In the myriad of content available on solo travel today, there is a strong message.
That solo travel is awesome and that you should do it too.
Sure, there are many realistic posts that delve into some of the challenges you may face and, in particularly, how to stay safe on the road, but most don't tell you the biggest difficulty of them all, and that's that you might not like solo travel, at least not at first.
So many people tell me that they hate solo travel and that they couldn't possibly do what I do and travel alone. But as I've listened to these stories over the years, I've noticed a very distinct theme. Almost everyone who said they disliked travelling alone, were those who tried it once or twice. They felt lonely or stressed or they didn't like the place they visited, and came to the conclusion that solo travel was the farthest thing from enjoyable.
While these feelings are completely valid, they don't take into account one very important consideration. And that is the fact that solo travel is a skill. Just like riding a bicycle, or learning to knit or mastering the systems used at a new job, or anything else.
Most of us aren't excellent at a great deal of things the very first time we try them, save some skills we may have a natural propensity for, and even then we naturally start with a little trial and error.
We don't expect to have perfect balance when we start to learn to ride, dropping stitches is par for the course when we attempt our first scarf and we aren't going to know the ins and outs of a job in the first week. Yet, when it comes to solo travel, people are so quick to dismiss it as something they absolutely cannot do, rather than viewing it as the first attempt in a journey that was always going to take at least a little bit of time.
Imagine if we gave up on everything as easily as many do when it comes to solo travel. Honestly, we'd never give ourselves the necessary space to grow and learn. Most of us aren't excellent at a great deal of things the very first time we try them, save some skills we may have a natural propensity for, and even then we naturally start with a little trial and error.
It's crazy to believe that all of us are going to take to the road, head to a destination with the wind in our hair and feel complete freedom. We're probably going to be nervous about all manner of things, which all become compounded in a situation when we are navigating new territory both physically and mentally for the first time.
While some people may feel comfortable travelling alone from the get-go, I think it's safe to say that the majority of us feel at least some level of angst when we start travelling solo. I know I was pretty much petrified on my first real solo trip abroad when I was 19 years old. On the plane to New Delhi, my hands were clammy, I felt physically ill, got up frequently for nervous bathroom breaks and stared anxiously as the little plane on the flight monitor slowly but surely inched its way to our destination.
It's crazy to believe that all of us are going to take to the road, head to a destination with wind in our hair and feel complete freedom. We're probably going to be nervous about all manner of things, which all become compounded in a situation when we are navigating new territory both physically and mentally for the first time.
I made so many mistakes on that trip. I left my passport at a friend's house in New Delhi along with some of my baggage when I went off to Agra, thinking that it would be safer that way and a photocopy would be adequate if I was ever asked to show my visa. I didn't realize I'd need my physical passport to check into hotels and that I would be refused a room otherwise, even if I already had a reservation. That mistake may seem so silly to me now as a seasoned traveller, but at that time I honestly didn't know any better. I thought that passports were something that got you in and out of countries, and not around them once you were already in.
Then I made the mistake of returning all of my remaining rupees, bar a few coins, into an ATM on my way to the airport, thinking that I wouldn't be needing them. Well, my flight was delayed due to fog, like really delayed, and the airline ended up sending us to a hotel overnight. This was before smartphones and Wi-Fi being a thing. The only way I had to contact anyone was from the landline in the hotel room.
My understanding was that the airline would be covering one 2-minute phone call per passenger. Despite only making a short local call to the friends I had been staying with in New Delhi, I must have gone a few seconds over the allocation and was charged for it. My small little collection of coins wasn't enough to cover it. Fortunately another traveller stepped in and covered my bill for me.
When I finally arrived in Bangkok, I had missed my connecting flight. I was able to get a seat on the next flight out but that wouldn't be for another eight hours. I had no phone, no money and I didn't have a credit card then. I wanted to make a reverse-charge phone call back home to tell the friend picking me up from the airport about my delay, but I could only do so if I purchased a calling card first. My debit card wasn't accepted at the calling counter and the ATMs weren't accepting my card either. Fortunately another gracious soul came to my aid and offered me the use of their unused phone credit.
