THERE IS NO one way to travel. Regardless whether you’re night kayaking solo in Guatemala, or hiking up a 3,700-meter volcano in Indonesia with a group, you’re likely in a world unlike your own. The same applies if you prefer to soak it up on a Costa Rican beach or stuff yourself with dolmas in a fancy Greek restaurant.
I’ve traveled thousands of miles solo for years now, and prefer solo traveling to exploring the world with someone else, especially a god-forsaken group. But, as time has passed, I’ve realized that solo traveling isn’t all it’s chalked up to be.
The cons of traveling solo
Traveling solo is no joke. You spend the majority of your days with yourself, are forced to fend for yourself and, in some cases, defend yourself. And while many people often espouse the endless positives of exploring the world without having to lug someone else along, it also comes with its negatives.
Traveling by yourself gets lonely.
People don’t often talk about it, but the truth is that traveling by yourself can be incredibly isolating. Whether it’s just for a few days or even a few months, you don’t have anyone with you to talk about your bad day, celebrate accomplishments, or share an experience. “I wish [insert name of good friend] were here to see this” becomes a regular saying, and you will inevitably miss everyone — friends, family, significant others, even random people like your garbage man — a ton. This deep sadness causes some people to either head back home, or look for comfort in the wrong places.
After traveling in Southeast Asia for 2.5 months, I found myself lying on a bed on Gili Air feeling incredibly homesick. I spent two hours looking at all 9,000 photos in my iPhone and started to like five-year-old photos on Facebook. I then went outside for a walk and stepped in a pile of horse crap; I took it as a sign that things can always get worse.
When you’re solo, danger intensifies.
There’s nothing like walking down a sketchy alley to a bar Lonely Planet swears is “worth it.” One person traveling alone is much easier to target for a mugging, or worse, than a group. I felt this while waiting for a bus in the Guatemalan town of Rio Dulce at midnight, when I found myself in the crumbling Cuban neighborhood of Centro Habana with dudes and women constantly asking me, “que quires, papi?”, and in countless other scenarios. If you get stuck in a sticky situation, your only friends are “me, myself and I,” which, depending on the scenario, may not amount to much.
Friendship becomes a temporary word.
Over the years, I’ve made many “friends,” in dozens of countries. There was the guy whom I couch surfed with in Ireland, who told me his parents were killed by the church and that now they were also after him. There was the girl I spent a few wonderful nights with in Italy. The woman I met on the “slow ferry” from Bali to Lombok who invited me to have a meal with her and her family, etc. When you travel alone for an extended period of time, the list goes on and on. And, while meeting new people is a wonderful experience, it’s also a bit disappointing when you realize that many of the strong relationships you forge with others while traveling easily turn into dust when you’re no longer in the same place. Impermanence is a deeply embedded truth of life, but it can still hit you with immense force when you experience it.
Solo travel can be expensive.
“35 CUC cada noche” a woman said to me as I viewed a room with two beds in her Cuban apartment. For the record, 35 CUC is 35 USD. “Is someone else going to stay here?” I asked. “No, just you,” she replied, causing me to wish I were traveling with a friend. 35 USD / night was far more than I paid in other Central American countries, especially given that there was an extra bed in the room that I didn’t need.
Traveling alone makes it harder to negotiate with folks — group prices always reduce total costs — as well as more difficult to have certain experiences. For example, when looking for a company to trek the Indonesian volcano of Mount Rinjani with, prices were regularly 50-60 USD more if you tagged along with an existing group versus if you already had one of your own.
After making the acquaintance of two friends in Cuba (fortunately, they don’t seem like “temporary” friends), we decided to crash in the same place in the town of Trinidad. Since there were three of us, I managed to negotiate it down to 15 CUC per room per night, which was far cheaper than what I paid in Havana.
The pros of solo traveling
In my opinion, the pros outweigh the cons; however, that’s just my take on solo traveling. The only way you’ll know is by adventuring both alone and with a friend (I really don’t recommend groups). But, before you make a choice, below are a handful of pros to solo traveling.
