“Sometimes I wonder if people don’t want freedom as much as they want meaning.”
– Zadie Smith, Swing Time
I‘ve spent a lot of time traveling solo — it’s not exactly my first choice, but sometimes you have to get away and no one’s around to join you.
And traveling by yourself isn’t all that difficult. It can be a rewarding experience, filled with all the adventure you want (or lack of adventure if that’s your thing). The beauty of solo travel is that you can do what you want — there’s no need to compromise or visit sites you have no interest in. Solo travel is an attractive option.
There are a lot of people who don’t seem to understand the desire to travel alone — some are baffled that I would do it at all. I was asked by a U.S. customs agent at the Canadian border why I traveled to Montreal by myself. “You went alone?” he asked not once, but thrice. “I’m used to it. I do it all the time,” I replied.
Sometimes, I wish it were easier to find travel partners. It’s especially difficult to get people to join in your travels when you’re a digital nomad moving from city to city every couple months like I did when I worked 50 hours a week on Hong Kong time. On occasion I’d find someone to at least go around with for a day, like the Dutch guy who joined me on a long bike ride around Angkor Wat. But those moments didn’t happen often.
For a year I traveled around with that job. It wasn’t easy to meet people while being a temporary resident, but I made a few friends (one of whom invited me to travel in Vietnam for a bit).
It seems like solo travel is more popular now, though it could be all those people just talking about it like Crossfit. It’s why Travel + Leisure published an article about what you can do when you travel alone — some of it is good advice, though a lot of it depends on the destination. There’s also a lot of obvious advice, which makes sense considering it’s a list of 25 things you should try. After my time traveling alone, I’ve had time to consider the positives and negatives, and define certain activities that are helpful to stay happy on the lonely road and make it feel a little less so.
If you’re traveling on your own, of course you’re going to take yourself out to dinner — but the Travel + Leisure folks are focusing more on the idea of treating yourself to a nice meal rather than street food, which can be a lot of fun in its own right.
It can be tempting to just eat on the street — it feels less lonely surrounded by the masses looking for a bite to eat. But you’ll miss out on some great food if that’s all you do. Of course, heading to a nicer restaurant feels awkward by yourself, and you can’t share as many dishes as you would with a group, but you can indulge yourself (go on, get fat!).
The advantage of traveling solo is that you never have to agree with someone on where to eat — if the restaurant looks good, you go. And sometimes you have an idea for a nice meal and you can invite someone you just met, which is how I ate chả cá with snakefish in Hanoi with someone from my day-tour (it was a meal intended for two or more people). And if you take yourself out to eat, you’re the only one who can complain about the meal not meeting expectations; no one will blame you for a poor decision.
This can be extended beyond food as well. Look at the experiences you can have while traveling. Check out the fun activities and tours on offer wherever you go and see what you’d enjoy. Or just go relax with a massage or read a book by the pool. If anyone asks what you did on your trip, you can lie and they’ll never know.
Strike up a Conversation
The second most obvious piece of advice is to meet locals. This is easier said than done in some places, particularly in tourist traps. I’ve always found that beer is a great conversation starter even if you don’t have a common language (hey, it worked for me in Tokyo, Seoul, and Vientiane).
In some cases, meeting the locals turns into meeting other tourists or expats. The first person I talked to when I stayed in Perugia was a writer from New Jersey. A few days later I met the American bar owner down the street. In fact, I don’t think I got to know any of the locals other than the woman who rented the apartment through Airbnb.
When going to a foreign country, I always attempt to learn a few words or phrases. At the very least I learn to say “hello,” “thank you,” and “beer.” I’ve also found it useful to have a phrasebook — locals can use it to communicate with me as well (sometimes it provides a good laugh to go along with the awkwardness).
Get Lost (But Not Too Lost)
I love getting lost when I travel — it’s the best way to find your way, or at least some interesting cafes and bars. I do not, however, condone Travel + Leisure’s advice to ditch the map app altogether. While I’m an avid proponent of getting lost, it’s not always a good idea. I certainly wouldn’t advise this in cities that aren’t known for safety.
Wherever I go now, I have Maps.ME, but that doesn’t mean I’m constantly looking at the app as I walk around. I check the destination every once in a while to ensure I’m heading in the right direction — usually at an out-of-the-way spot to avoid causing sidewalk congestion.
Also, hiking or swimming alone can be dangerous — I tend to stick to well-traveled trails, or at least tell someone where I’m heading just in case. There’s nothing worse than getting so hopelessly lost that you have to live in the nearest cave and survive off whatever the land provides.
Take a Tour
I don’t eschew all tours. All tours are not created equal. And they can be a great way to see the sights and learn a bit of history (assuming the tour includes a capable guide, unlike the one I took with Nova Tours in Luang Prabang).
The best part about taking a day-tour is that you can meet people in the group. That’s how I found a biking partner for the day in Siem Reap — without the tour, I never would have taken that 40-mile bike ride around Angkor Wat.
And for solo travelers who choose to stay in hostels, there are often tours offered, especially at Hostelling International. I’ve been on a few of these, and they are great for getting to know the area and the people staying at the hostel.
There’s a lot more advice I can offer for solo travel, but a lot of it depends on the destination. The top advice for travel anywhere — whether solo or not — is to always be aware of your surroundings and be skeptical to an extent to avoid scams and dangerous situations.
What’s your advice for making the best of the solo travel experience?