Every time I get ready to go on a trip, people inevitably ask me, “Who are you traveling with?” I tell them that I’m going alone. Their foreheads usually wrinkle, and a look of pity settles on their faces. “Oh,” they say.
I always clarify, “I only travel alone; I never let anyone go with me. You meet more people that way.”
Then they usually say something like, “That makes sense,” in a skeptical tone of voice.
I know. I get it. it’s scary to travel by yourself. It can be difficult (though many worthwhile things are). People often make excuses or don’t think they’re brave enough to do it. Women always tell me, “Well, you’re a guy—it’s easier and safer for you.” And I’m sure they’re right, but I’ve met plenty of travelers carrying two X chromosomes, and none of them got raped OR murdered.
But anyway, for all of you who will never hop on a transcontinental flight by yourself, I’ll give you this advice: don’t travel with more than two people. If you do, it will take forever for your group to make decisions, to get moving. A third of your trip will be spent lingering around waiting to do the thing that you (or more likely, one of your friends) wants to do. It doesn’t matter how good of friends your group is. Back before I gave up group travel, I’d encounter this again and again. I don’t know why four people is the magic number for too many, but it is. It will slow things down. Every time.
A group of three (you included) ensures quick decision making and a better trip. But you’re still a group, and you’re likely isolating yourself from encounters with the locals. Also, your life-changing suggestion can still be outvoted. If you want to go with just one other person, it’s the ideal number if you’re not going to roll solo. (Also, I imagine it’s your only option if you’re dating or married to someone.)
And before I praise the act of solo traveling, I have to admit it does have its downsides, so to be balanced, I’ll give them to you:
It’s inevitable that at some point during your trip, you’ll be by yourself for a long time, stuck with your thoughts. I took the train trip from Budapest to Germany by myself once and with my friend Chris the other time, and the eight or nine hours flew by infinitely quicker when I had someone to talk to. I probably would have enjoyed that steep climb to the church at Kazbegi and laughed about how terrible my lumpy mattress was at the guesthouse if there was someone by my side. Still, I think it’s important to learn how to be bored, how to live with your own thoughts for an extended period of time (especially in the smartphone era). Also, the loneliness is temporary. I’ve always met people, interesting ones, within a couple of days traveling. Just make sure you research your hostels.*
2. Potentially more nerve-wracking
My biggest travel scare ever (besides thinking I was on the brink of death in a Turkish hospital) was chasing down a bus with all my stuff in Bosnia on the way to Montenegro. We had fifteen minutes at the last stop at the last place, so I naively assumed the next stop would be longer than 3 minutes. I managed to wave the bus down, but I can only imagine the horror I would’ve felt, stuck alone without a passport, clothes, etc. at a rest stop in the middle of nowhere, having lost the only bus of the day in a place where I could barely communicate with people.
Also, though this has faded (but only after years of traveling), reaching a new city in a foreign land by myself always used to make me nervous. When the bus or train would get close to the destination, I’d wish I had another hour to go. I’d worry about navigating my way to the hostel, not knowing how much I’d be able to communicate, how lost I’d inevitably get, or if the bus driver would dump me out miles from the bus station at 4:30 in the morning, so his cabby friend could get a couple bucks.*
*Not that I’m speaking from experience or anything…
3. Inability to share experience with others
Sometimes you see something amazing and wish you could share the beautiful view, the taste in the air, and the romance of it all—instead of just having some photographs and some good stories to tell people when you return home. You’ll get over it, though.
So there you have it. These three cons don’t stop me from going alone, and only the third one I feel might actually be bad. So now, let me give you the positives of traveling all by your lonely self.
1.) Freedom to Choose
Your trip is in your hands. You make all the decisions, and you can alter your plans at the drop of a hat. Did you get wasted the night before and have a hangover that you think just might actually kill you? Relax and take a day off. (And see if there are any Turkish baths in the city.)
A strange Moldovan girl invites you back to her apartment after a long conversation? Take a risk and go for it. Or don’t, but it’s up to you. Sometimes travel plans don’t work out, like when I couldn’t get a bus ticket to Kosovo. What did I do? Changed things up and headed to Albania instead. It turned out to be one of the most important decisions I ever made, and I was in control of it.
2.) You’re more open to meeting new people
This is the most important one, the real reason I travel solo. When you travel alone, you’re more likely to strike up conversations with strangers and make new friends. You’re more open, and so are they. While the majority of travel buddies will disappear from your life (the same way it’s easy to lose barfly friendships when you move to a new town), some will stay, and as a side effect, be able to visit loads of other countries through their local eyes. (You’re likely to get a free place to crash too.) I would know almost nothing about Denmark if I hadn’t met my great friend Martin, a Dane, at a hostel (not to mention I’d also be missing out on an incredible friendship). Also, if you do get lonely on your travels and click with someone at the hostel, it’s often possible to join them to their next stop.
3.) You leave stronger, more confident, more assertive.
At least I did. Traveling alone has forced me to stay on my toes. Having inherited a non confrontational streak, simply asking a server for the food they forgot used to be hard for me. But after an unexpected bus transfer in Poland and demanding to see my bag in the new bus, I realized I had become a lot more assertive. High school me would be so proud. I’ve also become better at negotiating with people, asking strangers questions, and avoiding sketching situations (for the most part). Also after visiting and moving to countries all by myself, I’ve developed an overall confidence that was lacking when I was 22. I’m sure part of that is not being 22 anymore, but I only noticed it after navigating countries alone.
I understand that not everybody wants to travel the way I do, but learning to trek alone has been invaluable to me. So if you’re thinking about braving the unknown alone or want to go to another country, and no one will join you (like my first solo jaunt in Istanbul), go for it, especially if you’re in your twenties and single.