When I typed “solo travel” into Google today, it returned 60 million hits – yes, 60 million! As the world grows smaller through technological advances and travel becomes more accessible, solo travel has increased in popularity. The internet is full of information both from and for solo travellers, but what is it really like to travel on your own and is it for you?
I began my solo travel career a few years back through both necessity and desire. Initially I began to travel on my own in response to the life changes my friends were experiencing. People I had travelled with in the past were now getting married, starting families or, as is often the case when you live in London, returning to their Antipodean homes after working holiday visas expired. Other single friends were burnt out by demanding careers and wanted to spend the little time off they had relaxing on a beach, not backpacking through a developing country.
I was also reacting to a lesson many of us have learned the hard way – close friends do not always make great travel buddies. When your friend wants to lie by the pool each day on a trip to Sri Lanka and you want to join some locals on a day trip to a tea plantation and elephant orphanage, you realise being great drinking buddies in a London pub does not make you compatible travel partners.
Travelling solo is not for everyone and it helps to understand the travel personality of yourself in addition to those you are considering travelling with. You may be more suited to travelling in a group but that doesn’t guarantee a perfect travel experience if you are travelling with someone more suited to solo travel.
Are you a solo traveller? Maybe the points below will help you decide.
TOP FIVE: Best things about solo travel
1. The Selfish Factor
Going solo wasn’t just a reaction to my circumstances. I was a thirty-something single, independent female who was starting to realise you only get one shot at life. Put simply, I was growing selfish and didn’t want to compromise my travel experiences. Going solo allows you guilt-free selfish moments and also helps you stick to your own budget. Remember the Friends episode where half the group wanted to go to a rock concert but the others couldn’t afford it? Travel can cause the same tension if you have different budgets and you inevitably have to compromise. You may choose to take that balloon ride over the Serengeti without your travel partner because you can afford it and don’t want to miss out on a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But do you really want to stay in the 5* hotel you can afford on your own when you travel buddy is sharing a dorm at the hostel on the other side of town?
How do you see and do everything you want when you are travelling whilst staying within your budget? You travel solo!
2. A flexible itinerary
Some people feel suffocated by a travel itinerary whilst others need a planned approach to a travel experience. I sit somewhere in the middle. Travelling solo not only allows me the luxury of setting my own itinerary, it lets me change it along the way. I am a very keen amateur photographer and I am not surprised to learn photographers usually prefer to travel on their own. There is nothing worse than missing an incredible sunset because your travel buddy wants to catch happy hour at the local bar. Or patiently waiting for someone to move out of the frame of your shot as your travel partner impatiently stands beside you ready to move on.
How do you get to the best places at the best times or return to a place a number of times to capture that magical shot? You travel solo!
3. It’s a great way to meet people
Most solo travellers I’ve met agree that going solo is the best way to meet people. Not only are you more likely to approach other people when you are on your own looking for company, but you are more approachable yourself. It makes sense right? Who are you more likely to strike up a conversation with - the intimidating group of friends travelling together or the person sitting on their own?
How do you meet people when you travel? You travel solo!
4. Local interaction
An extension of the previous point, travelling solo makes it a lot easier to make local friends. What is a group of ‘travellers’ called? Tourists! Ok, I made that up and I am generalising, but I have often found locals more likely to treat me as a tourist when I am with other foreigners. I get a very different reaction when travelling on my own and have had some unforgettable conversations with locals who have approached me simply to have a chat.
How do you increase local interaction when travelling? You travel solo!
5. Self Discovery
It’s often said that the best way to get to know someone is by travelling with them and there is no better journey of self-discovery than the one you take as a solo traveller. Not only do you have more time on your own to reflect and relax, you will also inevitably face situations that help you understand more about what makes you happy, what your strengths and weaknesses are and what (or who) irritates you. Travelling solo not only increases self-awareness but it also creates the opportunity to change. Having to face challenges on my own whilst travelling – the bag stolen in Bolivia, needing medication for infected insect bites in Uganda, missing my plane in Copenhagen – has helped me face challenges back home with more patience and less stress.
How do you create self discovery opportunities? You travel solo!
TOP FIVE: Worst things about solo travel
1. Table for one
A phobia is an irrational fear. I have an irrational fear of mice. Many people have an irrational fear of eating alone. I don’t know if this particular fear has a name, but it should because it’s so common. There is something about asking for a table for one that sends a shiver of fear through most people. They are convinced the conversation around them stops as they are led through the crowded restaurant to their table, as couples and groups throw them sympathetic looks. The sound of the waiter clearing the extra place at the table seems to echo around them and many would prefer to grab a sandwich at the local supermarket to eat in their room, than repeat the experience the next night.
How to face this challenge? My kindle is my dinner companion – it doesn’t take up too much space, it doesn’t tell me long and boring stories, and it doesn’t reach over and steal my fries!
This is the hardest part about travelling solo for me. I have lost count of the breathtaking views, serene sunsets and comical encounters that I can’t re-create after the event. Whether it’s sharing a moment with someone special, laughing for days at a ‘had to be there’ moment with someone who was actually there, or having a healthy debate over the pros and cons of volunteerism after visiting a local project, having someone to share travel experiences with makes it just that bit more special.
How to face this challenge? The age of technology that we live in let’s me share experiences in my blog, by postings photos on Facebook and through emailing friends and family. It’s not as good as the real thing, but sharing and connecting with like-minded people who weren’t there is the second best option.
3. The dreaded Single Supplement
There’s no way around it – it is more expensive to travel on your own, especially with accommodation where you can’t split the cost with your travel partner.
How to face this challenge? The issue of increased expense is offset by the flexibility solo travel gives you. I may not be able to split the cost of a hotel room, but having the freedom to stick to my own budget helps me manage my finances a little better whilst on the road.
I have rarely felt unsafe when travelling on my own, but the fact remains that safety is a risk for solo travellers. Travelling on your own in some countries (parts of Africa for example) can feel like wearing a target on your forehead inviting trouble. Solo travellers in other countries (especially females) may find themselves the subject of unwanted attention. The most common issue for solo travellers is not having someone to watch their luggage whilst they run to the toilet or to buy some water. Falling asleep on a train makes them nervous when there is a stranger next to them who can reach over and grab their Ipod.
How to face this challenge? Sometimes you just have bad luck and are in the wrong place at the wrong time. But using common sense can help reduce the likelihood of these ‘bad luck’ moments. I always check out the ‘safety and security’ advice issued about the country I am heading to (both Australia and UK governments have excellent online safety advice) and am sensitive to the cultural differences I may face. I don’t take chances – life is too short.
I almost didn’t include this in this list, because I can honestly say I’ve felt lonelier at times back home than I have when I’ve been travelling on my own. But loneliness is a possible side-effect of solo travel and some feel it more than others. If you don’t enjoy spending time on your own at home, chances are you may struggle with travelling solo.
How to face this challenge? Overcoming this challenge will be easier for some people than others, because it often involves reaching outside your comfort zone – approaching strangers, enjoying your own company for example.