I travel solo more often than not these days, and I do it mostly by choice. But that wasn’t always the case.
I remember sitting on that Canadian Airlines plane in 1992, awaiting take-off on my direct flight to Paris, wondering what in hell had possessed me to plan a three-week trip to Europe (my very first trip overseas) ALONE.
It certainly hadn’t been a spur of the moment decision. After spending my teenage years begging my dad to send me to Europe (rather hopeless considering he had no money, no interest in travel, and I was still a minor), I spent a decade studying and then attempting to save some money. And then I found myself having similar arguments with my then fiancé. He didn’t have money either at the time, and none of my overwhelming desire to gallivant around Europe.
I could travel alone, or not travel at all.
At that time I didn’t know anyone who travelled alone. Heck, I barely knew anyone who travelled. After the fiancé was out of the picture, I made a few attempts to persuade friends to come with me. They all gave me reasons why they couldn’t: starting a new job, no money, children, and so on.
It had become clear that I had a choice: I could travel alone, or not travel at all. After 15 years of waiting for this trip, this was a no-brainer. So I moved on to the planning phase, which turned out to be a lot of fun… until I found myself sitting on that plane, and the reality of it hit me. Well, too late to turn back now.
However, once I emerged from St-Michel metro station, in the middle of the Latin Quarter, and right across from Notre-Dame, I was mesmerized, and beyond excited. I never regretted my decision for a single moment during this trip, nor any of the dozens other solo trips that came after it. Travelling is intoxicating, and travelling alone even more so!
Over time, I’ve discovered that there are actually many advantages to solo travel.
First of all, solo travel gives you absolute freedom. You can go where you want, when you want, and stay as long as you want. You pick your accommodations, your restaurants, and your activities day after day, without having to consult anyone. You can turn left or right at any intersection without having to ask “so, which way should we go?” every five minutes. I like that A LOT.
Even though it may not be intuitive, you also meet more people when you’re on your own. Other solo travellers will approach you, and some couples as well. In most places local people feel a lot less intimidated talking to a lone foreigner than to a small group, or even a couple.
Being on your own, you’re also on the look-out for these exchanges a lot more than when you are busily conversing with your travel companions or watching them for reactions.
And this leads to my next, and probably most important point. When you’re on your own, you tend to be a lot more aware of your surroundings. You’re more observant, you notice small details, you reflect on your discoveries, without being constantly interrupted by someone else’s presence and comments. I find that I learn a lot more about a culture, and internalize things more on a solo trip.
If you like photography, you know how tiring it gets to constantly apologize to other people for needing to take just one more picture, from a different angle or a different viewpoint. You don’t want everybody else to have to wait for you, so you won’t climb the steps, or cross the road, or wait for better light.
And finally, travelling alone makes you much more self-reliant and resourceful. After every solo trip you complete, and every situation you deal with on your own, you come back a more confident person, ready to tackle even greater challenges. You develop language skills and bargaining skills, you hone your intuition, and you slowly grow your social network.
Like anything else in life, the more often you travel solo, the easier it becomes, both logistically and psychologically. Doing it repeatedly makes it normal.
Of course travelling alone is not all rainbows and unicorns. There are some disadvantages.
For me, the biggest drawback is cost. Renting a room for one person costs a lot more than half the cost of renting a room for two. You can’t share dishes in restaurants, and sometimes end up wasting food.
As well, many organized trips and cruises are priced based on double occupancy and penalize single travellers with large single supplements (totally unfair of course). See this post by another solo travel blogger about ways to avoid the single supplement.
Another negative aspect of solo travel is trying to participate in an activity or day trip which requires a minimum number of passengers. If you’re the only one, you may not be able to go until others sign up. Or you may have to pay a large sum of money.
However, for people who are still looking for the courage to strike out on their own, the disadvantages may appear mostly psychological rather than logistical or financial.
I think the three main fears new solo travellers have are: fear of loneliness, fear for their safety, and maybe even fear of boredom.
As I mentioned above, as a solo, you will be seen as a lot more approachable by both locals and other travellers. Even introverts can meet other people pretty easily when travelling independently. I wrote this tongue-in-cheek post describing the lengths you would have to go to if you really wanted to remain alone on a trip!
Safety is a valid concern. Finding out the current situation at your destination, and knowing what to watch out for and specific areas to avoid goes a long way to keep you safe. Common sense and a confident attitude are also very helpful. (I talk about this in detail in my e-books.)
