10 reasons to travel alone

By Caitlin Kelly

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I went to say thank you and good-bye to one of the waitresses at my last hotel, and we chatted for a bit.

Then she exclaimed: “But…you’re alone!”

True.

I’d stayed a week at a 23-room historic hotel and I hadn’t seen anyone else there who was traveling solo.

In my time here in Europe, now five weeks, most of the travelers I’ve seen are in couples, or families, or packs of friends, whether teens or seniors.

I’m clearly an outlier, and I’m fine with that; my mother traveled the world alone for years and I spent four months alone traveling through Portugal, Spain, France and Italy at 23.

 

Here are 10 reasons I enjoy traveling solo, even (yes), while female:

 

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No one dictates my schedule

Unless it’s a travel day, and I have to meet a plane, train or bus on time, it’s no one’s business when I get up or go to bed or do anything. Total freedom is priceless to me.

No one is insisting we must do this or must see that

Again, if I want to retreat to my cool, quiet hotel room at mid-day to escape 90-degree heat, no one is having a (literal) meltdown or tantrum because they want to do something else.

I’ve missed all sorts of must-see’s and must-do’s on this trip, (all those museums! all those famous sites!), because I wanted to just rest and relax and see only what I want to see.

People can be much kinder than you’d expect

This trip has been savaged by a lot of right knee pain and right foot pain. It makes walking slow and painful. It makes stairs slow and painful. I also do poorly in heat, and everywhere people have been very kind, offering to help me with luggage or stairs.

 

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Pauly Saal, the Berlin restaurant where I met two new-to-me friends for lunch

 

Making new friends is easier

When you travel with others, their wants and needs, of course, matter to their enjoyment of their vacation. If you just want to sit and have a long conversation, sometimes even a short one, that can impede your companions’ progress.

I’ve really savored the long conversations I’ve had along the way, and have learned a lot about the places I’ve been.

I don’t want to just slide past, taking lots of photos.

And yet….

 

Silence is truly golden

When traveling solo, you don’t have to talk to anyone beyond the most basic questions. I can go an entire day without conversation, and what a relief that is.

As the waitress agreed, about having to be charming and social: “It’s exhausting!”

 

You’re present in a way that’s usually impossible when traveling with others

I’ve been amazed at how I just sit, still, for an hour. No book, no magazine or paper. No screens. Whether I’m watching someone in a cafe, or the local cats who shimmy down the garden trees, or admiring kids splashing into the Adriatic at sunset, I can pay all of it my full attention.

I’ve gotten some astounding photos at all times of day and night, able to see clearly without interruption or distraction. I spent one happy afternoon sketching and painting.

 

No fights!

I witnessed a furious mother and her mutinous little boy, (and his brother and their fed-up grandparents), at a table near me in Rovinj, a seaside resort in Croatia. It was clear they were all totally annoyed with this kid, and he with them.

Thank heaven it wasn’t me; having had some monumental arguments while very far from home — out alone with my father, my mother, my husband — I know how stressful that is since you all still have to get back into the same hotel or flat and/or the same means of transportation later anyway.

 

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Time to reflect

I’ve had all sorts of new-to-me ideas while away, for more travel, for some different ideas about designing our home, about how to work.

I’ve been reading a lot — books for a change  — and loving it.

 

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The trams in Zagreb — fast, cheap, efficient

 

You (re)-learn to be self-reliant

My favorite French words are “se débrouiller” and “débrouillard”...which means “to figure it out for yourself” and, loosely, “a self-reliant person.”

Solo travel turns you into that person, and quickly!

At 25, I won an EU journalism fellowship based in Paris that required four 10-day independent  reporting trips throughout Europe. No one was there to hold my hand or to show me stuff. I loved it!

Whether you’re madly calculating currency differences, (try 276 Hungarian forints to the U.S. dollar!) or trying to read a map in another language or making sure you’ve caught the right bus/train/boat heading in the right direction, it’s all up to you.

If it goes pear-shaped, (as the British would say), everywhere has some sort of medical care and usually someone who speaks English. Absolute worst case, you can contact your consulate or embassy for emergency help.

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The Washington, D.C. Metro

The self-confidence solo travel creates is fantastic, lasting and can inspire others to take the leap

I’ve been traveling alone since I was 17 and first crossed the U.S. border by train to attended a photo workshop — although I took my first flight alone, from Toronto to Antigua, at seven.

Once you realize how to navigate the world, and see that many people — like us — just want to make a living, help their kids and grandkids thrive, and to enjoy their lives as much as we do — it’s a much less intimidating place.

Yes, some spots are tougher than others, and some truly no-go zones for women alone. But fewer than you’d think.

 

Have you traveled alone?

 

How did you enjoy it?

