What’s it like to Travel Solo? (Isn’t it lonely to travel alone?)

What's it like to travel solo? Kevin Hayler in the Simien Mountains in Ethiopia
Yours truly traveling solo in the Simien Mountains

It’s never been easier to travel alone, the world has shrunk, but what’s it like to travel solo? The truth is, you are seldom alone for long. If you make a small effort to say hello and smile, the world comes to you.

Traveling solo will open your eyes,

  • You’ll discover the truth about people and places
  • Find endless opportunities opening-up around you
  • Have new experiences at every turn
  • Meet more interesting people
  • And build your confidence

If you’ve ever dreamed of packing your bags and heading off around the world then you’re in the right place. I have had 30 years of doing just that and these are my top tips to help you along your way.

Isn’t it Lonely to Travel Alone?

This is one of the first questions I get asked when someone finds out that I travel alone.

The answer is yes – sometimes.

When you head off for months at a time, you’re not on a constant high. You have your ups and downs like anyone else in life. There are times when you have the sunset all to yourself and all you want is someone to share it with.

It’s at times like these when some company would be welcome, but experience kicks in. I know from many years of traveling around the world that everything is temporary. It’s when you accept that people will come and go all the time that solitude ceases to be so lonely.

Your next friend is just around the corner, if not today, then tomorrow. The longest I’ve traveled without company is about a week, not so bad in three decades.

And when I say ‘company’, I mean companion backpackers. The truth is you are never alone if you engage with the locals. Yes, the language barrier can be a problem but technology allows you to communicate like never before.

You don’t have to be fluent in several languages, all you need is Google Translate and you’re all set.

Loneliness is a mindset.

When I first traveled I was often lonely. I was young and had this self-imposed pressure to have the time of my life. I thought that socializing, partying and meeting a few girls was everything and to that end, I gravitated towards ‘popular’ places.

That was a mistake, I came to learn that it was far harder to meet people in crowded places. The best times were to be had away from that superficial hedonist crap.

The best, most interesting times are to be had elsewhere. I look for places that have some basic infrastructure, like a few homestays and guesthouses and run by friendly and informative hosts. I especially like places that provide communal dining so it’s easy to meet everyone.

In short, I look for quiet places.

Is it Safe to Travel Solo?

By and large, this world is a remarkably safe place. I travel to Asia a great deal and when I’m asked about safety I reply that it’s a damned sight safer there than it is at home.

You are unlikely to be physically harmed in most places. Asia is particularly safe. You are far more likely to get hurt in a road accident than being mugged.

That said, normal precautions apply. Women have a trickier time than men and regions differ. Petty theft is more of an issue.

Have I ever been mugged? Yep. And it happened because I broke every rule in the book. Everything bad that’s ever happened to me was my fault in some way or another.

Blame it on naivety, and pointless bravado, all my travails were avoidable. I didn’t ask for trouble but on the other hand, if you put yourself in harm’s way what do you expect?

If you are told that a place is dodgy, FOR GOODNESS SAKE LISTEN! It’s probably true. If you are approached by strangers in a big city, unannounced and out of the blue, they are probably up to no good. You wouldn’t walk off with a stranger who approached you home, why do it abroad?

Every society has its conmen, predators, and low-life. Parasites are a subset of society and just because you are in another culture doesn’t mean that things are so different. People are the same everywhere even if the rules and customs are not.

South-East Asia is by far the easiest, cheapest and safest destination. If security is your number one concern look no further. There are a few anomalies, notably the Philippines and then only in a few places and Phnom Penh and Siem Reap in Cambodia. Nothing to worry about just slightly more diligence.

India is also pretty safe. Anyone would think otherwise if you listen to the news but in truth, physical harm to tourists is very rare. Trickery, however, is an art form. There are so many scams it should be included in their GDP.

Women do get hassled in India. The term they use for molesting women is ‘Eve-Teasing’. Western women, in particular, are regarded as loose and promiscuous but Indian women have to deal with these creeps all the time too.

Some respite is to be had by having ‘women only’ train carriages and separate lines for queuing. In the south, they even segregate the buses with the women at the rear and the men upfront.

How does a lone female cope? The answer is to be assertive. Indian men find it hard to deal with strong women. Many Indian men are immature around women and those that fight back send them scampering.

