Solo Traveler Interview with Portugalist (James Cave)

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This month our solo travel interview is with James Cave of Portugalist travel blog. James has traveled and lived in many countries around the world, but Portugal is the place he knows best. From the history and culture to detailed self-drive tours around the country James has all the information you need when planning your solo trip to Portugal.

During this interview James shares his insights about transitioning from traveling as a couple to traveling solo and his tips for solo travel to Portugal. There’s more to see than the three most popular places in Portugal – Lisbon, Porto, and the Algarve. Read on to find out what James recommends.

Solo traveler interview with Portugalist - James Cave


SM:  You were in a relationship and traveling with someone but now you are on your own. Did you find it difficult or a bit uncomfortable adjusting to traveling solo? And what has been the biggest adjustment for you?

James:  It was a big adjustment as I hadn’t really traveled solo for around a decade but, as the cliche goes, it’s like riding a bike: it all comes back to you.

The biggest adjustment has not been having someone else to double-check travel plans with. I’d gotten used to having someone else check over everything before I booked anything and, in the beginning, that was hard to get used to.

SM:  Good that you got back in the groove of solo travel. I always have to triple check the dates and details for my travels because I’m paranoid I’ll double book or reserve the wrong date. It would be nice to have a second set of eyes to go over everything.


SM:  What are some of the pros and cons you’ve noticed about traveling solo versus traveling with a partner?

James:  There are definitely both pros and cons. I find it easier to be in the moment when I’m travelling and it’s easier to take in what I’m experiencing. It’s also easier to meet people on the road or integrate – when you’re in a couple, you’re not as approachable.

As for cons, there are plenty of smaller things like not having somebody to mind your space in the queue if you need to go to the toilet. Accommodation costs also go up: being a couple means you can split the cost of a private room whereas now the same money only stretches to a hostel bed.

SM:  I guess I’ve been traveling solo for so long that I don’t think about the negatives. Accommodation savings is a nice plus for traveling with someone else….but sometimes it costs you your sanity :)


Traveling to Mexico visiting Mayan ruins


SM:  Are there things you do differently, for instance do you find you plan your travel differently or are you more spontaneous since switching to solo travel?

James:  I’ve been a lot more spontaneous on travel planning. In the past I was more meticulous, and maybe that’s because I was planning for two and wouldn’t want to be responsible for booking a crappy hotel. Recently the accommodation quality has definitely gone downhill, though, so maybe it’s time to find some happy medium!

SM:  Haha, no one wants to be the one to blame for a crap hotel experience! The older I get the more I like my own space, but hostels are still the best for meeting other travelers and having someone to hang out with. You could also try shared Airbnb; I’ve had some great roommates in Louisiana and in Maine when I booked via Airbnb. It’s way cheaper and you get a local guide. My advice is to read a lot of the reviews before booking – and look at all the photos.


SM:  Would you prefer traveling with someone else or is solo travel more appealing now?

James:  There are definitely pros and cons to both, and neither one is perfect. Even though I think you can be more “in the moment” when you’re on your own, it’s also nice to enjoy that moment with someone else.

I’ve generally been staying in hostels or cheap Airbnbs, but it would be nice to treat myself and stay somewhere a little more luxurious every now and then. Portugal has some great luxury hotels, including hotels in former castles and palaces, for example.

Staying in one would be a great experience, but it’s probably not something that I’d do as a solo traveler. Well, after a couple of nights in a noisy hotel, I could probably be tempted.

I’m happy travelling solo at the moment. If I met someone who I could travel with and who I gelled with from a travel point of view, I could switch back, but right now I’m enjoying this chapter of my life.

SM:  I think you get to know yourself better when you have more time to yourself, and try different experiences. You only live once James – book the palace! It’s research for your blog :)


Ponte da Ajuda bridge in Portugal


SM:  Do you have any favorite solo travel locations in Portugal or elsewhere?

James:  If you want to get away from it all, there are some fantastic places to visit in Portugal like The Azores, The Portuguese Camino, and The Rota Vicentina, as well as plenty of beautiful national parks like Parque Natural da Arrábida and Peneda-Gerês National Park.

If you don’t want to be so isolated, there are quite a lot of themed trips that you can do in Portugal. Surfing is the most obvious. Portugal has some of the best surfing in Europe, and this is a great place to come and learn to surf. These camps are a great way of meeting other people and learning something new as well.

SM:  I only recently heard about the Portuguese Camino, that appeals to me. National Parks are almost always a good choice it seems, for me anyways, since I like hiking and being around nature. Surfing camp sounds like a cool travel experience!


SM:  What is your preference for accommodation while traveling alone?

James:  It’s usually a mix of cheap Airbnbs (rooms or entire apartments, depending on what’s available) and hostels. The Airbnbs are great for when I need to work flat out for a couple of days but, after a while, I usually find myself craving a bit of human contact and so I do a couple of nights in a hostel.

Hostels aren’t as friendly as they used to be, though. These days, everyone is on their phones and so it’s hard to connect. I find hostels that offer an evening meal are best for meeting other people that are staying there.

SM:  That’s a good point about hostels, the ones that also do events, like group meals or happy hour are much better for socializing. Cell phones are such a blessing and a curse! I think Airbnbs are great when you find the right neighborhood, some place with a good mix of restaurants and cafes close by so you can get out and mingle with the local crowd, or just people watch. I love having my own kitchen and a quiet place to work when I book Airbnbs.


