Even if you’re a seasoned traveler, taking a solo trip can feel totally disorienting. You might get on each other’s nerves, but having a companion to lean on, complain to (and about), drink with, and get lost with, can really make the whole experience more comfortable. The idea of traveling alone might seem exhilarating when you book your flight, but when you arrive in the Prague and all the signs are in Czech, and you’re wandering around lost with your bags trying to find your hotel, it can be easy to regret going solo. Whether it’s a business trip, studying abroad, the desire for a new challenge, or you just couldn’t convince any friends to tag along, there’s no reason traveling alone should give you anxiety. Here are 5 ways to make sure your solo trip is memorable.
1. Resist the urge to compare.
I’ve always found that culture shock hits hardest when traveling alone. Language barriers, directions, and figuring out public transportation, are all a little easier to manage with a friend; without that safety net, it’s common to get overwhelmed. But traveling without a safety net is one of the exciting things about a solo trip, right?
When I went to grad school for a year in Edinburgh, I had to settle into a new city, new apartment, and new culture, without knowing anyone. Even in a western, English-speaking country like Scotland, I still found myself easily irritated by small things, like the constantly bad weather, small portion sizes at restaurants, and lack of good pizza options (a bigger deal than you’d think). The fact that I was alone in a new environment absolutely made these small gripes seem huge. I reminded myself that if everything was exactly the same as back home, I might as well have just stayed in Boston. I realized I didn’t want to see familiar faces in Scotland — that tackling this new culture by myself was why I had gone in the first place.
2. Do whatever YOU want.
We all love traveling with our friends, but let’s face it. You’re not always going to be on the same page. Sometimes you feel like Italian food, and they want pub fare. Sometimes you want to sleep in, and they want to wake up at 6am to watch the sunrise. Having complete control of your agenda is freeing. Want to sleep until noon before a full afternoon of exploring? Go for it. Want to hit that museum that your friends think is boring? Why not?
Last year I went on a business trip in Geneva, with nothing to do except attend a conference for two hours each morning. I was alone, and in a city that spoke largely French. It’s easy to feed off the energy of a travel companion and hit the town for the day, but by myself, I got lazy. Faced with having to figure out the bus schedule if I wanted to head into town, I stayed in my room the first night watching The Simpsons in French (no, I don’t understand a word of French). Luckily, I realized what a ridiculous waste of time this was, and spent the next few days exploring Geneva. Having no one to talk to was a surprisingly nice feeling. Nothing distracted me from a peaceful stroll around Lake Geneva, or taking in the Old Town sights, and I got to avoid everyone’s favorite debate — what to eat for dinner.
3. Don’t feel self-conscious about dining.
Speaking of dinner, I always felt most aware that I was alone while at restaurants. Surrounded by families, people on dates, groups of friends, etc., it was easy to get self-conscious. Work had given me a $75 per diem for food (which, in Geneva, might get you an appetizer), and my first night I wanted to have a nice meal. My first thought, however, when I pushed through the doors of the upscale French restaurant, was, “uh oh, everyone’s going to look at me. They’ll think I got stood up. Yeah. Who comes to a nice restaurant like this by themselves?” It wasn’t until midway through my meal that I realized absolutely zero people in that restaurant cared what I was doing. I have friends who, as a rule, never eat alone, and I can say confidently — no one’s looking at you. No one’s judging you. So don’t let irrational self-consciousness get in the way of a good meal.
4. Make meeting people a priority.
Just because you’re traveling alone, it doesn’t mean you should spend the whole trip by yourself. It might seem more intimidating, but meeting new people solo is actually easier. When you travel with friends you have that safety net to fall back on; there’s no need to go outside your comfort zone for socialization, and you can easily spend a week in a city without meeting a single person.
Whether it’s meeting locals and other travelers at bars, or quieter cafes, there’s no reason you can’t make a ton of new friends. When I was in Copenhagen, I was traveling with a friend of mine who wasn’t feeling well, so he decided to stay in on a Friday night. Not wanting to waste a night out, I went to a bar near the hotel. The “no safety net” feeling kicked in pretty quick, and I thought, “I either have to leave right now, or I have to meet some people.” So I went up to a table of Danish students, sat down, and told them the truth. “Hey, I’m from Boston and I’m here by myself. Don’t really know anyone. Mind if I sit?” I ended up spending the whole night with them, going to a few different bars, and we still keep in touch today.
5. Whatever you’d normally do… do the opposite.
Traveling, in general, is the perfect time to shatter your routine, but this is especially true of traveling alone. Take whatever anxiety you may feel about arriving solo in a new country, and turn it into excitement for the unknown. When I was in Monaco, I met a guy at Monte Carlo Casino who was there by himself. He had just turned 21 and had never gambled before, but figured this was probably a good place to start. He told me he had gone paragliding in Germany the week before and was on his way to Barcelona the next day for a diving excursion. I asked if he had done either of those things before. “Nope,” he said, shrugging his shoulders. “I’m here, though, right? Might as well.”
It seemed like a fairly obvious statement at the time, but he was right. He might have been a little nervous to gamble, paraglide, and go diving for the first time — all while traveling solo — but his attitude sums it up perfectly, and it’s what I tell myself whenever I’m in a position of doubt while traveling; alone or otherwise. “I’m here, though, right? Might as well.”