SOLO TRAVEL: PROS & CONS. PART II
He is truly wise, who's travelled far
and knows the ways of the World. He who has travelled, can tell what spirit governs the men he meets. The Håvamål (Book of Viking Wisdom)
This is Part II of the brutally honest Pros & Cons of solo travel. If you haven't read part I, click here.
Pro: Ideally, travelling alone brings out the best in you. This is a natural order of things because when you are on your own, being proactive is crucial. For this very reason learning a new language will be much more effective (but not necessarily easier), you have no choice but to give the local tongue your best shot. Yes, I am looking at you, native speakers of English! (nah you are fine... I guess)
Con: When you are with a friend, you always have someone who shares a common language. Language barrier can be really frustrating, especially if it is an urgent or emergency case. Apart from that, buddies are great to remind you to stay on track - mutual motivation (or challenges) can do miracles!
Pro: If you come from a big city, the perks of being anonymous are usually taken for granted. When you are abroad, however, these perks are even bigger and better: others don’t have your past to hold against you. "No yesterdays on the road." Even more, I'd say that "tomorrows" also do not always happen: you move places, people come and go, and the consequences of some not-so-bright ideas and decisions are easily avoidable. What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. This applies to all places ;)
Con: Repetition is the flip side of this coin. Since no one knows you and you probably do not know anyone either, there is a good chance that at least half of your social encounters will look very much alike: "Hi, my name is [name], I am from [place], and I am going to [another place]". Unless you have enough time and interest, having elaborate interactions and getting to know someone on the road is problematic. This is, of course, attributable to nearly all small talks, but trust me once you've had the exact same conversation 10 times every day of your two-month long trip you will see what I mean.
Pro: When you are up, the glory is all yours to enjoy. Even small things can seem like big triumphs when you’re overcoming fear, fighting that-one-trait you hate about yourself or just doing something completely brand new. One step at a time, you'll soon realise just how much you are capable of!
Con: Getting out of your comfort zone when you do not quite want to is not very pleasant, for instance, when you are ill. Yes, there is no quilt trip as you don't ruin anyone else's plans other than yours, but who does not want to be taken care of when they are not feeling well?
Pro: You will be surprised by how simple life is when you are by yourself in a different country. Although living off a backpack for a few months might sound like a crazy idea at first, the amount of things an average traveller needs to go about his/her day is really minimal. Thing is, people in well-off countries are spoiled and overwhelmed by having too many options of about everything on a daily basis (hello consumerism!), creating the illusion that you really need this snuggie and that new pair of Nike shoes (I can see my inbox full of hate mail tomorrow). In reality, as soon as you hit the road the number of essentials goes down to the very basics.
Con: On the other hand, things can get quite out of control. If the airline loses your luggage, at best you will have to live off your carry-on for a few days, at worst you'll kiss your belongings goodbye. If even people like Bono lose their luggage because the door of their private jet falls off mid-flight, how can you be sure it won’t happen to you? If you are travelling with friends, however, there is an option of sharing things that I mentioned in this post. The same holds true for stolen or dying camera/phone.
Pro: Safety should be your number one concern, but here is a tip: when travelling solo, try to blend in with the locals! It is easier than it seems. Dress up properly, appear confident, and if you are not speaking to anyone your language or accent won't give you away. Even if your appearance stands out, remember that there are expats almost everywhere in the world so you could always be on those few "local foreigners".
Con: Solivagants are still an easier target for pickpockets and criminals in general. Being alone means you can't ask anyone to keep an eye on your stuff or watch your belongings while on a bustling street or in a packed bus. This is especially alarming in places that have a certain reputation. When I was in Barcelona, I almost became a victim of a pickpocket, who was really swift and smooth. It was pure serendipity that the person walking behind me noticed it, yelled at the guy and by doing so attracted too much attention to the scene. Exercising caution is important for everyone and absolutely essential for female travellers, because we have to be vigilant in our home countries and even more so abroad (read an insightful perspective on this here). Follow common sense, your sixth sense and take the necessary precautions to avoid trouble.