James Cave of Portugalist travel blog


SM:  What is your current favorite travel gadget, gear or app?

James:  I’m loving my Osprey 70L backpack, which can either be one backpack or it can separate into a backpack and a carry-on bag.

SM:  That sounds cool, Osprey seems a favorite for a lot of hikers and long-term travelers. My current backpack is only 28L so I can’t imagine hauling a 70L pack around. But my nomad travels are via road trips for now, will have to rethink my luggage choice when I ditch the car and start roaming around beyond the USA and Canada.


SM:  What is one of your biggest travel mistakes and how did you handle it?

James:  I missed a flight once, which isn’t an unusual travel mistake, but the funny thing was I was actually at the airport that day to drop my brother off. For some reason, I thought my flight was a few days later. I had to rebook another flight, which was obviously more expensive, so I learned a valuable lesson about setting reminders.

SM:  That’s a new twist on missing a flight! And a memorable lesson about setting up reminders, it’s too easy to forget travel dates, especially when you have multiple trips planned.


SM:  What are your best tips for solo travelers visiting Portugal?

James:  I always recommend that people visit somewhere other than Lisbon, Porto, and the Algarve, which are probably the three most popular destinations in Portugal. These are great destinations, and they’re popular for a reason, but they’re also the most touristy parts of Portugal.

I’d recommend taking some time to visit the Alentejo, Central Portugal, or the North of Portugal, which are a little more off the beaten path. If you’re driving around, take the time to stop off in a village that isn’t on the recommended list of places to visit: you might not find any great attractions there, but you will get a better taste of life in Portugal.

SM:  As a solo female traveler, sometimes it feels safer to visit the most popular cities, but I like your suggestion to go to the non tourist areas and stop in a village for no reason other than to have the experience of exploring a new place. The richer or more memorable travel experiences are often found in non-tourist areas in a city or in smaller towns. The best traveling for me is when I get to explore without a plan and stay in both small towns and big cities, I crave variety I suppose. Portugal strikes me as being very safe for traveling alone.


Tagus River in Belver Portugal


SM:  Are there attractions or places in Portugal that you think a solo traveler might prefer to do as a tour instead of going alone?

James:  Tours are a really great way of meeting other people who are travelling so, yes, there’s a benefit to doing things as a tour rather than solo. I’ve often gone on a free walking tour, for example, and then ended up having lunch or going out for drinks with the other people in the group.

Food tours are probably the most sociable, but they’re not the only type of tours. In Lisbon, for example, you can find all kinds of different tours like Segway tours, cycling tours, running tours – you name it.

Some hostels organize their own walking tours and, if you’re staying in a hostel that has its own tour, these are worth going on. Not only do you get to see the city, but you’ll actually get a chance to meet the other people who are staying in the hostel as well.

SM:  Walking tours are a great idea for the socializing aspect. You get to learn something about the location, and you will likely meet people from a variety of different countries. I think cooking classes and organized dinner with locals events are another fun way to experience a place and meet people.


Traveling to Berlin Germany


SM:  If someone is thinking about going to Portugal as a digital nomad or to retire, what advice do you have for creating community and meeting people in Portugal?

James:  For digital nomads, the community is very Lisbon-focused. Porto has plenty of places to co-work and a monthly digital nomad meetup, and the Algarve has a Facebook group with a few hundred members, but the main focus really is Lisbon. Around 100 digital nomads attend the weekly meetup compared to just a handful in Porto and the Algarve. And although nomads are always exploring other parts of Portugal, there isn’t really a nomad scene anywhere else in Portugal (yet).

Expats are a little more spread out. There are a lot of expats, particularly British expats, in the Algarve, but there are also plenty in other places like Cacais and Lisbon, Coimbra, the Alentejo, and throughout Portugal.

You may not want to be completely surrounded by other expats or digital nomads, but I think it’s a good idea to have some kindred spirits in your life – especially in the beginning.

As for meeting people, a lot of these conversations take place through Facebook groups. There are Facebook groups for digital nomads in the Algarve or northern Portugal expats, for example: you just have to find the groups that are relevant to you.

SM:  I’ve toured a few co-working spaces during my travels, but I’ve never actually used one yet. Lisbon or Porto would be a great place to try it out. As a digital nomad I find the need to create community, beyond online connections, is crucial to keeping a good balance between working, traveling, and feeling a sense of belonging.


Visiting Rome as a solo traveler


Many thanks to James of Portugalist for taking time out to do this interview with Solo Trips and Tips travel blog.

Check out the previous solo traveler interviews with:

Nomadic Matt

Linda on the Run

Probe Around the Globe

The Wildlife Diaries

If you would like to be featured in this series please complete this form and I’ll get back to you soon!

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About the Author

Susan Moore spent 7 months traveling solo around Southeast Asia back in the 90's. Returning to Canada she found a job working on rotation in Siberia Russia. She later moved to Austin Texas where she started a bookkeeping business, allowing her to work remotely. Currently Susan is in year 5 of a solo road trip around the USA and Canada, living a nomadic life, and writing about her experiences with a focus on hiking and cultural encounters. Read all about Susan » You can reach Susan Moore at Facebook or Twitter or Instagram

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