I was a twenty-something American in Paris. There were five of us, crossing the Seine on our way to the Louvre. A bike race was happening on the street below us and everyone stopped to watch. The minutes ticked away. I felt agitated. I don’t really care about sports, especially that one. I don’t ride a bike. I wouldn’t know Lance Armstrong if I ran into him on the street. And I love art. I didn’t know what to do- wait for my friends or go ahead to the museum. It made me wonder if I’d be better off on my own.
If you’re considering going it alone there are two important things you should know about solo travel:
1) You don’t have to be alone at all.
None of the gang I was hanging out with in Paris had gotten on the plane and crossed the Atlantic with me. I met them on the road. Even for a socially-impaired, super-introvert this is remarkably easy to do. If you get lonely, book a local tour. By the end of the day you’ll be friends with everyone in the van. Or buy a six pack of beers to share in the hostel kitchen.
2) Going solo has its pros and cons.
- The best thing about solo travel? Guess who decides what you’re going to do that day? (Hint- it’s the same person who decides where you’re going to eat lunch, whether you want to hit the streets early or sleep in, how many days you want to stay in town, whether you should go to a museum or lay on the beach…). When you travel solo you follow no one’s agenda but your own. That rocks!
- The downside of always being in charge is always being in charge. Traveling involves a lot of thinking, navigating foreign languages and chaotic bus stations, making decisions about how best to spend your time and money. Solo travel means there’s no one else you can leave this to when you want a break.
- Sometimes a party of one can get in when a larger group can’t. I went by myself to Disney World and was whisked to the front of every line to fill a cart that had a stray seat. I showed up for the Gibbon Experience (awesome zip-lining in northern Laos) and got in the same day without a reservation. Smaller means more flexible.
- One of the disadvantages is that in some parts of the world you will find yourself paying for a double occupancy room even though there’s only one of you. Once you get over being annoyed, this can be convenient: one bed for you, one bed for your pack.
Traveling with Others
Doing things- anything, with other people means compromise. It means giving up always having things done your way. Rather than have the world be flexible with you, it requires you to be flexible with others. I don’t drink coffee and I prefer to shower in the evening. Sometimes when I travel with other people I feel like half the day has gone by before they are ready to get started. It’s a good chance for me to practice patience, going with flow, chilling out- skills that will serve me well in life as well as travel.
Provided expenses are shared fairly, traveling with a friend or friends is often cheaper. It may also allow you access to more. I hired a friend, who happened to be fluent in Mandarin, to be my tour guide in China. When I was deciding whether or not I was willing to increase my expenses by doing this, food was a major factor. Food in China is served family style. Eating with a friend, we could justify ordering three dishes at each meal, but alone? Well, missing out on all that good food would just have been too sad.
The big difference is mental. Alone is more reflective, with a friend you share perceptions- have more opportunities to see things through someone else’s eyes. You’ll get more laughs out of the ridiculous things that happen (and believe me, ridiculous things will happen) if you share them with a friend. Your down time will be more interesting. You may also get sick of that person. It’s good to agree in advance that everyone is allowed to strike off on their own once in a while.
A Word for Couples
So what if the someone you’re thinking of traveling with is that special someone? Traveling with your partner means spending a lot of time (like every hour of every day) together. I remember meeting a young woman in a hostel who was traveling with her fiancé. A friend commented that she’d heard traveling as a couple could be challenging, to which the woman emphatically replied, “He’s driving me crazy!”
So traveling as a couple is good chance to test your relationship; to make it or break it, to see if you’re ready for a next step (marriage or cohabitating) that involves more time together.
When it works, it can be great.
And if you’re clever, you can really make the most of it. I was particularly impressed with a scheme cooked up by a couple of British honeymooners I met in Central America. (Cheers, Debs and Phil!) Being that they were both around 30 and had been living together for a while, they decided they didn’t need a new toaster. Instead, they made their own wedding registry of the more spendy things they wanted to do on their trip (boat cruise up the New River, spending the night at the expensive hotel in Tikal, cocktails on the beach in Caye Caulker, etc.) and got their friends to give them money for all those wonderful things. Then as they “spent” them all they would email a thank you and a photo.
Made me wonder if I could pull it off without actually getting married…?
In the end, the best measure of whether or not you will like traveling alone is whether or not you like being alone. If you enjoy your own company, solo travel is likely to be a good fit.