I think one of the most liberating things I have ever done is booking a single plane ticket to the other side of the world. Leading up to the departure date I’m thinking “yeah, the world is my oyster, I can do what I want”, but when the departure date hits I start thinking “oh my goodness, what have I done?!”. That feeling passes though, and the loneliness I get (especially when the plane first takes off) soon turns to excitement and an indescribable feeling of freedom. Sound scary? Once I would have said yes, but now I am a huge advocate. I think it is something that everyone should do at some point their lives, and the sooner you do it, the sooner you will know whether it is something for you or not. Regardless, I promise that during the experience you will learn new things about yourself. You might be thinking “no way”, and I empathise, but I do think you will be surprised. There are obviously a number of pros and cons to travelling alone (serial selfies are just the beginning), so read the following with an open mind, and allow yourself to be persuaded.
1. Start easy.
I’m not going to lie, the first time is hard. But it gets easier, because you get used to it. Your self-consciousness turns into confidence. You move through the airport with intention, instead of self-doubt. There are of course, various ways to make it easier on yourself. If you are already away and travelling with friends, start small, and just do a few day trips on your own. That way, you know if you hate it, you can return to the comfort of your group that night. Or, if you are feeling bolder, stay away overnight; or even for a few nights. That way you know there is an end date on your solo travel, and company awaits. Sometimes though, you mayn’t even be away with friends. You may be at home, and just want to book a holiday. There is no problem with that, but if you are feeling slightly nervous it can be reassuring to book somewhere that speaks the same language you do, and is known to be traveller-friendly. As you gain experience and confidence you may feel brave enough to venture into some of the more risky, less travelled countries, but at first I would suggest starting easy (and there is no shortage of traveller-friendly countries!).
The first time I was alone was when I was in Europe. I had lost my phone in Greece, and was flying to London early in the morning. I had to ask some poor girl in my dorm room to set her alarm for 3am, and needless to say I had a pretty rough sleep (anxious from a combination of the thought of me sleeping through the alarm, of waking everyone in the dorm room, and of the alarm failing to go off in the first place). I landed in London only to be detained in customs (I’d had my passport with my student visa stolen in Italy, so there was no evidence of my entry into Europe, meaning I was temporarily deemed an ‘over-stayer’) and when I finally escaped I set off into London with no way to contact anybody, and the address of where I was staying scrawled on a serviette. Never have I ever felt so insignificant; it was both terrifying and empowering at the same time. [The rest of my week steadily improved; I met up with friends each night and just had the days in which I had to occupy myself – there is so much to do in London that there is no time to feel lonely!]
2. You are never really by yourself.
If you are worried about spending quality time in your own company and you actually want to meet people, I would advise staying in a hostel as they are miles more social than hotels or most places you would stay through Air BnB. Sure, there is the obvious downside of not sharing valuable memories with friends, but that does not necessarily mean you have to share them with no-one. The best place to meet people tends to be in a hostel’s dormitory, or in any other communal areas. It is actually far easier meeting new people as a solo traveller then it is as a group of two or three, as people tend to be a lot more inclusive when they see you on your own. It goes without saying that 9/10 of the people you meet might become nothing more than Facebook friends (if they even make that cut) but every so often you meet someone who you know will be a pal for life – and that makes it all so worth it. After a few months backpacking around Europe, I suddenly had this extensive network of friends from all around the world, which is super exciting for future travels!
It is certainly not a given though, and sometimes it will require much more effort to make even a shallow friendship stick. When that happens I’m usually one to cut my losses and make do with my own company, but others might prefer to persist. A few years ago I remember arriving at my hostel room in Porto, Portugal, to find seven other people already occupying the room. I was thinking to myself “great, seven ready-made friends”, but to my horror they were Brazilian with limited English, and unfortunately for me I can’t speak a drop of Portuguese. They were nice enough though, and after a few entertaining attempts at communication, I resigned myself to the fact that these guys probably wouldn’t become my new besties any time soon.
