I’ve noticed over the years that people react a certain way when they hear I go places alone, like to shows, restaurants or traveling. But to be honest, I prefer it that way a lot of the time. There’s nothing like good company, but that should include yourself. It’s important to have a strong enough relationship with yourself to be able to do things on your own. I wish I could get that through people’s heads. But everyone’s past is unique. I remember being in high school, not fitting in a conventional way, and (eventually) I accepted that. I learned to be on my own and meet new people, rather than try to fit in or cling to a small circle. My interests were simply different from most of my peers, and I wasn’t going to change those just for the sake of making other people happy – and neither should you. Ever.
I enjoy traveling alone for several reasons which can apply to anyone. You may be surrounded by a sea of people walking through the streets of a new city, but traveling solo is its own brand of sublime solitude. If you’re unsure about traveling on your own, consider the following:
You can move at your own pace
Nothing is worse than feeling obliged to cut an adventure short because your travel partner wants to go back to the hotel and take a nap, when you feel that you’re just getting started. You won’t be accountable for anyone but yourself. No ‘FOMO’ (fear of missing out), no resentment. Or maybe it’s the other way around. If you’re a bit introverted like me or just get overwhelmed by big crowds, you may want retreat to the airbnb or hostel to decompress, rather than force the situation. It’s nice to be able to do so and not worry about missing out in that respect either. Maybe you want to spend the first day just wandering, getting the lay of the land. Save the scheduled plans for day two. I highly recommend doing this if time permits.
Doing what YOU want, being flexible & no commitments
Maybe you’re like me and you want to check out the record shops and craft beer bars in another city. “But Madison, you can do that at home” is something I never want to hear. It’s true – but experiencing the variations of these things across the world is so cool to me. It also allows for the opportunity to meet and converse with people who have similar interests but different experiences. Need I explain more?
On top of that, some travelers are down for the sightseeing extravaganzas. To me, there’s a time and place for sightseeing, but when the patience runs out for those tourist crowds, it’s game over. For the food freaks like me, it’s all about markets and specific restaurants I’ve been researching in advance. I had made a list of the food markets in Rome, addresses and hours all before I even considered visiting the Vatican. If I don’t get to satisfy my curiosity for a city’s food scene, I’ll probably leave feeling unfulfilled. Like I’ve eaten a salad but I really wanted a Philly cheese steak.
Another topic that comes up a lot these days is how much time we spend drinking. Drinking, drinking, drinking. Yes, I love drinking with my friends, going out, unwinding, acting silly and having a good laugh. But this IS something I know I can do anywhere and I’ll be content. I sometimes fear that if I travel with my friends, this will consume too much of our precious time abroad. When I travel alone, I typically drink very little. Of course, it doesn’t make sense to overdo it when you need to have your shit together the most, but I don’t really feel compelled to drink unless the common drink is unique to where I am. You’ll be occupied by so much more than the drinking culture – which is a beautiful thing. Ride that wave. You definitely won’t leave saying “Wow, I wish I drank more.”
This is not meant to sound preach-y, it’s simply something I’ve realized I found refreshing after traveling alone. Of course, partying in a new country is unarguably a special experience worthy of its own post.
Flying solo leaves a lot of room for a special kind of spontaneity. It’s kind of like when you first go off to college and realize that for the first time, you’re doing whatever you want and going wherever, and the parents aren’t inquiring about your whereabouts. This is a lot like that, except when you’re on the other side of the world alone, nobody knows where you are. Friends, family (unless you’re an Instagram fiend, of course). Literally no one knows where you are, what you’re doing or who you’re with. Don’t get me wrong – in one sense, this IS scary – but it’s also liberating. Sometimes I think I’m in for the night but realize – woah, I’m in Italy right now. I need to go soak more of this in, find some live music or view the city from a bell tower. Even if it is midnight. Why the hell not?
*On that note, always stay safe and don’t let this go to your head. It’s still a dangerous world. Always keep your wits about you and check in with your loved ones.
Meeting people in your own way
I know a lot of people think it’s hard to meet people when you’re on your own. For me, it’s the exact opposite. Being alone releases the pressure of feeling chained to an idea of who you are according to people who already know you. New experiences change you and allow you to grow – traveling is no exception. Before you know it, the things you may not have said or done a year ago are suddenly making up a majority of who you are. Congratulations – you’re growing (up?)! Enjoy it and be proud of yourself. Change and growth are awesome.
Back to business… This is why I often find it easier to meet people on my own. And meeting people abroad can enrich the experience in a way no bus tour ever will. Make friends. See how the locals live. Be spontaneous! Ask questions – and be ready to ANSWER questions. It will happen. It’s unexpected, awesome and flattering. Especially after hours of dealing language barriers and having “guapa” or “bella” yelled at you. You’ll come to cherish the moments when people actually ask you about your culture and life at home.
Sometimes, it’s just easier to be immersed in the local culture when you’re not in a big group. Accepting this is not forsaking your friends or sacrificing experiences with them. It’s just holding onto a few for yourself.
These are just my personal thoughts. Yes, they are a bit selfish, but traveling is a treasured experience that we don’t all have the time or money to do in abundance, so you should be making the most of it. Like I said before, I get asked a lot by my friends in Spain and at home where I get the ‘confidence’ to do stuff on my own. I genuinely hope this can inspire someone to give this sublime experience a chance. As cheesy as it is to say, the most important relationship you’ll ever have is with yourself. Foster it, nurture it, be selfish. The opportunity to do so won’t last forever.
