“Solo travel? You’re going by yourself?”
That’s the typical response when I announce I’m going somewhere by myself. It’s usually accompanied by an interesting facial expression or a “whatever” eye roll. Like, weirdo.
But some of my best trips have been solo experiences. I’ve been to San Francisco twice by myself and I’ve loved it. I visited Mexico five times last year for solo travel. I didn’t bring anyone along and I didn’t go to see anyone.
Solo trips are the trips where you have the most interaction with the locals. You don’t have anyone with you so you have to bug someone else.
My upcoming road trip across the United States is largely a solo venture. While I’d like someone to share the burden of driving, I’m excited to take myself across this vast country.
That said, there are some challenges to solo travel. We’ll go over some of those challenges, and then we’ll examine the common objections to solo travel. Finally, I’ll show you how to travel alone and give you some pointers for traveling alone safely.
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An Incomplete List of the Challenges of Solo Travel
I had to learn how to be alone. I’m an extrovert, meaning I get my energy from being around other people. Being alone for too long saps my energy—this is why I usually work from coffee shops instead of home. I don’t sleep as well. I’m more like to make bad dietary decisions. I have no desire to exercise.
I need to be around people even if I’m not interacting with them. Even for introverts, there are some challenges to solo travel.
1. Eating Alone is Hard
I despise eating alone. I avoided it for my first couple of solo trips, opting instead to munch on street food while I explored the city, or to eat in the company of other solo diners in cafés. This is the most common objection to solo travel. Lauren Juliff from Never Ending Footsteps talks about how after two years of travel she still hates eating alone.
Food is integral to travel. (If you’re munching on the protein bars you’ve brought along, you’re doing it wrong.) It’s a shame to miss out on the mouthwatering cuisine because you’re self-conscious about eating alone.
2. Socializing Alone is Awkward
I get self-conscious when I wander into a bar or a club by myself. What do I do, start dancing with strangers? Ask some guy if I can buy him a drink?
Jk, I don’t buy drinks. Boys buy me drinks. I’m at a total loss for what to do.
The catch-22 is that bars and clubs are the easiest places to meet people. In my experience, people are impressed when you tell them you’re traveling by yourself. You just have to get yourself in the door.
3. Getting Photos of Yourself is Challenging
You’re going to need other people to take photos of you unless you want a bunch of selfies or you’re comfortable taking shots with the timer function. This, like many solo travel challenges, can feel awkward, if only because you’re the only one doing it.
My fix is to offer to take photos of couples or groups. Usually, they’ll reciprocate your offer. This is one of the easiest ways to meet other travelers.
4. You Have to Bankroll Everything
And by everything, I mean everything. No splitting taxis, no sharing snacks, no splitting the cost for a bed or a room for the night. (Nobody to buy a round of shots, either.) That said, you can also be as cheap as you want. Don’t want to pay to sit down at a nice restaurant your friend wanted to visit? You don’t have to! You can eat street food (which is always better) or skip meals altogether. I skip breakfast when I travel alone—coffee is a meal, right?
Why is Solo Travel Worth It?
I think the question “why is solo travel worth it” is a proxy for another question: why do things alone?
I have a couple of answers to this question. But first, we have to address our deep-seated cultural allergy to doing things by yourself.
The Cultural Contradiction of Solo Travel
We’re influenced by what we perceive as normal behavior. It stands to reason that you might have serious reservations about solo travel.
In her book How to Be Alone, a recent addition to Alain de Botton‘s School of Life catalog, British author Sara Maitland points out the cultural contradiction that results from an individualistic society that simultaneously harbors reservations about doing things alone.
The quote is taken from Brainpickings:
Being alone in our present society raises an important question about identity and well-being.
How have we arrived, in the relatively prosperous developed world, at least, at a cultural moment which values autonomy, personal freedom, fulfillment and human rights, and above all individualism, more highly than they have ever been valued before in human history, but at the same time these autonomous, free, self-fulfilling individuals are terrified of being alone with themselves?
We live in a society which sees high self-esteem as a proof of well-being, but we do not want to be intimate with this admirable and desirable person.
We see moral and social conventions as inhibitions on our personal freedoms, and yet we are frightened of anyone who goes away from the crowd and develops “eccentric” habits.
We believe that everyone has a singular personal “voice” and is, moreover, unquestionably creative, but we treat with dark suspicion (at best) anyone who uses one of the most clearly established methods of developing that creativity — solitude.
