When I think about traveling – the places I’ve already been, and the adventures I want to have in the future – I usually think about not only where I am, but who I’m with.
Companions are a huge part of traveling. Going somewhere new with friends, family, or an organization gives you company, security, and familiarity in a novel environment. Perhaps most importantly, sharing the experience of traveling gives you somebody (or somebodies) to relive it with once it’s over, and keeps the memories fresher in your mind. I loved experiencing New Zealand with my flatmates and the friends I made there, but those people have become even more valuable to me since we left. Keeping in touch with them is not only wonderful because they’re great friends and I love them as individuals, but it reminds me of the incredible five months we spent together in the southern hemisphere.
Despite this, one of my absolute favorite things is traveling alone. I think being by yourself in a new place opens you up to a whole new range of possibilities. You learn a lot about yourself as a person, and usually come out of the experience with a very unique perspective on where you’ve been and what you’ve done. Also, this might sound weird, but there are few feelings I love more than knowing that, at a certain point in time, there is nobody in the world who knows exactly where I am. It’s exhilarating.
If traveling by yourself sounds intimidating, or more likely just boring, to you, I say it’s time to give it a second chance. I’m no expert (there are plenty of them out there, and their advice is probably way more legit than mine), but here are my thoughts on how to get the most out of globetrotting solo:
Plan, don’t schedule.
One of the best parts of traveling alone is that you don’t have to incorporate anybody else’s ideas, preferences, or suggestions. You get to decide your timing, your destinations, and your activities. While it helps (and is usually necessary) to have a general idea of your plans and make certain travel arrangements ahead of time (i.e. purchasing plane tickets), leave room in your itinerary to follow whims and take advantage of unexpected opportunities.
When I was in Wellington, I made absolutely no plans. I had certain ideas of things to do there and a roundup of must-see lists from friends and guidebooks, but I wanted to discover the city once I got there and allow myself to just follow my feet. As it turns out, the guy I was CouchSurfing with also hosted a longterm German boarder who’d been in the city for a few months and had some great suggestions for me.
I definitely wouldn’t have known about or visited the city art gallery or Cuba Street without Thomas’ recommendations, but they turned out to be some of the highlights of my day in Windy Welly.
Enjoy your own company.
Just as one of the best ways to get to know someone’s true nature is to travel with them (boy, is it!), being your own travel buddy gives you the chance to learn a lot about yourself. Encounters with scheduled activities, public transportation, budgeting, and even just other oddballs out in the world are likely to bring out qualities that you haven’t used as directly before. Are you neurotic or laid back? Do you connect easily with strangers or feel a little awkward around people you don’t know? What do you like to do in your free time? Chances are, you know the general answers to these questions already, but being somewhere new without a familiar companion to share the stress with will actually put them to the test.
I always thought of myself as pretty go-with-the-flow when it came to traveling… but then I missed my plane from Brisbane to Sydney. I’d never missed a flight before, and it stressed me out way more than I would have thought. I was actually surprised at how much it rattled me. But hey, I think it’s good to know that I’m not quite as cool as I thought I was and even have the capacity to go a little crazypants when desperation, airline fees, and hunger all hit me at the same time (there may have been an incident in the Brisbane airport involving me tearing up and whimpering pathetically as the Subway employee pulled down the metal grate in front of my face… I wish I was kidding).
You don’t have to be perfect. It’s a valuable thing to learn your own limitations as well as your strengths. And in a more existential vein, I think it’s important to learn to actually enjoy being with yourself, not by yourself. Talk to yourself. Sing out loud. Get lost in your thoughts. No shame, people! Most likely you’ll realize you’re pretty cool… and kinda weird.
This isn’t in opposition to the “enjoy your own company” rule. While it’s a great thing to enjoy the novel experience of really being by yourself, traveling alone also gives you the chance to interact with other people in a way that you probably wouldn’t if you already had a friend with you to talk to, ask questions of, and share snacks with. Think about it: you’ve done some pretty cool things and have some good stories to share – the person sleeping on the hostel bunk above you or camping out across from you at the bus stop probably does, too.
I’m not advocating being a total creepster and trying to befriend every stranger you see just for the heck of it. I’m just saying that you should open yourself up to the possibility of making connections. Some of the most interesting, generous, and memorable people I’ve met have been totally random encounters. I was on the same bus from Wellington to Turangi as a German girl named Anne, and after realizing we were both planning on hiking the twelve-mile Tongariro Alpine Crossing solo, we decided to do it together. We stayed at the same hostel for the nights before and after the Crossing, too – even though we’d only just met, for those 48 hours, we were inseparable.
It was such a random, passing friendship that I hadn’t expected or been looking for, but it really enriched my experience.
Start close to home.
I know that almost all of my travel stories relate to New Zealand, and it probably seems like I never talk about anything else (sorry, Kiwi-a-gogo Land is my first love). However, you don’t have to jet around the world to enjoy the experience of traveling by yourself. In fact, getting out and going somewhere in your own backyard is a great place to start. Doing it alone still gives you the chance for such a different experience than you’d have with a bunch of pals or your significant other.
I’ve lived on the Outer Banks for a combined total of about two years now, and there’s STILL a lot that I haven’t done here. I’d never been to Hatteras or Ocracoke until last summer, and I’d only seen one of the famous Outer Banks lighthouses. Most of my friends here grew up on the beach and are not very enthused at the thought of seeing these landmarks, in the same way that New Yorkers have no interest in visiting the Empire State Building. So I took one of my days off and visited three of the lighthouses by myself.
(This picture gives me traumatic flashbacks to terrible old cell phone photos.)
Anyway, I got to go at my own pace and really get into the nooks and crannies of a bunch of cool little Outer Banks towns. The beach is teeming with family-owned shops and hole-in-the-wall eateries that are easy to pass by unless you’re looking for them. It was a great day traveling in my own town!
Well there, you have it! I definitely don’t pretend to be a travel guru in any way, shape, or form… these are just my thoughts illustrated by my personal experiences, because, well, that’s what I’ve got to work with.
Any suggestions or travel tips to add? Good old-fashioned horror stories about traveling solo (or with others… I have a few of those)? Any Eat, Pray, Love experiences about finding your soul and a handsome South American while traveling alone? I’d love to hear ‘em