Buckling my seatbelt on the flight from New York to London, it finally struck me that I was going on this trip to Europe alone.
Call it a delayed reaction, but after months and months of planning my trip, the fear and trepidation of traipsing across a continent all by myself occurred only at the last minute.
Although this solo European adventure was not my first excursion outside my home country, it was the first time I would be traveling alone.
Why did I decide to go solo? During my previous travels, there was always a part of me that longed to separate from the group. I wanted to take in every sight, sound and smell like a greedy child. With a travel buddy, the journey felt too safe. I felt as if I had cheated and taken the sterile route.
The goal for this trip was to escape the four corners of my cubicle, the frightening comfortability of a daily routine, and my approaching quarter-life crisis. I thought of the comments and protests made by my family and friends, who told me that my plans were impossible and unsafe, and that I was “only a girl.”
Determined to prove them wrong, I reminded myself why I decided to travel solo:
1. Enjoy Complete Freedom
Traveling alone allows you to be the “Captain Of Your Own Destiny.” It is an experience of ultimate freedom. You can choose to satisfy your every desire or indulgence.
You can taste-test an array of cuisines from the local market without someone crinkling their nose in disgust; and alternatively you won’t have anyone forcing you to eat anything you would rather not try.
The time you lay your head on the pillow or decide to rise is your prerogative. You can wander the streets of Madrid at 3 a.m. without a travel partner pouting in annoyance. There is no need to sacrifice any plan for the sake of compromise.
2. Challenge Yourself
With only a backpack for company, traveling alone is one of the greatest yet most rewarding challenges you can choose to take on. It forces you to be confident in your choices. Every decision is based upon your own sense of self-belief.
There is no one to seek counsel or rely upon, and so trusting your own instincts becomes a necessary survival skill. If the first step of travel is to take the plunge into the unknown, then walking the road alone requires leaping headfirst off an 80-foot cliff.
It is precisely these challenges that make you stronger. You are responsible to no one but yourself. Thus, every wrong turn or misstep is yours – and yours alone.
3. Attain Deeper Insights
Risk is always a factor when traveling. However, oftentimes there is greater danger to a group of unprepared travelers than a single prepared one.
Loneliness is inevitable. Even so, I have found that the quiet solitude of solo travel has led to my deepest insights about my own nature and the realities of others. The sensation of being connected in a world so vast and varied leaves you humbled and filled with gratitude.
The solo traveler can revel in the the long-lost freedom of becoming ‘one’ with the landscape. There is no need to fill the empty gaps of time with desperate, painful dialogue; rather you can retreat into the deepest recesses of your mind and imagination.
Everything taste better, shines brighter, and seeps deeper into your bones when all you have are your thoughts and a notebook. You become a sponge, absorbing every detail and sensation of a new location. The intensity of your aloneness magnifies this privilege.
4. Leave Home (And Travel Companions) Behind
Taking the road with a companion (or a hoard of them) often means that you’re packing remnants of home along with your guidebook.
As a solitary traveler, observation became my main means of entertainment. I observed people traveling as a couple or in a group who, rather than noticing the windmills of Don Quixote’s Spain, or the different characters that boarded the train in Malaysia, all too often were lost in conversation about the latest gossip from back home.
Thus, they often failed to see the flashing landscape of a country and the habits that made its people unique.
Another tendency that I noticed by observing packs and pairs of backpackers was that they seemed to be surrounded by an “invisible shield” – a force field that appeared impenetrable and intimidating to fellow travelers and locals. It was as though they had a sign stating Do Not Approach in bold, neon lights.
5. Meet The Locals
As a lone traveler, you become more curious and active in your new environment.
I remember wandering down the beach in Asilah, Morocco, encountering a kif-smoking goat-herder. Despite the language barrier, we struck up a friendship. He took hold of my guidebook and started pointing out places on the map and gave me their names in Arabic, while I stated the county names in English.
Though most of our conversation was dominated by clumsy hand movements and mutual laughter, it was an interaction that I will never forget.
It was also an encounter that I highly doubt I would have experienced if I had been with a partner or a collection of friends.
6. See With Clear Eyes
Whether or not you travel with others can also affect the “eyes” with which you view the journey. The desire to please and be accepted, most especially by those whom we consider our peers, is an innate and almost inescapable social need.
Thus, a traveler may often see the world through his partner’s eyes and censor her opinions for the sake of “peace” or “agreement.”
The travel writer Alain de Botton elucidates this point in his 2002 book “The Art of Travel,” stating:
It seemed an advantage to be traveling alone. Our responses to the world are crucially molded by the company we keep, for we temper our curiosity to fit in with the expectations of others. They may have particular visions of who we are and hence may subtly prevent certain sides of us from emerging… Being closely observed by a companion can also inhibit our observation of others; then, too, we may become caught up in adjusting ourselves to the companions questions and remarks, or feel the need to make ourselves seem more normal than is good for our curiosity.
Traveling with others may not only hinder us from being truly ourselves, but also thwart the spiritual growth that comes with a journey. The partner or group serves the function of preserving the identity we constructed for ourselves before the trip.
Shedding the shell that one has built over time becomes an unlikely possibility when fellow travelers are there to constantly remind you of who you were – and who they think you still should be.
The Road Back…or Forward
We return home from travel with a transformed view of the world. People often say that ‘you are not the same person you were in your twenties when you are in your thirties,’ and travel accelerates this metamorphosis. Every trip enriches you in ways that can never be recreated or reproduced.
A traveler who sets out alone is like a bird pushed out of the nest and obliged to take flight on its own. Travel solo, spread your wings, and soar above and beyond your greatest hopes and dreams.