Traveling alone: why do it?

Enough people have asked me what it is like traveling alone that I decided to write about it here. I’ll write in successive posts about the logistics, but first I just want to write about my philosophy behind traveling alone, and what got me to do it–how it was really a gradual building to fully independent travel.  

The primary takeaway is this:

If the only thing that is preventing you from taking a trip you otherwise really want to take is that you don’t have anyone to go with, I highly recommend you travel alone. As a general rule, I’ve learned that it’s best not to spend life waiting for someone to give you permission to do something you want to do in your heart. To get even more to the point: we are all going to die one day. What judgmental people thought of us matters even less when we’re dead than when we’re alive.

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My most recent trip to the South of France, August 2106. This was taken at Lac St-Croix near Gorges de Verdon.

Now for my personal story which allowed me to get here. I have always been a pretty independent person, for better and for worse. I’ve done many things alone out of both desire and necessity. I didn’t have many friends when I was younger, and thus I became accustomed to, if not always comfortable, being alone. Plus my dad would often tell my brother, sister, and I to take the public bus and not rely on him or my mom for rides everywhere, as was common in the suburb where I grew up.

For these reasons, traveling alone came fairly easy to me. Additionally, I liked the adventure and excitement of travel, of leaving behind the mundanity of everyday life for something far less predictable.

My first experience traveling alone was at age 11, when my parents dropped me off at O’hare airport for a flight to Baltimore International Airport, where I met my grandparents and stayed with them for a week at there home in the Maryland suburbs over my spring break. On the flight over, I took to being able to freely make choices, such as what beverage to drink (most likely, I chose soda) and what to do during the flight. 

When I was 17, I went with my German class on a three-week summer trip to Berlin and around the country of Germany (and into Austria). For the first two weeks, each of us lived with a German family in East Berlin. Everything was smaller: the dwelling, which was an apartment, the car my family drove, and the refrigerator, and I loved it. It was more compact, economical, and made less space for the things and stuff that we’re overrun with here in the U.S. (and increasingly abroad, I’m sure, as the consumer economy becomes the model for economic growth).

At the end of high school, I again made a solo trip to meet my grandparents. This time, I planned to meet them in the Swiss Alps from Italy, where I had been on a trip with my European History class. The trip between these bordering and vastly different countries began early,  as I set off with my European history teacher, Mr. Kucharski, from the Amalfi Coast, where our group had spent our final days, to Rome, where I needed to catch an 8 a.m. train to the region of Lake Thun. (The rest of the group would follow later on a coach bus, but Mr. Kucharski had kindly offered to drive me because no one thought it was a good idea for me to take a train by myself from the Amalfi Coast through Naples to Rome). 

Unfortunately, we arrived at the Rome train station just before 8 a.m., and I ran to find my track right as my train was leaving. Fortunately, the next train left only one hour later, at nine, so missing the train did not seem like a grave thing. I boarded the train, finding a seat in a six-person compartment of a drab car that I vaguely remember looked like it was from the 1960s – with shades of worn down avocado green and orange-yellow. 

The train left late, and progressively became more and more delayed, often coming to a standstill for an interminable amount of time. These were the days when cell phones were just beginning to come on the scene, and I wouldn’t have one for a couple of years, so there was no way to call my grandparents’ friends, who were planning to pick me up, to let them know I’d be late, or my family back home, who would inevitably speak with my grandparents’ friends when I didn’t show up at the agreed time. I helplessly watched a conductor pass by, wanting to ask what was going on, but unable to speak the language and afraid I’d be met with annoyance or indifference for expecting a clear explanation of a reason for a delay in my native language (In fairness, this is a lot to expect nowadays of the New York City subway). I began to feel an anxious pit on my stomach as I looked around hopelessly at the drabness around me, unable to concentrate enough to pass the time reading. 

I was lucky though. The woman sitting next to me was Italian and traveling home to Milan. She was able to learn from a conductor that the train was delayed because it had essentially been taken out of service. The reason we were stopping for such long periods was to let other trains that were still in-service and still adhering to a schedule pass us. Once my seat mate figured this out, she told me it was best if we both got off at the next stop and transferred to whatever Milan-bound train was behind us. We did that and sure enough, we passed our condemned former train and made it to Milan in time for me to catch the last train to Switzerland around 7 p.m. I made it to Milan, caught the train, and as I passed into Switzerland, the sense of dread washed away, and I was left with the thrill I got from experiencing something that contrasted to my normally predictable life in the Chicago suburbs.  

My next serious traveling alone experience was when I studied abroad in Paris in the fall semester of my junior year of college. On the day I arrived, a van picked me and a married couple up from Charles de Gaulle on August 30 or 31. As we drove through the city I would call home for the next few months, through quiet boulevards in the north of the city, along what I’d later learn was the Champs Elysées, and into the congested Left Bank, where small cars skillfully maneuvered through narrow streets, I felt mild nervousness and homesickness but mostly curiosity. After we had dropped the couple off, the driver told me he could give me tours of Paris and gave me his number, which I never called. I arrived at the apartment of my host family, had lunch with my host mom and her older son, who I’d never see again, and took a nap, still on Chicago time. 

