The first time I really travelled alone was in 2003. I was in Thailand, and I was actually travelling with a friend, but he got sick, and so after a few days of waiting for him to get better, I ventured out on my own, and found I had a much better time without him! I’ve done 95% of my travelling alone ever since.
When I tell people I travel alone, they usually react in one of two ways: ‘Don’t you get bored / lonely / scared?’ they ask. ‘I wish I was brave enough to do that,’ they say.
So for anyone who’s wondered what it’s like, and wondered if they could do it, here’s a little insight into my experiences of travelling alone. And if you’re a solo traveller, I’d love to hear some of your highs and lows too! Feel free to comment below!
The first night: You head out full of excitement to explore a new place – who knows what you’ll discover?!
Low: You don’t know where you are. Despite the online reviews giving your accomodation five stars for location, you actually appear to be staying in the middle of nowhere. You haven’t got any local currency, and you can’t find a cash machine or a restaurant that will take your card – in fact, you can’t find any restaurants full stop. You start walking – somewhere… where?!?! Anywhere! And finally find an ATM. It’s out of order. By the time you find one that works it’s nearly midnight. You buy a bag of peanuts and a bottle of wine in a convenience store, walk the three miles back to your apartment (adding on another mile when you get lost), then eat them on the balcony in the dark.
Highs: When the above inevitably happens there’s no one with you to ruin your mood, either by complaining (if you’re feeling chipper and enjoying your tour of a untouristy part of town) or by telling you to stop moaning (if you’re really pissed off).
The second night: You’ve sussed it all out now, you’ve got some cash, you know where you are and you know where to go – who knows what might happen?
High: You end up eating the most delicious food in the shadow of a medieval cathedral, listening to an old man play Paco de Lucia on the guitar. Or making a new best friend at a clifftop cocktail bar. Or drinking all night at a lock in with a Blues Brothers’ Tribute Band. Or going to a deserted beach on the back of a Danish guy’s motorbike, where you have the kind of uninhibited sex you can only have with someone you’ll never see again as the sun comes up.
Low: You’re eating delicious food in the shadow of a medieval cathedral, listening to an old man play Paco de Lucia on the guitar, when suddenly you hear: ‘Howard look! It’s that lady from the hotel, the one who’s by herself. Hello love, remember me? Brenda*, from the hotel! Do you want some company? You can’t sit here on your own! Waiter! Two glasses of vino tinto please.’
Every. Single. Time.
(*These people always seem to be called Brenda, and Howard).
What (not) to wear: Whether your holiday is an excuse to parade an entire new wardrobe, dig out some stuff you only wear once a year (and have worn once a year for the past five years) or you chose to wear the same thing every day, your clothes are an expression of you, with no one around to raise an eyebrow and say ‘are you wearing that?!’
The highs: You can wear whatever the hell you want – who’s going to know? That see-through dress that shrunk in the wash. Those baggy pants that make you look like you’re wearing a nappy (or off to an M C Hammer convention). A llama wool hat with pom poms and tassles – everyone wore them in Peru, so what if you’re in Switzerland now?!
Low: Sometimes we do need a friend to tell it to us like it is – like that it might not be the best idea to wear those denim cut-offs that you wore in Ibiza in 1998 when your bum cheeks were toned, and not hanging below the hem line.
High: It’s all ok! You look a mess, but as you’re travelling alone, 99% of your photos will be either landscapes or selfies, so no one will ever know the sins you committed below shoulder level! Which brings me onto…
Low: that 1% is the time you climbed a mountain, or swam with dolphins, or bumped into David Beckham, and asked the man with the most professional-looking camera to take your photo. You’re not actually in that photo. Or David Beckham isn’t. Or he took the photo while you were saying ‘just tap the little white circle on the screen’ so you look like you have some issues…
Table for one, please: You go out for dinner, excited to try the local cuisine.
Low: The local cuisine is similar to tapas. ‘Sharing plates’. But there’s no one to share with.
You have two* options:
1. Just order two small plates and have a boring dinner
2. Order enough for two, waste loads and spend a small fortune.
*Secret option number three (this is what I usually do). Order and eat enough for two, then halfway through the holiday discover that none of your holiday clothes fit you anymore.
