Six Things I Learned While Traveling Solo
“A man can be himself only so long as he is alone; and if he does not love solitude, he will not love freedom; for it is only when he is alone that he is really free.”
When I first decided to give solo travel a shot, I was pretty scared. I hadn’t done much of anything by myself before. Hell, I hadn’t even sat down at a restaurant alone. My friends and family had been my safety net for my entire life, and I hadn’t really realized it until I booked my ticket to Budapest. The moment the flight confirmation came through, I went into complete shock. What had I done? I had just signed myself up for two weeks of eating alone, sightseeing alone, and spending endless hours on trains… alone. I would have no one with whom to reminisce about the trip after I returned, and no one to share the experiences with while I was there. Or so I thought.
Turns out, solo travelers are everywhere and we are a pretty friendly bunch. I visited Hungary, Austria, Germany, The Netherlands, and Belgium in late February of this year, outside peak tourist season, expecting that I would be lonely. Within minutes of checking into my hostel in Budapest, I had been introduced to the three members of the staff, all travelers, and made friends with a lovely Aussie girl who showed me around town for the next two days. Most of my trip went similarly. I would check into a new hostel, instantly befriend my bunk mates or someone at the hostel bar and I would spend the next few days getting to know a new friend. When you travel in groups, you are much less likely to reach out to the friendly stranger at the bar, or on the bus, or in the park because you already have company. You simply don’t need to. Whereas if you are traveling solo and want to split the cab ride to the party, you better open yourself up to some strangers.
So I have established the fact that making friends while traveling solo is incredibly easy, but you shouldn’t discount spending time alone. Alone time while in a foreign country allows you to experience the place without the bias of others. Sure having your best friend with you would be awesome, but her hatred of museums and distrust of cab drivers is going to get old, really fast. Besides, being my introverted self, I am always down for alone time and I had plenty of it on my first solo trip. I used that time to really soak in my surroundings and to observe the people around me.
The Six Things I Learned About Myself, Others & the World While Traveling Solo
Get off your damn phone. Okay, so I have to remind myself of this constantly, because I will be the first person to admit that my phone is iCrack, but it does hold true. You are going to miss some amazing experiences, sights, sounds, and smells if you are constantly buried in social media. I love a good Instagram photo as much as the next person. I mean how else will everyone back home know how much fun you are having? Do me a favor though, once you have snapped the picture, put your phone back in your pocket and live.
You Will Confuse People
I walked into an Italian restaurant in Amsterdam and told the friendly host that I needed a table for one. The man was probably in his late 40’s and seemed to have worked at this restaurant all his life. He looked at me with confusion in his eyes and said “Table for one? No one is joining you? Well I will eat with you then,” as he looped my arm through his and walked me to our table. As touched as I was by the gesture, it made me realize that people do not expect to see pretty, young women traveling alone. Typically, I experienced two types of reactions. Some people, like this gentleman, will offer to join you for dinner, drinks, or a walking tour and refrain from asking why you are alone. Others will immediately judge you and assume that you are running away from a bad breakup, or you don’t have any friends or family willing to travel with you. Let people be confused. It is not your job to educate them on why you want to expand your horizons.
Travel Relationships are Unique
I am not just talking about romantic relationships here. When you are traveling, it is likely that you will only have a few hours, or days with the people you are meeting. Maybe you will be in Munich for a week, but the friend you made at the bier house last night is leaving for Rome the next day. These short lived relationships tend to foster an immediate sense of trust and intimacy that longer term relationships lack. You feel like you can confess your darkest secrets to the cute boy in the crowded bar, because you know you will probably never see him again. However, there are a select few people that you will meet while traveling that you will stay in contact with and these will be some of the strongest bonds you can form. Cherish them.
You Have No One to Help You Choose Where to Eat
Even though that is one of the most frustrating conversations known to man, it is one that you will secretly miss while you are traveling solo. I love food. Like…It is a huge problem. But when I was traveling solo, deciding where to eat was the hardest thing I had to do. I had no one to consult on whether the hole-in-the-wall gyro stand was going to give me food poisoning or whether it would be worth it to pay for the Michelin starred restaurant, just to say you’ve done it. On numerous occasions, I walked for hours looking at menus posted outside of restaurants, hoping that something would grab my hand and pull me inside. After a week or so, I started to get the hang of making my own restaurant choices, and I am a better foodie today because of it.
People Are Generally Good
There is some screwed up stuff going on in the world today, and I cannot even begin to touch on that subject. However, after traveling alone I have come to believe that humans as a species are generally good. When I was in Munich, I ran into some issues accessing my money. A guy I had just met earlier that day offered to lend me some cash until I could contact my bank the next day. When I was in Budapest, I was wandering around looking lost and a kind, older gentleman tried to assist me with finding my hostel. He spoke very little English and I spoke about two words of Hungarian, but that didn’t stop him from trying to help me. People want to lend a hand, and being open and smiling will get you a long way.
Don’t Trust the Media
I didn’t really need to travel to the other side of the world to figure this one out, but it does ring true. Most of the places that the media portrays to be dangerous, are really not that dangerous. Sure, there are neighborhoods you should avoid, and you need to be diligent about carrying pepper spray and not walking alone at night, but there are few places in the world that are unsafe for tourists. The news stations only have so many spaces for international stories, and they choose the most exciting ones. Stop believing everything you read or watch and go out and experience it first hand. Maybe if everyone did that, the perception of these places would change the political dynamic. You have to be the change you want to see in the world.
What else have you learned from traveling solo? How did solo travel change you? If you have never solo traveled, what is stopping you?