We think we are unique, special and deserving of happiness, but we are terrified of being alone.
We are supposed now to seek our own fulfillment, to act on our feelings, to achieve authenticity and personal happiness — but mysteriously not do it on our own.
Reread that last chunk: “We are supposed to seek our own fulfillment, to act on our feelings, to achieve authenticity and personal happiness—but mysteriously not do it on our own.”
This means we simultaneously hold two different beliefs. First, that there is something shameful about eating alone, or traveling alone—like, don’t you have any friends? Second, that we’re supposed to want to win all the prizes. We celebrate people who have embarked on quests to create their own personal happiness, but how are we supposed to follow in their footsteps if we’re not allowed to do things on our own?
Are you Afraid of Spending Time with Yourself?
We have a difficult time making a distinction between solitude and loneliness.
What does it feel like to be lonely? It feels like being hungry: like being hungry when everyone around you is readying for a feast. It feels shameful and alarming, and over time these feelings radiate outwards, making the lonely person increasingly isolated, increasingly estranged. It hurts, in the way feelings do, and it also has physical consequences that take place invisibly, inside the closed compartments of the body. It advances, is what I’m trying to say, cold as ice and clear as glass, enclosing and engulfing.
A city, which is the collective consciousness of a large group of people, is often used as a stand-in for human nature. Like the Italian author Italo Calvino wrote in Invisible Cities, “Arriving at each new city, the traveler finds again a past of his that he did not know he had: the foreignness of what you no longer are or no longer possess lies in wait for you in foreign, unpossessed places.”
Arriving in the city of your own loneliness, then, might be challenging. Imagine being the sole inhabitant of a city.
But this disdain for spending time with ourselves also results from the misconception that equates being alone with being lonely.
Solo travel is about choosing to be alone. Traveling alone is announcing that you’re going to spend some time with yourself. It’s elective solitude.
Solitude is not loneliness. Loneliness is toxic; loneliness is powerlessness. There is no hope in loneliness.
Solitude is the peace of being with the self. Solitude is important for creativity, aides your interpersonal relationships, and is critical for developing self-awareness. To be at peace with solitude is one of the most powerful skills you can develop.
Solitude can be fulfilling and wholesome even for an extrovert like me. When I travel alone, I get to indulge myself—I can go where I want and when I want. I can get up at the crack of dawn to go on a hike, or I can take an afternoon nap while I wait for the evening to arrive.
Or, like a flâneur, I can wander, absorbing this new place with all my senses, happy with my freedom.
Why You Should Travel Alone
The most important justification for solo travel is to build the confidence that you can do things on your own. Nomadic Matt talks about his realization that if he wanted to travel, he’d have to do it on his own. You’ll learn to stop waiting for other people. You will become independent, autonomous, truly free.
Hostelworld has a fantastic list of 71 reasons to travel alone, which range from logistical advantages and professional skills to embracing minimalism and gaining huge swaths of confidence. Lifehack talks about how solo travel is easier and how you meet more people this way.
When you travel with companions you’re less likely to engage with others. Need a photo? Your friend can take it. Need someone to grab drinks with? Good thing you have a friend. Need a spare phone charger? Your friend has you covered. Traveling alone forces you out of your comfort zone. Just like your muscles don’t grow until you put them under stress, you won’t become confident if you don’t do things that scare you.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t travel with people—I love traveling with friends—but I am saying you should be open to traveling by yourself. I planned a road trip across the USA by myself and I was intent on going alone. But I’ve had friends who wanted to come along and who have made the necessary arrangements to make that happen.
Plan to travel alone. If someone tags along, it’s a bonus. A travel companion should never be a requirement.
Solo Travel as a Form of Healing
Traveling alone is what showed me that people are good again.
I was scared to do it, but it was a gift I finally insisted I had to give myself. It was an act that many would call selfish.
To those whose families and friends try to guilt or scare them out of going around the world solo, I’m sure you know what I mean when I say that it was selfish.
And you know what? Fine. I deserved to do it, and so do you.
Traveling the world showed me that people, including men, are not all cruel and abusive. They are for the most part, unbelievably kind and giving.
Solo travel teaches you the world’s heart is big enough for you. Living in uptown San Diego and witnessing our sizable homeless population and the resultant failure of the city and society to provide for them, it’s easy to believe in a Hobbesian state of nature, i.e., that people are fundamentally selfish and not altruistic.