You’re on your own schedule.
Traveling alone drastically reduces the drama of having to decide whether you spend a few nights on Koh Phi Phi or head straight to Koh Tao for the full moon party; whether you club it up in Paris tonight or relax inside and read a book; whether you third wheel it on a friend’s tinder date In New Delhi or check out the Lotus Temple. The point is, when you travel alone, you are in charge of what you do, when you do it, and who you do it with, which is incredibly liberating! When you’re solo, there’s no wasted time trading and negotiating some experiences for others because you decide your itinerary from beginning to end.
People I’d meet would often ask me, “So, what are you doing today?” and I’d reply, “Not sure, just going to figure it out,” which gave me an instant high. The same goes for being able to leave a particular place when you’re not feeling it. On my way back to the US from Indonesia, I decided to stop in Singapore to see a friend for a short layover, which would have been much more difficult to do if I had someone else tagging along.
Solo traveling gives you time to think.
When you don’t have someone constantly in your ear talking a whole lot of nonsense, you have a seemingly infinite amount of time to spend with your thoughts and emotions, which can be immensely helpful if you’re someone frequently bombarded with stimulation.
I’ve thought of countless ideas while just relaxing and soaking my travels in (this article is one of them), and I’m sure I’ve missed out on countless others because I was subjected to hearing a friend describe how much they disliked a certain person we encountered or how gross a recent meal we had was.
Having the ability to be by yourself, work through personal problems, and find solitary modes of happiness is truly a gift.
If you encounter someone, or something, that makes you uncomfortable, solo travel is such that you won’t be able to shoot a glance at a friend and mouth, “What. The. Hell.” You’re on your own, which means that you’re going to become far more uncomfortable in far more situations than if you had a friend around.
And while discomfort may come off as a con, it’s not. Being uncomfortable stretches who you are (or think you are), and causes you to adapt, change, and grow in ways that you never imagined were possible.
I recently did a 10-day silent meditation course on the island of Java, in Indonesia, and if I had gone with a friend, my experience would have been completely different, in a bad way. Since I went alone, I focused only on myself — my growth, improvement, and extreme struggles — as opposed to trying to see if a friend were experiencing it the same way.
Without discomfort, progress becomes impossible.
You make more friends.
Even though I blasted “temporary friendships” above, making friends, of any kind, is always a pro. It’s up to you, and them, how your friendship grows or dies, after you part.
Being alone makes you a magnet for other solo travelers, who may be looking for friends. It also forces you to be a little more outgoing, if you’re looking to meet new people.
When I went to San Jose, in Costa Rica, I opted to couch surf instead of booking a hostel. I made an awesome new friend who ended up introducing me to a handful of her friends. Even though I was staying in the southern town of Quepos, I’d often take a 3-hour bus up north to go on excursions with them. We visited the beautiful Caribbean side, swam in the crater of a volcano, and drank guaro until we were sick. This would have never happened if I didn’t put myself out there and may have been more difficult if I weren’t alone. If I were with a friend, they may not have liked her friends as much as I did, or they may not have wanted to take 3-hour bus rides up north as often as I did.
Regardless of who and how you are, it’s extremely difficult to travel alone and not meet people.
Traveling alone makes you rely on yourself.
Arguably the biggest pro of solo travel is that you cultivate a strong sense of self-reliance. Traveling alone forces you to summon up a certain amount of courage in order to go places, get things done, and navigate your way through all of the unpredictable situations that travel will place you in.
When you’re on that flight back home, you will undoubtedly be different than who you were — one hopes stronger, smarter, and more open-minded.
There is no one way to travel. Travel as you are. Travel with those you love most. Travel alone. But, regardless of where you do it, when you do, who you do it with, what’s most important is that you buy that ticket and go. There’s a whole world out there waiting for you (and maybe your friends).