Solo expedition is not a new thing. Since the dawn of time people have ventured away from their homes to discover new places with just themselves for company. So it’s somewhat strange that even today there are still stigmas attached to someone deciding to go travelling alone. Depending on the context of why or how someone is taking a solo trip it can be more acceptable and seem even natural. For example if one was to say they are going to South America for 6-months to travel around it now seems like a common thing to do. However, if you are a 37 year old mum of two young children, or a black female, or even a 60 year old retiree that choose to venture to Paraguay to hike various mountains that could be met with concern, intrigue and worry from people you share this with.
By the way did you notice the reoccurring attribute? Being a female travelling solo is met with a host of opinions. Even more so if you are non-white female. It seems that solo travelling is another thing included in this ‘list’ of things that women and women of colour may find ‘challenging’.
I have had first hand experience with opinions surrounding going to Japan on a solo trip for 3 weeks. As much as people are aware of my adventurous spirit I was still asked ‘if was sure?’, told ‘But Japanese don’t like black people’ and advised ‘don’t eat their meat as it might be dog’, as well as the various Tsunami references. I found myself trying to ease their sense of worry by saying ‘I have a friend there that I’ll see when I arrive’. This was true, yes I was planning to get a drink with a old friend, but not staying with them or travelling with them at all. These were genuine first reactions to the idea.
In the end most of my trip wasn’t solo as one of my best friends joined me and this was met with a sense of relief from some of the concerned ones. Prejudices, misconceptions, genuine safety issues can be the root cause of this type of fear surrounding solo travel.
Another stigma that arises when telling people about going solo is that why would someone choose to go alone when the experience of travelling is to be shared. ‘Does this person lack a tribe?’, ‘this person will surely be lonely’, ‘what’s the point when you can’t talk about what you experienced with someone else?’, and ‘this person must be bonkers!’ are some of the initial thoughts that may arise.
In a world where popularity is magnified through social media, with ‘likes’, the pictures with you and your ‘tribe’ and streams of accounts with couples travelling the world together, the thought of being seen on a solo trip could lead to such judgements. But of course the choice to go alone is yours and for your personal reasons, so it’s up to you to decide to listen to the external or internal naysayers.
Of course sharing your travel with someone you know can be one of the most enriching things a person can experience, and I don’t think that is ever going to change at all, and shouldn’t. But the point here is that it’s not one or the other. Solo travel offers up it’s own set of life changing pros and some cons to go along with it.
As a young daydreamer I would think my holidays would be constant girls trips, lovers retreats, maybe even family vacays. There would be overwhelming excitement and happiness felt from everyone during that trip. Now having had some of those types of trips I can say that along with the joy and excitement can come a whole host of other feelings like anger, shock, frustration and loneliness.
Shared trips can be fun but they can also endure stress, despite most trying to escape their daily stress. Having had a somewhat varied travel experience in the past I started to realise things in reality couldn’t be further apart from expectations at times. The idea of solo travel was not something that filled me with dread, but I just didn’t think about it much. If I wanted to go away I just tried to plan with friends.
But there came a time in my mid twenties that I was finding more comfort in having experiences on my own, I put this down to being predominately an introvert and feeling I was most present to the things going on around me when I was alone, which was a great feeling. I also have a social streak, which has taken years to get good at and I felt a solo trip could be another opportunity to push through the discomfort of meeting new people. So I saved a little money and decide to head to the city of romance, Paris, for a couple of days on my own. After Paris I travelled straight to Barcelona, which I also spent a couple of days solo there after my friends left to go back to London.
The experience of my first solo trip was life changing. Firstly because I could be on an adventure and do as I want, when I want. I didn’t have to deal with people nagging about the cost of things, whether a restaurant was too pricey or the hostel was too low budget.
I was a solo traveller in a hostel at the age of 25. I was bound to meet people and I did on my first night. A group of us ventured off to explore Paris’ tourist hot spot, the Sacre Couer, which was behind our hostel. We sang along to acoustic versions of pop songs I would usually despise, with a multitude of other tourists, on the steps that overlooked the city. This was funny to me as I can find it frustrating being caught in crowds of tourists in London attractions and don’t comply with their fascination. But here I was literally living my best life connecting with strangers that weren’t so strange.
SO HOW DID I DO IT AND WHAT TO EXPECT
- I started where I felt most comfortable. That was going to a city literally next door to the UK. The solo aspect already provided a sense of a challenge. For you it might be a different city in your country or somewhere on the opposite side of the world, in a deserted jungle, full of tigers, à la Life of Pi style.
