I know what some of you may be thinking: What? Me? Travel alone???
If you are thinking that, it’s ok. Only a minority of people have ever dreamt of hitting the road alone or actually ever done it. But that’s changing.
As traditional structures and beliefs crumble down in modern societies, and we develop an increased awareness of ourselves, of our individuality, more and more people are deciding to travel alone.
According to one large study (over 13,000 respondents in 25 countries) published this year, solo travel is following an upward trend. In the last two years alone there’s been a 60% increase in the number of travelers who’ve chosen to go solo on their most recent overseas leisure trip.
This means almost 1 in 4 of us have decided to defy convention, overcome our fears, and hit the road on our own at least once in the past year.
Now, there’s traveling solo and traveling solo. Unless I misread the data, the study I just referred to does not discriminate between people who travel solo to go on a guided tour of defined duration, and people who travel alone for an extended period of time. I have done and enjoyed both, but they are very different in many ways.
Although the two modes of solo travel are compatible (I have met people who sign up for guided tours on occasion while traveling long-term alone), it is the latter kind I want to talk about here.
Why? Because it is certainly the one that scares more people. Or, at the very least, the one that most people are less attracted to, romantic thoughts and dreams notwithstanding.
What can I tell you that you don’t know already? We all have dreams. But most of us only ever act on a few of them, if any at all. Without knowing how or why, we let life, obligations, and routine stand in our way.
On top of that, there’s our fears and insecurities, social conventions and other factors that come into play. If there’s one area in life where all of these factors deter people from doing what they want, that is travel.
Many of us feel self-conscious about eating lunch or dinner at a restaurant on our own. How on earth are we going to even consider setting out on a trip, let alone a long one, without company?
Well, let me tell you something that, if you’ve never traveled alone, you may or may not sense already: traveling alone is great; for many reasons, from the most philosophical to the most practical ones.
I know. All of this may sound kind of selfish. And for every advantage to travelling solo, it is possible to think of a downside.
I’m not saying one mode of travel is superior to the other. All I’m saying is both are enjoyable, and you shouldn’t dismiss travelling solo out of hand, as it can be much more rewarding than you think.
Let me explain why, based on my own experience:
1. Do what YOU want, travel at your own pace
Remember what it feels like to unexpectedly have the living room to yourself for one afternoon, or spend one weekend home alone, or going for a walk or a run on your own? What’s so great about that, if not that you can do whatever it is you want to do, and do it at your own pace?
Now imagine by how much this sense of freedom is multiplied when your choices are not limited to one short period of time or an isolated activity. Imagine visiting a country, or a bunch of them, and being able to decide where and how you are going spend every second.
No more waking up early, or going late to bed, unless you want to. No more eating when you don’t feel that hungry. No more… you get the idea.
When I went on a five-month trip around Southeast Asia, I made a point of planning as little as I thought reasonable. I arranged for some visas, flights and bookings in advance, but mostly I decided where to go next just a few days before leaving.
I’d never traveled like this before, and, frankly, I can’t wait to do it again; because it has been the single most amazing, memorable experience in my life.
2. Take it all in, enjoy feeling lost and overwhelmed
When you travel solo and arrive at a new place, you can really take your time to make sense of what you’re seeing, without someone else interpreting, filtering or buffering the experience for you. You can focus on looking, listening, smelling and feeling without interferences.
In his now classic book “The Art of Travel”, Alain de Botton puts it like this:
“Our responses to the world are crucially moulded by whom we are with, we temper our curiosity to fit in with the expectations of others… Being closely observed by a companion can inhibit us from observing others, we become taken up with adjusting ourselves to the companion’s questions and remarks, we have to make ourselves seem more normal than is good for our curiosity”.
Not just that. Traveling alone makes it more likely for you to feel lost and overwhelmed by your new surroundings and embrace, even enjoy, those feelings. If you are travelling with someone, chances are they won’t enjoy that situation as much as you.
I’m not saying I always enjoy feeling lost and overwhelmed). But in most similar situations, many people will get nervous, and immediately look on their guidebok, or their map, or ask for directions, while you might just prefer to wander around aimlessly and take it all in.
Being with a friend or close one also makes us less prone to feeling overwhelmed, since they act as an anchor and a reminder of our daily routine and familiar surroundings. However, I think that feeling overwhelmed at times adds to the travel experience, and you should welcome it.
3. Leave your ordinary life behind, for a while
There’s no escaping this fact. Travel with a friend, relative, work colleague or even a fellow countryman you have met along the way, and your ordinary life will pop up more frequently than you’d probably like.
I mean, dude, I know you think this or that is much better back home (even if most times it really isn’t; just different) or politics is messed up, or we’re in for a peak period at work when we get back, but I really don’t need to hear it here and now, while I’m several thousand miles away both in body and spirit.
