At this point, it’s fair to say I’ve done a lot of solo traveling.
I had a taste of it while exploring Berlin during my off-hours as an au pair. The first time I booked an overnight stay on a solo trip was during year one at Edinburgh: I went to the Lake District and spent a night on my own in Windermere. I did Helsinki mostly on my own, although I had the great pleasure of fulfilling a promise to a Finnish friend to come see her in her own country. I’ve been on my own in Reykjavik, Prague, and Zürich. And while Vienna wasn’t 100% on my own the entire time, I was mostly solitary for a good month of the experience. And now I’m alone in New York City, with the very likely probability that I’ll also take several trips on my own while in Spain.
I’ve had some people ask me what it’s like to travel alone, and wouldn’t I rather have other people, and the short answer is: yes of course, I would rather have friends. But if the choice is between “alone” or “not at all,” which in my case it usually is, I’ve found it’s better to go.
Solo traveling comes with plenty of positives and negatives. Here’s my run down of the highs and lows, for anyone considering a trip by themselves.
1. Your day is your own.
One of my biggest struggles when traveling with other people is adjusting my rhythm to theirs. I may want to get up and grab an early start one day, and want to relax and laze about the next. I’m also not the type of person to create a detailed itinerary of a trip before hand. I’ve found that my best coping mechanism is to read my traveling companions and adjust accordingly: if someone in the group is ready to take charge, I let them. If everyone is indecisive, I start making decisions.
The trouble is that often in the compromises of group-travel politics, some of my priorities get lost. That’s just how it goes. But when I’m on my own, I get to do exactly everything I want to do, in the order I want to do it, and at the pace I want to do it. If I decide I want to linger for a full quarter-hour in front of a particular painting, I’m in no danger of being left behind by my more impatient companions. If I find an attraction unexpectedly not to my taste, I can move along. I can change plans without consulting anyone. And I make better use of my time, because I’m not having to follow anyone along to something that doesn’t especially interest me.
2. The experience is part of your sacred memory.
I’ve had several times while traveling where I wished I had someone to share the moment with. Most distinctly, I regret being on my own at the Blue Lagoon spa outside Reykjavik. There’s simply not a lot to do in a spa on your own save lounge around in the warm water, and while I enjoyed the experience, I also found myself wanting someone to talk to. The clouds of dense, sulfuric steam combined with the chill air temperatures of an Icelandic December put me in a philosophic mood. I would have liked to share the thoughts that sprang to mind at that time, or at least to have been able to write them down, but obviously I couldn’t because: water.
I had a similar feeling for just a moment last night as Phantom of the Opera began. Just as the opening scene started, I felt this dual excitement and disappointment: excitement at seeing a show I was very much looking forward to, and disappointment that no one was there to be excited with me. It wore off quickly enough, but I still felt that way for a bit.
That said, one of the things I’ve learned from these experiences is that when you have them on your own, the memory of them forms like a special secret you hold with yourself. Some of my most serene moments have occurred during solo trips, especially in the Lake District and Prague. You learn to know yourself better when you are your own company.
3. Invisibility is hard.
I remember one of the most disorienting and lonely moments of my life happened just as I arrived in Edinburgh for my first year of Uni. As I got off the plane I realized that no one within several thousand miles could distinguish me from Eve. In theory, a complete stranger could take my place, and no one would know the wiser. No one expected me, save staff at the University, and to them I was just one more Fresher among hundreds.
I think this sensation triggers some sort of survival instinct. We all want to be known—or at least recognized. The anonymity which comes from traveling through strange territory feels dangerous, even when you firmly believe that no real danger is any more likely to come your way than if you were at home. Nonetheless, you sense you are out of your tribe.
Yet, I’ve found this kind of terror quickly retreats once I start talking to another human being. Even if that person is a waiter or bartender, knowing they’re there to look out for me feels reassuring. After all, if I suddenly disappeared I know they’d come running after me—if only to make sure I paid my tab.
4. Bars can make good company.
I’ve never been the kind of person who hangs out in bars hoping to meet people. It always felt sleazy and shallow to me in a way that was well outside my comfort zone (and not in a way I wanted to change). As it turns out, however, you can totally hang out at a bar without people creeping on you. Heck, you can even bring a book and read a bit, and as long as you’re ordering drinks the bar staff will totally respect you.
This took me a while to get used to, but now that I am used to it, the right kind of bar can can feel like a pleasantly bustling living room. When I say “the right kind of bar,” I mean: not at a club, and not anywhere that’s overly fancy or crowded. I stay aware of the space around me, and if I feel like it’s starting to fill up, I’ll either order something more to retain the claim to my seat or else move on. But as long as it’s rather slow, I’ve gotten over any compunctions about nursing a drink while I read.
I find this usually goes over best when I’m actually at the bar, rather than seated at a table. When I’m at the bar, I’m only claiming one seat. At a table, I’m claiming not only my seat, but that of anyone else who might otherwise be using the other seats at my table. But then, I’ve also come to enjoy sitting at the bar. I feel like the bar tenders keep an eye out for me, because I’m always in sight. Also, when you’re at a table, the waiters sometimes give me my check preemptively, which I assume is because they’re busy and they don’t want me to have to wait for their attention if I’m anxious to head out the door. But it can also serve as a subtle signal that it’s time to go. Bartenders ask me if I’m alright or if I want anything more, which tends to make me feel more welcome.
5. Sometimes, strangers turn out to be really interesting people.
I’m sometimes a bit terse with strangers who try to strike up a conversation when I’m at the aforementioned bar. Maybe I don’t want to talk, or maybe I don’t know what to say, or maybe they have an off-putting vibe. No matter the reason, I find I usually keep my head down and avoid eye contact—which is not hard to do if your nose is in a book.
That said, when I have allowed a conversation to move forward, it’s usually gone well. So, for instance, I ended up talking to an Irish fellow by the name of Al last night for about two hours, even though I didn’t particularly want to talk to him when he first sat down. It was a great conversation and made the entire evening better. I could easily have killed that conversation early, but I made the decision to keep it going and I’m glad I did. Unless you actually don’t want to talk to a person (which can be for basically any reasons you’d like to name), getting over your nerves can pay off.
6. Solo traveling is hardest for ambiverts.
I’m speculating here, but I sense that most introverts don’t get particularly bothered by the idea of several consecutive days of alone time. And I also have the impression that extroverts are much more comfortable striking up conversations with random people and therefore don’t mind being on their own because all people are potential ad hoc traveling companions. But if you’re somewhere balanced in between—what some folk term “ambiverts”—than you may find yourself in the position of being neither 100% comfortable with all that alone time, but also not 100% comfortable with initiating contact with the people around you.
That said, you will definitely find a way to muddle it out. Mostly because the prize for all your hard efforts is pretty obvious: you’re traveling, LOOK AT AL THE COOL THINGS YOU HAVE TO SEE/TASTE/EXPERIENCE!!!!!!!
Most of this post has been about being alone, because that is the distinguishing feature of a solo traveler. Spending time alone with yourself can be a great thing, but even if it seems intimidating or dull, most of your time you’ll be so preoccupied by all the things you came to do and see that you won’t be bothered by it.
So, if you’re thinking of going on an adventure by yourself, my advice is: do it.
Going is always better than not going.