- I decided that another challenge was connecting with people and for any solo traveller the obvious way to do that is stay somewhere there are other solo travellers. So a hostel can be the perfect spot for that. Now I was aware of the stigmas surrounding hostels, I have watched the toe-curling film Hostel and I still thought that was the best option at the time for me. It was affordable and I made sure to thoroughly read reviews and ratings on sites such as Hostel World. Yes bed bugs can happen and yes annoying room guests with smelly feet can be a real issue. I have had both, but that was an exception to the many times when the beds were clean and comfortable and the guests were respectful of your space and possessions. I see it as a humbling experience that people shouldn’t be afraid to try. There are other options now with Airbnb, coach-surfing where your host could be a good starting point to experiencing life as a local.
- I stayed organised. No-one is going to remind you of your terminal, check-in times, lend you spare change. I made sure that I made a folder in my inbox with all the travel details, downloaded the necessary ones to my phone and printed out if really important. I found out emergency service numbers for the country and where the closest hospitals, police stations were. I wrote down a list of numbers of people I would want to contact back home in an emergency, in case I lost my phone.
- I informed family and friends I was travelling. Especially if this is for a short trip it can easily be forgotten. In the case anything does happen where you are visiting, they will reach out in concern, but that is a good thing.
- I don’t always have a strict itinerary, but if I’m planning to visit various cities in one trip I do let someone back home know my rough itinerary. I include the address of the place I’m staying as well. Safeguard yourself is 101 for solo travel because anything can happen anywhere.
- I started with a week away for my first semi-solo trip. But I think if it is something really out your comfort zone, a weekend away or night away can be great way to trial it out.
- I documented my trip. You may have a lot of ‘me time’, so I stayed present and engaged by practising my travel photography. Also I journaled each day about how I spent my day and interesting things that happened. For me this helped me stay engaged and take in the experience 100%, rather than just messaging my friends every detail of my trip.
- When people came up to talk to me in the street, especially in another language, I just had to use my wits and judge if I felt safe. If you don’t feel safe just politely decline the chat and say you are in a hurry to meet a friend. Being mindful of your environment and the people around is even more important on a solo trip, because after all you are not native to that place and people can tell.
WHY IS SOLO TRAVEL SO ENRICHING?
- It literally and metaphorically launches you out of your safe space, your comfort zone. It is true that great things happen on the other side of that comfort zone. If we didn’t feel a level of discomfort we would never grow, never get better, never do better. The first ever day of school was scary, but we had no choice but to just go, and eventually it became our new normal. Travelling solo can seem scary, and it is understandable that the unfamiliar and unknown seems like something we should protect ourselves from. But by traveling solo you will have more time to focus your attention on how similar we all are no matter the culture, country, climate differences. Yes there are distrustful people out there, but that is no different to back home.
- You will most likely connect with people, even if it’s for just a night or a conversation. Being alone can open you up to people coming to talk to you. It can be great to experience unexpected encounters and bond with people you wouldn’t usually meet back home.
- You may be on a solo trip and happen to have not encountered or spoken to anyone for a couple of days or hours. That’s fine. You have YOU to connect with. It’s easy to get on the phone and text, instagram etc to fill the blank space, but wouldn’t it be great to be present in the moment and spend time with you. As I said before document the trip as you go along. It will help you stay present and reflective of the things you enjoy and that surprised you about the place. Being alone in a new place can give you clarity on your life back home and help you understand what you love about home, or not. It can help you understand what could bring you more joy in your daily life.
- If you’re someone that is quite dependant on people for your happiness, entertainment, fun or even just help with everyday things, solo travel is really going to help grow that independent side of you. It’s a great thing to discover why people want to spend time with you, by spending time with you. You will discover that you are enough and every other person in your life is an extra blessing.
- Lastly your confidence will grow. Solo travel is a challenge and every challenge completed can leave you feeling confident enough to do it again. You may have gotten outside your box and made new friends. You may have gotten yourself out of a tricky situation, like getting lost. You have become self-sufficient and become better at organising yourself. Or you may have stumbled along the way many times, but you picked yourself back up and learnt the lesson. It’s all part of the experience.
Now that I have given you an insight on why and how I went about my first solo trip I would love to hear about yours if you’ve gone on any. If you haven’t would it be something you would consider?