Not surprisingly, many women team up, not just for the company but for the added security.

How do you Meet People when you Travel Alone?

The rules and social constraints about meeting people at home hardly apply when you travel. You will meet and greet in a way that quickly becomes natural.

In fact, it becomes so normal to smile and say hello that it comes as a sobering shock when you come back home to miserable faces.

All traveling solo, Backpackers all sitting looking at their devices
A chatty bunch of solo travelers

The only fly in the ointment is the mobile device!

It has never been easier to get away from home and never been easier to take home with you. It’s both a blessing and a curse.

We all use our smartphones and laptops but it’s often a cop-out and an excuse to be shy.

If you want to meet people you have to be pro-active. That means when you enter a dorm, you say hello, ask questions, and make eye contact.

Leave your reserve at home.

The most effective way to meet the best travelers is to get off the backpacker treadmill entirely. As soon as you get off the beaten track you will meet more people not less.

If a place is a hassle or inconvenient to get to, the masses stay away and you get to meet the few guys that made the effort. The guys you meet tend to be more interesting and more interested

Breaking the ice is easier in offbeat places as well. If nothing else, you have one thing in common, you are both in the same obscure place, at the same time, and probably for the same reason. You’ll have plenty to talk about.

I don’t go on many organized tours but if you are fed up with being by yourself it’s often the easiest way to meet new people. Day walks and excursions can be great fun.

The best advice I can give anyone is to always to say ‘Hi’, even if sometimes you get nothing back. If you wait for someone to come to you then you might have to wait a very long time.

There is no time to waste on a trip. It’s instant friendship or a waste of energy.

Where do you Stay when you’re Traveling Alone?

I prefer homestays and guest houses. I like my own room, preferably with a porch or sitting area outside. I look for a common dining area and/or a communal garden, places where there’s a good chance to meet the other guests.

I avoid places with a central TV, pool table and bar. They are anti-social. It’s not just an age thing, I hated them when I was younger too. If something is ‘cool’ let the ‘cool’ have it.

What do you do all Day?

That’s a tricky one to answer easily because on a long haul trip you often have days of doing very little. You can’t be on the road all the time, sometimes you just want to stop and chill.

Days are broken up doing domestic things, eating, and chatting. Your pace of life slows down so things take longer to do than they would at home. For instance, I’m quite happy taking an hour to shave and doing my laundry by hand.

I might read or write. Go for a swim, rent a scooter, or go for a stroll. It’s nice to team up with others for a day out. We might end up in a beauty spot, like a waterfall or a viewpoint or catch a bus to some landmark or other.

We might go for a hike along a trail, a beach or perhaps to the top of a hill.

Time drifts by and before you know it, the day is done.

When you decide to move on the traveling itself is something to do. You must pack your bags, arrange transport to the bus or train station, and when you arrive you must find a taxi to your hotel and settle in.

After you’ve freshened up you will find out what to do in and around town and where’s best to eat.

The next day you’ll have breakfast and set out to see the sights or do the activities that brought you there.

And so it goes on. If there is no one to share the day with, I will go alone, but usually, you meet people along the way.

Is it Boring to Travel Alone?

Yes, boredom can kick in. I find that after 3 months I hit a wall. I’m fed up with traveling, tired of small talk, all the temples look the same. Everything gets repetitive.

I like to stop and gather my thoughts. I want to see the same faces every day for a while and get to know people on a less superficial level. My motivation will return in a week or two. Traveling is very tiring.

I find that having an objective or project helps me to focus and alleviate boredom. I used to take a sketchbook. These days I have a laptop and I write. I will develop drawing ideas, take photos, redesign my stall and make plans.

When I’m really bored I’ll watch a movie or catch up with news from home. This is one area of the traveling life that was very different in the past. Now you have entertainment on-demand in most places and it is comforting.

There was a time when all you had was a book or an old newspaper to read. If you were very lucky you might pick up a signal on a world radio and listen to some crackling rubbish. Then if all else failed you sat down and wrote postcards.

It seems like a very long time ago now.

Isn’t it Incredibly Expensive to Travel?

Travel in some parts of the world is as cheap as chips. Everyday life is very affordable, it’s the activeties that will eat your budget.

Everything depends on how you spend your money and how much you are prepared to compromise.