3. You can do what you want, when you want.
This is so unbelievably true, and is something you should learn to embrace. No more traipsing around museums when you undeniably hate museums and no more catching the subway when you secretly prefer to walk. Instead you are free to do absolutely whatever tickles your fancy. I appreciate it most at times when I am feeling particularly poor and therefore careful with my money. I always find that I spend so much less when I am on my own. I think the main reason for this is that I tend not to eat out so much, instead grazing my way throughout the day; and I definitely spend less on alcohol when I’m not constantly surrounded my friends. Also, one of my favourite things to do in new places is to wander the streets day in day out just soaking up the vibe of a place (which is free, obviously) but I’m well aware that lots of people prefer to focus on the main sights and attractions at each destination, which tends to be more expensive.
Doing what you want, when you want also applies to when it comes to planning your journey in advance. When you are with a large group it is so much harder to make last minute arrangements whereas it tends to be relatively easy to make a last minute booking for one bus ticket or single hostel bed. Further, you don’t need to consult with the group on any of your plans – rather if you like something and want to book it, you can just click “confirm booking” and you are good to go. The biggest downside to this I guess would be that when I’m travelling alone I tend to research new places in my downtime, which means that I usually always know what I want to do next. If I want to stay in a particular hostel or do a particular activity, I sometimes find it hard to justify not booking it, but it does sometimes result in my itinerary being a bit more rigid. It can also be comforting arriving in a new destination knowing that you have somewhere to stay. Overall I think it is best to keep a bit of flexibility about your trip if time and finances permit, as it allows you to make last minute plans and not miss out on doing something because you’ve already booked the next leg.
Probably the coolest thing about riding solo. It may sound cheesy, but it couldn’t be more real – you will learn so much about yourself, whether you intend to or not. The freedom you have is liberating, and the confidence and independence you will gain is seriously empowering. A few days by myself and I come out feeling like a whole new person. I am motivated, calm and inspired in ways I can’t explain. Sometimes I can start feeling as though I am going a bit internally crazy, and that is when I know it is time to meet some new people. You will figure out the things you like and the kinds of people you are drawn to, and crease out your thoughts by the topics you unconsciously think about. Don’t get me wrong though, this is not always an enjoyable experience – some days I have woken up and just decide I have no motivation to do anything at all; and am quite happy mooching around the hostel – which tends to indicate that I need to move on to somewhere new, or get my A into G and get me some mates.
Over the years I have ‘self-discovered’ that I love travelling with people who are just as independent as I, as I really appreciate having that time to myself, and exploring by foot every nook and cranny of every place I go to – but come evenings I like to have friends to hang out with, otherwise I’m far more inclined to stay in. I always use to admire people who were confident enough to dine alone, and although I now am comfortable with that also, I definitely haven’t yet conquered the drinking scene as a lone soldier. But because I know that about myself, if I think I might want to go out drinking one evening, I’ll lay the groundwork to make sure I have some potential drinking buddies earlier on.
5. And if you are a girl…
Yes, believe it or not, it is still possible to travel, and no, it is not uncommon. Be street smart, and keep your wits about you (but I would recommend that even if you are travelling as part of a group). Always know the reputation of the place you are visiting, and if there are certain areas you should avoid, especially at night. Be cautious; think about how you intend on getting somewhere, and if you should tell someone where you are going. I have a friend who shares a code word with her mum, and if she is ever in trouble she will call her mum and say the word, and using ‘Find my iPhone’ her mum can detect her location. This only works if you have a SIM though, as you need to be able to call home and have the app activated, probably outside of wifi areas.
It is important to remember that sadly, bad stuff goes on all around the world, and so you definitely shouldn’t confine yourself to the safety of your hostel room, but nor should you expose yourself to any unnecessary risk. It is also comforting to remember that the world is made up predominantly of good people, so if you do ever feel unsafe or unsure, there is probably someone nearby who is more than willing to help. Just don’t be too trusting, figure out what kind of egg they are before you let them have too much information – it always pays to be safe, not sorry. I recently travelled through some of Mexico with my friend Hailee. Being American, she had been exposed to far more bad publicity about the dangers of Mexico, whereas the relative proximity of my motherland meant that the same news didn’t reach us, so I had less reason to be so cautious – and for the better part, the Mexicans I met were fantastic. So don’t let being a female hold you back, it can definitely still be done.
So there you have it. Solo travel. Undeniably it is not for everyone, but you won’t know until you try it. It doesn’t have to be that scary – and a lot of people end up preferring it. Give it a go – and feel free to let me know what you think!