I didn’t travel anywhere by myself until I was twenty-two. And then I spent a year as an international hobo. Now I travel alone all the time. For work, and for pleasure. There is too much I want to do and see to wait for the perfect travel buddy.
I like solo travel now, but it can still be hard — one morning in Hong Kong recently I ate some poorly labeled peanut sauce, had an allergic reaction, and then got ripped off by a corrupt cabbie. That was definitely a day I wished I were traveling with someone else!
Anyway, here are some things I do to make it easier to go it alone. These tips are definitely not meant to double as advice for budget travel! I don’t do that at the best of times, and certainly not when I’m traveling alone — it’s stressful enough.
Embrace Introvert Time
I’m an ambivert, which means that I need to keep my social time and solo time in balance. Experimentation has let me know that three to four days of not speaking to anyone is fine, but I probably couldn’t cope with more than that. So if I go for two weeks, I break it up into social sections (places where I know people) and solo sections. If it’s a short trip, or I’m starting with solo time, then I’ll “people myself out” before my departure by going out every night. That way, when I arrive at my destination I’m due some alone time, and I’m happy to embrace it.
Always Have Data
I have very little sense of direction, but that’s OK, because I have a ridiculous number of cellphones, being a mobile developer. The first thing I do when I arrive at my destination is acquire a SIM card (or maybe a portable Wi-Fi device). Buying a card can seem overpriced, but I’m happy to pay the $40 or so for a few days — I know that it allows me to be more adventurous with restaurants (through recommendations and Foursquare), and lets me take fewer cabs (mobile mapping means I don’t get too lost and have to cab it home because I’m too exhausted to figure out another way). It also makes me feel safer — if I’m in a cab alone, I can track the route the driver’s taking and make sure it’s not out of my way.
Stay Somewhere Comfortable
Other solo travellers swear by hostels as a way to meet people, but I’m not sold on the idea. I’ve never stayed in one when traveling alone. My experience is that hostels are uncomfortable and feel unsafe (this may be skewed by the fact that the last one I stayed in was a former jail). I want to stay where I can get directions and recommendations from the concierge, relax quietly if I’m feeling overwhelmed, and order room service if I’m sick or if my flight’s delayed or if I just feel too exhausted to go out and find food. Exploring can be stressful, but where you sleep shouldn’t be.
Start With a Long Walk
I love roaming about cities by myself: I usually plug in some music, set a park as a destination in Google Maps, and go. As a bonus, daylight and exercise are the best things for jetlag! Once I’m roamed around enough to appreciate the place, I’m much more relaxed and feel ready to explore more.
Maximize “Alone” Activities
Things I love to do alone: reading, walking, visiting museums and art galleries, and hitting the spa. Things that I’m OK doing alone: eating lunch with a book, shopping. Things I find stressful to do alone: eating dinner and going to the movies or the theatre. So the more things I pick from the first category, the happier I’ll be and the less I’ll miss not having company.
Minimize and Space Out the Things You’d Rather Do with Company
I went to a show alone when I was in Prague — this was an achievement for me! But one show in three days was probably as much as I was going to enjoy. I tend to skip dinner, or eat at weird times (especially on weekends), which makes it easier for me to eat out alone.
Sometimes I practice doing things I don’t really like to do alone while at home — like going to a restaurant I’ve been meaning to try by myself, or going for brunch to my favorite place alone. Maybe someday I’ll go to the movies alone.
Stick with Status
I have status with the Star Alliance, and I try to stick to flying with them, especially when I’m alone. Having access to a lounge when a flight is delayed and you’re exhausted is really handy. Some lounges allow you to leave a bag at their reception rather than having to cart all your belongings with you to the bathroom, for instance. The bigger airports will usually have showers, and it’s nice to be able to get clean before the red-eye after a day spent wondering about. The chairs in lounges are more comfortable, there are snacks, and I don’t feel as if I have to continually watch my stuff as much— I can relax with a book or even take a nap.
