“I never heard silence ring out like a bell.
I never heard silence like last night in my expensive hotel.
Well, I’m loving a shadow, I’m trying to catch the rain.
But I never heard silence ’til I heard it today.”
As someone who travels alone quite often and who just completed 7 months of solo travel, people often ask me if I get lonely. Or they respond emphatically with something like: “I could never do that. I’d be so lonely.” In my experience, I find that although it’s by definition a solitary activity, solo travel rarely ever leaves me feeling lonely. In fact, in some ways, it’s actually quite the opposite. Ultimately, I think there are a few misconceptions about solo travel, particularly as it relates to these feelings of solitude.
I Usually Don’t Travel Alone by Choice
I decided years ago that I’d rather travel alone that not travel at all. Travel is my hobby. If your primary hobby is playing golf (or shopping or cycling or wine-tasting), you probably call your friends to go with you. But if none of your normal playing partners are available, you’ll likely still go play anyway. Travel is the same thing to me.
As a professor, I usually have big chunks of time available in the summer to go travel. I’m also single and childfree meaning that I don’t have significant family obligations. I’m quite lucky to have this work schedule and my current relationship status enables my hobby as well (at least for the time being). However, I realize that the majority of my friends don’t have this same flexibility either because of work, family, or both. Travel can also be expensive so if you don’t prioritize it, you’re unlikely to want to spend your money and your precious time off traveling.
Anyway, a few years ago I made the decision that I would (almost) always ask friends to come with me but that I would go regardless of whether or not anyone agreed to come.
I Sometimes Travel Alone by Choice
While I usually try to make it a point to invite friends along, there are times when I’d rather go alone. If you’re an extrovert, you may not understand this as much but I really value my time alone where I can reflect and recharge. What’s interesting about this process for me is that I’m not sure I ever would have realized this had I not ever traveled alone in the first place.
Beyond the time alone, I think it’s valuable to bring some variety to your life. My first solo trips were centered on golfing which is great because every time you play, you meet new people who you get to know pretty well over the course of 5-6 hours. I loved hearing new stories and getting to know all kinds of different people. Beyond the golf course, I think solo travel forces you to assimilate with new people which gives you new perspectives on local culture.
When I travel with others, it’s of course much easier to just stick together. Traveling with friends can help strengthen bonds and build memories like few other activities can so you should spend your time close together. Because of that, my preference is (almost) always to travel with friends. However, there is something wonderful about the variety of the solo travel experience when you are forced to interact with other people.
Solo Travel is Filled with Great Conversations and New Friends
Unless you never leave your hotel room, solo travel is filled with meaningful interactions. Even hotel lobbies are great places to meet new people. In Valencia, I had long conversations with the lobby bartender during a few quiet nights at the hotel. I tried to find cafes that I liked so I could go back and get to know either the baristas or the regular patrons. It’s hard to avoid conversations with these people!
Of course, these conversations are not the same as sharing a romantic sunset with a significant other or having great conversations over 18 holes of golf with a close friend but you’ll learn new things and maybe meet some new great friends along the way. When I’ve traveled with friends, I have found that conversations with locals tend to be short and fairly superficial unless you’re both committed to building those connections. Solo travel forces you to make new friends… which is a great thing, especially for introverts like me.
There’s a Difference Between Being Alone and Feeling Lonely
When you’re on your own particularly for any extended period of time, there will be nights when you’re in your hotel and you feel a bit alone. I had a bunch of nights like this during my 7 months abroad. I was bored, missing my friends, and unsure what do or who to call. Time zones can sometimes magnify this feeling because it may not even be possible to connect with people via FaceTime or WhatsApp back home.
But that feeling is only temporary and by the time I woke up the next day and found myself back at my favorite spots, that feeling of loneliness was gone. Plus, for more introverted people like me, I’m mostly happy to have a few quiet hours to myself. In fact, I need it. All of the new introductions and small talk takes a lot of energy out of me. I need my alone time to recharge.
In my opinion, true loneliness is different. When you really feel like you don’t have anyone to call and you don’t feel like you have people around that care about you, that’s when loneliness becomes a difficult emotion to handle. Of course, I am not an expert on this topic but I’ve felt both types of loneliness before and the temporary feelings of being lonely on vacation aren’t so bad.
Ultimately, you will likely miss people back home… and that’s ok. It’s actually a nice reminder that you like spending time with them. Vacations aren’t forever and I’ve learned a lot about the people who matter in my life based on who I spend time thinking about when I’m gone.
But It Is Nice to Share Experiences with Other People
The Las Fallas Festival in Valencia was one of the most unique and amazing spectacles I’ve ever witnessed. However, I experienced most of it alone. I tried to post pictures and videos to Instagram and I wrote this article to share with people back home the awesomeness of the festival… but those pictures and words aren’t the same as being there in person. I would sometimes strike up a short conversation with the people around me but many of those quick conversations are short-lived. It would’ve been nice to say something like “wow, this is amazing” to someone who actually cares.
Everyone Should Do It at Least Once
Do a search online about solo travel and you’ll find nearly unanimous positivity. People talk about how much they learn about themselves and, as I suggested earlier, you’ll learn a lot about the people that matter to you as well. Further, you’ll see places in a whole new way as solo travel forces a heightened degree of immersion that traveling with others often doesn’t. So just do it!
Start slow with a short trip to a place where you think you’ll feel comfortable and see how it goes. I think Europe is a good place to start as it’s easy to get around most countries with just English. Plus, it’s fairly easy to get to most of Western Europe from the USA so a short 5- to 7-day trip overseas is well within reach.
I’d rather travel alone than in a bad company. I was never afraid of doing things by myself let alone travelling. Last summer, I did solo exploration of the Table Mountains in Poland. The journey was full of discovery and meeting of strangers who, because you were not familiar and therefore non-threatening, talked about most intimate and often painful moments of their lives. The freedom to open up came with conviction that at the end of the conversation we will part our ways without knowing each other’s names. Utterly cathartic! On the last leg of the adventure, I was joined by my lovely cousins, and although I was pleased to have company I had to compromise. They were full of advise and questioned my choices. In the end I did not visit the places I wanted to see or in the way I wanted to explore them.