My take on solo travel

Why travel solo? People often think it’s a last resort, or a solution for pathetic people with no friends. The opposite can also be true. Your own company can be quite pleasant! Many people go traveling alone by choice. Because we love it.

Much as I love going on trips with good friends, I also love traveling all by myself. It is utter self-indulgence. You can do whatever you want, whenever you want. Sleep late, eat at the same place again and again, travel onward if one place is disappointing, change your mind last-minute (about anything), chat with locals, spend hours playing with your camera or watching a sunset, wander around in museums or markets for as long as you like, read your book.

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Every evening on Ko Chang I rushed ‘home’ to enjoy wonderful sunsets and play with my photo camera

Give it a try!

Don’t let ‘not having a travel mate’ stop you from doing what you want and from exploring places. As with anything, traveling solo has its advantages and downsides. It’s not better or worse, it’s just different. A lot of people have a fear of venturing out on their own. I hope I can take away some of your fears and convince you to try it. Warning: it can be addictive.

It’s not weird and no one cares anyway

People often tell me they would feel awkward and much too self-conscious traveling solo, “won’t people think I’m weird?” You’d be surprised about how little people care about what you do. In fact they probably won’t even notice you at all.

Plus, life’s too short to care about what other people might or might not think. (Note to self: live more by this rule.)

Those who matter, don’t mind. Those who mind, don’t matter.

Never even noticed

An example. Two of my friends and I were having lunch in Amsterdam. In walks a lady with a small suitcase. Ah, a solo traveler! I always feel akin to other ones.
She asks the bartender to watch her suitcase as she uses the bathroom. I always do that too. She comes back, sits down smack in front of the three of us and spends an hour having lunch, reading her guidebook and taking notes, looking around the cafe…
After she leaves I tell my friends how much I love seeing other solo female travelers daring to go out into the world. My friends: “What? Who?”
They never even noticed the lady who was right there in their faces for more than an hour! This goes to show how wrapped up people are in their own business and couldn’t care less about you being a solo traveler. So stop worrying about maybe being weird or out of place.

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Aahhh… a nice beer, a good book and a view, what more does a person need?

But is it safe?

Yes solo travel is safe, if you don’t act dumb. Here’s what I think: for most types of trips, solo travel is even safer than traveling with a travel mate or in a group. Solo, you are automatically more aware of what’s going on around you and you pay more attention to your valuables. Read more about my reasoning on my Safety tips page.

The only exception is going into very remote parts of nature, or war zones on your own. Still you could wonder… is that safe as a pair? I know examples of groups of 3 or more people who still got robbed while on a nature hike.

The plus and minus sides of solo travel

Plus sides

I already mentioned a lot of advantages at the top of this article. Another advantage may come as a surprise to you. As a solo traveler, you will have more interaction with other people than usual.

  • On public transport you are automatically seated next to a stranger. Perfect opportunity for a conversation.
  • Waiters, hotel staff, fellow hotel guests, random people in the street are more likely to strike up a conversation with you, and help you. It’s easier to start talking to a single person than to a pair that is already wrapped up in their bubble. Sometimes you may even wish people would just shut up and let you read your book! 🙂
    Couples or travel mates tend to chat with each other rather than the locals. What a missed opportunity!
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This hotel owner Saysamone and I got along great and chatted for hours every day

Some other advantages…

  • A big bed and a bathroom all to yourself (depending on the type of accommodation you choose).
  • No compromises and discussions about your choice of activities, your biorhythm (morning person / night owl), your lazy times.
  • Stay longer in places you like, move on if it’s disappointing.
  • Always have the window seat.
  • You’re much more open to actually seeing and enjoying beautiful things around you, not being distracted by a chattering travel mate. I see so many pairs and groups miss all the beauty or funny things happening around them, too wrapped up in conversation.

Minus sides

So is it all perfect? No, there are some downsides. And some ideas on how to tackle them.

