Before I went to travel by myself for the first time, people were always shocked I was going at it alone. “Aren’t you terrified?” “Is that even safe?” “Won’t you get lonely?”
I took a plane by myself for the first time in 2011, and following that had to take a train from Paris to Lille for my exchange in France. But once I got to the university, that was the end of my solo travelling, and I was set for the remaining month. I’ve since taken several planes by myself, but always to destinations where friends and family were waiting for me. So, my first real complete trip by myself was my three week trip to Iceland this past April.
And yes. I was terrified. I was worried about safety. And I was worried about getting lonely and homesick.
But travelling alone, as scary as it is, is also incredibly rewarding. Travelling alone gives you more reflective pause, a chance to move at your own pace, and see amazing things at a speed your brain and eyes can actually process. You alone design your itinerary, and the only thing you have to make compromises with is your budget. And, travelling alone gives you a chance to learn a thing or two about yourself – these are things you may have never learned otherwise, and which make for valuable life skills even while at home.
1) You Learn to Take Care of Yourself
At home, it’s easy to look out for Number One, because you are surrounded by people who will look out for you as well. There’s always a friend you can call, or a family member, whether you’re stuck in a bind, need help, or even just want company. When you’re travelling alone, you don’t have a designated person to watch your back or belongings. If you have to go to the bathroom, you have to haul your gigantic backpack into the tiny cramped stall with you. You have to be on your guard when you’re walking around by yourself because no one else will be looking out for you. You have to learn basic phrases in the language of where you’re travelling so you can ask for help or directions, and you can’t rely on your travel partner who knows the language to do the work for you. You learn how to make yourself as theft-proof as possible when on public transit or walking in crowds, especially if you’re on a long train ride and may potentially fall asleep. That sense of independence that comes with watching your own back is a huge growing experience; it allows you to become more self-reliant even when back home, and makes you appreciate being alone that much more because you know you have the ability to handle it.
2) You Find You Can Get Yourself Places
I’m fairly directionally challenged and am pretty reliant on the GPS in my car or on my phone to get me anywhere, even if I’ve been to a place multiple times. Relying on technology or other people isn’t always an option when you’re travelling alone – typically, you don’t have a GPS or a phone with data on it while travelling, and when you’re solo, it’s you, a map, and whatever local help you can get. Ultimately, it’s you that has to be able to read the difference between north and south on a map, how to interpret bus schedules and train directions, and how to get from point A to point B in the cheapest and fastest way possible. There’s no more experienced traveller with you to figure transit out, or to communicate with a cab driver to take you to a vacant hostel in Lima because you weren’t smart enough to book one in advance.
All this being said, provided it is daylight and you’re in a relatively safe area, one of the greatest things you can experience while travelling is getting lost. Being lost is how you stumble upon hidden treasures, and really take in the sights and sounds of a place. Eventually, of course, you’ll have to figure out where to go, but that little act of wandering creates such a sense of wonderment, and that will be one of the favourite stories you tell about a trip.
3) You Learn How to Budget for Yourself
When travelling in groups, so much of the trip preparation is spent figuring out everyone’s budgets, and compromising to meet everyone’s financial availabilities and constraints. And, with the exception of big-ticket tours and attractions that are necessary must-sees in a place, you’ll find that the group’s travel style is set to the bar of the person with the lowest budget. So you end up staying in less expensive hostels, eating at cheaper restaurants, and opting for the cheapest buses and trains even if they take twice as long as a slightly pricier option.
Budgeting for travelling alone is much like budgeting for living alone – you learn how much YOU can spend on food, souvenirs, attractions, and transportation, without basing that budget on somebody else. The decision is left in your hands whether you eat at fancy places two nights in a row, or opt for making your own meal in a hostel kitchen one night. And, budgets are tighter when travelling than when you’re simply at home, because typically, there won’t be more money coming your way – the money you’ve saved is all the money you’ve got. The skills you gain from travel budgeting, especially when travelling for long periods of time, are useful to bring back to life back home; you learn to allocate your spending in order to maintain your savings, savings which can be spent on future adventures!
4) You Learn the Art of Conversation
One of the greatest things about travelling alone is you meet so many more people. When travelling in a group, you often stick within that group and occasionally add some tag-alongs you meet on tours and in hostels, but it’s not to the extent of what you experience when travelling solo. Other solo travellers are more likely to approach someone else that’s alone rather than approaching a group because it’s less intimidating, so, soon enough, you’ll have a group of solo travellers going out together. In forming these groups, you have to relinquish any fears of being too shy to introduce yourself and make the first move, whether it’s commenting on something going on in front of you or simply asking where someone’s from. In fact, while travelling alone, I found myself alone less than when I was travelling with my group of friends because you are constantly surrounded by other solo travellers eager to strike up a conversation.
But one of the greatest pleasures that comes from meeting people while travelling is, once you’ve started talking to someone for ten minutes or so, you really start to have a meaningful conversation. Your time with other travellers is limited, as you all have your own individual itineraries and plane schedules, so you cut the bullshit and small talk and really find out who another person is, aside from the superficial layers of nationality, occupation, relationship status, etc. Some of the best conversations I’ve ever had have been with the people I met while travelling, because if you have limited time, you may as well talk about something interesting. These conversation skills are great to bring back home, though a fair warning that not everyone will want to have these meaningful conversations with you as quickly as a fellow traveller would!
5) You Get Yourself Out of Your Comfort Zone
Finding your own way around? Check. Talking to strangers? Check. Learning a new language? Check. Trying new food and activities? Check. All of these things get you out of the comforting bubble you’ve built for yourself back home, and are all things you experience when travelling alone. It creates a spirit of adventure that, even after your trip is done, you carry with you back home; ultimately, even when not travelling, you feel an itch to go out and try something new. To be trapped in a comfort zone your entire life is a life wasted, and travelling alone is one way you start to feel permanently inclined to make every day an adventure.
Solo travel is one of the best things you can do for yourself and can be done at any time and any age. So don’t worry. Go out, book your ticket, and don’t wait for your friends’ schedules to align with yours. You can thank me later.