The Art of Traveling Solo
“Aren’t you lonely?!” people ask me over and over, when they find out I’m traveling solo. Most of the time the answer is a resounding no. I’m usually only alone when I want to be, and sometimes I want to be, but can’t – hostels are busy, tourist destinations are packed, and restaurants are crowded.
When I am alone, I’m not usually lonely – I’m too busy shooting and editing photos, blogging, reading, writing, researching my next location, enjoying my current location, or sleeping.
It’s possible to feel alone in a crowd. But when you’re traveling solo, be prepared for lots of people to engage you in conversation, whether it’s asking for directions, admiring a view, or sharing photo opportunities. People will often approach a solo traveler more often than a couple or a group, even if it’s just to ask if you’re really traveling alone. When you’re traveling with someone, you’re usually busy talking to them, which makes it less likely you’ll meet someone new.
If you’re wanting company, and nobody is approaching you, that’s easy to fix. There’s always the old, “Nice weather we’re having,” but you can get much more creative than that. When you see people shooting each others pictures, offer to take one of their whole group, so no one is left out. Or ask someone to take your picture with your phone or camera, as it’s nice to have something other than a selfie.
You can ask directions, or if somebody knows of a good restaurant in the area. Or “Excuse me, but where did you get that (hat, map, tote bag, whatever).” Or ask the locals where to get your hair cut.
Speaking of asking the locals, I love to ask the locals where they eat out, and what their favorite sights are in their city. Usually they have very different answers than the tourist office or other tourists. It’s the best way to find the more interesting, hidden, and usually less expensive places. And you might make a new friend in the process.
Stay in places other than hotels. Hotels are expensive, and usually keep travelers pretty separated, unless there’s a lively lounge where people hang out. But hotel dwellers tend to keep to themselves. A hostel or guesthouse, on the other hand, is a great way to meet fellow travelers and locals alike. Whether you’re in a dorm room with 8 beds, or even if you have your own room, many guests make use of the shared kitchen to cook meals, not just to save money, but because it’s a fun way to meet people and learn about other countries and cultures, and not just the one you’re currently traveling in. Forget about the old stereotype of a hostel as a fleabag dive with teenage backpackers. Yes, there are those out there, but most hostels and guesthouses these days have pretty high standards, and people of all ages and all walks of life stay there. That’s where on-line reviews are great – you can read all about the good and the bad on sites like TripAdvisor.
Another way to meet people when traveling solo is to stay at B&B’s. Air B&B has gotten really popular around the world – they’re not the old traditional B&B’s. These days a lot of people are renting rooms out in their homes or apartments. This is a great way to learn about local culture, by staying in someone’s home. Sometimes they even invite you to dinner to share their local cuisine! And speaking of staying in the homes of locals…
…don’t forget couch surfing! This is like Air B&B, only free!! You set up a profile ahead of time, and apply for people to host you, sometimes on their couch, and sometimes with a room of your own. You can specify if you’d like to stay with male and/or female hosts, and what age range, and read their reviews to know if they’re someone you think you might like to meet. Couch surfing is not just about free accommodations, it’s about cultural exchange, and it’s amazing. I couch surfed in Treviso near Venice and got to go with my host out on a classic boat to swim in the lagoon, attend her gospel choir rehearsal and meet a bunch of other couch surfers and hosts, and in Paris, my host took me to watch her tango by the Eiffel Tower at night (see my posts about Couch Surfing). These are experiences you can’t buy, although it’s recommended that you bring your host a small gift or cook them a meal.
Even if you’re the shy type and don’t normally engage strangers in chat back home, if you travel solo, you’ll get over it. It’s a learning and growing experience!
Head out to local pubs and coffee houses, or picnic in parks during the day and partake of free concerts at night. You’re sure to meet lots of friendly people.
Take public transportation! You meet a lot more people on buses or walking than you do in a private cab, and save money at the same time. I met a woman on a bus on an island in Croatia on my way to go wine tasting, and she not only joined me, but we found a great beach and then met another couple on our way back and ended up all having dinner together. These chance encounters are what make travel fun.
