When I lived in Paris, one of the most important life lessons I came away with was a love and respect for solo travel. I learned that whom you’re with has just as strong an impact on your experience as where you go and what you see. To illustrate, let me tell two short stories.
For Halloween weekend, I went to Prague with a classmate (whom I knew from Boston, as well). She’s a wonderfully nice girl, and had figured out a hostel and how to get to and from said hostel—for which I was immensely grateful. But once we were settled, she had no opinion about how we spend our first night, priorities about what to see, etc. And she had a limiting budget. In essence, I ended up being a tour guide. And when I once suggested that we spend an afternoon on our own, she looked at me in a way that said “please, no.” That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy Prague—I did—but I would have gotten much more out of the experience with a more involved travel buddy. Or alone.
Now onto Dijon… I bought an impromptu ticket to Dijon one weekend in France. Then I missed my train. I had no one to blame but myself, and yet, I just read until the next train, got to Dijon an hour late, and explored nonetheless. Walking through the town’s streets, I heard a band playing in the courtyard of a gorgeous building, so I stopped and listened. I sat in the most beautiful church, I stopped to stroll through a market selling antiques and old French books. I stopped to sit in a park and watch a man talk to his dog in French. And I still went to museums and explored the city. I bought mustard. But I was free to change my plans on a whim. And I love Dijon—I’ll definitely be back.
Given those stories, one might think that I inherently like solo travel better. And that’s not necessarily true. But I think it’s a safe bet. When I travel solo, I know the trip—for better or for worse—is all mine. But when I travel with someone else, there’s a lot up in the air. Traveling with someone can be immensely rewarding. You just have to pick the right person(s).
And now to delve a little deeper, I thought I’d share what I consider the five main pros and cons of solo travel. Let me know what you think!
1. You get to plan the entire trip. Blame my obsessive planning syndrome, but I love preparing for a trip. My first international trip, my mom and I split the cities. And those that I’d personally researched and planned I was able to enjoy much more. I’d done some initial research, had looked at a map (and thus had a general idea of where I was at any given point in time), and had the glorious feeling of anticipation. With solo travel, I’m able to do that all on my own. I get to keep all the anticipation to myself. Muahahaha. On that note, if anyone needs a travel planner, let me know!
Bonus side story: When I traveled to Oktoberfest, the guy with the keys to our rental car got his jacket stolen. Lesson learned—do not rely on other people when you travel. This is impossible when you’re alone.
2. Complete and total freedom. I’ve learned that planning trips for myself is very different than planning trips for, say, my whole family. When it’s just me, I can start at 7:00, walk everywhere, stop to cry in a stunning church (this has happened more than once. I just walk in and am like BOOM, gorgeous, and I don’t really know how to handle it). I can count gelato or gourmet hot chocolate as a meal. There are no rules! When I travel with others, I have to account for their preferences, their distaste for museums, their never-ending-pit of a stomach (seriously, my brothers need 4-5 protein-packed meals a day—ain’t nobody got time for that!), their bathroom schedules (5 meals, you do the math), or their conflicting budgets. With solo travel, it’s all about me.
3. Confidence. Building off the glories of freedom, solo travel and alone time forces you to grow tremendously. Sure it often requires venturing outside of the comfort zone, but since when did anything worthwhile happen inside that zone. Self-reliance is an underrated asset.
4. More cultural exposure. Shhhh, hear that? It’s silence. Solo traveling is gloriously quiet, and the complete lack of pointless sound lets me focus on other senses: sight, smells, and taste. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good conversation, but I just don’t know that it’s always necessary when traveling. Stressful as traveling is, it can be downright meditative if you cut out all the noise. Sometimes I download free walking tours. Sometimes, I let myself get lost in the back roads and silence. Try it.
5. Mad respect, bro. In my experience, locals and fellow travelers have a lot of respect for solo tourists. When you travel alone, you don’t stumble around blabbering in English. You blend in and show more respect, and people respect you a lot more. Fellow solo travelers and locals are much more likely to make friends. And hopefully the alone time will empower you to do the same. One of my favorite travel experiences was in Tuscany. I was with my mother and we started talking to a solo traveler who was working on the farm to pay his room and board. He’d made his way to Italy to chase his heritage and he was So. Darn. Cool.
1. There’s no one with whom to reminisce. When I post pictures on Facebook or online, they’re just pictures to everyone except my mom. Just like no one really loves looking through someone’s travel photos, no one really cares to hear you gloat about all the amazing things you were able to do. So how do you combat that kind of aloneness? Keep a journal, so you can go back and reminisce with yourself later. I like to buy post cards and tape them into my journals, with ticket stubs, etc.
2. Eating alone is the tits. Unless you picnic or order from street carts (both highly recommended), ordering and eating alone in a restaurant is very depressing. There’s no getting past that, but in a pinch, my consolation is a good book. I have been known to eat alone—and even enjoy myself—with a good book. Or a laptop. Or, heck, even the aforementioned journal could dull the sting of eating alone. Just never let the awkwardness of solo dining keep you from exploring delicious restaurants. Food tastes good no matter whom you’re with—and wait staff is especially doting and friendly when you’re solo. Just sayin’. Less important, but worth mentioning: I imagine going out is difficult solo, as well. No one wants to drink alone.
3. Cost. If you’re traveling in hostels, this isn’t as big a deal. But usually traveling with one or more travel buddies cuts the cost of accommodations in half. Sharing rooms, sharing meals. Also, though not exactly money-saving, my mother and I like to treat each other to things throughout the trip. Sometimes dinner’s on me. Sometimes she’ll foot the bill. And though it evens out pretty nicely, it still feels good to treat and be treated—small potatoes, sure. But not to be overlooked.
4. Selfie overload. Sure, I ask people to take pictures sometimes, but I still haven’t become totally comfortable with the whole please-hold-my-600-dollar-prized-posession-while-I-stand-here-just-out-of-arms-reach. So I end up with a lot of selfies—my face very big with some teensy-tiny, moderately interesting attraction in the background. One way to combat the overload? Travel with a tripod and master the art of the self-timer.
5. Loneliness. Sure, alone time can help build confidence, and riding solo means more freedom, but I’m still human. Sometimes it’s nice to be able to hash out the best parts of the day with a travel mate. Sometimes, it’s nice to just have a familiar face or hold someone’s hands. Sometimes, it’s just nice to share experiences with someone so they can remind you about it at a later date. I won’t pretend I’m some hermit. Loneliness is difficult. But I just try to combat it by filling the void with new experiences and new friends. In all, solo travel is incredibly rewarding—certainly not something to write off automatically!