Are you independent enough to arrange your own transport, accommodation, and guides? If so, you will save a fortune on tour fees.

Do you mind staying in the occasional dump if it means being able to afford something? Will you camp? Will you eat street food?

The more corners you can cut the cheaper things will be. Now there comes a point when the savings you make are not worth the pay-off. In that case, you have found your limits and you can budget accordingly.

There really is no point in denying yourself so many pleasures that in the end, you don’t experience what you came for.

Set yourself a target sum of money and save like crazy. If you are motivated and have a clear end in sight you can save up enough money to get away for months at a time.

Booze

One way to waste a chunk of your budget is to drink too much. Many people drink their way around the world and spend a fortune in the process. Is drinking so important that it should represent a significant percentage of your budget? It does for many, but why? I’m not sure.

Transport

Many travelers spend unwisely on transport. Public transport is very cheap in much of the world and the vast majority of places are accessible. The poorest people have services available to them so why not use them too?

Many backpackers choose the easy and ‘safe’ option. A tourist minibus picks you up at your hotel and trundles you off with other like-minded ‘adventurers’ and drops you off at a tourist trap of your choice.

You pay a premium for laziness as well as getting cheated quite regularly.

Another expense occurs when you travel too much. By that, I mean moving from place to place frequently and not staying in one place for any length of time.

First-time travelers tend to rush around ticking-off sites and experiences as if there was no tomorrow. Quite apart from being exhausting, it’s a sure way of spending more money and meeting fewer people.

It’s better by far to do fewer things but to do them well.

The trick is to slow down. Enjoy where you are and who you meet. You’ll save money by eating locally and on transport. If it means missing a few things don’t worry. Come back another time or just accept that you can’t see or do everything in life.

Accommodation

Single travelers are at a disadvantage when it comes to a bed for the night. If the price is per room and not per person your bills will be double that of a couple sharing.

If you team up and are willing to share that’s great. You can save, but you don’t always want to sleep in the same room as a travel mate.

Dorms are the obvious answer but they don’t exist everywhere.

Typical Guest house in the Banda Islands, the spice islands, Indonesia
The window on the right was my room in the Banda Islands

In general, I don’t take a tent with me. In most parts of the world, they aren’t essential or, where they are, they can often be rented.

I do take a tent in Africa. The only way to cut costs dramatically is to camp in the national parks. It does mean lugging around Kilos of extra gear but that’s the price you pay for traveling affordably.

You Have More Experiences When You Travel Alone

There’s no doubt about it, you’ll have more experiences traveling alone. You’re forced to reach out and take a few risks. There aren’t the constraints holding you back.

If adventure is to be had, the chances are, you’ll be alone when it happens. You meet more locals and end up in situations you’d never experience at home. You’ll encounter the hospitality and kindness of strangers and be welcomed as a guest and a friend.

Lone travel is alien to most cultures and especially so for women. You will be both a curiosity and a concern. Your safety will be important to people and help is usually at hand. Far from being a threat, most people are pleased to meet you, proud of their country or community, and happy to guide you safely on your way.

Are there bad experiences? you bet. Not everything is rosy but isn’t that the point of traveling, to see all sides?

Some poverty is distressing, some tricksters are out there looking for victims, some officials are corrupt. These are the travails of travel. Will you be kidnapped? very unlikely.

Bad and unfortunate things can happen but the way I deal with it is by turning the experience into a story. Let’s face it, no one cares about what a great time you had, they want to know the dirt. A drama is a story.

Conclusion

Should you travel alone? If you are shy it will build your confidence. If you are young it will strengthen your character. It will open your eyes to the world around you and to yourself.

You will discover that your material needs are few in life, and your home really is where you lay your hat. You’ll learn to say hello and make friends at lightning speed. You’ll also be saddened by saying goodbye far too often.

Some days will be so action-packed you will look back and wonder how you managed to do so much. Time blurs and you’ll get confused about what you did, when, and where. Days will roll into one and weeks will fly by.

Your world can change in the span of a single journey. A new world is only a few hours away.

Travel hits your senses in every way, there is nothing else like it. It’s addictive and the freedom of going where you like, and doing what you wish, is only possible alone.

Set yourself the challenge, change your life, and give it a go.


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What's it like to travel solo? A man sitting alone in the desert. Image for Pinterest

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