Traveling, in general, provides great counter-evidence for this—when I lived in Fortaleza, Brazil, I found Brazilians were welcoming and hospitable. I’ve found the same with Tijuana, Mexico, a city with a reputation for violence that seems insurmountable. When I visited Kaohsiung, Taiwan, I experienced the best hospitality in my life—my friend’s mother would not allow me to sleep in the guest room and insisted I take the master bedroom. She would not allow me to pay for anything, either, even after I insisted.
Unfortunately, I think race plays a role here. In this revealing post about the search queries that bring the most traffic to her blog, Gloria Atanmo (who is one of my favorite travel bloggers—seriously, go subscribe to her blog) speaks to the realities black travelers often have to confront. In another post detailing how in Europe she as a solo black female traveler is often mistaken for a prostitute (wtf Europe, get it together), she concludes:
Their ignorance is NOT my problem.
So while I want nothing more than my fellow African-American women to go out and explore this beautiful world around us, on their own if they can, please do be prepared and aware that this might be your experience too.
I’ve been traveling around Europe cumulatively for almost 1,000 days since 2012, and that’s been filled with beautiful encounters, cultural exchanges, and inspiring conversations.
So these moments definitely make up the minority of my experience. And it’s important to remember that while we can’t change the perception of black women in these countries overnight, we can do our best to increase our presence, as everyday tourists, worthy of respect and not lazy assumptions about how we afforded to get there in the first place.
Take it easy for your first solo trip. You’ll want to focus on what Rebecca Solnit calls getting lost.
Get Lost: The Unique Experience of Solo Travel
Rebecca Solnit, perhaps the unsung champion of solo travel, writes in A Field Guide to Getting Lost about the importance of embracing the unknown as a vehicle for knowing and improving oneself:
To lose yourself: a voluptuous surrender, lost in your arms, lost to the world, utterly immersed in what is present so that its surroundings fade away. In [Walter] Benjamin’s terms, to be lost is to be fully present, and to be fully present is to be capable of being in uncertainty and mystery. And one does not get lost but loses oneself, with the implication that it is a conscious choice, a chosen surrender, a psychic state achievable through geography. That thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you is usually what you need to find, and finding it is a matter of getting lost.
Let’s go over this. I want you to understand what she’s saying.
First, Solnit gives few different definitions of what it means to lose yourself. She calls it “a voluptuous surrender…[being] utterly immersed in what is present so that its surroundings fade away”.
If you’ve ever meditated (or tried to), you know this is what is so challenging: being so powerfully absorbed in the present the things around you seem irrelevant.
Getting lost is similar. Instead of noticing your thoughts and ignoring how much your thigh itches, you’re seeking to ground yourself. You want to notice the smells wafting out of the nearby restaurants, to observe the slight differences in architecture from your hometown, and to pay attention to how your body feels. Are you sore? Tired?
Solo travel, the act of consciously removing yourself from familiar surroundings, is the perfect vehicle for getting lost.
This reminds me of the Calvino excerpt from Invisible Cities: visiting foreign places teaches us about ourselves. Solo travel—getting lost—is a way of learning about yourself. It’s turning your attention inward.
Rebecca Solnit underscores the elective circumstances behind getting lost: one gets lost by traveling to an unfamiliar place. This “psychic shift in geography” also works as a literal change.
It’s no surprise this concept of getting lost resonates with my personal travel philosophy—to wander in search of something interesting. Solnit is also a flâneur—she wrote the book on the subject.
Solo travel to familiar places—a place you know well—is revealing and fantastic in and of itself. But the true revelations, the kind Solnit and Calvino speak of, come from visiting foreign countries where you don’t know a thing.
How to Justify Solo Travel
By this point, you might agree that you need a getaway or a solo trip. But how do you justify it? If you have a job or a family or dependents—if you’re not a 23-yr-old entrepreneur with no responsibilities except a few monthly recurring payments—how do you justify taking the time for yourself?
I think women have a harder time with this than men.
Cheryl Strayed, the author of the bestselling memoir Wild, talks about how she, as a mother of two young children, spent three weeks in a rental in rural Oregon to finish writing a book. She says she worried about the kind of mother she was being—was it okay to leave her kids for so long?—but she realized she was setting an example for her children by being the kind of woman who prioritizes her well-being and her work.
