Being a Solo Traveler- The ups, downs and all around it

by Maia

Traveling on your own comes with many benefits and allows you to explore and get to know yourself as well as a new destination. But there are downsides too...Tips and advice here.

Why travel all by yourself? What are the benefits and what can you gain? Where should you be cautious and how can you be safe? Traveling solo has been my specialty for the past few years and I want to share a few tips and ideas on how to make the most of a solo vacation, solo adventure, solo work trip, whatever it may be!

Solo Traveler Here

The first time I decided to go on a trip all by myself I was 17 years old and going halfway around the world to Thailand.  Now, I wasn’t actually going ALONE as it was a mission trip with my church and there were about a dozen people that would be with me, but I had chosen to make the trip of my own free will and was basically plunging in not knowing anyone and felt very independent. I spent a lot of time wandering around and getting to know the locals by myself anyway so it felt essentially as if I were “alone” quite a bit.

Now, since then I have backpacked across Western Europe for six weeks, done weekend trips and treks in China and Vietnam, and traveled through Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador, all on my own.  I will most certainly continue to travel this way for most of the rest of my life.

What Does it Mean to Travel Solo?

Well, obviously, you hop on a plane or train by yourself, head off to the destination at your own pace and make your own rules about where and when and how long you will travel.  The purpose of the trip can be varied: vacation, work, volunteering, soul-seeking, language-learning, partner-escaping, etc… The entirety of the trip does not necessarily need to be spent in solitude, however the majority of the traveling from place to place is generally on your own.  But there are really no rules—and that’s the beauty of it!

Positive Attributes of Solo Travel

Make Your Own Schedule… or don’t make one at all!

Obviously, you get to make your own rules and set your own agenda. If you want to get up at 6am to see the sun rise over the desert or sleep in a have a two hour long coffee date with your book that’s just fine! You can stay in one city for a week or two or move from place to place every night. If you get sick you are not holding anyone else back and you don’t have to adhere to anyone else’s schedule.  You can indulge in fancy dinners on Tuesday nights or cook soggy pasta in a public kitchen without worrying about offending anyone.  You can visit obscure museums and skip all the fancy churches if that’s your pleasure, or throw out the guidebook and just hang with the locals.

Its Easier to Meet New People, Especially Locals

When you are on your own, especially if you stay in backpacker hostels or family-run hotels, it is much easier to make new acquaintances.  Many nice hostels have common areas and shared kitchens or cafes run within the premises so there are always people around to talk to and sidle up with on daily excursions and activities.  Other solo travelers will need a buddy for a day, or a group of people will invite you out for the night, accommodating you into their group temporarily.  The life of a solo traveler is always interesting to big groups of people who secretly wish they were all traveling alone as well. (Not always, I just sometimes get that feeling). Anyway, you can be a big star. 

It’s always easier to talk to locals and get to know the area better as solo traveler.  Locals generally trust individuals more than groups and are more likely to show you around and introduce you to the secrets of their hometown if you are one person and not five. One secret to actually meeting people out and about is by asking for them to take a picture for you.  Be very careful though that you chose the right person to ask and that there are plenty of other people around so the picture taker doesn’t steal your camera.  I wouldn’t recommend this too often... could be risky. And actually, doing the “Facebook profile picture shot” by holding the camera arms length out in front of you and taking the picture yourself will actually draw in people wanting to help and you can start a conversation without actually handing over the camera. That worked for me in Paris.

Spending Less Money

For some reason people who travel solo tend to spend less money on their own than when traveling with friends or family. For instance, shopping may be avoided because you only have room in your own backpack and it’s already too full and you have to carry it all.  Many solo travelers tend not to eat out at restaurants because at night it is safest to be in the hostel cooking fresh food bought from the market. Also, I very rarely can convince myself that going into said museum or monument is worth the ticket for the entrance so I usually end up skipping them altogether. And when traveling by bus or train it is easier to convince oneself that hardship can be endured to save a couple of extra bucks if you’re not worried about the comfort and experience of the other travelers. Staying in dorm rooms in hostels is cheaper than having a private room to share with a partner. These all depend on the motive of travel though; if the traveler is in a certain location to shop or to experience the rich food in local restaurants or visit specific museums these benefits of money saving may not apply.

Being Alone

We all need our alone time every now then and traveling solo can give you full freedom to indulge in the aloneness and solitude of your spirit for days on end.  Being in silence in the middle of a loud city or a huge mountain range is equally stimulating if you are focusing on your own thoughts and needs.  You have time to reflect, to read, to write, to pray, to meditate, to just BE and listen to nature and your soul. You can pretend you don’t speak English and ignore everyone around you. You can sing in the streets and not feel judged. You can take pictures of your nose from fifteen different angles and giggle madly about your own ridiculousness. The possibilities of self-entertainment are very high when traveling by yourself and the rewards are very fulfilling.

Negative Attributes of Solo Travel

Safety Concerns

Being alone means you need to practice Constant Vigilance and be completely aware of and in charge of yourself, your stuff and your surroundings at all times.  You need to be proactive about safety and keep a smart head.  Don’t leave your stuff unattended. Travel light so you don’t have to worry about so much stuff. Keep your money out of sight and never carry too much cash. Use locks on luggage and keep it with you. Keep all documents on your person when traveling from place to place and locked up in a hostel safe when possible. Don’t go out alone at night, especially if you are a woman. Always take a registered taxi after dark if you do go out. Be trusting of people but not so trusting as to reveal your money, important documents or expensive electronic devices. I could go on, but I think this could entail another article entirely. Just be aware of yourself and your surroundings.

