Recently, one of my oldest friends sent me some questions about traveling alone:
….do you get lonely? How is travel as a true “solo”? How do you meet people and have these eye-opening conversations? Do you miss sharing your day with a trusted friend? I have been afraid to travel alone, not for safety, but for companionship. Any words of advice?
How ironic, I thought, since I had been grappling with that myself for the last 48 hours.
Traveling alone and managing the loneliness that comes with it is best handled like most tricky problems: with foresight, some advance planning, a willingness to adapt, and tried-and-true friends.
I. Lean In to the Ebbs and Flows
I originally had this at the very end of the list, which is ridiculous: it’s the simplest and most effective part!
Despite all the recommendations below, all of which have worked for me at one time or another, you cannot avoid feeling lonely. It’s inevitable, sooner or later. However, I’ve found that 90% of feeling lonely is actually resisting loneliness – as if you have to find ways to avoid it, change it, or make it go away. Instead, saying “Man, I feel lonely today” out loud turns out to be an incredibly liberating experience.
Avoiding loneliness, while understandable, is just an extension of being afraid of feeling lonely. Stop being afraid of it, address it, and it takes on a temporary quality. It’s something you feel right now, today, in this moment. Once you state it out loud, rather than trying to find ways to avoid that feeling – which you are, in fact, already feeling – it diminishes at a much more rapid pace.
So now that you know how to deal with inevitable and occasional feelings of loneliness, how can you ensure a rich, vibrant, emotionally supportive venture around the world?
II. Before You Go: Setting Up Your Support Network
Before you ever head off into the wild blue yonder, reach out to friends to share the anxieties you have about your trip. See how they react. You will receive a perhaps surprising assortment of responses:
1. “Don’t worry, it’ll be fine.”
2. “Yeah, but you’ll get over (XYZ) and have fun.”
3. “Too late to change your plans now!”
4. “I bet it’s going to be amazing, and I’m really going to miss you. I can’t wait to hear all about it.”
That last response? THOSE are the friends you want to turn to during your adventure. Politely thank numbers 1 and 2 – they mean well, and perhaps they’re even right, but that skill set isn’t what you need at the moment. (And why are you even friends with #3?)
Instead, focus on the friends that offer something close to the last response. Ask if you can Facetime or Skype during your trip. Find out what times of the day and/or week will work best for their schedule (Tuesday nights after their kids are asleep, for example). Schedule times to talk as you would a lunch date, and then keep that date. Checking in with these friends while you travel will add so much to your adventure: you can tell them where you’ve gone and what you’ve seen, what you’re enjoying and what’s challenging. You can also keep in touch with how they’re doing, and what’s going on at home.
Also, before you leave, try to figure out what you need. Do you need to go jogging every morning, read a book at night, have a nap in the afternoon in order to feel comfortable? If you want to really be in the moment during your vacation, it’s important to do the things that make you happy. After a few days of being a beach bum, I have to take a powerwalk through a city or tour several levels of a museum (without a checklist of things to see); I need to feel that intellectual challenge and those endorphins. Figure out the most efficient way to make your vacation rewarding all across the board, including physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. If you don’t know what you need before you leave, I guarantee you will realize what’s missing during your trip… and then you can adapt accordingly.
III. Connect with Friendly Locals
I used AirBNB for my four weeks of travel and have – with one minor disappointment, which I resolved quickly and easily – absolutely enjoyed it. There’s something very impersonal, detached, and lonely about coming home to a hotel room; had used them alone, I might have thrown in the towel in the first week.
But coming home to someone’s house has an entirely different dynamic. No matter the country (or even whether you know the person as an individual), there’s a certain quality to walking into someone’s home, even if it’s not your own… and that’s incredibly valuable when you’re going solo. Chatting with the mom of the house about her first-born baby who’s having his first birthday party, unexpectedly receiving a cup of fresh mint tea from a Moroccan family, being invited to have pasta on the beach in the Italian Riviera – you’ll just never have these experiences in a hotel.
I searched AirBNB for places that had all the amenities I wanted (a real bed, air conditioning in 100+ heat, good neighborhood) and then carefully read the host’s reviews. If the reviews said “essentially a hostel” or if it got less than four stars, I skipped it. If the host was listed as a “superhost” – a term AirBNB gives hosts who have a 90% response rate and a 5-star rating from 80%+ of their guests – I booked it (the one time I deviated from this advice, choosing a place based on location other than what seemed like a positive experience, I regretted it).
