In a recent podcast episode, I asked a traveller who is visiting every country in the world what she considers to be the 4 Steps to Make Your Travel Goals a Reality. #4 on the list was a zinger, because we’re both super passionate about solo travel. We have both found it to be essential to making a trip happen:
I remember my first trip away from home. I was 18, and I went to Montreal with a friend for a week. We stayed in a hostel for the first time, met a ton of people including an Australian woman who would eventually come to visit me in Winnipeg! The moment I will never forget is when my friend left for the airport to go home, and I went to the bus station to spend 3 ‘extra’ days in Quebec City.
Loading my bag onto that bus felt monumental. Showing my ticket, choosing a seat, and settling in for the 2-hour trip was exhilarating- I will never forget it. As I sat down, it dawned on me:
No one knows where I am right now.
That first whiff of independence was the thrill of a lifetime, As a result, my first long term trips in Ireland (1 year) and Benin, West Africa (6 months) were solo. I can’t help but wonder, if I hadn’t accepted that I’d be alone sometimes, would I have started travelling at all?
Here are my thoughts on Why I Love Solo Travel.
Solo Travel Helped Me Enjoy Time Alone
Yeah, yeah, I’m an extravert. That’s why I loved finding over thirty people to chat with about travel in the past 6 months, or why I have made no less than 4 long-lasting friends by riding the bus. I’m that person!
Solo travel didn’t teach me how to meet people, or strike up a conversation. It taught me that I can survive (and thrive) alone. In my first year travelling, I would be freaked out by the prospect of having no plans over the weekend. I was lonely and homesick, and with no wi-fi so writing letters to friends (still a sign of socializing!).
When I was living in a volunteer house in West Africa, I was sometimes one of only two people there. I had never lived with less than 4 people before… Uh-oh- this was never the dream. I need commotion! It’s WHO I AM!
At first the solution was obvious: go out. Street life in Benin was perfect for me: my walk to work meant greeting a dozen shopkeepers and residents sitting on their front steps. But eventually, I was hot, or tired, or getting used to a quieter life in between the occasional volunteer coming for 1-2 months. Letter writing turned into journaling more and more. Reading became a great way to learn about the region- and improve my French. Although extraversion is heralded as THE coveted travel trait, introversion is going to give a trip time for reflection, balance, and meaning.
The Other Side of Screwing Up: Reacting to it!
My brother’s been saying this for 20 years now, ever since reading 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens:
Life is 10% what happens to you, and 90% how you react to it.
As soon as I got off that bus to Quebec City, where people do expect you to speak some French. I set to walk to my hostel. Cobblestone and rolling suitcases don’t mesh well. There were hills.
When I got off the bus, I took 8 flights of stairs with my silly rolling suitcase, got to the top and realized there was an elevator I could have taken.
Flatlander meets hills.
That was the first of many silly mistakes.
- There was that time in Ireland I went to the hostel I had booked- for 3 days later.
- That time after backpacking for 8 weeks, I got to Oslo airport and realized I went to the wrong airport. Missed my flight by a long shot.
- That time I forgot my passport in a London locker, on our way to catch the Chunnel to France.
- Oops, the passport again, this time on its own solo travels at a grocery store in Luxemburg.
- I got myself lost in Vitoria, Spain and decided to hitchhike in order to get to my destination. Of course, the destination was around the corner. Ha. (“Thanks for the lift!”)
Travelling solo, I learned that I’ll always screw up in big (and small) ways, and that I would have to sort it out. My reactions have gotten better over the years, and many screw-ups have actually turned into pretty funny experiences. What’s more, the need to make new mistakes has become incredibly important to me professionally and personally.
[Besides, if I did something really stupid, a solo traveller doesn’t have to tell a soul!]
So, Pay Attention (to your gut)
Solo travel helps hone in on your intuition- oftentimes, out of necessity of the moment. When I first lived in Dublin, I lived in hostels and was careless about going places with people I didn’t know, to neighbourhoods I didn’t know. There were a few strange hostel nights that led to nasty hangovers and questioning what could have happened. With a little more experience, I started to realize travel could feel adventurous, without me risking my own safety. It became a priority to pay attention and avoid the people- or places- that made me uneasy, and to be upfront about leaving if I had to leave a situation.
Intuition has become helpful in being aware of getting ripped off, or in deciding to take a taxi even if it is out of the budget. It’s also added a few safety precautions that I take care of in the airport before getting to a place, for example, I download the city’s offline map from maps.me App, and when I get to my accommodations, I pin the location as a reference point. If I’m uncomfortable or in a taxi that I’m concerned about, one look at the app and I can be reassured- or take action.
Paying attention to my intuition has translated into how I make most of my decisions at home as well- if we’re uneasy, there’s a reason!
As a Result, I Became a Better Travel Companion
I’ve learned that the same skills can be used at home: I can screw up and recover. I can turn on my introverted switch, learning a thing or two about myself in the process. I can be in a precarious situation and know how to get out of it.
All of this makes me a more conscious traveller- and person!