A couple of months ago, I packed a backpack and spent a few weeks traveling through Europe completely on my own.
Family and friends were happy for me, but they also thought I was crazy. Even I thought I was a little bit crazy. I had been out of the country before, but never by myself. What if I hurt myself? What if I got lost? What if I lost my passport, all my money, my phone? I was excited, but I was also terribly nervous. I did not know that those few weeks would prove to be some of the most meaningful of my life to date.
Life Lessons from Solo Travel
As I traveled, I spent a lot of time thinking about the nature of loneliness, of being alone in foreign places, and of travel in general. I want to share with you some of the more significant lessons I learned from my time abroad alone.
Travel is a Privilege
We need to recognize (and appreciate) our privileged positions. Travel is, in general, a very special privilege. Those few weeks I spent alone in foreign countries allowed me to reflect on that fact. I was thankful that I was in a privileged enough position to undertake the adventure I was on. I had a job that paid good wages and provided ample time off. I had a family and friend group who were supportive of my trip. I was healthy and physically able enough for the adventure in the first place. These privileges aren’t something to apologize for, but I do think it’s important to recognize that others do not have the same opportunities, support, or abilities.
Just as travel can open one’s mind, it can also lock one in a small, privileged bubble. Many times I’ve heard well-traveled people remark with disappointment and thinly veiled judgment that they don’t understand why others don’t travel the world. I can sympathize with that mindset; once you’ve experienced the wonders of travel, it can be frustrating when others don’t actively strive to globe trek. But that mindset is often the product of immaturity or inexperience with others who are less financially stable, less physically able, or who have different life goals.
Travel is indeed amazing, but those of us who can do it are in a truly lucky position. Know that fact, appreciate that fact, and don’t forget it.
Fear of Solo Travel is to Be Expected
It’s normal to be afraid, but you need to confront that fear. The first time in any new place is always intense and a bit frightening. This is especially true during solo travel. The fear and intensity of a new location are exponentially greater when you’re in that place, alone, severely jet-lagged, and with nothing to your name but the clothes on your back and a huge backpack which will serve, essentially, as your closet for the next few weeks.
It’s all a bit surreal at first, likely due to the lack of sleep. But once that surreality wears off during your first few steps outside of the airport, reality comes at you, hard: I am alone. Home as I know it is thousands of miles away. No one is here to help me.
The sheer intensity of the initial aloneness one feels is palpable. I’m not prone to panic attacks, but that first dose of reality during my trip was probably the closest I’ve ever been to experiencing one.
I found that it’s key to embrace these feelings, though. This is not to say that I recommend you have a panic attack, but I do not recommend that you try to stuff those feelings away, either. If you need to, find a quiet corner of the airport or a public park somewhere and do what you deem necessary. If you feel like you need to cry, do so (but discreetly, if possible). If you need to close your eyes and take a few minutes to find your mental bearings, do it. The sooner you face the aloneness, the sooner you acknowledge and accept the reality of your situation, the better the rest of the trip will be.
One’s ability and willingness to confront this reality is a litmus test, I think, for how well-suited one is to solo travel. Some people will barely feel any of what I’ve described above. Some will feel it, engage with it, and come out with a better experience because of it. Others may delay engaging with it, and some may find it too overwhelming to continue. Regardless of what comes of one’s solo trip, no solo traveler deserves judgment. Solo travel is a difficult thing to do, and we should commend those who do it for at least trying.
Ditch What is Comfortable
Solo travel is no time to stick to what’s comfortable. Travel is primarily about one thing: new experiences. Traveling to other countries allows you to experience new cultures, new foods, new sights, sounds, and mindsets. To truly engage with these things, though, one must open themselves to them. One must become comfortable with being uncomfortable. As somewhat of an introvert, I had to confront this first-hand.
When I’m at home, I enjoy doing things alone. I enjoy wandering and spending time with my thoughts. I get more than enough social interaction from coworkers, family, and the occasional night out with friends. When one is solo traveling, however, one is truly alone. If you don’t want to socialize, you don’t have to. It’s not difficult to avoid extended conversations when you’re so thoroughly alone in some other country.
As much as I enjoyed my abundance of alone time during my trip, that alone time would occasionally become overwhelming. I began to miss companionship. I missed having someone to talk to, someone to swap stories with. This forced me to do something I am normally very uncomfortable doing: strike up conversations with strangers in the bars and hostels I frequented. I didn’t end up making any lifelong friends or anything like that, but was able to hear some interesting stories and round up a few drinking buddies in each city.
If I hadn’t taken that initial jump or forced myself beyond the bounds of my comfort zone, I think the feelings of loneliness would have become stronger. They may have soured my experience as a whole. I also would have missed out on one of the other wonders of travel: learning about the lives and hearing the myriad stories of people from different backgrounds than you.
The Benefits of Solo Travel
Solo travel taught me a lot (and that in itself was a major benefit). But there are additional benefits, additional points of insight, that come when you spend a significant amount of time in other places by yourself. I want to discuss a couple of those below.
Being Alone Can Be Empowering
You’ll gain an unbelievable sense of competence and confidence. The most frightening part of solo travel is the fact that you are completely and utterly alone. You have no one to rely on, no one to back you up, and no one to tell you what to do, where to go, or how to get around. This total sense of aloneness, as I mentioned earlier, can be overwhelming to many people. But if you can overcome that sense of aloneness and thrive during your trip, then the rewards are great.
Solo travel forces you to rely completely on yourself. More importantly, it forces you to be accountable for your mistakes — and there will be a handful, trust me. But if you can make it through your trip in one piece, and adapt to the mistakes, misunderstandings, and numerous oversights that will happen during it, you’ll be rewarded. You’ll gain the knowledge that you can take care of yourself and rely on yourself regardless of the situation or setting.
Once you’ve survived and thrived in a place where you can’t even read the street signs, the day-to-day challenges you face in your homeland will seem trivial by comparison.
Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder
You’ll find a greater appreciation of your loved ones. I traveled solo in part to challenge myself, but also to experience as much freedom as I could — freedom to do what I wanted to do, experience things the way I wanted to experience them.
But inherent to solo travel, is loneliness. There were a handful of occasions, particularly in the evenings when locals were meeting up for dinner, that I became very lonely. I eventually had to divert from my introverted ways to stave off that loneliness.
Spending such an extended amount of time alone made me appreciate the loved ones in my life. It made me appreciate their company, and re-evaluate my occasional tendency to avoid social interaction when I’m at home.
There are many wonderful people in my life, and I didn’t quite realize how much I needed them until I was without them for weeks on end.
A Challenge to Travel Solo
Are you taking a solo trip in the future? Do you feel prepared? Are you excited? Nervous? If you’re anything like me, you’ll be some combination of all of the above.
Solo travel is challenging, and it isn’t for everyone. It takes effort to get the most out of it, even if you’re a person who’s comfortable rolling solo for long periods. If you put in the effort — face the aloneness, overcome it, and push yourself outside of your comfort zone — I guarantee that you’ll learn some important lessons. You’ll reap a multitude of benefits.