High: Is there anything better than sitting alone at a table, with good food and good wine, where you can savour every mouthful, and enjoy some music / a book / people watching in peace? I honestly don’t think there is. Unless…
Low: Brenda and Howard show up.
Or, you ask for a table outside, or on the balcony, or by the sea, and hear the dreaded words: ‘I’m sorry, those tables are reserved for families / larger parties / couples’ while your waiter directs you to the bar, or a table at the back near the toilets. (Yes, this has happened to me many times. I’ve never been hungry enough to accept my crappy table. I have been annoyed enough to make a scene and storm out of a restaurant then spend the next hour trying to find somewhere else to eat and wishing I’d just let it go and sat by the kitchen…)
The single person supplement. Note: there is no high for this one.
Low: The ultimate insult to the solo traveller – your holiday costs between 25% and 100% more as a punishment (that’s what it feels like) for travelling alone.
High: Actually, I was wrong! There is a high! Budget airlines, Air BnB and a world of alternative travel options now mean that booking flights and accommodation separately isn’t just the most cost effective, it’s also the most fun! Who wants to go on a boring package holiday anyway?! Who needs dozens of children jumping in the pool when you can stay in your own apartment on the banks of Lake Garda for half the price!
Note: dorm rooms and sharing opportunities still rank highly as alternative options for me. I’m not sure I’d want to do my whole holiday in a backpackers anymore – going straight back to work means I need to be guaranteed a certain level of rest and sleep. But on my recent sailing trip in Croatia I shared a cabin with someone I’d never met, and it honestly couldn’t have worked out better (for me anyway, I’m not sure how much my roomie appreciated my snoring!!)
Travelling alone: You’re only really as alone as you want to be when you’re travelling.
High: I find I’m much more open to meeting new people when I travel alone, and for me, it’s the best part of travelling. From locals to fellow travellers, you learn so much from the people you meet – and not just practical stuff like where to go, how to get there, good places to stay etc. Most of my closest friends are people I met travelling, and it’s surprising how often you’ll bump into a familiar face on the other side of the world years later!
Low: Of course, I’ve met some really awful people travelling, but that again is the beauty of being alone – you can walk away without causing offence. And even if you do cause offence – so what? You might never see them again anyway. Travel with a friend however and you run the risk of spending your whole holiday either compromising, biting your lip – or potentially ruining a friendship forever.
Safety in numbers: Are you really safer in a crowd?
Low: I’ve travelled all over the world in my own, and I’ve never really ran into any serious problems – in fact, my worst experience (the time I was mugged at knife point) I was actually with another person – a man, who is over six foot tall. Truthfully, I never would have walked in such a dodgy part of the city by myself, so I actually put myself in danger because I had company.
High: Of course you have to stay alert, keep your wits about you, and always – ALWAYS – trust your gut. And don’t be stupid – you’ll have to take risks occasionally, but measure the risk, whether you’re alone or not (see my example, above). Travelling alone can bring huge achievements, whether it’s just from navigating a city or finding your way back when you get lost. Being 100% self sufficient is a thing to be proud of, and having the confidence to trust yourself and your decisions is probably one of the best souvenirs you’ll take home with you. And in those times when you do need some help? You’ll never cease to be amazed by the kindness of strangers, and those willing to lend you a hand, a fiver, or a bus ticket when you really need it.
The last night.
Low: The last night is the worst. You’ve spent the last however many days bonding with new people, building the kind of intense relationship that only comes from travelling together, and now you have to say goodbye, knowing you might never see them again, and knowing that when you get home, no one will really be interested in hearing all about your holiday… Plus there’ll be no one to reminisce with, no one to share those ‘you had to be there’ jokes with…
High: Thanks to Facebook, you’ll definitely keep in touch. And deep down you know that although saying goodbye is sad, it’s good to feel sad. Because feeling sad means that you’re leaving something amazing behind – and weren’t you lucky to have that experience to begin with?! It really is better to have loved and lost! And now, it’s time to move on to a new place, a new adventure. Who knows what will happen next…?!