Do’s & Don’ts of Traveling Alone
Go with your gut
You’re going to make mistakes. That’s all there is to it. No matter how much preparation you put into a three day, one month or one year trip, you’ll have to leave some things to fate and just handle them as best as you can. It’s a test of your character. Maybe you’ll just embarrass yourself or unintentionally offend someone. Work it out if you can, forgive yourself, and keep going.
Ball out where it matters
Everyone knows the phrase “treat yo’self.” Which usually applies to food, wine, and shopping. But first things first. Spend enough on a decent place to stay in a decent part of town. I’m not a princess, I can do hostels, cramped AirBnBs and a crappy hotel, but I’ve encountered some downright filthy, not-secure places that just raised red flags and I knew I made a mistake in my budgeting. Traveling is expensive and we want to cut costs where we can, but this is not the place to do it. Do your research (even if it’s a last minute trip) and don’t skimp. Maybe we can bear the shitty, bizarre accommodations when we’re traveling as a team of friends. It usually turns into a story you’ll laugh about down the road. But you’re alone and you need to look out for number one. Your trip will be a thousand times better knowing you have a good place to lay your head and leave your stuff. While we’re on the subject of money and being secure…
Be prepared to drop money on taxis
I’m talking to you my fellow backpacking chicas! I know, I know, taxis are expensive. And I hope every time I go on a trip that I won’t have to cough up that cash, but I’m always ready to. I’m not talking about being so cheap that we won’t take the occasional quick taxi ride. I’m referring to those times when you don’t know how much a taxi home is going to cost you. I hate to admit it, but I once took a 50 euro cab ride because the metro line I needed in Rome stopped running and I got off in the wrong district. It was late and I was in a strange place, nowhere near the Trevi Fountain. While it wasn’t fun for my wallet, it was the best thing to do. We have Uber, bla bla car, metros, buses and google maps … but even the most prepared person can end up in a shitty situation. There’s no nicer way to put it. Sometimes, the bus doesn’t show up on time, it’s dark out in an area you’re not familiar with and your phone is dying. Congrats, you’re a sitting duck. Sorry (but I’m not sorry) to sound like a mom. Even if you do everything in your power to use public transportation, it will put you at ease to know in the back of your mind that you have cold hard cash when fate comes calling.
Show respect and appreciation for the culture your surrounded by. Remember, you’re in someone else’s home. Even if you’re frustrated and having a bad day. Maybe you fell into a tourist trap and just paid 10 euros for a beer. Don’t take it out on the server – chances are, he/she doesn’t make the prices. Another big one – ask before you photograph, especially if you’re photographing someone on the job. Even if you think you’re technically allowed to. It’s best to just ask first. More than half of the time, people will say yes.
Go against your instincts
Sometimes, things can get awkward. The language barrier, getting turned around and walking past the same street vendor three times etc. But sticking it out through these things and holding onto the will to enjoy yourself is harder than it sounds when you’re alone in a foreign country. So don’t sweat the small stuff. Eating out on your own seems to be a challenge for many, but there’s nothing to feel weird or embarrassed about. You’re a paying customer.
Be afraid to ask for help
I’m not talking about asking for directions from your waiter. That’s important too. But I mean don’t be afraid to call home and ask for support where it’s needed. When I was in London, I was so overwhelmed by the crowds and felt very not myself for some reason. It was the first trip I took after moving to Spain. Maybe I’d gotten used to the relaxed and friendly atmosphere of Spain and forgot how bonkers London is. Upon arriving, I was scolded by customs officials, I realized I failed to pack for the frigid cold weather, people weren’t as friendly, (I got shoved so hard by the Friday night crowd in Shoreditch that I was knocked into moving traffic). Oh – and it was WAY more expensive than I remembered. It caught me off guard and I had been yammering non stop about how excited I was for the preceding months. I called my madre and my boyfriend just to vent and take a pause from the party. I was almost as good as new (even if my bank account wasn’t). The point is, letting your guard down and admitting it’s hard isn’t admitting defeat.
Take shit from people
As a tourist, you’ll inevitably take your fair share, but there’s a line. Sometimes, fear of offending others can make us too soft in cases where you’re being genuinely mistreated and need to stand up for yourself. For example, taxi drivers will try to rip you off if they think you’re a drunken tourist. Creeps at concerts, bars etc will assume that because you’re alone, you’re fair game and an easy target. YOU’RE NOT.
Cheers to the less than glamorous side of traveling.
To sum it up… DON’T ignore your instincts and DON’T be afraid. DO go with your gut and DO treat yourself.
This post is a response to the questions I get asked about traveling alone by people who never have, as well as a reflection on the stories I’ve shared with my friends who travel alone as much as they can, while we can. You may laugh and think you’ll never experience these mishaps or feelings, especially if you’ve never traveled solo before. You may think I sound like a whiny, entitled American. But believe me, traveling alone for the first (second, third and fourth) time, even if it’s still the time of your life (and I guarantee it will be), the uncomfortable and unexpected things will be highlighted by the fact that you can’t laugh it off with your bff, depend on her phone battery or second language skills. You’ll be hyper-aware of your surroundings and process everything a bit differently. It’s not just about cathedrals, museums and street food, but how a million little moments open up your mind. This is why they say traveling is a valuable experience. Enjoy it.