Ten important lessons you’ll learn by traveling alone

GranBazar Istanbul
GranBazar Istanbul (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I enjoyed this column in The New York Times about the distinction between tourist (arguably incurious) and traveler (insatiably so):

For the most fortunate among us, our travels are now routine, devoted mainly to entertainment and personal enrichment. We have turned travel into something ordinary, deprived it of allegorical grandeur…Whatever impels us to travel, it is no longer the oracle, the pilgrimage or the gods…We urgently need to reclaim the etymology of restlessness — “stirring constantly, desirous of action” — to signal our curiosity toward what isn’t us, to explore outside the confines of our own environment. Getting lost isn’t a curse. Not knowing where we are, what to eat, how to speak the language can certainly make us anxious and uneasy. But anxiety is part of any person’s quest to find the parameters of life’s possibilities.

I’m intrigued that every single day — for three years or so — readers of Broadside seek out my post about women traveling alone and whether X place is actually safe.

Kids, nowhere is safe if you’re stupid or careless! If you insist on drinking heavily/drugging/wandering off with total strangers to their (lockable!) home or vehicle and/or at night and/or dressing sluttily, seriously...

Would you take those risks in your home neighborhood?

It’s provincial and dumb to assume X is dangerous only because it’s unknown to you, and “foreign.” You’re missing a whole pile o’ world out there!

I took my first solo flight, from Toronto to Antigua, when I was about seven. I traveled alone through Portugal, Italy, France and Spain for four months when I was 22. Since then, I’ve chosen to be alone in places as far-flung as Istanbul, Tanzania, Thailand, Tunisia — and Los Angeles.

Ironically, I’ve only been the victim of crime at home, in Toronto, Montreal and suburban New York.

Some lessons I’ve learned you might find helpful as well:

A passport is a mini magic carpet

Once you have it in hand, literally, you can go almost anywhere. I’m still awed by the power of one small document to open the world. Which is maybe one reason I so love (yes) all the Bourne movies, where Jason Bourne always has a collection of passports and identities. So cool!

A current, detailed map is a wondrous tool

I’m old school. I have, and adore, the Times World Atlas, which weighs a bloody ton. I love flipping through it and dreaming about where to go next. I have maps of all sorts of places I haven’t even gone yet, like Morocco, but which allow me to study them at leisure and think about what I’ll do when I get there. Maps offer lots of intriguing possibilities and ideas for exploration.

Don’t play it too safe

Yes, you need to stay healthy and un-molested. But it doesn’t mean sitting at home terrified to leave the cosy and familiar boundaries of your town/state/province/country. Travel to a place that’s really challenging is an excellent way to discover what makes you deeply uncomfortable — and why.

When in Rome….

Do your homework and dress respectfully, paying close attention to local customs and taboos. I didn’t look a man in the eye in rural Portugal for three long, lonely weeks. Nor in Istanbul. I knew the rules, and played by them. There’s no ego battle involved, no need to “prove” that your country’s ideas are better. You’re in their world for a while, and it works just fine for them. In a global economy, we need to remember this, every day.

Dream really big, then find a way to make it happen

My Dad’s current partner is 77 and such an inspiration to me. Just before she met my Dad, she had committed to move to Mongolia and work in the Peace Corps; luckily for all of us, she picked my Dad. There are many avenues to creating, and funding, a domestic or foreign travel adventure: a fellowship, grant, temp on contract jobs, fruit or vegetable or tobacco-picking, farming, volunteer work, missionary work, finding work aboard a freighter or cruise ship, study abroad, au pair jobs.

The world is filled with kindness

Sappy, huh? I would never have seen this as clearly had I not taken the terrifying risks I did to venture off alone. I met some British Reuters reporters in Madrid who suggested I look up their freelancer in Barcelona, a German woman married to a Briton. In my two visits there, she: let me take a bath (it had been months of showers only); lent me her typewriter so I could write and sell some stories; paid for a cab to her home when I was really sick and broke, arriving from Italy by train late at night, and lent me her weekend home. This from someone I barely knew.

Being alone is work

It means you’re the only one in charge of all it: where to go, where to stay, where to eat, when to leave and how to get there. You have to change currencies and languages. If you get sick, you’ll have to find a doctor or hospital or pharmacy and explain the problem — something I’ve done in French and Spanish, sometimes in tears. I once had an allergic reaction, alone in Istanbul, that I thought might kill me; I’d totally forgotten I’m allergic to dust and mold, and had spent a wonderful afternoon looking at old rugs in the Bazaar. Every time the dealer flipped the pile, a cloud of it was filling my nostrils…I could barely breathe or swallow all night. Eating alone, especially in good restaurants, is another challenge; I always take a book or magazine, and I usually sit at the bar, where conversation is easy and often fun.

