I first got my feet wet traveling solo during my semester abroad in Strasbourg, France. The third day after arriving, I got lost in a snowstorm alone, breaking me in for the next few years of my life, which would involve a) getting lost more than I want to admit and b) finding my way back every time, thank you Jesus. By now, I’ve traveled through Morocco, Spain, France and Belgium on my own, mastered the art of bus, train and airplane schedules and learned to navigate my way through any city (visual cues are the key).
Back to the French snowstorm- I arrived in Strasbourg at the beginning of January, and despite the very few hours of daylight, frigid cold and language barrier (my French has advanced since then), I was dying to get to know my new home city. Plus, I wanted a croissant. I left my apartment armed only with a jacket and a handful of Euros, only to find myself unsure of my location and with no pastries in sight. The snow fell, then fell heavier and I wandered through unfamiliar streets and looked for a tourism office where I could find a map (scanning for a patisserie simultaneously). I was a little worried, very cold and totally thrilled. I was on my own in Europe, fulfilling a dream that began for me around age five.
Eventually, I found my way back to where I needed to be, to which I can really only credit to the grace of God. The experience packed the best and worst of travel: on the one hand, I felt empowered and exhilarated by the risk, the newness and the exploration, and on the other, I made the mistake of losing myself in a precarious situation because I hadn’t been paying attention.
Traveling solo has become more and more common over the past decade, as in some ways, traveling has never been easier (despite the TSA). A lot of young people want to see the world, but it’s not always easy to find a travel companion. That being said, there are definite pros and cons to traveling solo. The few that I’ve learned, below:
- You get to do what you want to do, when you want to do it. Let’s face it- people have different traveling styles. Going on a trip with someone is not going to the movies with them. It’s a commitment to constantly compromise with that person and essentially think and live like them for a period of time. If you’re alone, you get to trek for six miles to that famous restaurant you’ve always wanted to go to. You get to spend three hours bronzing on the beach, or six hours wandering around a museum. I’ve been to Madrid a couple times on my own, and every time I arrive into the city I beeline for the Mercado de San Miguel. Spending hours in what is essentially a giant Spanish food court is not for everyone, but it’s just right for me.
- When you’re not talking, you’re people-watching. And people-watching means learning. When you’re traveling with another person, chances are you are going to spend a lot of time chatting with that person, eyes focused on their face. You are going to miss the amazing opportunity to really soak in your surroundings. People-watching involves a bit of time sitting alone, and a lot of time walking alone. And in that space you will absorb the details of your surroundings, make observations and notice cultural nuances you might have otherwise missed. The many, many afternoons I have spent walking through my former home city of Tangier, Morocco on my own were my best moments of acculturation: it’s then that I observed how Moroccans speak to one another, as friends, as neighbors or as complete strangers.
- Traveling alone gives you confidence. For me, this might be the best and most rewarding benefit of traveling solo. Once you’ve navigated your way through a foreign country with no English-speaking person by your side to fall back on, you gain a confidence that I believe translates into other areas of your life. You’ll never find yourself saying “I could never do that” again. Lodged in your memory bank is a piece of your identity that says you take risks and are more than able to handle uncertainty. Plus, you know that you can travel alone again with confidence. In July, I’ll leave for four weeks to go to Germany, a country I’ve spent very little time in. In prepping myself, I’ve got to remind myself again and again, you can do this– because you’ve done it before.
- You’re always responsible for your itinerary. When you’re boarding flights alone, catching train connections and trying to stay awake on layovers, you’ve got to stay on top of your schedule, flight numbers and even airport locations (many cities in Europe seem to have deceivingly close airports). One time I missed a flight in London because I read the 14:25 as 4:25. Rookie mistake. Remember military time. By the way, if you hear your name on an intercom at an airport telling you your plane is about to leave, you’ve already missed it.
- You have to take safety into consideration, especially as a female. When you’re traveling alone as a woman, there are any number of unwise things to do. One thing I always avoid is arriving in cities at late hours. Another thing I avoid is “looking lost”. No need to explain the risk with either of those circumstances.
- There are certain experiences you just don’t want to have alone. Last June, I ended up in Seville, Spain by myself for three days. It wasn’t an intentional retreat; I had been traveling with a friend and an opportunity came up for her to visit her sister in Bulgaria. So I went off on my own, and I can honestly say that this trip was one of the best memories of last year (and I had a pretty good year!) I explored the gorgeous, medieval-looking cobbled streets, wandered the gardens of the Alcazar, drank beers with a retired couple from Florida (Jerry and Paulette) and ate gazpacho drizzled in olive oil that I’m still dreaming of. But I really didn’t want to go to a traditional flamenco show- it just sounded too fun to do it alone. So I passed, hoping that maybe I’ll return one day (with someone else).
At the end of the day, I would recommend solo travel to any person that has an interest in doing so. It’s worth it. Even if just for a few days, or even if it’s just the trans-Atlantic (or trans-Continental) trip alone. Traveling alone for three days, you’ll learn more about yourself (and the people around you) than you would in three weeks with someone else.