Spending More Money

Okay, so some parts of solo travel can be cheaper, but there are times and places where you can run into higher costs as a person traveling alone.  For example, if you want to have a private room you have to pay the cost of the whole room which normally two people share. If you want to go on a guided tour many agencies charge per person but reduce the price with each additional person… Further, if it is an overnight tour, as a single person you may pay a bit more depending on the accommodation at the destination location as well (always ask ahead of time to double check if there are additional charges for a single person). 

Also, just being completely in charge of your own funds may be tiring at times. Keep a good record of how much you spend each day (spreadsheets help!) and never take too much extra cash with you on daily outings.

Being Alone

Again, this can be a positive aspect the majority of the time, but sometimes it’s just hard being all alone, and not only because you need to watch your back all the time. Sometimes you need a friend to laugh with over stupidly missing the bus because you thought when they said 1700 they meant 7:00pm. Sometimes it’s nice to have someone to sit with at dinner or go to have drinks with and not worry about those typical pestering questions from other travelers: Where are you from? Where are you going? How long are you traveling?...  Especially if you are sick, it is nice to have a friend to keep you company and warm your heart with stories of childhood or crazy times in college and bring you hot tea and soup. Often times everyone is traveling in a group already and you feel like you don't fit in so it’s difficult to enjoy the space you are in. Some days you need companionship other than your iPod. Making friends while you travel can be easy, but it’s not that often that they will be as helpful and caring as a friend or partner that is with you for the whole trip. But those that are will be friends for life, no matter what continents you both end up on.

Conclusions

In my opinion, the benefits of traveling alone outweigh the detriments. But, I think a lot of the preference depends on one’s personality. I know several people who would rather cut off their own hand than travel alone, and that is completely fine, it’s not the perfect mode of travel for everyone. But, if you are considering a trip on your own, do it! Start off slow, just a weekend away or a few days at a beach house alone… it will do you some good, I can guarantee it. And if you want to graduate to longer trips, do your research ahead of time and pack wisely but do not make too many plans. Get a round trip ticket and have some goals of what you want to visit, but dedicate yourself to the wind and the stars and just WANDER through the trip with an open mind and a happy heart.

Are you likely to set off on an adventure solo?

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No thanks, I need my partner, family or friends to make it worthwhile.
terrilorah on 03/19/2012

I doubt it, I've been married too long, 32 yrs. so hubby would have to go along.

sheilamarie on 02/27/2012

I have done that a little and have experienced both the positive and negative of solo travel. Whether it's fun or not can depend upon time of life as well as length of trip. After a while it can feel a bit lonely not to have someone to share your experiences with and the memories of the trip are a lot more fun if you can share the telling with someone else. On the other hand, it can be exhilarating when you're young to venture out on your own with no one to tell you what you should be doing. Safety, though, as you say, especially as a woman, is a biggie. It was something that always irked me in my teens and twenties, but it's true especially in places where they are unaccustomed to seeing women being as free as men. That shouldn't keep you from experiencing life, but caution is important.
I clicked the "no" side because at this point, I'd much rather travel with someone else, but I can appreciate the "yes' side, too.

Absolutely! Me time is the motive for my travel!
Sheri_Oz on 03/24/2012

I usually travel alone. It leaves you open to meeting local people and getting to know them in a way you cannot when you are traveling with others.

Updated: 02/22/2012, Maia
 
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Sheri_Oz on 03/24/2012

I've been traveling alone since the age of 18, so I guess I'm kinda an adventurous sort. I agree with your list of pros and cons.

terrilorah on 03/19/2012

My oldest son usually travels alone and he doesn't mind a bit. He loves the fact he can go about on his own without worrying about someone else and he always winds up with new friends.

sheilamarie on 02/27/2012

I was a bit long winded above, so I won't be here. I enjoyed your article and think you are very brave. I hope you continue to have exciting experiences. Thanks for sharing with us!

Maia on 02/26/2012

I will not go to India alone. That is one place I will not go without a male companion along. I would probably not go alone to Egypt or a few other middle east countries either... there is always safety to consider!

Sam on 02/26/2012

Like Lissie, I have done both ;-) One point I would add is that, depending where you go it is simply safer / less annoying when you are a woman and travel NOT alone. In some cultures a woman that travels alone can be met with disbelief for example. On the other hand, most of the time actually, I had better experiences traveling alone as you are more likely to connect with people, locals and other travelers...

Maia on 02/22/2012

@Jeannieinabottle--Thanks so much! I appreciate that you have read it and hope it gave some inspiration.

@Lissie--Being sick is never fun alone, I completely agree.. though the last minute ticket advantage is good addition, I almost forgot about that, but it happens all the time!

Lissie on 02/22/2012

I've done both. The only negative for travelling solo is when you get sick - I was very sick for about a week in Mexico, couldn't remember a word of Spanish - and finally had to crawl out of bed to go to the bank just to pay for said bed! I wasn't very happy to say the least :-)

Since I've met my partner I've travelled with him - but if for some reason he didn't want to travel I'd still travel solo. Also sometimes when we do travel together we go different directions for a day or 2.

One of the big advantages of being solo is getting that last seat on the bus/plane/concert - happened to me many times.

Jeannieinabottle on 02/22/2012

This is an excellent article about traveling alone. I've gone at day trips by myself, but have never found the nerve to go beyond that on my own. Sometimes it can be so nice to do whatever you want, whenever you want without someone else bothering you. Excellent article and voted up!

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