I didn’t travel anywhere by myself until I was 22. And then I spent a year as an international hobo. It was scary to set off by myself, but I met people everywhere I went – some who I’m still in touch with, and some who were only in my life for a short time.
And now, I travel alone all the time. For work, and for pleasure. There is too much I want to do and see to wait for the perfect travel buddy, and it turns out that often when I’ve just decided I’m going, someone is happy to come with. I’ve discovered that being willing to go alone means that sometimes you don’t have to.
But it can still be hard – one morning in Hong Kong recently I ate some poorly labelled peanut sauce, had an allergic reaction, and then got ripped off by a corrupt cabbie. That was definitely a day I wished I was with someone else!
Anyway, here are some things I do to make it easier to go alone. This definitely is not tips for budget travel! I don’t do that at the best of times, and certainly not when I’m alone. It’s stressful enough.
- Embrace Introvert Time. I’m an ambivert, which means that I need to keep my social time and solo time in balance. Experimentation has let me know that 3-4 days of not speaking to anyone is fine, but I probably couldn’t cope with more than that. So if I go for 2 weeks, I break it up into social sections (places where I know people) and solo sections. If it’s a short trip, or I’m starting with solo-time, then I’ll people myself out before my departure by going out every night. That way, when I arrive at my destination I’m due some alone time and happy to embrace it!
- Always Have Data. I have very little sense of direction, but that’s OK, because I have a ridiculous number of cellphones (being a mobile dev) and so the first thing I do on arrival is acquire a SIM card (or, in Tokyo, it was a portable wifi device). This can seem overpriced, but I’m happy to pay ~$40 for a few days – I know that it allows me to be more adventurous with where I eat (recommendations and foursquare), and take fewer cabs (maps means I don’t get too lost and cab it home because I’m too exhausted to figure out another way). It also makes me feel safer – if I’m in a cab alone, I can track the route they are taking and make sure it’s not out of my way.
- Stay Somewhere Comfortable. Other solo-travellers swear by hostels as a way to meet people, but I’m not sold on the idea. My experience of hostels are that they are uncomfortable and feel unsafe – and I’ve never stayed in one alone (that may be skewed by the fact that the last one I stayed at was a converted jail). I want to stay somewhere I can get directions and recommendations from the concierge, relax quietly if I’m feeling overwhelmed, and order room service if I’m sick, or my flight’s delayed and I get in too exhausted to go out and find food. Exploring can be stressful, but sleeping must not be.
- Start With a Long Walk. I love roaming about cities by myself, plug in some music, set a park as a destination in maps, and go. So that is always what I start with – as a bonus, daylight and exercise are the best things for jetlag! This is not an activity that can easily go wrong – I’ve never not had a great wonder around anywhere I’ve been. Once I’m roamed around for a while, appreciated the aesthetics, I’m much more relaxed and feel more orientated to explore other things.
- Maximize Alone Activities. Things I love to do alone: read, walk, museums/art galleries, spa-time. Things I’m OK doing alone: eating lunch with a book, shopping. Things I find doing alone stressful: eating dinner (esp at the weekend), going to the movies/theatre. So the more things I pick from the first category, the happier I’ll be and the less I’ll miss having company.
- Minimize and Space “Prefer Company” Activities. I went to a show alone when I was in Prague – this was an achievement for me! But it has to be something that I really want to do, and one show in 3 days was probably as much as I was going to enjoy. I tend to skip dinner, or eat at weird times, especially at the weekend, which makes it easier for me to eat out alone. Sometimes I practise doing things I don’t really like to do alone whilst at home – like going to a restaurant I’ve been meaning to try by myself, or going for brunch to my favourite place alone. Maybe someday I’ll go to the movies alone!
- Stick With Status. I have status on Star Alliance, and I stick to flying with them, especially when I’m alone. Lounge access when a flight is delayed and I’m exhausted is really handy. Some places will allow you to leave a bag at the reception rather than carting all your belongings to the bathroom, which makes it easier. The chairs are more comfortable, there are snacks, and I don’t feel I need to be as paranoid about continually watching my stuff – I can relax with a book, or even take a nap. This might seem a little diva-ey, and depends on flight lengths and times etc, but when I was stuck in Singapore Airport from 3-7am, I was really glad to be somewhere that was a bit more comfortable and (I feel, perhaps irrationally), safe.
