
One thing that’s good to know: you don’t need to be a college student to work on a J1 camp visa. So if you fancy a three-month career break, this is also a good option to consider, especially because you have up to 30 days of travel after your working visa expires before you have to return home.
For my second three-month gig in America, I took part in a journalism project in Phoenix, Arizona last summer. This was also on a J1 visa, but I was not in college anymore. If you’re working in media or journalism, keep an eye out for fellowships (internships) in America from colleges or newspapers, and see if they offer visa sponsorship.
If you’re not planning to work in the US, a regular holiday ESTA will do. One way to save money on your trip could be by volunteering in hostels. I met loads of Irish people in San Diego last summer who were doing this, and all of them recommended it. There’s an app called Worldpackers you can sign up to where there are hundreds of hostels across the US to choose from. Most of them require at least 2-4 weeks of volunteer time, but you’ll get free accommodation, sometimes meals and plenty of free time in exchange for a few hours of your time each day with cleaning, desk work or maintenance.
Regardless of what visa you’re on or if you’re there on holiday, you must have a return flight booked to prove you’re leaving the country. Sometimes it’s hard when travelling to know where you’ll end up, but I’ve flown out of New York twice now and I’d recommend it for two main reasons:
- It’s the closest city to Dublin, so the flight time is shorter
- It’s also cheaper for that reason!
- .. and as a bonus reason, New York is amazing and worth a visit no matter where you are
I’d recommend booking a multi-trip if New York, or your arriving place, isn’t your final destination. Comparison sites like Skyscanner offer this, and give you a good idea of prices. Aer Lingus also offer multi-trip bookings.
Choosing what states to visit – and getting around
It can be difficult to narrow down what states to visit, especially when the country is so big. Unlike Europe and south east Asia, it’s not as simple as hopping on a train across the continent to get to your destinations. If you’re going with the camp route, I’d recommend looking at the surrounding states and seeing what big cities are near. For example, when I worked in Indiana, we drove six hours to Chicago at the end. And when I worked in Arizona, we drove four hours to Las Vegas one weekend. The pros of working with Americans is that they all (nearly) drive and have cars, so weekend trips are doable.
If you’re not doing the camp route, I’ve heard good and bad things about Greyhound buses, so I’d recommend looking at the routes and reviews online. I’ve personally flown internally a lot, with cheap flights available on Skyscanner or with US airlines like American, Delta, Jet Blue and Southwest. If you’re a budget traveller with lots of luggage, definitely look into Southwest: you get two free checked bags, but heads up – there’s no assigned seats!
Where to stay
In terms of accommodation, hostels aren’t as big in America as they are in Europe and Asia, but I’ve still managed to stay in some of the best hostels I’ve ever been to in America!
Use the Hostelworld app to find cheap hostels and check the reviews: I’ve found that the reviews on the app are usually very accurate.
For a quick guide, here’s the hostels I’ve stayed in and would recommend:
- San Diego, California: USA Hostel Ocean Beach. By far one of the best hostels I’ve EVER stayed in, in terms of location, events and friendliness. I’m already dying to go back! I’d also recommend the Ocean Beach area of San Diego in general as a solo traveller: everything is extremely easy to get to with one main strip of shops and bars, and the beach is right on your door step.
- Manhattan, New York: Hi New York City Hostel. This is a huge hostel and one of the biggest I’ve stayed in. In terms of location it’s excellent, there’s a subway station nearby and it’s right near Columbia University. I didn’t take part in any of the activities so I can’t personally recommend it in terms of being a hostel to make friends: I was visiting friends in the city so it was a place to rest my head. My eight-bed female dorm was very small and warm, but it’s fine considering you wouldn’t be spending much time in the room anyways.
- Chicago, Illinois: Chicago Getaway Hostel. This is right near Lincoln Park and great location, also has a great friendly atmosphere. The dorms are big and the free breakfast was great, from what I remember!
I’d also recommend treating yourself to a nice hotel for a night at the end of your stay. There are some gorgeous hotels in the big American cities and if you’re like me and need alone time, it’s a great way to end your trip.
General advice as a solo traveller
America is big, it’s scary and it’s something new if you haven’t been before, or if you haven’t solo travelled before. The first time I visited alone, it was a big culture shock. Yes, they speak the same language, but their sense of humour is very different. The food is different, the scenery is different, and be prepared to notice the differences when you first arrive.
But it’s normal to be homesick, and like any physical illness, it will pass with time!
In terms of safety, it’s the same in any big city: you just have to keep your wits about you. If you’re visiting anywhere that doesn’t feel safe, trust your gut feeling and leave.
My one biggest piece of advice is: get travel insurance!
It’s not as expensive as you might think. If you’re going through a J1 agency that includes insurance in your package, I’d still recommend getting your own too. Get backpackers insurance or short-term travellers insurance through a trusted insurance company and the price is dependant on the amount of days you’ll be there. I’ve had to make two claims now in the US through insurance, and it makes a huge difference having your own policy – trust me.
It’s no fun being sick in a foreign country, especially if you’re somewhere unfamiliar with people you only met a few weeks ago, but once you have insurance the process is very smooth. You got this!
Hopefully this is introductory guide is helpful to anyone considering travelling solo to America, and stay tuned for my travel guides on different states. My social media inboxes are always open and I’m happy to answer any questions!