I’d much rather stay in a place that’s simple but has an above-and-beyond host than stay in a four-star hotel that leaves me feeling isolated, adrift, and small. Some hosts will even invite you to dinner and/or introduce you to their friends, leaving you with a wealth of socializing options.
Eatwith is another platform that looks really interesting. Billed as “AirBNB for dining,” it seems like a great way to experience local cuisine. All hosts are interviewed by the EatWith team, and very few applicants are accepted (currently only 4%). You can search by region, type of food, by Michelin chef versus home cook, price, shared dining or a private meal just for you, etc. Eatwith hosts set the menu based on what inspires them; you can read reviews from previous patrons on the site, and even see how many other people are attending. Getting a home-cooked meal, in someone’s home, with a well-reviewed chef, in a city you’ve never visited before? That’s pretty amazing.
IV. Take a Vacation from Your Vacation
You want to make the most of your vacation, of course. But vacationing can be exhausting. Firing on all pistons during your trip will leave you just as burned out as doing the same at your desk. Sooner or later, you will run out of steam. When that happens, take the day off. Spend all day reading a book. Do a load of laundry and dance to the album you loved when you were a teenager. Log on to Netflix – if the country you’re in doesn’t have it yet, you can use Hola to access any website in the world – and spend a few hours re-watching your favorite TV series (or start watching one that’s been highly recommended). Write long emails to your friends, parents, or siblings, and *don’t* include travel pictures; just say you were thinking about them and wanted to check in. In other words, for the most part, spend a day doing what you like to do when you have free time at home.
Doing this for a day or so can have a great reset effect. Sometimes you just want to do something familiar and comfortable. Humans are creatures of habit, after all, and that’s no different when you’re traveling. You may even decide to extend the vacation from your vacation to two days, or to spend an hour or two re-watching your favorite show every night, which is fine. The whole point of a vacation is (a) to experience something different and (b) feel happy. Make sure that in pursuing the former, you don’t lose sight of the latter.
V. Forgive Your Shortcomings
During your trip, you may find yourself freaking out. Sometimes this is because the problem is external: your passport is missing, your travel blog post you’d been working on for hours just disappeared, your bags have been lost. These are challenging but normal things – travelers have experienced them forever, and almost every time everything works out.
But sometimes, the problem is you. You’re freaking out because you’re having a failure of the imagination. That’s trickier territory.
Say, for example, ENTIRELY hypothetically, that you’re freaking out because you can’t buy a train ticket online, and tickets are going quickly, and why isn’t your Mastercard working did someone steal all your money and oh my God why can’t you just GET TO BARCELONA.
Rather than repeatedly trying to buy your ticket online, google the closest travel agency. Walk there and purchase your train ticket in cash. Call your bank to confirm that your account has not been hacked and you are not bankrupt. Appreciate the fact that you can feel your blood pressure dropping below heart-attack levels, that you are actually perfectly safe and free from mortal danger, and that you are no longer a threat to your own survival simply because a web site didn’t work.
When you’ve taken time to appreciate that you’re no longer freaking out, take some time to realize how much YOU created the situation; how powerfully your responses shaped that experience. Think about how you could have done things differently, how you could have simply closed your laptop and purchased your ticket in person hours ago. Consider, for example, how your need to control shapes your experience.
And then cut yourself a break, because we’re all human. But when things like that come up – and they well. Oh, yes, they will – remember to assess it, and learn from it, and move on.
VI. Take a Walk Outside
When all else fails and you still find yourself in the doldrums, there’s no faster quick-fix for me than to literally go outside for a minimum of 10-15 minutes. You don’t need to go see a museum or a landmark; just go wander. See an interesting cafe and get a coffee. Eavesdrop on a conversation. Notice a curious street and go explore it. It’s the best approach for shaking off a minor case of the blues. By the time 15 minutes are up, I’ve usually forgotten all about my blues and am fascinated with a new neighborhood, street artist, or tiny little cafe.
VII. Relish Your Freedom
Chances are you won’t always have the opportunity to go where you want, when you want, in whichever way that you want. Many of us have families, children, and jobs that don’t allow us to wander remotely, particularly on our own. Solo travel is an opportunity to reconnect with yourself, to see the world through new lenses, to learn more about who you are, what you value, and what you believe. For many of us, it’s an incredibly rare opportunity: cherish it and dive into it deeply.
Traveling solo is a way to test yourself and accept yourself, too, to reconsider preconceived notions you might have about yourself. Would you never dance on a beach with a stranger or sing on a field in the alps? Are you absolutely, positively, 100%, completely sure?
There’s only one way to find out: get out there, lean in, and have fun.