A lot has been written about the pros and cons of travelling alone. Most travellers have an opinion on whether the upsides of freedom, time for personal growth, and being more approachable to strangers outweigh the downsides of loneliness and not being able to split your costs with a wingman.
I’ve been on the road solo for almost two months and I’m a big fan. I’m going to ignore the irony in saying, “hey, have fun on your totally individual, made-for-you-by-you journey but you should probably do it just like I did” and describe the strategies I use to maximize the pleasure and minimize the pain of solo travel.
1. I book my first night’s accommodation in a new place.
For me, finding my way through a strange town to a guest house, only to find it full or full of bugs, and then schlepping my heavy pack on to the next one, only to do it all again, combines all the bad parts of solo travel. I get lost. There’s no one to watch my pack while I scout ahead. I start to feel discouraged and unwelcome. I want to go home to where everything is familiar and I have a place to live.
I now avoid all of this unpleasantness by booking my first night’s accommodation before I arrive. I use Agoda (for booking) and Tripadvisor (for reviews and traveller photos) to do the digital equivalent of comparison shopping. When I get to a new place I settle in without hassle, wash the travel grime off, scout the city and then either extend my stay in the same accommodation or move to a better option.
2. I travel with technology.
I spend so much time with my laptop that it’s starting to feel like a person. We go everywhere together. It features more prominently in my travel photos than I do. My laptop is my guidebook and my travel agent and my movie theatre and my pen, paper and publishing house. Most importantly, it is my regular connection to the small group of my favourite people who are physically far away but never distant. My iPhone has a smaller suite of the same benefits, in a more portable format. I also have an ereader to keep my brain full but my pack light and an electric toothbrush because dental hygiene is important.
Joking aside, technology is one of the secrets to solo travel happiness. We all need to stay connected to ground control – no floating off into space like Sandra B.
3. I listen to a lot of music.
I like music to start with, and I like it even more when I’m alone. It improves my mood and provides a soundtrack for my solo experiences. Songs get associated with travel memories, so that when I’m back home and I hear a track from the trip, all the good feelings come back.
On a practical level, I use music to control when I want to be alone and when I’m open to being approached. If I’ve had enough of being asked if I need a taxi or told that I look like an angel (okay I never get enough of that), I put in my earbuds and regain privacy even when I’m in public.
4. I go to places where I feel I fit in.
It’s nice to feel like you belong, even when you’re in a foreign place. So far I’ve chosen my destinations carefully, skipping the “must see” stops on the Banana Pancake Trail in favour of tried and tested digital nomad locations. I like mid-sized towns best – they are usually walkable and feel familiar after a few days but there’s enough variety in them to keep things interesting.
In each destination I look for spaces that are being used by people like me. I try yoga classes wherever I end up and I spend time in cafes or co-working spaces frequented by other people who are unhealthily attached to their MacBooks. When conversations do happen in these places, we always have at least one thing in common to get things started.
5. I’ve dropped all my expectations about social interactions.
At home, I rarely talk to strangers because I’m kind of shy until I get to know people. Strapping on a backpack did not change that core personality characteristic and for the first couple weeks I felt like a travel failure. Wasn’t I supposed to be staying up all night, debating philosophy in smoke-filled rooms with people from all over the world? Or making a new best friend and veering off my loose itinerary to have an unimaginable adventure? The feeling of failure would increase each time someone from home would ask, “so are you making friends” and I would have to say no, feeling like a pariah.
And then one day I realized that I was completely content, happier than I’d been in years, and thought maybe there’s nothing wrong after all. I dropped the expectations I had that I should be a certain amount of outgoing and now I talk or not talk depending on how I feel. I do make a point of responding warmly when someone starts a conversation with me, if only to reward them for doing the hard part.
Solo sunrise swim, Gili Trawangan, Lombok.
6. I try to learn from all of it.
Solo travel is a string of teachable moments. In less than two months I’ve learned that I don’t need a lot of the stuff I thought I needed, but some things really are important; that my sense of direction is bad, but not as bad as I thought; and that the same skillset that makes me effective at home works everywhere I go. Foreign really isn’t all that different after all.
You will learn different things. That’s cool, we all do. Whatever happens, just try to enjoy the luxury of being able to see what’s really going on inside when the noise of everyday life subsides.
7. I carry two kinds of sunscreen.
Waterproof sunscreen in lotion form provides the best protection, but I can’t reach the middle part of my back between my shoulder blades so I also carry spray can sunscreen just for this hard to reach spot. I used to call it single girl sunscreen but it works for solo travellers as well.
8. I choose what I do and how I feel about it.
It’s a great feeling, to be completely free from the compromises required to peacefully coexist with others. I listen to conversations between people travelling in groups and there’s a lot of judging experiences and comparing and editing and surprisingly often, complaining. I can’t do any of that without a travel partner so I just take things in for what they are and I feel positive about almost everything that happens (okay not the red light district in Bangkok).
Conversely, the whole “with freedom comes responsibility” thing very much applies to solo travel. I’m writing my own ticket and there’s no one to blame if I don’t like where it takes me. If eating dinner alone bothers me, I have to strike up a conversation with someone. If I don’t, it means that avoiding a potentially awkward conversation is more important to me than company. In a trip (or a life) shared with others, it’s easy to sit back, wondering why something I don’t like is happening to me. That’s not an option when I’m on my own.
9. I write.
Right now I’m reading Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, a funny book offering advice on writing and life. I agree with her view that being a writer makes you look closely at your world because it’s all potential material. Even without someone beside me to discuss things with, I pay close attention to whatever is going on and try to figure out how things work. I then fill quite a few of my solitary hours writing stuff down, deleting it, writing new stuff down. So far it’s been a great way to learn, and to give the small events of my days a sense of purpose.