 

51 thoughts on “10 reasons to travel alone

  1. I do love to travel on my own, and have become fairly ‘débrouillarde’ but only in places relatively close to home. Return trips to Toronto, weekends in London and Edinburgh, a yoga retreat in Athens… Your post invites me to go further solo — it is inspiring to see how well you’ve done on the cobblestones despite the aches and pains!

    1. I was back in Toronto in March 2017 for a solo week, catching up with friends, and loved it (even in the cold!)

      The foot and knee pain has been really exhausting and I am so ready for it to END. But I can’t really see anything without walking and taxis cost a fortune…:-)

      So painkiillers ‘r us.

  2. As a solitary traveler for four decades, I couldn’t resist replying to this post. Like you, I first travelled alone at 17. I flew from Toronto to Paris then had to navigate my way from the airport to the train station (the right train station because there are five!). And from there I took the (slow) train down to Marseilles, then from Marseilles another local train to Aix en Provence. My mother had enrolled me in a French summer course there at the university.

    As a solitary traveler for four decades, I don’t see what the big deal is (about solo travel.) To me, it’s as natural as breathing. I totally agree with Jalfonze’s comment above – Travelling alone is one of the most liberating experiences one could have.

    I think the two most essential ingredients for solo travel are lots of self-confidence and really enjoying your own company. From those two things alone, you can accomplish A LOT.

    And then other ingredients follow such as curiosity about the world around you, the enjoyment of taking photographs and meeting new people, love of languages, visiting museums, etc.

    We’re the lucky ones, Caitlin. I feel truly privileged.

    Another thing you mentioned on your list that is so true – Time to reflect

    “All sorts of new ideas while away, for more travel, for some different ideas about designing our home, about how to work. I’ve been reading a lot — books for a change — and loving it.”

    Totally! Away from the constant chatter of others and, in some places, from televisions and computers, I’ve had some very creative moments allowing me to advance on my book project. And to sit curled up in a comfy chair reading a book is sheer luxury. In London I read two books from cover to cover, totally engrossed. I couldn’t do that back at home.

    Thanks for your insights. Great to read that you’re really enjoying yourself, in other words, your own company.

    Where are you off to next?

    1. Thanks…I think a lot of it really is the self-confidence to go and figure it out; if you have health and some $$$$, you’re generally going to be just fine.

      As an only child, I was always very used to amusing myself — with music, books, drawing, taking photos, talking to strangers. So I just do those things more. 🙂

      Now in sweaty crowded Venice for 3 days then London then (sob) back to reality and work in NY. Thrilled to see my husband again after 5 weeks — but not thrilled to go back to work, I admit.

    1. It really depends on your personality…if you are a scared, shy person (i.e. talking to strangers and asking for help) is terrifying, you wouldn’t enjoy it. And (to me, obvious) women should not drug or drink themselves into dangerous situations or dress as though they’re hunting for sex (unless they are, then have fun!)

  3. Nina Angela McKissock

    I travel alone all the time. I actually enjoy being lost and testing my abilities to figure things out. Once when I was solo in the Yukon, I got a job as a nurse flying between logging camps. Having a pilot’s license and being a R.N. made for even more fascinating opportunities.
    Thank you for sharing your ideas!
    Nina

  4. I used to travel alone a lot to do archival research or go to conferences, and I always enjoyed it. Now that I’m married, my wife and I almost always travel together – thankfully we have similar philosophies about how to approach our travel experiences, so we don’t often feel the stress you describe about traveling with someone else. Still, I take a similar approach to my regular solitary explorations of NYC. I have one day each weekend that I go out on my own, and I’ve noticed many of the same benefits of the solo experience that you’ve described here.

    1. I was miserable in my first marriage — except for how well we traveled together. My 2nd husband is a great travel companion; would never marry someone who wasn’t!

      I hate overhearing people fighting on the road, when they’re supposed to be having fun and relaxing.

      Which is why solo time is so helpful. Glad you’re doing this for yourself. 🙂

  5. I love traveling with my boyfriend or a close friend, but I think it is very healthy to go out on your own every once in a while. I’ve traveled for months on my own, but not so much in recent years. A good alternative is going for a long lonesome walk. Being alone with my thoughts every once in a while is mega-important for my sanity and something many people would profit from.

  6. I enjoy travel both with and without others. I find that with others, I tend to become the “tour guide” since they know I have been there before, or done the research on where we are going.
    Your list of reasons to travel solo is spot on. The funny thing is when people say how brave I am to go somewhere that you may not speak the language or where you have never been before I think they project their fears of their own travel.
    I also totally agree that it is liberating. Thanks you for this piece.

    1. Indeed! My goal is to relax….and learn new things from others, not to have to show everyone else what to do and where to go.

      Out of the blue, I met someone today (so odd!) — a woman painting in St. Mark’s Square in Venice — who is best friends with someone I know, in Bermuda (!?) She looked at my leg brace and kept saying how “brave” I am to be traveling with an injury. Not really…”brave” to me would mean a much more debilitating illness or condition than a bum knee and sore ankle.