How capable you are! (or not)

Once we’re on the road of responsible (sigh) adulthood, with student loans and bills and a spouse and/or children, the challenges are often financial and emotional, but routine. Travel, by forcing us into unfamiliar surroundings and dealing with dozens of strangers whose motives we don’t know and may find confusing or opaque, forces us to up our game and sharpen our wits — never a bad thing! Trusting your intuition can save your life. Being resourceful is like lifting weights; you have to actually put things into motion to see results!

Total strangers will really like you

Seems obvious, right? Not if you’re shy or your family or work has been confidence-sapping. I’ve been amazed and delighted and grateful to find, and sometimes keep, friends in the oddest of places, whether standing in a post office line in Antibes or at a conference in Minneapolis or sharing a truck for eight filthy, tiring, crazy days with Pierre, a trucker who spoke not one word of English. I did that journey, from Perpignan to Istanbul, to write about trucking in the EU. We couldn’t shower for eight days, and one day — a sunny, windy day in March in some Romanian or Bulgarian parking lot — I begged him to help me wash my (short) hair, which he did, pouring water from a jug he kept in the cab while I lathered up. It’s been the most life-changing of choices to fling myself into the world and find, every single time, that I am often met with open arms. You don’t need to cart along the usual security blankets and identity markers: the right school(s), family, skin color, cultural preferences or clothing. Just be your best self.

The natural world awaits

Travel by canoe, kayak, dinghy, bike, mo-ped. Lace up your hiking boots. Take binoculars, tent and sleeping bag, backpack, camera, pen, sketchbook, watercolors and your willingness to be there, un-plugged. The happiest five days of my life were a trip I took, alone, to Corsica in June 1995. I rented a mo-ped down at the port in Bastia, and zoomed around La Balagne, the northern end of the island, reveling in the impossibly gorgeous fragrance of sun-warmed maquis, sleeping in lovely small hotels at the sea’s edge, riding (shriek!) through a pelting rainstorm wrapped up in only in a couple of garbage bags. I stopped at the Deserts d’Agriate, gaping in wonder at the moonscape before me. I have no photos. But oh, the memories! Here’s my Wall Street Journal story about it.

Bonus lesson:

Do something you normally do at home, or have always wanted to try, that makes you really happy.

Alone, I took a ballet class  in an 18th-century studio in Paris, a watercolor class in Mexico City, danced to live blues at Harvelle’s, a club in Santa Monica, ate some great barbecue in San Angelo, Texas, bought textiles in Istanbul and went horseback riding — through L.A’s Griffiths Park at sunset, galloping along snowy train tracks in the Eastern Townships and through arroyos near Taos. When you’re out there all alone, it’s comforting to do something familiar that you enjoy, but somewhere new.

Here’s a wise and helpful blog post from a couple who have been traveling fulltime for more than a year, with their seven lessons learned.

Here’s a great essay from a young woman at Salon about her experiences of travel alone, and why (I agree!) every woman must do it.

What’s a solo travel moment you enjoyed?

29 thoughts on “Ten important lessons you’ll learn by traveling alone

  1. People are very kind… Most everyone wants to be helpful. I took my first absolutely solo trip to Independence, MO last year to see Truman’s house and library. I found it to be liberating– I could come and go as I pleased.

  2. I just got back from my first solo trip to Oahu for almost three weeks. One of my favorite moments was going to a free hula class and being approached by an older woman named Dorothy who welcomed me, told me about her fabulous adventures, and invited me to go to another class with her. Connecting with people is so easy and effortless when you travel on your own. I was nervous at first for the trip, but I am so glad I did it and I’ve caught the bug now!

    1. What a terrific experience!

      What I love about this is that you went so far for so long — and were open to her invitation. I was alone in Hawaii for a week when I was about 22 or so and had a great time. When I was at the airport, I saw a woman about my age standing at the taxi rank — a flight attendant for some Latin American carrier. I suggested we split the cost of a cab into town, then realized she would get a huge discount on the room rate and we ended up sharing a room for the week. It was perfect…we had dinner together maybe once yet both enjoyed a bit of company and some savings. There are few things better than great travel experiences.

  3. I do enjoy travelling and have traveled alone … I found eating in restaurants alone hard at first. I often find myself wondering ‘what all those folk who stayed at home’ were doing … nothing as cool as what I’m doing now I bet!