Go Midweek If You Can
During the week more people travel for work, or they’re just going about their regular day. On weekends, people are more social, and restaurants are less keen to accommodate a table for one. There are also more couples about, which might not be what you want to see if you’re traveling alone because you just had a breakup!
Morning/Afternoon/Evening — Pick Two
The biggest benefit of traveling alone is never having to wait for anyone. That could give you the opportunity to see more stuff, or it could just give you space in your day to chill out. I know my energy levels, and given that I spend most of my time on vacation walking or standing, leaving my hotel at 9 am and not returning until bedtime would be too much. So if I get an early start, I’ll aim to return for a bit in the afternoon and chill before I go out in the evening. Or I’ll return early and go swimming or something before bed. Or I’ll linger over lunch and drink more tea and read. Putting pressure on myself to be on the go for over twelve hours a day never makes me happy.
It’s Not the Trip, it’s a Trip
Something I really want to do in Hong Kong is have afternoon tea at the Peninsula Hotel there. But I didn’t do that on my more recent trip, because it’s an experience I want to share with someone. In Copenhagen, I missed out on Tivoli Gardens, the theme park there: I love fairground rides, but it’s more fun with someone else.
I don’t view my solo trips as trips-of-a-lifetime, or think about the destinations as places I’ll never see again. That takes the pressure off and leaves me free to do what I want to do on that particular trip, not follow some list of “must do” attractions.
A Picture Is Like an Instant Postcard
If I see something a friend would appreciate, I email it to them. If I see something really cool, I tweet it. People usually reply or comment, and I get a little social interaction. I’ve also included my friends in my trip, in real time.
Shop for Memories
The shared memories of a trip are usually the best thing you bring home when you go with someone — “Do you remember when we took that tuk tuk in Bangkok?” You don’t have that when you go it alone. Here’s my strategy: I almost never shop at home; I shop when I travel. So when someone compliments me on my top or my shoes or my necklace, I have a built-in story to tell: “Thanks! I bought this when I was in… ” My outfits are connected to me memories of adventures I took, and that is kinda cool.
Pack Light (But Not Too Light)
I know that many people swear by taking only carry-on luggage, but given that I use my frequent-flyer status (see above), my bags come off the plane quickly, and I almost never have to wait long for my luggage. Checking a bag means that I don’t have to deal with a max-size carry-on by myself, both in the airport and when I’m on the plane. My goal is to have enough clothing to avoid having to hand-wash anything when I’m away.
Be OK with Being Scruffy
When you’re traveling on your own, hardly anyone cares what you look like, and you’re probably never going to see the people you meet again anyway. So comfortable, easily packable clothes should be a priority.
I lived out of a small holdall for all of last July. I did this by packing about five variations on the same outfit — leggings and a long T-shirt — and wearing them every day. Not my best ensemble, and after that month most of the leggings and shirts got relegated to the back of my closet, never to be worn again.
Having a break from looking pretty and “making an effort” can be liberating. When I travel, I’m after an adventure, not to fall in love.
Savor Small Moments
When I visited Hong Kong, I had this moment sitting on a bench in a park with an amazing barbecue pork bun. I felt very peaceful, and just acknowledged it as the kind of moment that I get while traveling solo, but not when travelling with others. I felt relaxed and free to just do whatever the hell appealed to me at that moment.
Do Weird Stuff
I love going along with what other people want to do: I see different things than those I would have chosen myself, and it helps reassure me that I don’t live in a filter-bubble.
But when I go places by myself, I often do things that may seem odd, but so what — they make me happy! While visiting Copenhagen, for instance, I spent about four hours in the most beautiful graveyard I have ever seen. I walked for nearly two hours to see a giant metronome in Prague. Those were highlights for me, but I don’t know anyone else who would have really enjoyed them.
Solo travel can be more stressful, but it’s worth it. Managing and reducing the things that you find stressful, and embracing whatever it is that you love doing by yourself are the keys to enjoying it and getting the most out of it.
A slightly different version of this essay previously appeared on Accidentally in Code.
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