      I do think “brave” is code word for “I’m too nervous to do this”…I just don’t think of it as brave. Curious and adventurous, maybe.

      If I was headed to Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan — a male-dominated conflict zone? Yes. A dear friend (a younger female photographer) heads back to the DRC this week after we catch up in London.

      Now SHE is brave! 🙂

  7. I remember when I was last in Germany, I would do days on the weekends where I would just travel alone, all by myself, and not talk to anyone unless they were a tour guide or selling me tickets or something. I loved that time. Those times were very quiet, and I found myself just relaxing. The only times I wanted noise were on trains, when I needed a bit of music or an audiobook to keep from getting bored.
    I hope the next time I travel somewhere, I can do just that (though I have a feeling the next big trip somewhere may be a group trip).

    1. It really is relaxing to just wander alone and explore at one’s leisure. Even on the trains, I didn’t listen to music — even with a 13-hour journey. I’d read or sleep or look out the window.

  8. What a timely post! I like travelling with people when I get on with them, but I’ve just got back from a two-week holiday on the Scottish west coast. My brother came for the second week with his two children (their mother didn’t come) and it was awful – the ten-year-old has major issues and there were screaming tantrums and grumpy meltdowns every day. I didn’t get to spend any quality time with my brother and the stress has made me physically ill. Feeling miserable and unwell isn’t a good way to end a holiday. Next time: strictly child-free holidays!

    1. NOOOOOOOOOO!

      This is terrible. I don’t have kids and I think that people without them have, quite naturally, a much lower tolerance for child-related bullshit. Sorry to hear this.

      We have a week planned at a friends’s (empty) weekend home in mid August on Fire Island (near NYC) and have invited a couple we know quite well for three nights. NO KIDS (their kids are adults, in any case.) I’m very very cautious about sharing precious holiday time with anyone after too many terrible experiences, esp. w mother and father.

      1. Thanks for sympathizing – I knew you’d understand!

        It was stressful for everyone and I feel so bad for my mother, who organized (and paid a lot of money) what was supposed to be a relaxing break in a wonderful place. The west coast of Scotland is stunning!

        My niece has issues (she’s going to see a child psychologist), but a lot of the problem IMO is that she’s allowed to behave however she wants, with zero consequences. Manners matter!

        Yes, you certainly have to be careful about travel companions – the wrong ones can spoil a holiday! I hope you enjoy your August break. It sounds like a lovely location.

      2. Well, without wanting to be rude to your brother…what the HELL was he thinking? Did you not know what she was like before agreeing to go? I’m very very cautious about committing any shared time and space to people I do not know quite well — have had far too many dramas and meltdowns thanks to my own family to tolerate any more anywhere. EVER.

        Our August break will be 4 days of us alone then only 3 days with our friends, who I trust to be well-behaved. They have been in every other time we’ve spent in recent years.

      3. Exactly – he shouldn’t have brought her. She could have stayed with her mother, which would have been better for everyone.

        Yes, I knew she had some issues but I stayed with them at Easter and it was fine. I had also gone away to Scotland with them last year and it was lovely, so I suppose I had happy memories of that and assumed it would be the same this year.

  9. I always traveled alone. I did a road trip to Hecla, four hours outside Winnipeg, went to Alberta to visit a friend, and all of it was a warm up for New York City. I loved being around New York alone, I chatted with drama students during stage door after A View From The Bridge, loved sitting on a park bench and watched people go by, I felt like a blank slate.

    1. So cool! I wonder if (?) we Canadians are more adventurous this way…?

      NYC is a fantastic city to visit alone as Americans can be very chatty and friendly and yes, great people-watching. So glad you enjoyed it!

  10. great post, with lovely photos as always. i agree with you, there are many plusses to solo travel and i really love the skills you achieve along with way. there is no choice and i find that most of us rise to the occasion. i especially love the french you shared:

    “My favorite French words are “se débrouiller” and “débrouillard”…which means “to figure it out for yourself” and, loosely, “a self-reliant person.”- how perfect.

    1. People forget this…we rarely, if ever, spend 24/7 in someone else’s company at home, (unless they’re a very small child), yet (WHY?!) we suddenly expect that to feel comfortable and normal when on vacation — which itself can be disorienting enough (even if lovely.)

      It took a while for my husband to get that about me, but now we travel well together.

  11. When I was 18 I spent a summer living in the Netherlands with the family of the exchange student who had been my lab partner in Physics. I took a day trip to Hamburg by train, then spent a weekend in Paris on a bus tour. Strictly speaking I wasn’t alone, but I was on my own without parents or sponsors. The discoveries I made, the successes I celebrated, and the people I chatted with are all priceless to me.

      1. I lived in Enschede, on the east side of the country. That’s where the fireworks factory blew up some years ago. Sadly, once marriage and children came along, my friend and I fell out of touch.

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