My first attempt at solo travel was supposed to be simple. It was a couple of days sandwiched between a visit to Munich with a few girls from my study abroad program and a trip to Grenoble, France to meet up with a friend.
What I didn’t know is that there are overnight trains and local trains that will stop in a train station somewhere between Munich and Zurich, kick you off onto the open-air station platform, and not move again for four hours.
I spent those four hours stressed and sleepless on a cold train station platform in either Switzerland or Germany, avoiding the teenagers who came to the station to use the vending machine and make out. When I finally got to Zurich at 7 a.m., I spent another few hours sleeping in the train station because my hostel wouldn’t have a bed for me until the late afternoon.
That mess aside, the days I spent wandering through Switzerland were lovely. I wandered through art galleries and buildings older than my country. I ate chocolate by Lake Geneva, and I had a good cringe-funny story to tell my friend when I finally met up with her in Grenoble.
Since that poorly planned train ride, I’ve traveled alone through more of Europe, Asia and North America on my own. I’m so ready to get more solo trips on the books as soon as it’s safe. Here are the benefits to solo travel that I have found:
1. Chasing Your Most Obscure Interests
The most obvious benefit to traveling alone is having complete control. You get to set the whole itinerary. If you don’t want to see that one tourist attraction that everyone says you must visit, skip it. If you do want to go to that obscure linguistics museum in Paris or hike that challenging trail outside Chiang Mai or hug foxes at a sanctuary nestled into the mountains hours away from Tokyo, you don’t have to. Your itinerary is yours to design.
Your itinerary is yours to design.
Visiting other countries is a huge privilege and expense. If that’s not in the cards for you right now, then experiment with traveling around your own city or country alone (when/if you can do it within COVID-safety guidelines)! There’s so much to see and do when you chase your interests.
I like to visit bookstores in as many places as possible, even if there’s not a great selection in a language I read. There is something universal, yet so very specific about a well-loved bookstore, especially a used bookstore. I love finding books by Emily Dickinson translated into Italian or picking up famous authors from wherever I’m visiting.
The flip side of getting to control your schedule is that sometimes you run into something amazing and you wish you had someone to share it with. Traveling alone can easily become lonely travel, especially if you’re an extrovert like I am.
Enter: hostels. I love hostels. I love that they’re cheap (which equals more money for more trips!) I love that they force you to be a little bit more social. I’ve made friends and acquaintances in hostels on three continents now, and I love the immediate connection that can be born between people who are living outside of their comfort zones and looking for people to share the experience with.
2. Meeting New People
If you’re not as big of an extrovert as I am, (or if sharing a room with a dozen strangers just isn’t your thing) don’t worry. The world is full of ways to meet people abroad. Tours may feel cheesy, but they can be a great way to connect with other tourists. You’re walking/biking/boating with people for hours, so if conversation lulls, you can always fall back on a “so where are you from?” opener.
These aren’t necessarily shallow connections. Once, I met a Danish girl on a beach tour in the Philippines who later hosted me when I wanted to come see Copenhagen. And look, even if you don’t want to stay in a hostel, they usually let you join their events or tours for pretty cheap.
These days, Airbnb has tons of listings of locals offering their expertise, and I’m excited to try them out when the world is safe to visit again. Are there homestays or volunteer opportunities where you’re visiting? Friends of friends of friends who live there? Connecting with someone who actually lives in the place you’re visiting offers a much deeper understanding of it.
Connecting with someone who actually lives in the place you’re visiting offers a much deeper understanding of it.
When you travel alone you’re more approachable. This can be annoying, but it can also be wonderful! All tourists, by definition, are living outside of their comfort zones. I’ve found that people are pretty much always eager to make connections. They want to share what they’re experiencing with someone. Thus, impromptu communities spring up in bars, hostels, bookstores, cathedrals and beaches. Sometimes, these only last for the evening, and sometimes, you’ll find a friend to go museum hopping with the next day.
3. Learning to Take Responsibility For Myself
Getting stranded in a train station certainly wasn’t the worst thing that could happen to a woman traveling alone, but it was easily one of the biggest logistical mistakes I could make while planning my first solo trip. I’m grateful that I get to be here to tell you one of my top rules for traveling alone: check your transportation plans at least twice. Maybe thrice.
When you’re traveling alone, no one is going to pick up your slack. You’re fully responsible for the details—transportation, housing, itineraries and money. For some of y’all, that might be a dream come true. For me, it’s a necessary evil.
There are very few things that have made me learn to take responsibility for myself and my environment like traveling alone. You can’t have a meltdown when you make a mistake or miss a flight, which you probably will at some point. You have to figure out how to fix it. When you get bedbugs from a hostel in Singapore or Paris (the only places I’ve ever seen them and two of the absolute wealthiest cities I’ve ever visited), you have to deal with negotiations with the hostel staff for getting your clothes washed in hot water.
There are very few things that have made me learn to take responsibility for myself and my environment like traveling alone.
Here’s the thing: for me and for many of the friends I’ve met traveling, taking care of ourselves is exciting. It’s always been an empowering challenge. I’ve grown in knowledge, confidence and all-around assertiveness because I’ve had to.
4. Learning the Balance Between Safety and Adventure
Be careful. One of the details you should know when you land in a new place is where and how to find help if you need it. Your main sources of help will be your country’s consulate or embassy. Know where those are located.
Also, do plenty of research on what’s going on in the place you’re headed. Anything from conflict to common scams to food and water safety can be found online somewhere. If you’re feeling the tense mixture of excitement and anxiety that can come before a solo trip, check out this solo travel resource.
I’ve never run into any real trouble when traveling alone. As a solo traveler, you want to strike a balance between being open enough to enjoy new people and experiences while also keeping your walls up enough to stay safe. I pretty much always err on the side of safety. Sometimes that means I head back to the hotel before I want to. It means I never hitchhike and I don’t tell people where I’m staying. Leaving early is disappointing, but my safety is always more important than one more museum or one more drink.
Intentionally removing myself from my comfort zone has been a refining experience.
If you’re getting the sense that I think traveling alone is both the best thing and the worst thing, you’re absolutely correct. It’s the hard things about traveling solo that have made it fun. I like getting uncomfortable enough to find community and figure out what I want to do next. Intentionally removing myself from my comfort zone has been a refining experience.
Spending the night in an empty train station was not fun. Realizing I was strong enough to take care of myself and have a great time in Switzerland anyways? That made it worth it.