Prior to being in London, I hadn’t done
much any solo traveling. I’d taken the odd international flight alone to meet the husband for vacation, but the solo part ended at the airport; we had always done the traveling part together. With the husband working long hours and me not working, waiting for him to be around to explore just wasn’t feasible. Luckily, I’ve always been someone who needed my alone time, so I was excited about the prospect of being able to explore places on my own.
Selfie after my tour of the UK Parliament
Having done the majority of my travel and exploring on my own over the past few months, I’d say I have a love/hate relationship with solo travel. Given the option of staying home or traveling solo, I would choose traveling solo 100% of the time. I have to admit, however, that if given the option to have a traveling partner or travel alone, I’d choose a partner every time, especially if that partner is the husband. That being said, these are the good and bad parts of solo travel as I see it, and a few tips to make your time more enjoyable.
1. The first, and most obvious benefit of traveling solo is that your itinerary is your own. You can plan things to the minute, or go without a single plan, and no one cares. Your day is yours and yours alone, allowing you to maximize seeing and doing the things that you want to do in the littlest amount of time possible. I’ve found that I can see a lot of sites in a little time when it’s just me. There’s no discussion, I just go!
2. You learn a lot about yourself when you are the only one you have to rely on. It’s both an educational and eye opening experience. You really figure out what you like and dislike when you are the one deciding what to do and when.
3. You can make plans and scrap them at the last minute and no one cares. I love to just walk around a city and pop into any store that looks interesting from the street. This drives the husband, who likes to keep on schedule, and doesn’t like aimlessly wandering around, a little crazy. To keep us both happy, I did a LOT of wandering streets while alone, saving the plans for while we were together.
4. Navigating a city on your own, while daunting, is super satisfying when it goes well. The sense of accomplishment I feel from finding my way through an unknown place alone is much greater than that I feel when navigating with others around to help. That sense of accomplishment increases exponentially when traveling solo in a place where I don’t speak or read more than a few words of the language (Germany, I’m referring to you).
5. When you get lost, there is no one to blame but you. The husband and I get along famously while traveling, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that we get frustrated with one another when lost. When you are traveling alone, you can walk in circles for hours if you are too stubborn to ask for directions and no one will say a word.
6. You can stop to take photos whenever you want. I’m sure you’ve all been in the situation when, while traveling in a group, you have to stop every (what seems like) 30 seconds to take a picture. I’ve been both the annoyed person waiting for the photos to stop and the annoying person taking the photos. The husband always gets irritated at how many photos I like to take, so I take as many as I want while traveling alone.
At the Sacre Coeur in Paris
1. The biggest thing that you miss out on when traveling solo (other than the obvious company )isthe food. Sure, you can totally go sit at a restaurant alone and order a delicious meal. What you can’t do is order a bunch of different things to taste and share, which is my favorite way to eat, especially when traveling. There are usually so many things I want to try when visiting a new destination, and being limited to ordering just one thing when traveling solo is a bit of a bummer. I guess I could theoretically order a few things and not eat everything, but that is both expensive and wasteful, so I tend not to do that.
2. Another food related observation, I also miss the cultural part of dining when traveling solo. I prefer to do many things alone (shopping being a huge one of them), but eating isn’t one of them. Culturally, eating is a social experience, and doing it alone is just not the same for me. I find that food always tastes better with good company and conversation, which is harder to find when traveling solo. I usually grab quick bites and heading back out to explore when traveling alone. This is the exact opposite of what happens when the husband and I travel–we sit and enjoy a meal and drinks, soaking up the food and culture alike.
3. Some things just aren’t as fun when you are alone. I went to the musical Made in Dagenham by myself in London’s West End and absolutely loved the show. I did notice myself feeling envious of those around me, however, as they shared the laughs with friends and family. There was no one to ask when I didn’t catch what they said during the show, and no one to laugh with while they spent an entire scene making fun of the stereotypical American. I’m still irrationally certain that I was the only American in the theater that day.
4. Taking pictures. Yes, I also mentioned this in the good parts of traveling solo, but I think it has its place on both lists. While I love having the freedom to take photos whenever I want, I also hate that I have no one to take photos with. I’m not a huge fan of taking selfies, but also get bored looking at photos of buildings without people in them, so find it important to appear in pictures from time to time. This usually ended in me feeling super awkward but taking a selfie anyway.
Canterbury Cathedral as seen after my guided tour
Tips for successful solo travel:
1. Pick things that you don’t need a partner in crime to do. If you’re choosing between a museum and an amusement park, pick the museum.
2. Keeping #1 in mind, don’t avoid doing something you really want to do just because you have to do it alone. I always made a list of my must-do or must-see items in a particular destination and made sure to do/see those. If I have extra time, I look through the other activities and choose one that I wouldn’t mind doing alone.
3. Take a tour. No, it’s not likely that you are going to meet a fellow solo traveler on the train, totally hit it off, and travel with them the whole time rather than travel alone. It can be hard to meet people while traveling, especially if it’s a short trip. Taking a tour is a great way for some fellow-human interaction, and also a way to meet people, if that’s your goal.
4. Be safe and plan your travel accordingly. As a not-very-strong woman, I always keep safety in mind when traveling solo. While being home before dark isn’t feasible in the winter in England (the sun sets at about 4:30pm), being smart is. I make sure to stay in a well populated area after dark, saving the more off-the-beaten-path areas for daytime.
5. Try not to look like a tourist. Going along with the safety thing, I try my best not to look like a tourist. I take photos of the relevant pages in my guidebook on my phone and use the photos as a reference rather than the actual guidebook. It also saves me from lugging around a guidebook all day. I also use google maps rather than a physical map. Everyone looks at their phones, only tourists carry guidebooks and maps. I also don’t tell people I’m traveling alone—you never know who is just trying to be nice and who is the next Robert Durst.
6. Make sure to let someone know where you are going, you know, just in case. Register your trip with STEP (Smart Traveler Enrollment Program) with the US State Department if you’re from the US, or similar program if you aren’t. I register all of my trips with STEP. You input all of your travel information and contact information to the state department website, indicating where you will be and when. This allows you to receive safety updates from the US embassy in the place you are traveling. I’ve gotten information on protests in Turkey, unrest in Israel, and demonstrations that may have affected travel in Peru, to name a few. It also helps the US Embassy to contact you in an emergency (whether a natural disaster, civil unrest, or family emergency). If something happens, and the government doesn’t know you are in a particular country, they can’t help, but if they do, they can.
7. Eat at the bar in restaurants that have one. I’ve found that people will sometimes give you looks when eating solo, even if it’s your favorite thing in the world to do. You will get less looks, and less pressure to eat quickly and head out, if you eat at the bar. That being said, don’t avoid a restaurant that you really want to visit if you have to sit at a table alone. Who cares what other people think.
8. Don’t avoid traveling alone because you are scared. Be smart, safe, and do your homework and you’ll be fine.
Overall, I’ve had nothing but positive experiences while traveling alone. It may not be my first choice if given the option to travel with the husband, but it’s definitely preferable to not traveling at all. I find that I’m much more present in a particular destination, and more aware of what’s going on around me, when it’s just me. You really do learn a lot about yourself in the process. I feel so much more confident in unfamiliar situations now that I’ve done a little solo travel. It’s something that I think everyone should experience at least a few times in their lifetime.