A friend of mine once all but recoiled when I told her that, when she came to visit me here in Lyon, she should feel free to explore on her own while I was at work. She was annoyed that I’d even suggested it, and told me there wasn’t anything she felt comfortable doing by herself. Another friend recently insisted I meet him as close as possible to his gate at the airport so that he wouldn’t have to find his way alone into the city center. I was frankly surprised by both of them because they operate independently in other areas of their lives: job, apartment, etc., and I couldn’t believe that traveling in an unfamiliar place scared them more than, say, a car inspection. I travel alone so often now that I’d forgotten how daunting it once was, and when I remembered I felt like an a-hole for being so judgmental and dismissive of their fears.
Traveling alone is one of my favorite activities. An introvert and solitary person (who still has friends and enjoys socializing, I will have you know!) I feel like I’ve been traveling alone forever. In retrospect, though, I actually waded in not so long ago. So I have some advice for those who balk at the idea of cutting loose and voyaging to foreign lands with nothing but a backpack for company: get your feet wet first, splash around, and test the traveling waters. You may not ever truly like going solo, but I think it’s important not to fear it. Here’s a six-step plan to riding off into the sunset…alone.
1. If you don’t have any travel experience (beyond maybe short road trips, which certainly count as travel but are quite different from long-distance trips) get out there and travel with someone, or with a group. Preferably, this group should include at least one person who kind of sort of knows what he or she is doing. Get used to travel logistics: booking accommodation, navigating transport hubs, and getting through security. Explore new surroundings and experience the challenge and excitement of strange sights and sounds from the protected comfort of your travel squad.
2. On your next joint trip, take some time alone. Split from your companions for an afternoon and wander by yourself. Sit in a café and have a sandwich and a beer. Visit some obscure museum nobody else wants to see. Meet back up later and compare notes. If you’re like me, this practice is actually a near-essential when traveling with others. I’m somewhat depleted by even the most pleasant social experience, and I need solo recharge time to keep it up. If you think that’s weird, spending an afternoon alone on a trip will definitely feel weird to you. But try to embrace it and soak up the atmosphere around you- under no circumstance should you withdraw into a phone and continue to socialize remotely during this solo time. Some people have the luck to get to do this kind of tethered exploring during an exchange program or study abroad (if you are trying to decide whether to take advantage of such an opportunity… do it).
3. Take a local or relatively low-hassle domestic trip alone, even for just a day or two. Some people get a chance to do this as they begin to travel for business. It’s good practice handling logistics and unexpected changes independently, as well as a good excuse to indulge your personal whims (drinking a whole overpriced mini-bar because there’s no one around to judge you, for example).
4. Take a solo, well-organized trip farther afield, maybe even to a foreign country with a culture and language not too dissimilar to your native one. Plan an itinerary in advance and book all tickets and accommodation. It’s best to master structured solitary travel before you try flying by the seat of your solo pants. A true travel cluster#&!% could put some people off traveling alone, in much the same way that crashing into a pole and totaling my parents’ van while learning to drive at age 16 put me off getting behind the wheel of a car for longer than I’d like to admit.
5. Take another trip alone, again to a place that isn’t too wildly different, but this time leave some decisions to the last minute. If you’re a compulsive or anxious planner, don’t leave everything to chance, but having a little wiggle room in your schedule will help make you more comfortable with the unexpected, as well as show you how much more flexible travel can be when you’re not worried about interpersonal harmony and keeping everyone happy.
Also, no hiding allowed. Make sure to venture into public alone. There’s nothing wrong with eating alone, going to a film alone, having a drink alone, taking a walking tour alone, wandering around alone. Practice talking, too, to strangers, because I find I meet lots of nice people while traveling by myself: the Israeli I ate dinner with, the German I spent a morning people-watching with, the British couple next to me at a café who told me about how they’d just gone AWOL from their decidedly lame tour group. Self-conscious newbies to independent traveling will realize that the only people taking issue with their solitariness are people who don’t deserve consideration. Unfortunately, based on my experience as a solo-traveling lady, it’s nearly impossible for women to travel alone without some harassment, but the unwelcome comments I get are almost always more nuisance than real threat (“guess you can’t find a boyfriend,” “wow, you’re brave,” “I want to have sex with…girl”).
6. Finally, you’re ready for free-form lone wandering. Start to go places farther outside your comfort zone (places where you can’t even read the signs) and make some decisions on the fly. It’s incredibly freeing to let your feet alone determine the path. If you have limited vacation time you might feel an urgency to make it as perfect as possible, and of course there’s something fun and sensible about having a checklist of sights to see. Just don’t let the checklist become a blindfold to the amazing unexpected. The best thing about traveling alone is the ability to purely react in real-time– to the weather, to a tip from a fellow traveler, to the fact that you suddenly feel like crap and you want to ditch your plans so that you can nap instead.
I know that this series of gradual steps, especially to destinations abroad, may not be possible for everyone. It took me years to complete them– I just didn’t realize I was doing it– and I had the benefit of early opportunities to travel with family. If you have kids or are in a relationship, it’s not like you can guiltlessly draw from the collective savings and blow the measly vacation time you have on a solo trip. In that case, as I’ve said before, I’m a big proponent of traveling closer to home, as well. Which can also, of course, be done alone.
American culture, especially in the age of constant contact, seems to imply that there’s something wrong with “The Loner.” There’s this variously-voiced worry that we have become a population of loners, addicted to our screens and incapable of true relationships with others. Regardless of whether this worry is warranted, I think this reliance on the screen, on having to demonstrate publicly at all times that we are connected, makes us less capable of a true relationship with ourselves. When we’re alone, we are increasingly preoccupied with how we should present what we’re doing to others, how we should frame it. What you’re doing has to have value to you, before you decide to post about it. We’re so used to verifying and getting feedback on our decisions that we’re losing confidence in our own ability to reason. We are at risk, I think, of developing a fear of being alone with our own thoughts, of a gap in the reception of external cues, not only the kind that tells us how to handle a situation we haven’t been in before but also the kind that tells us what to do with dead air. The thing is, no air is dead– we’re just forgetting how to listen to it.