4 Tips for the Solo-Travel Virgin
My older brother Chris dropped me off outside the departures terminal at Washington Dulles International airport. Per my request, he snapped a picture of me with my ridiculously oversized and overloaded backpack. I was smiling and giving a thumbs-up. I looked all happiness and independence in that shot but it was not how I felt. As he drove away, I considered darting after his car, waving my arms to flag him down, and begging him to be taken back to familiarity and safety. Instead, I took a deep breath, adjusted my pack, and strode into the airport.
My first stop was Reykjavik. I had felt confident during the 5-hour flight but once the wheels touched down in Iceland, my mind went into a panic. Who did I think I was to believe I could do this on my own? As my fellow passengers filed off the plane, I realized I couldn’t very well stay in my seat, no matter how badly I wanted to. I forced myself again to shoulder my pack and caught the bus into town where my hostel was waiting.
After some time in Reykjavik, I bumbled through Amsterdam, The Netherlands, and Hamburg, Germany by way of planes, trains, and light rail. In those two weeks, I had both good and bad experiences and learned a lot about myself; my resourcefulness, courage, and resiliency surprised me at times. That trip, a trip I almost didn’t take, changed my life and my approach to travel. Now, 6 years on, I continue to travel alone and cannot recommend it enough.
Below are some tips and anecdotes from my years traversing the globe by myself. The secret to the art of traveling alone is this: Anyone can do it. You only need to take the first step. May these be the encouragement you need to do just that.
1. Plan ahead.
I highly recommend ditching the reservations, road maps, and sense of time on your solo trips — once you feel more confident as a solo traveler. As I experienced on my first three-country tour alone, not knowing where you’ll stay or how you’ll get there in advance can make for some stressful and sloppy moments. Until you’re comfortable as a traveler, having a basic itinerary will save you time and stress. Have your hostels booked in advance, along with your modes of transportation. You’ll thank yourself.
I woke up with less than ten minutes to get checked out of the hostel. A handwritten note taped on the dorm room wall stared me down, warning of a hefty 50 EUR fine for late departures. “I shouldn’t have gone out with those Australians,” I thought and frantically shoved articles of clothing into my pack. A night out on the town with two Aussie lads started innocently enough, but it wasn’t long before we had hitched a ride on the coattails of a Red Light District pub crawl. At 5 AM, the group long since disbanded, I found myself at the tour company’s office ripping shots with the pub crawl leader.
Barely 4 hours later, I had sprung to life at the sound of my alarm and realized that not only did I need to vacate the property post-haste, but I had done no planning for my next destination. The sweats I experienced in the following hours were more to do with my anxiety than the mind-numbing hangover. I ended up having to extend my stay at the hostel because the pressure was too great. A day later I had my plans set for Hamburg, but my lack of planning had wasted my precious time — and sanity.
2. Appreciate being alone — even when eating.
Eating alone is weirdly stigmatized, but it is something that the solo traveler must face. In the beginning, you might feel like a social pariah, but dining solo becomes less and less daunting with every outing. After six years of eating meals by myself, I actually prefer it now — even when I’m not traveling. Ease yourself into it by taking a book. Soon enough, you’ll be content just people-watching or staring out a window. You’re not in high-school any longer and the cast of Mean Girl is not here to judge you, so relax and enjoy your own company.
I sat at the bar in Dublin, leisurely eating dinner, sipping a pint, eyes buried in a book. The bartender approached and slid another Smithwick’s my way. “That man wanted to buy you a drink,” he said and glanced at the figure across the bar from us. I examined this bearer of free booze; a man in his late-50s, paunchy, wearing a cheeky grin. I gave him a nod of thanks and returned to my book. It wasn’t long before he sent another drink, then finally approached me. “Reading at the bar,” he said matter-of-factly, “is very intriguing.”
3. Provisions will bring companionship.
Never underestimate the power of food and alcohol when trying to make friends. You may be traveling alone by choice, but that doesn’t mean you don’t want companionship. Hostels can be hit-or-miss in their friendliness levels. Sometimes this is because there isn’t a defined common area for people to meet. Other times, you just happen to be in a place at a time when the other hostel-goers aren’t very chatty. Regardless of the situation, when you enter a room where people are gathered, toting treats and/or a six pack is sure to get attention.
I had gotten to Amsterdam and after arriving at a dodgy and run-down hostel, I found myself sitting on my bunk, pondering my next move. There was no common area, which is often the bane of the solo traveler’s existence. So, I looked to my dorm mates for potential new friends. There were several other people in the 6-bed dorm, all male, all seemingly unaffiliated with one another. I started a conversation with a Romanian guy in the bunk across from me. Once we got talking, I mentioned I was planning to go out for the night; however, my new friend wasn’t too sure about this — he was there to search for a job, not for fun and games. I decided I would try to change his mind. I told him I needed to slip out, then some minutes later returned with 6 cans of Amstel. I offered cans to the two other lads in the room and held out a beer to the reluctant Romanian. “I hope you like Biggie,” I said with a smile and waited for his enthusiastic reply. He took the can. “Who’s Biggie?” he asked.
4. Your trip, your rules.
You decide where you go and when, what you eat, how long you linger, etc. Meeting people when traveling is, in my opinion, the best part. But, the kicker is this: while you can make as many friends as you like during your trip, you never have to be tied down to any one person or itinerary. The freedom you have to call the shots is liberating. Being alone doesn’t have to be lonely.
I was excited about a relaxing and solitary Christmas on Ireland’s west coast. Standhill in County Sligo is a popular destination for tourists and Irish alike during the summer months, but it is nearly deserted in the offseason. When I arrived at the hostel, I learned that there were 3 other travelers and 5 staff members with whom I’d be sharing my holiday. I spent days alone, rambling along the beaches and sand dunes, taking photos, writing. At times, I would simply sit and look aimlessly out across the crashing waves. But in the evenings, when I would come back to the hostel renewed and serene, there was a gang of wonderful people to spend time with. On Christmas Day, all of us shared a potluck lunch and spent the evening sprawled on couches in the common room watching The Wizard of Oz and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, singing along and reliving Christmases past. While each of us was on our own that holiday, no one felt alone.
When you’re at the airport waiting to board your flight before your first solo adventure, you may experience a moment of sheer terror. Fight the urge to sprint to the nearest emergency exit and convince yourself to get on the plane. If you get that far, I can guarantee you that you’re in for an incredible time.