Honestly though, unless your travelling companion is Rambo or The Terminator, having another person with you won’t make a big difference if you ever have the bad luck of finding yourself surrounded by four tough guys with knifes demanding your belongings. (I don’t mean to scare you. Nothing even close to this has even happened to me in 23 years of mostly solo travels. My scariest travel story was actually about something completely different.)
As for boredom, this is highly unlikely if you’ve chosen a destination you’re genuinely interested in. And being on your own, you can decide to pick up the pace or slow down depending how you feel. You can leave a city you don’t like early, or stay longer in a place that makes you happy. You can spend all day in a museum, or all day chatting with shop owners and other locals. You can lie on the beach with a book, or hike up a volcano. You do what you feel like!
If you want instant company, why not go on a city walking tour (many are free), sign up for a class, or join a group for a day trip? (You can find information about possible activities at the tourist office or your accommodation’s bulletin board.)
Tips for the first-time solo traveller
If you would like to travel on your own, but just don’t feel up to it yet, I offer some practical advice below.
1. Stop listening to the nay-sayers
Whether it’s your family, your friends, or your boss who look at you with horror every time you mention your idea of travelling alone, know that tons of people travel solo all over the world. Some are young backpackers, some are middle-age people on a career break (or just a break from the rat race in general), some are retired and free as the wind. Some are women, and some are men (although there are a lot more solo women travellers out there for some reason…) Some are on a two-week trip, some are on a 2-month trip and some have no return tickets.
These days, when a large proportion of people are living alone, travelling alone is just a natural extension of that lifestyle. No, you are not weird. Trust me.
2. But do listen to your own thoughts
Are you someone who is rarely alone, always surrounded by others? You need to start spending time on your own, and listen to your own thoughts. Spend some time reading a book, writing a diary, taking a walk, going for coffee. Get used to being with yourself. Enjoy your own company.
3. Do a practice run
Go to a different part of your city, or to a neighbouring town for a “day trip”. You can plan your day (what you’ll do, where you’ll eat) or take it as it comes, it’s entirely up to you. (When I started travelling on my own, I used to plan things in minute details. Now I don’t.) Bring your camera, a bottle of water, and maybe some snacks, sunglasses, umbrella, a book, whatever you think you’ll need for the day. You’re going on a one-day solo trip!
Walk around, have coffee, sit in a park, have lunch, visit some sights, see a movie. How does that feel? If you’ve never eaten in a restaurant or seen a movie alone before, that may feel a little strange, but that’s OK. Everything feels strange the first time you do it. In my early travel days, I always scribbled down my impressions and feelings in a small diary. It helped me deal with stuff, especially when things were not going my way. Nowadays, with social media and the internet, you’re never truly alone anyway. You can post some of those pictures you just took on Facebook or Instagram, and tweet away your new discoveries.
You may need to repeat this step a few times until it doesn’t feel so strange, perhaps moving up to a week-end escapade on your own, or a week in a different part of your own country.
Once you’re ready to go abroad, check out this post about my top destination choices for solo travel.
4. As a last resort join a small-group tour
If you still don’t feel quite ready to travel completely on your own, consider joining a small-group tour that offers to match you up with a person of the same gender to share a room (in order to avoid the single supplement). I recommend G Adventures because I’ve been on several trips with them (as a solo) and I’ve never been disappointed.
However if you do this, I would recommend staying on for at least a few more days after the tour, and exploring on your own. By that point, you will probably have some familiarity with the country which should make it easier to continue alone. Visit a few things that you didn’t have time to see with the tour, or even move on to another city or another country. Think of the tour as bicycle training wheels.
You may also want to combine travelling on your own with visiting some friends in a foreign country.
I actually mixed all of these techniques during my first solo trip in Europe: a few days in Paris on my own (where I met up with a friend one night), then a few days in French Switzerland (staying with another friend) and then a group tour in Italy (which turned out to be a very bad choice after all), followed by a few more days on my own in the south of France.
If you’re hesitating between joining a tour or travelling on your own, I recommend you read my two-part post to tour or not to tour.
Here is a post that compares how solo men and solo women travel, through interviews with nine travellers.
I hope this has helped you decide to travel on your own, at least some of the time. For even more posts on solo travel, see the Solo section of my blog.