When we spend so much time with others it’s easy to forget how we spend time alone. We need time away from life, both to refocus and to rest.
Elizabeth Gilbert, in her ode to creativity Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, writes about the concept of permission. She says you don’t need a permission slip from the principal’s office to pursue the goals you want.
If you need a permission slip, sign up for the Flâneur Files mailing list and you’ll find one in my free resource library.
7 Tips for Traveling Alone
You should now know whether traveling alone is right for you. (Hint: it is.) You’ve already justified your next solo trip to your friends/significant other/dog. But you might be wondering how to travel alone.
Here are my 7 best tips for traveling alone:
1. Learn to Enjoy Eating Alone
You can hop on Couchsurfing or a dating app or any other social network and see if someone wants to grab dinner at a sit-down restaurant, but then you won’t be spending all of your attention on food.
Mark Bittman, a New York Times bestselling food writer, says eating alone is a treat.
I still struggle with this. I’ve been to the same restaurant in San Francisco three times and eaten alone, and I still feel awkward. But once I get past my own insecurities, I notice that the food tastes so much better. I eat slower. I can spend more time enjoying food instead of focusing my attention on a conversation or the people around me.
When was the last time you got lost in the sense of taste?
2. Don’t Be Self-Conscious
Do you one of the most exhilarating things about traveling alone?
Nobody knows you.
And because nobody knows you, you’re free to do whatever you want. You’re also free to make mistakes, embarrass yourself, and act a little silly.
One time I took myself to San Francisco for a weekend and went dancing in the Castro. After one drink I joined a group of dancing people and about five minutes in I fell on my butt. (This, for the record, is how you know it’s going to be a good night.) It was embarrassing and
we laughed about it I got laughed at, but I am never going to see those people again.
It was whatevs.
I had total anonymity. Complete freedom to make mistakes.
And, unlike that time I ripped my pants at a friend’s sorority formal in college, there are no pictures. Nobody knew me.
Don’t let your insecurities keep you from going to places you want to go. Don’t be afraid to do something that seems out of character or that you would never try at home.
You’re traveling by yourself—you get to be adventurous because you’re already being brave.
3. Say Yes
I learned this when I was an exchange student in Brazil. As a traveler—solo or not—you’re going to be invited to plenty of parties, gatherings, or dinners with locals.
At first, I was a little weirded out by these offers. I remember I had been in Brazil for about three weeks and I got invited to someone’s birthday party; I was also pretty sure that I hadn’t met this person. Why would I go to their party?
Instead of being open to the experience and saying yes, I refused the invitation. I came off as standoffish and unfriendly. And I missed out because of it.
Say yes to everything unless safety, time, or money indicates otherwise.
4. Talk to Everyone
When traveling alone you can be as social as you please. You can go days without speaking words beyond “A small coffee to go, please,” and “I’ll have the pad thai, thank you”.
But you can also be incredibly social. I met other travelers and locals when I visited Slab City and Salvation Mountain because I would ask people questions. I made friends in Guanajuato because I offered to take photos of people. Even in San Diego, where I live, I make friends by asking for opinions, complimenting someone’s outfit, or spying on the books I see people read and asking about them.
Introverts find this more difficult than extroverts. My best advice for introverts is to make a list, numbered one to ten, of the strangers you’re going to talk to today. Challenge yourself to fill up that list.
5. Have an Introduction
Spend any amount of time meeting people and you’re bound to encounter the same questions.
What’s your name?
Where are you from?
How long are you here?
What do you do?
Save everyone the time and have a quick introduction ready.
Hi, I’m Jake. I make and fix up websites, use SEO to help business owners get more web traffic, and run a travel blog. RIght now I live in San Diego and I’m visiting until Tuesday. I LOVE X. By the way, have you been to Y yet?
Not hard, is it? Your name, what you do, where you live, and how long you’re there. Add a compliment about the place you’re visiting. End with a question—either about a place you want to go or a place you want to recommend.
I don’t recommend writing out and memorizing a script. But I do recommend having a practiced introduction that contains all that information and ends with a question. You’ll save time and get right to the meatier stuff.
6. Document Everything
One time I wandered into the Fillmore Jazz Festival in San Francisco. I walked up and down Fillmore St. and took videos of the music and the people. I recorded my thoughts using the Evernote app on my phone.