It’s true that nowadays, with smartphones, Internet access widely available and social media, it is harder to detach ourselves from our ordinary lives for the duration of a trip.
Sometimes, very rarely, we really can’t afford the “luxury” of going on a digital detox, but most of the time we just don’t think of doing it, or simply don’t want to. It’s worth trying, though, as some studies indicate that it is good for us in many ways, and you are likely to enjoy your trip so much more.
4. Blend in, escape national stereotypes
I’m not talking about blending in like a spy, or even trying to pass for a local wherever your physical appearance may allow it. It’s just that one person alone has more chances to go unnoticed, which usually means having more time to observe and understand your new surroundings at your leisure.
Then there’s the issue of national stereotypes. If you go into a shop, or walk around talking to your companions in your own or any other foreign language, most locals will immediately make some assumptions about you, even before you talk to them. And it’s only natural that their initial interaction with you be conditioned by their previous experiences with other people from your country. This happens at a subconscious level.
In contrast, when you travel alone this doesn’t happen up front, but only after you’ve opened your mouth to speak. People may then work out your nationality from your accent, or ask where you come from, but their very first impression of you won’t be influenced or clouded by narrow preconceptions about your country and its people.
In my view, this makes for more authentic (though the word has almost become an empty cliché) and rewarding exchanges with local people, who will feel more genuinely curious about you. I keep referring to local people, but the same applies to other travelers you may meet along the road, obviously; which brings me to the next point.
5. Meet more people… only if you want to
Many people can’t hack being alone and try to avoid it as much as possible. Not surprisingly, one of their main fears about traveling solo is that they’ll end up feeling lonely.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Whatever your personality, outgoing or withdrawn, traveling alone will make it more likely for you to meet people, if that’s what you want. If you’re alone people will approach you more frequently, and it’ll be easier for you to do the same with others. It will also be much easier for you to ditch your plans and make new ones with the people you meet on the road and get along with.
If you are more the introvert kind, as I am, then you probably won’t have a problem with spending a long time on your own. But, and here’s the nice thing: the traveling mindset will make you more prone to opening up to strangers, as well as more receptive to meeting new people than back home.
6. Allow yourself to have a bad day, without spoiling someone else’s
Having a bad day or feeling sick during your trip?
No problem. Since you’re alone, you can frown, whine, pout, bitch and moan (the latter two in your head, preferably) to your heart’s content, without fear of ruining your travel companion’s day as well.
And you get do whatever it is you think will get you back in good shape, such as having a lie-in or spending the whole morning chilling and reading on a hammock.
7. Take as long as you want to make photos
This one’s a biggie for me. I love taking pictures, but don’t like to keep people waiting for me every fifty meters, as I know it can be annoying. When I’m alone, I can take my time.
8. Plan or don’t plan: it’s your choice
Remember, it’s up to you. Travelling alone will make you more flexible and ready to relax, go with the flow and make last-minute decisions. After all, it’s usually much easier to fit one more person on a bus, minivan or boat, or find accommodation for one without a prior booking. On the other hand, if you like to plan ahead and book stuff in advance, you can do it exactly as you want, when you want.
9. Get to know the places better
When you travel alone, there is no companion you can rely on to do the research, study the guidebook, buy stuff, navigate the roads and streets, and talk to local people. As a consequence, you get a much more thorough knowledge of the places you visit than if those tasks were distributed between one or more travel companions.
10. Build a better rapport with local people
Again, there’ll be no one else but you to approach and talk to locals in your travels, so you’d better learn how to say basic expressions in the local language.
If you make the effort to learn some of these expressions (like “hello”, ‘good morning’, “please” and “thank you”), local people will feel respected and it’ll be much easier to establish a good rapport with them.
11. Pack light and travel happier
“Do you think you could fit this in your bag?” Who hasn’t asked or been asked this sometime during a trip?
Well, none of that if you’re travelling on your own! Also, most of the time there’ll be no one to watch your bag while you go to the toilet or have a look around. Therefore, it is in your best interest to pack light if you are going to travel solo.
Packing light is always a good idea anyway, but when you know you’re going to be travelling alone, you feel even more compelled to bring only essential stuff.
Everyone should travel alone at least once in their lifetime!
Traveling alone may not be for everyone, but I think it’s something everybody should try at least once in their life time.
For all its downsides, it will most likely help you gain a deeper understanding of the places you visit. You will also enjoy the heightened sense of freedom that comes with roaming the world (or part of it) on your own; and you’ll come home feeling more confident and self-reliant than before you left. What’s not to like?
What about you? Have you ever travelled alone? I’d love to hear what you think in the comments.