SOLO TRAVEL: PROS & CONS. PART I
"Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do." Heard this Mark Twain's quote before? These words, if anything, are what make me pack my stuff right away when I am in doubt. Would I consider this a great motto for travelling alone though? Maybe.
My first solo trip took place at the tender age of 13 - I asked my parents if I could take a summer course of English in the UK and to my surprise, they said yes. I have been travelling solo ever since: there have been great times, good times, and times when I really had to question my decisions (and sanity), but I would not change a thing. Simply because when you are young, this world is your oyster. But it would be silly not to learn from someone else's mistakes, wouldn't it? Here is my list of brutally honest pros and cons of being a solivagant traveller.
Pro: Solo travel is an epitome of freedom. It embodies the ultimate freedom of choice in the most self-indulgent way possible as the only person you have to agree with is, well, you. Making plans along the way, changing them on the spur of the moment, going with whatever idea you come up with, and embracing it to the fullest - that is what it is all about! However impulsive, spontaneous, and reckless you want to be, there ain't no stopping you now.
Con: As liberating as it is, having too much freedom can be heady on one hand and quite overwhelming on the other. Being in the position where you are not held back by anything but your own mind and getting high on the idea of doing whatever you like can easily lead to a complete wreck in the worst-case scenario: exercising self-discipline is the only way to stay out of trouble. At best you will be indecisive, which is easy to avoid if you have at least preliminary arrangements and a basic itinerary.
Pro: Hitting the road alone is a commitment to yourself. I can almost guarantee you that by the end of the trip you will be your own best friend: as cliché as it sounds, there is no better way to gain integrity than being alone 24/7. Don't worry about being bored - unless you're an extremely dull person (who I doubt you are because you are reading a travel blog right now), you will never be tired of your own company. Needless to say, you'll learn a whole lot about yourself and about how to handle it as well as have plentiful opportunities to indulge in things you like the most.
Con: There will be times when being on your own sucks. It is not a matter of being alone per se because meeting new people is not a problem. Sometimes it is good to have a sidekick or someone who knows you well. Here is an example: when I was getting certified to scuba dive, I had a major panic attack during one of the compulsory exercises. After a couple of failed attempts I didn't know how to collect myself again to give it another shot and was going through an emotional rollercoaster - something that could have been avoided had I been with a good friend. It did work out in the end, but I also realised that there are moments when I certainly do not want to be on my own.
Pro: The perks of being a loner include getting that one last ticket for a fully booked bus/train/flight/tour/anything. Especially when you are travelling in peak holiday season and following major routes, the opportunity to queue jump cannot be overstated as it will save you lots of time and money. In addition to that, budgeting your way through the trip without having to worry about that one friend who blows all their money within the first days or having to coordinate every next step is pretty nice. Want to splurge on an extravagant helicopter ride that you've been dreaming of since you were 7? Go ahead. Don't feel like going to that fancy restaurant? Don't. Easssyyyyyyyy!
Con: Now, the downside. It is the sad reality of being a lone wolf is that many fun things are cheaper when shared. That includes accommodation (sometimes double rooms even at hostels are cheaper than a single bed), tours, and meals. Just because you'll spend more money as a group than as a single person, businesses are happy to give extra discounts at first just so they make more money at the end.
Pro: The fact is you will never be alone unless you really, really want to. In theory, meeting like-minded people when you are travelling must be in the top-5 of easiest tasks in the world, because being solo makes you more approachable and relatable. Chances are you'll bump into potential new friends all the time: at hostels, on city tours, on pub crawls, and just when walking along the Great Wall of China. Even if you don't strike up a conversation first, someone else will, provided you do not look like you are about to punch them in the face. And how knows, with a simple "hi" and genuine smile, you might make a travel buddy, a friend or the love of your life.
Con: One thing every single solo traveller can relate to is not being able to share a moment with someone - after all, shared experiences make best bonding moments. Be it a breathtaking view, delicious exotic food or some funny encounter, you can never be descriptive enough about something you enjoyed on your trip to make others see through your eyes. Reminiscing about that one time when you sat on the beach watching the most beautiful sunset ever sure is more pleasant when you can discuss the shades of that sunset with someone else other than the voice inside your head.
Pro: Being independent on a solo trip is not so much a default state: it is something you will master as the days go by. Sure, travelling solo frees you up to go with the flow, as you only need to compromise with yourself. But it also forces you out of your comfort zone to do things that might feel uncomfortable when you are a first-timer: asking a stranger for directions in a foreign language, getting in a dodgy-looking rickshaw or perhaps just trusting your gut feeling. Since there is no one around to rely on, next thing you know you are chatting up locals, driving a scooter, and doing everything at your own pace just because you can.
Con: Come rain or shine 2 brains are always better than one. This point is the one I can provide a handful of examples for: from leaving my phone on a subway train in Seoul 2 hours before my flight to planning my second and last day in Singapore to be June 31st (breaking news: there are only 30 days in June), not to mention left-hand side driving that I will never be able to get fully used to. Whether you are on a business trip or vacation, it is pretty easy to lose focus in a foreign environment not just because everything around you is new and exciting, but also because the cognitive load to process these things can be quite heavy. Or it could be sunstroke. Or both. Either way, having a companion will help process life abroad a bit better.
Becoming a local
Pro: When you are not tied to anyone, the number of options of how to spend your time is close to infinity. Thanks to the Internet, there is a gazillion things to choose from: staying with local residents through CouchSurfing, meeting up with someone who is interested in that exhibition you really want to check out via MeetUp, finding someone to share a meal with or party like a local, with locals. Bottom line is, being alone and being lonely refer to two completely different experiences, and what yours will look like is up to you.
Con: The greater the cultural, social, political, economic, and religious contrasts between your home country and destination, the greater the likelihood of culture shock. When things go awry, having someone who shares common ground with could help you reflect on this difference, overcome it, and perhaps appreciate it after all. There is a lot of comfort in knowing that it isn't your way that is wrong, it is just that there are lots of possible ways to go about things and some do not work for you.
What are the biggest pros and cons of solo travel in your opinion?