Actually doing it
Pro: The premise of solo travel is that you can go whenever you can/want, there is no need to wait for anyone until they are “ready” (will they ever be?). The premise of solo travel is that you can go whenever you can/want, there is no need to wait for anyone until they are “ready” (will they ever be?). Free this weekend? Awesome, how about a cheeky trip to the place you've been daydream of but always had an excuse! Thing is, we often naively believe we have enough time to do something later, when the starts align. And so days, months, years pass by. Take-home message: yes, going alone is not for everyone, but you will never know until you try.
Bonus: Pep talk from 5 people who've done it (and survived)
Joan, UK; went to Australia and ended up staying for 2 years: "I had been thinking about going for a while, and having talked to a few people about it, became aware that no-one else was up for going, so I decided to go on my own. Not going wasn’t an option! I didn’t have a plan at all before arriving in Australia – I didn’t even plan where to stay on my first night or how to get into the city from the airport. All I had was a ticket and a Lonely Planet guide." Would you change anything? "No. I did have some random jobs and was occasionally unhappy (when working in a weird little town in the middle of no-where), but I learnt from all my experiences, and would do it all again in a heartbeat."
Bas, Netherlands; completed 2 RTW trips by the age of 23: "No one had the time or money to come with me. I had been saving up since I was 15 for this trip and I figured out if I have to wait on someone to join me it might never happen, so I booked it alone. Comfort is just a thing, if you let it happen you will never even think it is out of your comfortzone and get awesome experience. I had this crazy experience in Taiwan where a local skater saw me with my backpack and skateboard and just asked if I wanted to join skating later in the evening. He picked me up with his scooter and it turned out to be one of the sickest night ever! Just say yes if people invite, most awesome things happen then!"
Chris, US; travelled around Central & South America for 11 months: "I had been on trips before but was always restricted to 3 weeks of vacation per year so I felt I never really could experience a place long enough. So after working 9 years for the same company I decided I needed to go out and see more of the world while I was still young enough too." What is your piece of advice? "Be open to new experiences. You are going to meet tons of people, see new places and go on crazy adventures. Just be smart, conscious of your surroundings and all will go well. During my time in Nicaragua I noticed more cultural differences there than the other parts I’ve seen in Central America. It is a very poor country with limited social protection so there were times I felt out of my comfort zone. It opened up my eyes to a lot of the different social problems in the world."
Caroline, Lebanon; backpacked around S.E. Asia for 2 months: "I had 2 months of holidays after a one-year long internship in China, so I decided to visit the countries around. I went alone because if I had waited for my friends I would have never got to it. I wish I had done fewer countries but for a longer time - I did the Philippines in 10 days, Vietnam in 15 days and it is just too short! You need to stay at least one month in every country to be sure to make the most of your trip and to get to know the country more deeply, its customs, its people… I really hated the fact of rushing all the time, but even though I was mostly by myself I was never lonely - I'd meet new people in every new city and we would travel together."
Jordy, Canada; travelled around Europe for 4 months: "I had always travelled with friends before and I decided that I wanted to challenge myself and have the freedom and flexibility to do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. I’ll admit that before I left there were times where I was very nervous and I thought a lot about all the things that could wrong. I could miss a flight, my bag or phone could be stolen, I could get sick or injured, I could run out of money, I could be lonely, and a dozen other worries. However once I got on the road all of my fears evaporated and my confidence grew each day. Some things did go wrong here and there but each time I reminded myself where I was and how lucky I was to be travelling. This made any issues less significant and occasionally a bad thing even turned out for the better. For example I had prebooked and paid for a hostel in a small beach town in Portugal and when I showed up in the middle of a thunderstorm it turned out the place was actually closed for another few months and the town was basically empty. I stood in the pouring rain pissed off and unsure of what to do next but I went and found a dive bar where I met a nice local and he found another place for me to stay. When I got there I planned on staying in all night and leaving the town on the first bus in the morning but again I met a cool Canadian guy who shared a pizza with me and we spent the night drinking beers and having a great time. The best advice he gave me was that travel is about both the highs and the lows. Without the lows you won’t appreciate the highs as much. Also he told me that not every day of travelling will be perfect and once you realise that it becomes easier to deal with any things that go wrong. When I left the next morning I viewed the town in a completely different light than when I’d first arrived."