As a solo traveler, there won’t be anyone to jog your memory; you need to ensure you’re recording everything you want to remember. Take photos, write out your itinerary, shoot videos, record audio. Make it so you can reconstruct the trip when you return home.
Buy a selfie stick if you have to. We’re not being self-conscious, remember?
Don’t do this for the people back home. Don’t do this so you can share your trip with someone else.
Do this for yourself. You’re immortalizing your first solo trip.
7. Don’t Isolate Yourself (Too Much)
Traveling alone is the perfect time to reconnect with others. I try to call my parents or grandparents when I’m traveling alone. I’ll take the time to message a friend I haven’t talked to in a while, or I’ll find something interesting in the nearby area and send a Snapchat to someone who would appreciate it.
As a safety concern, you should tell someone what you’re up to, even if it’s just to say I’ll be in Paris for the weekend.
If you’re traveling internationally, you might want to switch your phone to airplane mode to avoid roaming charges. (And those add up quickly.)
But take a couple of minutes to pop into a café and use the WiFi to tell someone back home that you’re okay. They’ll appreciate it.
You can find more tips for traveling alone from Solo Traveler World.
How I Stay Safe When I Travel Alone
Anytime you leave your home country you should get travel health insurance. Travel insurance is typically thought of as protection against a trip cancellation due to a medical reason, but it can also apply to accidents abroad that require medical intervention. When you’re traveling, you want to be insured. When you’re traveling alone, you need to be insured.
I recommend purchasing travel insurance through World Nomads.
Most of the rules for staying safe while traveling alone are the same as they would be if you stayed in your hometown or if you traveled with friends:
- Don’t get too drunk with strangers
- Don’t walk home alone at night (especially if you’ve been drinking)
- Don’t accept any drink you didn’t watch someone make
- Stay in well-lit areas
- Keep your valuables hidden from sight, preferably in a zipper pocket that remains closed
- Don’t advertise your wealth (credit cards, smartphones, jewelry, watches, clothes, etc.)
- Make analog and digital copies of your identification and insurance plans
- Avoid the street kids—they’re talented pickpockets
- Don’t give money to panhandlers
- Check your ego and make a swift exit if a situation goes south
- Don’t run up a tab at local establishments, especially if you’re alone
The general rule is: when in doubt, sit it out.
Men and women have a slightly different set of concerns. People will try to take advantage of women more aggressively than men because the general stereotype is women don’t fight back but men do. In any situation, I would excuse myself as quickly as possible and leave. There is no need to confront anybody who wants to pick a fight.
You’ll have many more positive experiences than negative ones. I’ve been taking solo trips for years and I’ve never had a negative experience.
Your Homework: Plan a Solo Trip
It’s time to take your first steps now that you know how to travel alone. Here’s what I do:
- Pick a destination you’d like to explore. If you’re not sure where to go, I teach you how to search for flights anywhere using Momondo and Google Flights in my Cheap Flights Masterclass. This is especially useful if you’re on a budget, as you can pick the cheapest destination.
- Figure out how to arrive. If you’re flying, check out my master post on finding cheap flights.
- Find accommodations. I like to use Airbnb, Couchsurfing, and Agoda. (Please don’t abuse Couchsurfing.)
- Enjoy! I recommend bringing along a journal and a pen, or at least a note-taking app on your phone. You’ll spend a lot of time reflecting.
And don’t forget to sign up for your permission slip.
More Resources on Solo Travel
If you want to learn more about solo travel, check out this list of related content from around the web:
- Solo Traveler World, a site dedicated to the art of traveling alone, has a fantastic resource page on every topic imaginable related to solo travel.
- Elite Daily makes a case for how solo travel makes you wise.
- Kristin Addis’s website Be My Travel Muse is dedicated to solo female travel, although much of the content is applicable to men as well.
- Gloria Atanmo from The Blog Abroad addresses some common fears about solo travel.
- Still not sure how to travel alone? Chris Guillebeau teaches you.
- Auston Matta, one of the Two Bad Tourists, writes about why you should travel alone even for traveling couples.
- Don’t exclude all-inclusive resorts and luxury travel when you’re alone—the team behind Smiling Faces Travel Photos has some good insights into how to do all-inclusive while traveling alone
What are your reservations about solo travel? Have you been on a solo trip, or do you have any additional questions about traveling alone? Let me know in the comments below.
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Also published on Medium.