I have always found solo travel to be reorienting, rather than disorienting. When I return to my job and my routine after having had the opportunity to explore myself while exploring somewhere else, I can’t help but feel like my decisions are a little more informed. That my goals and the path I take to get to them are a little more clear. When traveling solo, you might just learn more about yourself than the place you travel to — lessons you’ll find transfer to all kinds of arenas in your life. Hopefully, you return from your adventures feeling a little more empowered.
At some point early on your journey, probably right around the time you get off the plane in a faraway land, you’re going to realize that you’re completely and utterly on your own. You might panic, or feel like any preparation you’d done wasn’t nearly enough, and you’ll probably wish that you had anyone familiar (even someone you generally hate) there to help you deal.
Shortly thereafter, you’ll realize that you’re completely and utterly on your own… and that’s awesome. You don’t have to look or smell any particular way if you don’t want to. You don’t have to waste time doing anything you don’t feel like doing. You set your schedule, take a bathroom break when you need to, and no one can tell you otherwise. It’s all you.
And you’ll do so in unlikely ways. Maybe you’re just asking a local for directions and they decide to make an awesome recommendation while they’re at it, or walk you to where you’re going. Before you know it, you’re trading facts about your hometowns, and you’re able to let out a sigh of relief: you just gained a point-of-contact and a familiar face in that foreign place.
You never know when it might happen. When a stranger in a strange land sees you’re not doing so well in the heat and offers you a drink of water. When you look painfully lost, and someone stops to help you find your way even though it takes 25 embarrassing minutes to properly communicate “I need to go to the bathroom” outside your native language. Little acts of kindness become more salient when you’re abroad, and seem to bear more weight than those that happen at home.
It’s remarkable how fast you’ll jump on an opportunity spontaneously if it’s the right one for you, and how slowly you’ll amble along a beach when not rushed along by tour groups or travel companions looking to do something else. Everyone has a pace they prefer to experience life by, and when you’re solo you can go with your own flow uninterrupted.
With no pressures from anyone but yourself, you’re completely free to explore, and to try things you otherwise wouldn’t. Maybe they’re things you’re afraid of doing and/or being judged for, or things you otherwise wouldn’t have put aside the time for, but regardless you’ll have the opportunity to try them if you so choose.
When you’re a solo traveler in need, it’s amazing who will come to your aid (whether or not they can really afford to be helping you out in the first place). Travel stories are forged in moments of distress, when kind strangers bail you out for no reason, and with no expectations for reciprocation.
You never know what you will and won’t do until there’s no one around to witness it.
Maybe you want to be the kind of person who sits on a beach and sips Pina Coladas while reading by yourself. Maybe you want to be a secret agent on a top-secret espionage mission (or, at least feel like it for a fleeting moment). Regardless of who you are back home, you have the anonymity to explore who you want to be, and no one can spoil the illusion if you don’t let them.
Maybe you never realized you’re secretly a foodie, or a party animal, or a shopaholic, or an outdoor park enthusiast. When left to your own devices, your personal trends might just surprise you.
You’ll probably figure out what’s really essential– what things you just can’t live your day-to-day without, and keep an extra close eye on those things. You’ll also find you can survive on much less than you probably originally thought.
None of that “I’ll see that next time, when I have more time for myself” stuff, you’ll get to do everything you make the effort to do, and have no excuses for the things you didn’t get to (other than, of course, running out of time doing all the other stuff you wanted to do).
You’ve got one job while traveling alone, look out for numero uno.
And be surprised by how your thoughts wander when you don’t have to reel them in. Thinking “gosh that guy looks familiar,” suddenly becomes a 45 minute trip down the rabbit hole of memories that you would never have made, had you had a travel companion there to keep you in the present.
There’s an amazing amount of confidence and security in knowing that you’re capable of looking after yourself. Sure, you’ll need to be a little extra vigilant (especially in unknown and potentially unsafe territory), but unlike having a friend watch your back, you will literally always be there so it’s great to know you’re capable.
You’ve got good instincts, and you’ll use them more than once. Then, you’ll learn you can rely on them all the time.
If you’ve ever wondered what you’d do in certain situations, traveling alone has a knack for pitting you against those exact situations (and a zillion other ones you never dreamed you’d be in). Trapped at a border with the wrong documentation? Stuck abroad with no wallet? Museum exhibit you traveled around the world to see, closed? With little hesitation, you might just surprise yourself with how you respond to those situations.
Especially when you need them. Like important phrases in another language, certain cultural faux-pas, or what characters demarcate the men’s and women’s restrooms.
Alone with your thoughts, you might get a little introspective. You might find it reaffirming to think about how you fit in, in things greater than yourself back home (like your community or job). Alternatively, you may spend large swaths of time completely outside yourself, just observing how the rest of the world works on the daily, without being a necessary cog in its processes.
Being completely cut off from everything familiar is powerfully overwhelming. No matter how excited you might be to be traveling alone, there will always be at least a little apprehension. No matter how much planning you do, something will go wrong. You will be tried, and tested, and pushed, and prodded. And you will grow, but only through that hardship.
You will be tried, and tested, and pushed, and prodded… and you’ll persevere. You will learn to smell your own panic coming a mile away, and begin to take the necessary steps to avoid it. You’ll find courage and confidence you never knew you had (even by simply making it out on your own in the first place). And you’ll stand taller knowing all of this.
Literally all your limits. Like how far you can walk, how much you can eat, how uncomfortable a situation can you keep your calm in. You’ll learn what you will and won’t do for a picture, or to see something you want to see. Maybe it means hopping on the back of a stranger’s scooter before flying into traffic because you could use a ride (even though every ounce of your being says it’s a bad idea), but maybe it also means finding the strength to walk instead.
You’ll dance around your limits, but you’ll probably bite off more than you can chew, and probably more than once. Maybe you’ll have a full blown panic attack, or get completely caught up two steps outside your comfort zone. You’ll take a lot, but be asked to deal with more than you can. And when you finally break, you’ll know exactly how much it took to get you there (and it’s probably more than you expected).
Maybe it won’t hit you until the flight home, but you’ll think over all of the things you did, saw, and endured, and realize that you got through it. You survived it, being out in the great world all on your own. And if you can do that, you can do anything.