- Mid-Week Is Better. People are more social at weekends, and restaurants are less keen to have a table for one. There are more couples about – maybe not what you want to see if you’re travelling alone because you just had a breakup. During the week more people travel for work, or are just going about their regular day. Upshot: I’d sooner be somewhere by myself on Wednesday than on Saturday, and where possible I plan my trips accordingly.
- Morning/Afternoon/Evening – Pick Two. The biggest benefit of travelling alone is never having to wait for anyone. That could be an opportunity to see more stuff, or it could just be space in your day where you chill out. I know my energy levels, and especially given that I spend most of my time walking or standing leaving at 9am and returning in time to go to bed would just be too much. So if I leave early, I’ll aim to return for a bit in the afternoon and chill before I go out in the evening, or I’ll return early and go swimming or something before bed. I’ll linger over lunch and drink more tea, and read. Putting pressure on myself to be on the go for 12+ hours a day will not make me happy.
- It’s Not the Trip, it’s a Trip. Something I really want to do in Hong Kong – have afternoon tea at the Penninsula. But I didn’t do that this trip, because it’s an experience I want to share with someone. In Copenhagen, I missed out on the downtown theme park – I love fairground rides, but it’s more fun with someone else. I don’t view my solo-trips as trips-of-a-lifetime, or see them as places that I won’t go again. That takes the pressure off, and leaves me free to do what I want to do on that particular trip, not follow some list of “must do” tourist attractions.
- A Picture Is Like An Instant Postcard. The data plan means I can tweet or email a photo and include people in my trip, in real time. If I see something that reminds me of someone, I send them a picture. If I see something really cool, I tweet it. People usually reply or comment, and I get a little social interaction.
- Shop For Memories. Arguably the shared memories of a trip are the best thing you bring home when you go with someone, “Do you remember when we took that Tuk Tuk in Bangkok…?” – you don’t have that when you go alone. My strategy is as follows: I almost never shop at “home”, I shop when I travel. So when someone complements me on my top, or my shoes, or my necklace, it has a story: “Thanks! I bought this when I was in…” – my outfits are made up of memories of adventures, and that is kinda cool.
- Pack Light (But Not Too Light). I want little enough luggage that I can carry it easily, but not so little that I end up being unable to fit stuff in my checked luggage and have too much to carry about the airport. I know people who swear by carry on only, but (especially with status and priority tags) I almost never have to wait any time for my luggage and I don’t have to worry about hand-washing clothes etc.
- Be OK To Be Scruffy. I lived out of a small holdall for the entire of last July. I did this by packing about 5 of the same outfit and wearing that every day – leggings and a long t-shirt. Not my best outfit, and after that month most of them got relegated to the back of my closet never to be worn again. But, especially when travelling alone, no-one cares what you look like, and you’re probably never going to see the people you meet again anyway. Priority is comfort, and easily packable. Sometimes guys chat me up, but I’m not looking for that, and I think my baseball cap and sneakers keeps them away – good. I’m there for an adventure, not to “fall in love”. Having a break from looking pretty and making an effort is liberating.
- Savor Small Moments. I had this moment sitting on a bench in a park with an amazing BBQ pork bun in Hong Kong. I felt very peaceful, and just acknowledged it as the kind of moment that I get whilst travelling solo, but not when travelling with people. I felt relaxed, and free to just do whatever the hell appealed to me in that moment.
- Do Weird Stuff. I spent about 4 hours in the most beautiful graveyard I have ever seen in Copenhagen last year. I walked for nearly 2 hours to see a giant metronome in Prague. These were highlights – for me – from these trips, but I don’t know anyone else who would really have enjoyed them. I love going along with what other people want to do, I see different things than I would have chosen myself, and reassure myself that I don’t live in a filter bubble. When I go places by myself, I do things that seem frankly odd, but so what – it makes me happy!
Summary: solo-travel is more stressful, but worth it. Managing and reducing the things that you find stressful (different for everyone), and embracing whatever it is that you love doing alone is key to enjoying it.
It’s better to go alone, than with a bad travel buddy – or not at all!