  • You need to look for accommodation in other ways, package deals are unfavorable for solo travelers. Book your own room directly through booking websites and decide what quality/price you want.
  • You need to always bring your valuables with you when you go to the toilet.
  • And sometimes when you come back, people have stolen your table, or the waiter has stolen your half-empty drink. ‘Mark’ your table with cheap items like a sweater, scarf, book, and tell a waiter and your neighbors at the next table that you’ll be back. Someone in a forum even suggested bringing your own ‘Reserved’ sign and putting that on the table. If anyone has tried that I would love to hear your experiences!
  • Eating alone you may feel out of sorts. Bring something to read. People-watch. Write your travel journal, sort your photos. Others suggest to have your meal at the bar. The bartender is likely to chat with you.
    And don’t forget that most other people don’t even notice or care who / what’s around them.
  • At times you may feel lonely. Put on some music or the TV. Exchange messages and photos with friends back home, even phoning / skyping / facetiming can be done free or cheap. Go for a walk through town, go visit a museum, market, cinema. Watch a movie or series on your laptop. Chat with the hotel receptionist.
    Or just go to sleep early, tomorrow is a new day. Sometimes loneliness stems from simply being tired after so many new impressions, and a good sleep can help.
  • Sometimes you really want some conversation and company, for example go out to bars or a nightclub but not alone. These are some easy ways to meet people.
    • Book a group tour with a guide locally, to visit some sights or do something active like kayaking, hiking, cycling etc, or a cooking course or tango course for example. You can ask the people you click with if they’re interested in going out later that evening. In fact booking local tours is the best alternative to a long organized group holiday. You meet people all the time but you keep your flexibility to draw up your own itinerary and how long you spend in each part of the country.
    • Join or create a Couchsurfing.org event or meet-up (you don’t need to be a couchsurfer yourself, just have a profile on the site).
    • Find travel mates in your hostel / hotel to join you. It helps if you book accommodations that have a shared kitchen and cafe/living room.
    • Also have a look at fellow traveler Dana’s list of 15 ways to meet people when you travel solo.
    • And here are ‘7 great things to do at night when traveling alone‘ (tips by SoloTravelerWorld).
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I created an ‘event’ on couchsurfing.org, inviting others to join me to a street food market in Madrid. 8 people joined me! (Not all in this photo.) Including locals.
  • Some people are not cut out for solo travel. They really prefer having one specific person to share their experiences with, and to reminisce with after coming back. But you might be surprised by how pleasant your own company is. People regret things they never tried more than things they did try but didn’t like.

My own solo experience

Not all my travels / holidays were solo but these were:

First-timer? Start out small

Are you still unsure whether you’re really able to enjoy yourself on your own? For some people it works well to try it out in miniature. Visit a museum or a market alone, go out for a nice lunch alone. Do a solo city trip or countryside hike / bike ride in your own country. Do a one week holiday to a familiar district not too far from home. Choose activities and surroundings that you like. Don’t do a city trip if you find cities too overwhelming in the first place.

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Who needs anyone else to enjoy a nice flea market?

Or, start out big…

For me personally what worked better was to dive into the deep end. Although I had been to Rome alone for a month to study Italian at 19, I wasn’t alone. I stayed in a house with other foreigners and I was in a study group 5 days a week. My first real solo trip was 4 weeks to Malawi, eastern Africa when I was 26. Speaking of taking the plunge. But I have to say before I went to Africa I had built up some (duo) travel experience in South America and Asia.

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Taking photos is such a fun passtime and you really don’t need a travelmate for it.

Why did this work so well for me? Well, nobody knows you. No one knows how shy you are, who your family is, what you studied, what stupid things you did in the past. No one even knows what ‘type’ you are, the cultural differences and clothing styles are that different. You can try out parts of yourself that somehow stay hidden in familiar surroundings. You can go and see what happens if you ask to join someone at their table in the hotel cafeteria. You can chat with locals sitting next to you on the bus.

The unfamiliar surroundings are so overwhelming that you don’t even have time to think about the being solo part.

And in Africa, Latin America and Asia, westerners tend to gravitate toward each other and are much more likely to spend time together.

 

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In Africa, travelers automatically to gravitate towards one another

How to get started

Still unsure about where and how to begin? Fellow traveler Susan offers practical advice on how to go about organizing your first solo trip.

Other resources, inspiration

  • The Solo Traveler World website is a great resource for safety tips, destinations, inspiring stories by other solo travelers.
  • Facebook group Women Who Travel is a very active group where a lot of the questions, suggestions and discussions are about solo travel (even though the group is about all kinds of traveling).

Go!

Have I convinced you yet? Tell me in a comment below.

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