Solo Travel: Getting Over the Fear of Being Alone Leads to Self-Discovery13 min read
After going through a bad breakup, Logan Stewart was having a hard time focusing on anything and felt the urge to do something out of her element. She decided to travel abroad…by herself.
“I pieced together a trip on my own. I hadn’t been to Europe since I was 7 and that, of course, was with my parents. I had no idea what I was doing,” says Stewart, a public relations manager for a large orthopedics group based in Charlotte, NC.
The trip didn’t start out exactly how she hoped it would.
“I flew into London and as soon as I arrived realized I had no idea how to get from the airport to the hostel I’d booked. I spent about an hour trying to figure it out. I lugged my bags through the streets of London, wandering and looking for the hostel. I felt totally lost and thought ‘What am I doing?’”
To make matters worse, she had excruciating pain in her right foot, which she found out later was actually broken.
“My first two days in London weren’t great. I was in a lot of pain from my foot, in a hostel room with 16 other loud people and couldn’t sleep, and had no idea how to get to anything,” Stewart says.
Although the trip started out on what Stewart describes as a low note, it ended on a “sky-high” note.
“There were times I was homesick, but perseverance and reminding myself that I can do this got me through,” she says.
Finding your way
Traveling to a far away place without any friends or family sounds daunting. And it can be. However, travelers who’ve gone solo say that it lends them perspective and also helps them to have more confidence in themselves; it’s a test that can be exhilarating to pass. This may be one reason why solo travel has been on the rise the last few years.
“Solo travel is so important because not a lot of people have the opportunity to be just themselves without some other prioritized identity, like partner or parent. Traveling by yourself teaches you to be with yourself, which is a pretty important life skill,” says Christel Shea, a frequent solo traveler and a managing director for TourMatters. “What I love best about traveling solo is being open to what’s going on around me, rather than focused on whoever I’m with.”
Instead of letting the initial difficulties get her down or convince her to end the trip early, Stewart booked a train to Bruges, Belgium. She shared a quaint room in a hostel with a girl from Mexico. She rented a bike and rode it all over town. One night, she went out with an organized group of people from around the world staying in various hostels in town.
“It made me a stronger person and made me better able to handle difficulty and work through situations,” she says.
Traveling solo had an incredible impact on Stewart, but she’s not the only one.
Caroline Lupini was originally set to travel to Thailand with a boyfriend, but when they broke up, she still wanted to travel to Asia. So she re-vamped the trip and jetted off by herself for the very first time. Her six-week trip started in Beijing, which is where she experienced the most difficult part of her journey.
“I landed in Beijing and found out that my bank had put my account on hold,” says Lupini, a travel specialist, writer and photographer from Ann Arbor, MI. “I lived off of very little money for the three days I was there and only made it because some people from my hostel let me pay for Starbucks and some athletic gear with my credit card and gave me cash in return.”
While traveling, it’s always a possibility that difficulties and problems like Lupini’s can arise. The difference with these issues when you travel solo is part of what both Stewart and Lupini say promote strength and personal growth.
“No matter where I am going, traveling with a companion is always ‘easier’ on so many fronts, but traveling solo forces me to fend for myself and ask for help when I need it,” Lupini says.
“Traveling alone was a challenge. I realized how unprepared I was, as far as how to get around and hadn’t done my work in advance. I didn’t know anything about how to get my foot treated and healthcare overseas,” Stewart says. “It made me a stronger person and made me better able to handle difficulty and work through situations.”
You’re traveling by yourself, but you aren’t alone
Although solo travel gives you freedom, adventure, and the ability to explore your city and yourself, frequent solo travelers agree that there’s some drawbacks.
“At first, meals as a solo are hard. It can be awkward to eat by yourself in public,” says Shea. “But I think that’s a self-imposed limitation. I really love food, so by treating meals as a ‘discovery’ activity – I got to try new restaurants and see new neighborhoods.”
In general, being by yourself in a new city can leave you feeling a bit lonely, Lupini says.
“The major drawback I have found to solo travel is that at times it can be isolating. Especially traveling during off-season, off-the-beaten-track, or while staying at hotels,” she says.
Both Stewart and Lupini each set off on their first solo trips on their own, but they didn’t stay by themselves the whole trip.
During Stewart’s trip, she ventured to Amsterdam by train, where she met a group of people traveling there from Argentina – she
ended up spending more of her time in Amsterdam with this group.
“It was the most random, arbitrary group of human beings who for the most part didn’t speak each other’s languages, but the companionship and friendship we developed was beyond compare,” Stewart says.
These friendships she formed with fellow travelers not only made her trip that much better, but also opened Stewart’s eyes.
“You can meet people in the most unexpected places who are nothing like you and they become an immense support and source of fun. It showed me that I’m sheltered at home, that we waste too much and live too big in the United States, and that there’s a whole world out there full of diverse people to learn life lessons from,” she says, adding that she’s still friends with the people she met on her first solo trip.
According to Lupini, meeting new people is a real perk of traveling solo.
“My favorite part about traveling solo was making new friends. I still talk to a handful of people from this trip on a regular basis and have some great memories,” she says.
Samantha Hartman went on her first solo trip to Paris and never felt alone.
“Most people think of Paris as a romantic city, and this is absolutely true! But going it alone did not make me feel sad or lonely,” says Hartman, a travel consultant for Protravel International. While in Paris, she went on a tour of the city and met two other solo female travelers. They went to the Catacombs and visited the Louvre with one of the girls she met.
Staying in a hostel is an easy way to meet fellow travelers, Hartman says, but it’s also easy to meet people going on tours of the city you’re in or participating in organized events, happy hours and activities.
