Why You Should Travel Alone
Paris was the first place I went to on my own. For months, I’d had a weird yearn for it – a desire to wander through its streets with only a book and a map for company, phone on flight mode. Many have a yearning for far-off shores and a place that’s totally different to home but, for my first solo trip, going somewhere that was just a hop away on the Eurostar provided just the right amount of familiarity after a tumultuous year, in which I had tried to escape my everyday life in pretty much every way humanly possible. After attempting to mentally remove myself from my reality for the past two years, the final step for me was to physically remove myself. And there are far worse places to do that than Paris.
I ticked pretty much every cliché box available on that trip: lone female poring over sky-high shelves in book shops, coffee breaks as I people-watched for hours, dinner for one with a book and a notebook next to me, half-baked ideas for a novel scribbled in bursts. I managed to stop just short of the sleeping-with-a-waiter cliché, although I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t tempted at one point.
It’s not just the adventure element of solo travel that’s anxiety-inducing; so many of us have lost the ability to be truly alone, that we panic at the idea of solitude. Somewhere hundreds of miles from home, it’s your thoughts, your itinerary, your empty hotel room, your 12 hours a day to spend precisely as you want to, with no one else to act as a support network.
There’s something about seeing someone else owning their solitude that incites a cocktail of curiosity, fear and awe in most of us. I noticed the solitude most when dining alone in restaurants – unlike the streets of a city, you cannot wander through them so unnoticed. My tip? Never leave your lodgings without a book. Eating alone in a restaurant takes some guts for those who are not used to it, and a good book is your foil to pass the time between courses.
It’s often a period of significant change that galvanises us to take the plunge with solo travel. Social media manager Helen took her six-week trip through Australia and New Zealand, ending up in Bali, after ending a ten-year relationship and leaving a long-term career. “I’d removed myself from pretty much my own life so, for me, it was so important that I did this on my own. I wanted to reconnect with myself and sometimes I think you need to give yourself the time, space, permission and unfamiliar location in which to truly do this to a deeper level without distraction.”
Similarly, Corin, a brand journalist, took her first solo trip after a messy break-up. “Rather than drown out my thoughts in the chaos of a big city, I chose to travel somewhere calm and still. An off-grid yoga retreat nestled in the Sierra Espuña mountains of rural southern Spain. It was beyond perfect for solo travel. I slept in a canvas bell tent beneath a pomegranate tree on the side of a mountain, with a girl I’d just met, meditating at sunrise and sunset and practising yoga 2-3 times a day. It was so alien, and yet, I don’t think I’ve ever felt more at home.”
It’s a common refrain that people go away to ‘find themselves’. And, cliché as it seems – you often do: “After all, you're your only company,” Helen explains, “so getting to know yourself is somewhat inevitable.”
“Being on your own forces you to deal with whatever situations are thrown at you. You have to communicate with people, you have to find a solution, you just have to work it out – our dormant survival mode is given a much-needed reboot and no one else is going to do it for you.”
On my final day in Paris, I was mugged in the Metro. Even though only a small amount of cash was taken, the experience really shook me up. But I surprised myself with how I dealt with it, contacting the police and giving a cobbled-together statement, using A-Level French that is best described as largely non-sensical franglais to stammer out a description at the station. But it worked. They caught the mugger, and, miraculously, got back my Euros. Trust me: nothing is more vindicating than seeing the spotty teen that nicked your hard-earned money sandwiched, sulkily, between two officers in the back of a police car.
Helen had a similar experience in Bali. “I learnt that people can be kind when I was stranded at a Balian temple after sunset with no phone or taxi and a family drove me back to my hotel. I learnt that human nature doesn't have a language barrier when I sliced my foot open at the beach and sought help from a local lady who offered me limes for antiseptic and bandaged me up. I learnt to be open to people, warm to strangers and curious about everyone and everything – all such natural, but stagnant, instincts.”
Solo travel challenges us in a way we often haven’t been since childhood – it’s so easy to forget how monumental simple achievements can feel when it’s the first time. For Corin, even small victories were worth celebrating. “Everything I did by myself for the first time felt like proof that I knew how to live, not just exist. I celebrated the small things: going through airport security alone, catching the train in a foreign country alone, eating alone, meeting new people alone. Each step taught me something about myself and liberated me from old habits.”
Ultimately, even if it takes some extensive soul searching, solo travel is a magic ingredient for reconnecting with ourselves. “As well as exploring some of the most beautiful countries in the world (albeit only really scratching the surface!) I feel like I returned home with a deeper sense of trust, compassion and knowledge of who I am,” says Helen.
Corin agrees. “The thought of a solo trip was completely terrifying. Would I feel even more lost and alone? Spoiler alert… not at all. I’d been so worried that solo travel would make me retreat into my own thoughts, but I actually became more observant and appreciative of everything around me because there was nobody else to rely on. Just me.”
In a world where we can use our smartphones to order everything from takeout to transport, and a quick Google search can find us the answer to pretty much any question, it’s good to take a step back. Sometimes, removed from the hubbub of every day, we learn to see the world properly for the first time. It’s amazing how much turning our gaze outwards can help refract it back at us – seeing ourselves more clearly than we have in years.
If you’re thinking of going it alone, safety is obviously paramount. Our tips? Always make sure you arrive with your accommodation booked for the first couple of nights, so you know you have somewhere safe to go. If you’re going somewhere for a long time and are worried about feeling lonely, join a couple of tour groups along the way. There are also plenty of groups you can join online, for invaluable advice. Female Solo Travellers on Facebook is a great one.
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