  4. When I was in Florence, I got a bit lost and came across 3 American students on a side street. They were singing a cappella in beautiful harmony. A small group gathered to listen. It was such a wonderful surprise. If I’d been with someone else I likely wouldn’t have gotten lost and wouldn’t have stumbled onto a very memorable experience.

  5. I love this post! I travelled alone in England and France ten years ago and it was one of the best experiences of my life. To this day I tell everyone that one must experience traveling alone at some point. What you said about finding what makes you uncomfortable really resonates with me. When I got to Paris, I cried all day. I cried at the top of the Eiffel tower, at the Louvre, at the train station, you name it. They weren’t sobbing, sad tears, they were a release. I’d lived my whole life following others’ expectations and to be alone and vulnerable like that was cathartic.

    By the way, we loved New York! The first thing my husband and I did was split up to do different things. I loved reliving the feeling of traveling alone for a few brief hours. And no tears this time! Ha. Thanks again for the NYC tips you gave me a few weeks ago! We had a great time!

    1. Sobbing at the Louvre!? Now there’s a memory. 🙂 I remember a few times bawling my eyes out, but when I was ill and alone in fun spots like Venice and Istanbul.

      I think women, especially, are so socialized to make everyone else happy that we forget how to do what WE want, which is why even a few days wandering solo can be so restorative. As you saw.

      So glad you enjoyed NYC. It can be such a fun place and is easy to pack a lot in within a few days. My husband and I routinely split up like this on holiday as I am a water-baby (he does not swim) and antiques maven. He likes to golf and take photos. I love that we come back together at day’s end with lots of fresh news and insights.

  6. A great post…what’s life without travel. After one particularly debilitating job I went on a six-week solo camping expedition from Brisbane to Adelaide (about 2500kms). A couple of times I felt a bit nervous (often there were only one or two tents in the area), but only once did my instinct tell me not to stay in the place, so I didn’t set up and just went elsewhere. There was an indefinable vibe I didn’t like.

    Passport + instinct + an open mind = great travel experience.

  7. You went walkabout! 🙂

    I like that you trusted your instincts about a bad vibe. That’s half the battle…having a vibe and then trusting your instinct enough to act quickly and decisively to do something about it.

  8. I have been traveling alone since the age of 12 years old. Of course there have been the one week escapades with my family, but I actually find it easier to travel alone when it is for a long period of time. You have more freedom, the decisions you make do not make anyone else unhappy other than yourself (when things do not turn out the way you planned) and you have to get out there and meet new people, otherwise you will be alone to eat at the restaurant, which once in a while is nice, but when traveling for 6 months it can get very boring. I have met so many great people in random places, hostels, and other great experiences have come out of Couchsurfing, too. I know it does take a lot of courage to actually get out of one’s comfort zone, and alone, but you do not have to go to another continent to get a great experience and learn so much about yourself.

    In regards to X being dangerous or not, I think that it is important to always take precautions, but sometimes even with all the precautions, shit happens; people steal, pickpocket etc but when your instinct says do not go into that dark alleyway, walk towards the street light.

    The important thing is to not go around worrying about every single little thing, or look, or stereotypes because then you will also miss out on amazing opportunities and people.

    1. The one thing I decided not to do was airbandb, and I am not sure I would couchsurf. I like the idea and it’s not out of fear…I found the number of questions I was expected answer about myself tedious and invasive (for airbandb.) If I want cheap lodging, I’ll just stay at a hostel — and I’m in my 50s. I’ve done it many times.

      1. See for me, Couchsurfing is so much more than just “cheap or free lodging”. I have had amazing experiences and met great people. What is nice about staying with the locals is that they usually bring you to places you wouldn’t find on your own or that are not in the lonely planet (or any other source used while traveling).
        I usually combine my travels with couchsurfing and hostels.
        I took my mom to a hostel in Peru and she had never stayed in one. She was so impressed by the colonial house we stayed in, the services and the people we met there. It’s definitely a great way to travel alone

      2. I know why it would be fun, and glad it’s worked out so well for you. I think I’m just at an age now I really crave a big bed, privacy and room service! Hostels I’ll still do, but not sure about staying in a stranger’s home.

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  14. Sealion

    I really enjoyed reading this blog. I came across it looking for travel tips. When I was a kid my family went on many little road trips. I have never left the country and now that I’m 27 I’m itching to go somewhere and I’ve been hesitant to go alone. This has given me courage to look outside of my safe zone. Thank you.

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