As a solo traveler, I spent 36 delirious hours on a train headed to Goa, India, from New Delhi before driving more than a few hours across my native California alone.
That train ride was like an aptitude test: I was 18, on my first solo trip, and sporting a mild fever while faced with the iron language barrier, a ticketing mishap, questionable seating etiquette, and a car full of drunk navy boys who were disinclined to let me read in peace on the lying-room-only top bunk I’d been loosely assigned. If I could still manage to get off at the right stop, I told myself somewhere around Mumbai, I could do anything solo.
Then I drove from San Francisco to Denver and back alone.
Though the trip went off without a hitch, spending 20 hours on my own in a Subaru Impreza on either side of a weeklong trip to the Rocky Mountains changed my outlook on solo travel. For a first-timer, the open road is aptly challenging, rewarding, and accessible. I’ll never regret that messy 36-hour crash course in traveling on my own, but looking back, road-tripping by myself is the sort of introduction I wish I’d had to solo travel.
It’s harder than you think, mentally and physically.
Road-tripping on your own is an endurance sport. It requires stamina, focus, and, as I discovered around mile 300 of a 730-mile stretch of I-80, steely resolve.
Marathon sitting is no Olympic Game, but hours behind the wheel can leave distance drivers cramped and sore. Boredom is a hurdle. And while Google Maps handles navigation, it’s no substitute for street smarts, or road savvy as the case may be. Were it not for my brother’s advice to never dip below half a tank in Nevada, my first solo road trip might have become a misadventure in hitchhiking during a global pandemic.
On the other hand, it’s easier to pull a u-ey in a personal vehicle. Think of a road trip like a trial run for bigger, farther travels: Start closer to home, ease into the challenges of solo travel, and hone your problem-solving skills in a controlled setting. You’re in the driver’s seat, after all.
You’ll learn to love your own company.
A popular mantra among solo travelers says that traveling alone is rarely lonely. Going solo can be greater motivation to meet new people, and 21st-century resources like meetup apps and co-working spaces make it easier than ever to make connections outside of bars and hostels.
There are, of course, times when solo travelers are actually alone, and these can be challenging. Even career solo travelers get homesick sometimes. Road-tripping by yourself forces you to confront these feelings, quickly. Extended periods in the car not only limit human interaction, but driving also strips away safety blankets like being able to curl up with a book, cue up Netflix, take a walk, people watch, or scroll through social media to feel closer to home.
As there is little to distract you from your own thoughts, take the opportunity to get comfortable with your own company. You’ll thank us on future solo travels.
Every stop is a mini solo trip.
On a road trip, driving is only half the battle, or fun as it may be. Time spent off the road is like any other trip: You’ll check in and out of various accommodations, see the local sights, get used to eating alone, and, if you want, practice meeting people in unfamiliar places.
Though it’s easy to get caught up in driving logistics and your final destination, a first solo road trip should be a marathon, not a sprint. Build out a proper itinerary. Time permitting, spend a couple of nights in various cities along your route, engage with locals, and leave room for a few detours. Because outside of the car, a solo road-tripper is just another solo traveler.
Overpack now while you have the trunk space.
I’m not a planner. I buy one-way flights, never check a bag, and clear airport security 20 minutes before takeoff. Prior to Colorado, my last road trip was the result of a chance encounter in Brisbane, Australia, with a traveler I’d met several months before on a dive boat in Mexico.
Solo travel teaches us to manage our travel habits, sometimes the hard way. On a road trip, travelers can workshop their travel styles through trial and error. A few missed highway exits is a less stressful lesson in time management than a missed flight. Overloading your trunk with bags that end up dusty is easier than lugging around a pack full of unworn clothes. And getting a last-minute room at a Holiday Inn Express is cheaper than learning the hard way that same-day Swiss hotel bookings can be bank-breaking if there’s a music festival in the town over.
Solo road-trippers have more agency than any other traveler. First-timers can make mistakes and learn from them while they’re in total control. Iron out your pace, budgeting, packing essentials, and place on the spectrum from responsibly spontaneous to entirely planned. Or prepare to leave a trail of superfluous personal effects across your first foreign country.
Being alone with the scenery is almost spiritual.
Utah might be the most striking of the United States. I’d been a few times to ski but only realized this after spending hours alone with the landscape muraled across my windshield. Watching the salt-and-pepper mountains, ponderosa pines, and highlighter-red mesa unfurl at 70 miles an hour to a soundtrack I’d curated specifically for the occasion was as cinematic as every road trip movie promises. And, with no one there to share the experience, even more intimate.
Alone in a car, we tend to feel invisible in a way that lets us be authentic. We sing loudly and unironically dance in our seats like nobody’s watching. Sometimes we talk to ourselves. This is the default setting on a road trip and the lens through which we process the entire experience. Even on less-than-scenic drives, alone time in the car can be a special way to take in a new place. We can certainly imagine worse fates for a first solo trip.
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