By this time I was starving, and none of the restaurants would accept my debit card. The only store in the entire terminal that would accept it was a souvenir store selling chocolates and alcohol. I survived those eight hours on the steady rationing of a king size box of Maltesers.
As much as I had been excited to take this trip, I didn't know anything about the mechanics of travel, let alone how I would feel facing these challenges on my own. I felt scared walking around India by myself, of not being able to find my way around, of being out past dark. It was overwhelming. And if I'm completely honest with you, I was counting down the days to when I could return home to Australia.
On my second solo trip to Malaysia, I also experienced times when I felt out of my depth, when I wanted nothing more than to spend endless days in the hostel and not have to navigate my way around or pay attention to my valuables. There can be this intense over-stimulation to travel that can be exhilarating on one hand, but also exhausting on the other, to the point where you retreat inwards.
As much as I had been excited to take this trip, I didn't know anything about the mechanics of travel, let alone how I would feel facing these challenges on my own.
I can honestly see why there are people who get to this point and think that travelling alone just plain sucks, and why would anyone put themselves through the trials of it in the first place. But I didn't, couldn't, give up on it. Travel is somehow part of my DNA and there's a force that pulls me to travel again and again, no matter how difficult it may have been the previous time.
It wasn't the destinations I visited that were the problem, it was my lack of experience and skills to cope with the situations I encountered along the way. I got better at travelling simply through experience and practice. You can bet I never made those stupid passport and money mistakes again. And when I went back to India and Malaysia, I had far different experiences the second and third time round in a different head space.
I tried all different kinds of travel, and over time I came to crave solo travel. Not because I dislike travelling with others – my husband is the best travel partner I could ever ask for – but because it gave me a completely different experience, and allowed me to pursue another side of myself that I can only discover when I conquer things on my own.
There is no way of teaching you how to be alone with yourself in the world, not really.
I know that practicing solo travel over several trips may seem like a tiresome task and one that some people don't want to embark on when they have limited vacation time and resources, and perhaps solo travel really just isn't for some people.
But if it means enough to you to try, then I encourage you not to give up so easily. Be kind to yourself and know that it takes time to develop any skill, to be confident in yourself and comfortable in your own company. And that you're going to make mistakes and have difficulties at times, no matter how much research you do.
What can be lost in the abundance of resources that can be found out there is that although, yes, you can be a more savvy traveler from the get-go by learning from the mistakes of others and benefit hugely from supportive online communities set-up precisely to help solo travelers work through their doubts, questions and fears, there is no way of teaching you how to be alone with yourself in the world, not really.
It's easy to look at some blogs and Instagram accounts and feel, ‘Why isn't solo travel like that for me?' The reality is not always a social media-ready picture and I want you to know that behind almost all of us who are now lucky to call ourselves experts in the travel industry is years of experience.
We have travelled again and again and again, and are at a point where the completely normal human reaction of anxiousness that comes with doing something new and scary has dissipated or, at least for the most part, has reached manageable levels. That doesn't mean that nothing ever scares you, but there is this comfort in the knowledge that you'll work it out because you have worked it out all those times before. That is, through experience and practice.
It's easy to look at some blogs and Instagram accounts and feel, ‘Why isn't solo travel like that for me?'
You might really suck at solo travel at first, like I did, and that's OK. Allow yourself time to learn. To get better at the things that don't come naturally to you. To conquer your fears. And to also find those inner strengths.
Nothing makes me feel stronger, more formidable, more confident, than giving myself the opportunity to realize who I am and what I am capable of when I'm exploring a place on my own. And I promise you that learning how to be alone with yourself, to have faith in your own abilities and develop a strong individual skill set will help you in untold ways throughout your life – in your work, your relationships and any goals you set for yourself.
I honestly want everyone to be able to feel what I do when I travel solo, and I truly believe most people can if they are able to give it the time it requires to reap the benefits from it. So keep challenging yourselves, don't feel defeated by how easy something may look from the outside, and remember why you want to embark on your solo travel journey in the first place.
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Have you ever travelled solo? Are you thinking about travelling alone? Share your stories and experiences in the comments!