“There is a certain camaraderie between people who are traveling solo, and it isn’t hard to become friends with others in your same situation. I also find that these friendships develop quickly and last a long time, because you’ve experienced life changing moments together,” she says.
Despite meeting people and striking up friendships while in Paris, Hartman says some of her best memories of that trip were while she was on her own…and that she didn’t feel lonely during these moments.
“Even though most of the people around me were with their families or loved ones (I even saw a couple get engaged and they asked me to take their picture!), I felt perfectly happy to be by myself. I was proud of myself for navigating my way around and I was so awed by Paris that I felt inspired to continue traveling solo,” Hartman says.
Traveling solo gives you more than a memory of a destination
First, there’s a freedom that comes with traveling on your own.
“My favorite benefit of traveling solo is that you never have to compromise what you want to do.,” Lupini says. You’re on your own, which means you decide where to go, what to do and when to do it.
“Solo travel gives you a lot of time to think. That was good for me. I think sometimes we all need to take a step back and reflect. You can also do what you want, when you want. You are on no one’s schedule but your own,” Stewart says.
Hartman describes herself as an easygoing person and, when it comes to making decisions with a group of friends, she tends to
give an “I don’t mind” or “Whatever you want to do” response.
“The truth is that most of the time I really don’t mind– I’m going to be happy whether we eat gelato or go to the Trevi Fountain. However, when I’m traveling alone, I make decisions based entirely on what I want to do in that exact moment,” she says. “To me, it’s the true meaning of a vacation. I don’t have to make any compromises. I spend my money, my time, and my energy how I want to. There’s hardly ever another situation in which we get to do this.”
Your focus is completely on yourself and the place you’re visiting. And then there are the lessons you learn along the way.
“The solo trips I’ve taken have made me more worldly and adaptable and introduced me to people I never would have met otherwise. I have friends all over the world that I can stay with, like I did in Elda, Spain last year. I literally lived with them for five days and experienced their life day-to-day. I saw how much they conserve compared to us in the United States, how happy they can be with less, and how genuinely welcoming they are. Other cultures are just as curious about us as we are about them,” Stewart says.
Issues and complications that happen during solo travels teach you as well.
“It forces you to learn about yourself and be strong and resourceful in conditions that are not always the most comfortable,” Lupini says.
Planning ahead and doing your research are imperative
If you’re interested in traveling solo, there are some things to consider while planning your trip. When picking a destination, you may want to consider the primary language spoken there.
“The language barrier can be extremely difficult, especially in an emergency situation,” Stewart says. If you want to go to a destination where the locals’ first language isn’t English, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go there, but you may want to learn some of the language ahead of your trip.
“Know as much of the language as you can, even if it’s just basic phrases,” Stewart says.
Something else you can educate yourself on before traveling is local scams.
“Many places have a reputation for their typical tricks to get money out of travelers, so it is important to read up on these, as well as follow standard safety measures,” recommends Hartman, who says she avoided being scammed in Paris and Italy by doing this type of research.
While planning a solo trip doesn’t differ much from planning a trip with another person or a group – you still need accommodations, transportation, tickets for events and tourist sites, etc. – but some seasoned solo travelers have found the planning process needs to be more thorough when you’re going on your own.
“I am definitely more thorough when I am preparing for a solo trip. An example: When I am going somewhere alone I make sure that I have the directions from the airport or train station to my hotel written out beforehand because I know that my phone may not be a reliable source. When I do this, I have always arrived without problems,” says Hartman. She had previous experiences of not having these details planned out while traveling with friends. When traveling with others, Hartman says she worries a bit less and were counting on each other to figure the logistics out.
“I never let this happen during solo travel because I am prepared and I know that I only have myself to count on,” she says.
In addition to planning her logistics, accommodations and transportation out to a T, and being prepared for glitches in those plans, Hartman puts together a structured itinerary and sends those details to a loved one back at home.
“Part of the thrill of solo travel is freedom and spontaneity; however, it is really smart to update someone on your whereabouts,” Hartman advises. “Before taking off on a trip I type up my flight information, where I’ll be staying (including the address and contact information), what days I plan on traveling and probably won’t have Wi-Fi, and any other important information I can think of, and send it all to someone back home. I do this so that I can give my loved ones peace of mind and use my phone as little as possible while I’m traveling.”
And when it comes to staying safe, Hartman suggests going with your gut.
“If something doesn’t feel right, follow your instincts. This is probably the most important piece of advice about solo travel: you should never put yourself in a situation that you’re not comfortable with. If something inside you is screaming that a person, place, or situation is not safe, healthy, or beneficial to your wellbeing, find a way to remove yourself,” she says. “When you’re traveling alone, you have the freedom to do whatever you want, but you also have the responsibility to take care of yourself.”
However, when Hartman travels alone, she doesn’t feel unsafe.
“I would argue that when I travel alone, I am safer than when I travel with friends. I am always aware of my surroundings, I use a map the whole time, and I am less likely to put myself potentially unsafe situations,” she says.
Traveling solo certainly presents challenges, and it isn’t for everyone. However, those that have done it consider it to be a life-changing experience.
“Going on a solo trip is truly a reason to be proud of yourself. You’ve saved your money, worked up the courage to do something alone, and taken care of yourself the whole time. You’ve proven to yourself that you are independent, open-minded, versatile, quick-thinking, good at making friends, and whatever else that you’ve learned about yourself along the way,” Hartman says. “Traveling alone is an extremely introspective experience that can teach you a great deal and leave you feeling inspired.”