Solo travel is easy in a lot of ways. Yes, you have to make all of the travel arrangements and plans by yourself, but that’s the beauty of it! You can go wherever you want, whenever you want, with no disagreement from anyone else. When you travel with others, your days are full of compromises, on where to go, when to eat, where to eat, where to stay, how much to spend, whether you plan ahead or are more spontaneous. It can be exhausting just to make simple decisions that everyone can agree on. I’ve had enough travel experiences with ill-matched travel companions to know that as much as I like to travel with someone, if it’s not the right person, I’m much happier alone. No arguing about who sleeps on which side of the bed, you have the whole thing to yourself, with no earplugs needed for snoring!
I’ve met people who say, “I would never travel alone. I like to share my experiences with someone.” Yes, I do too. But sharing experiences hasn’t been an issue, as there is a whole wide world out there full of lovely people to share your travel experiences with. Kind friends from back home contacted me on my birthday last March, concerned that I’d be spending it alone, in Thailand. So I sent them a picture of my impromptu birthday party with a bunch of new friends from half a dozen different countries, who each sang happy birthday to me in their native language. It was one of the most fun and interesting birthdays I’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing.
Sometimes seeing couples everywhere might make you a little wistful, but the truth is, you never know if they’re having the time of their lives traveling together, or are secretly wishing that they too, were off on their own adventure.
My current around the world journey is mostly solo, although I’ve had a few friends meet up with me here and there, which has been a real treat. It is fun to share such beautiful places with good friends.
And sometimes you meet new friends you end up meeting later in your travels, like a new friend in Australia meeting up with me in Thailand and Ireland, and a chance meeting in Dubrovnik that turns up as a lunch 5 months later in the UK!
It’s rare that I’m alone, and when I am, like house sitting in the South of France, the Highlands of Scotland, and quaint Corsham and Hove in England, I relish my time by myself (although I did have lively canines for company.)
If you get lonely for your friends and family back home, never fear – as long as you have wifi, which isn’t hard to find these days pretty much anywhere in the world, you can use Skype, FaceTime, WhatsApp, Viber and WeChat to talk to anyone else who loads the same app, for free!
And speaking of friends and family, I’ve made so many new friends around the world that now feel like family, many of whom I would never have met had I not been traveling alone. I’ve found that a lot of people are willing to invite a single traveler to stay with them, but have admitted if I was traveling as part of a pair or group, the same offer wouldn’t have been there, often due to only having one spare couch or a single bed.
Recently I read an article that said solo travel is on the rise, and finally travel companies are recognizing that and catering to solo travelers. It’s about time! Traditionally, tour companies have charged a premium for solo travelers, in some cases double for your accommodations, but that seems to be changing. And that’s another way to travel and not be alone – go on a cruise or on a pre-packaged tour, you’ll be adopted by others in no time. This isn’t my preferred method of travel, as you usually pay a lot extra, and your itinerary is fixed, where I like more flexibility, and can travel solo for 3 times as long for the same amount of money. But if you only have a couple of weeks of vacation time, and don’t want the hassle of making your own arrangements, this is a good alternative.
Or take a day tour, like a city sight seeing bus, go swimming with dolphins or elephants, or participate in a cooking class. There’s nothing like jumping into a freezing ocean in wet suits, or sharing a plate of Pad Thai that you just made yourself, to bond with a bunch of strangers.
When you travel by yourself, oftentimes your senses are heightened, since you don’t have a travel companion to distract you. You notice little things you might otherwise miss, like the soft feel of moss on a tree trunk, the sweet silkiness of the icing on your cake, the scent of the flowers you’re photographing, or the sound of the doves on the window ledge above.
Do things you like to do, and you’ll meet others who enjoy the same activities. Go to a bookstore, head out on a boat, go for a hike, or hang out in a local pub for some live music…
It’s a very small world out there – it turns out the young guy in the picture above, taken in a village in Ireland, is from near my home town in Michigan, and went to the same art college I attended (although a few years later…) When you open yourself up to meeting new people, the connections are fascinating.
Volunteering is another way to meet people when traveling alone, and you can feel good about helping others at the same time. I met the young couple below in my guest house kitchen in Thailand one morning. They’re from Ohio, next to my home state of Michigan, and invited me to go with them to a home for HIV kids.
So don’t let the fact that you can’t find a friend or travel companion to share your journey keep you stuck at home. Strike out solo, and enjoy your own adventures!