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At the Jardin Luxembourg in 2004

My homesickness never really got the best of me the way it had when I went away to summer camp as a kid. The curiosity of Paris, of learning a foreign language, of taking public transportation around that city, overtook homesickness. 

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From my Paris study abroad scrapbook: one of the French students invited a group of us down to the French Riviera, where I realized the joy of falling asleep on a beach, September 2004

While studying abroad, I traveled by myself to Brussels and for part of a trip to Austria and Germany, and to London. I felt aimless and a bit lonely—it gave me a lot of time to think, certainly. I wouldn’t travel alone again for years.

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Salzburg, Austria, fall 2004

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My friend Mary and I at the oldest restaurant in Salzburg, fall 2004

Ten years later, I was feeling a bit aimless, but for different reasons. I was one year out of a relationship, starting to realize that I might be single for the foreseeable future. In that most recent relationship, I had mostly though of my boyfriend as the one who was good at planning trips, since he was more well-travelled than me and spent more time researching potential destinations. I loved traveling in Europe but did not know too much about other continents, and didn’t know where to begin.

However, at some point, I had gotten it in my head that I wanted to go to Vietnam—for a combination of reasons. There was the connection to the U.S., which I felt I was only beginning to understand, and also the connection to France. I liked the food, and I read online that it was one of the safest places for women to travel solo. 

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On a guided bike ride in Hoi An, Vietnam, 2015

As luck would have it, my cousin and his wife entered the Peace Corps in the summer of 2014 in neighboring Cambodia, and so that fall I booked a roundtrip ticket from Newark Airport to Ho Chi Minh City, with a layover both ways in Hong Kong and set off on my first trip to Southeast Asia. I traveled alone for the Vietnam portion of the trip, which was as much a solo travel learning experience for me as any that had come prior. Once I arrived in Hanoi from Siem Reap, I had the sobering thought that it was up to me now, I could no longer rely on my cousins, who had planned all of our accommodation as we travelled around Cambodia and knew all of the cities we stayed in from previous visits. I decided quickly that I should go on tours, given how inexpensive and well-organized they were. Fortunately, it was easy to sign up last minute for the trip to Halong Bay, the bike tour and cooking class in Hoi An, the tour of the Cu Chi Tunnels near Saigon, and the boat ride through the Mekong Delta. I discarded my conventional wisdom about tours, which is that they are for older tourists or those who aren’t really comfortable with the culture. And I learned that when traveling, it is best to discard conventional wisdom when it leads to you trying to be tougher than you are. Yes, it would be great if I knew Vietnamese and could get around well enough to navigate sights on my own, but I had to be realistic.

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On the same tour in Hoi An. Learning (in vain) how to paddle this boat after visiting the crafts people who built it

I have continued to practice a practical-minded and adaptable approach to traveling alone. A little over a year after this trip, I went to Hawaii’s Big Island to visit a friend and spent about half the time by myself on Oahu. When I arrived in Waikiki Beach the first night, not liking my hostel and being a little overwhelmed by the outdoor shopping mall vibe of Waikiki, I canceled the next night in that hostel and headed to the North Shore one day earlier than planned. There, I stayed in the only hostel in that area. I was put in a modest house with four bedrooms, three of which were occupied by couples, from Australia, Chile, and the West Coast. In the two evenings I was there, we would gather on the porch, share beers and food, and talk about our respective countries, what we did for a living, and where we’d traveled in Hawaii and beyond. Even though I was the only single person there, everyone was very friendly and easy to talk to, and it left in me a great impression of the North Shore, which is known for a surfer population and vibe. I felt a little weird being the only single person, but I realized that there was no point in dwelling on it.

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At Waimea Valley, North Shore, Hawaii, with the woman who showed me how to make this necklace

If even after my words of encouragement, you still need to feel at some level that you are not the only one traveling alone, there are no shortage of blogsarticles, and even website sections giving advice and encouragement to women who are traveling alone, from other women who have done it. Some of these pieces of writing have the depth of a puddle (”Yes I’m pretty, and I’m traveling alone”) or are almost entirely written in listicle. But even the lighter fare is well-intentioned and has bits of wisdom in it.

I’d definitely recommend checking out this Wanderlust and Lipstick, advice from Kristin on the Nomadic Matt travel site, and Nomadic Chick. This site also looks good. Other people are doing it, and that number will only continue to increase as it becomes more normal in our society to be single for periods of one’s life, to never marry, etc. Why not be at the forefront of this trend rather than the person who signs on when everyone is assuredly doing it? Especially if you are finding yourself looking at other people’s Facebook and Instagram photos, envying their trips to Bogota, Barcelona, or Bangkok, and continuing to go to work, go to the gym, come home, make dinner (if you’re lucky) and fall asleep while trying to make it through an episode of “Breaking Bad.”

There is something sad about someone depriving herself (or himself) of an experience out of a fear of how it will look to others or of safety, for that matter. I’d wager that anyone who drives to work in the U.S. is at just as much risk of getting injured or killed as a solo traveler.

So as you can see, the first thing to do to help travel alone is shift your perspective. If you have already done that—or never had these hang-ups to begin with—come back soon as I’ll address logistical questions to solo trip planning.