How to travel alone – and love it
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Solo travel represents freedom and independence, and is an experience everyone should encounter at least once says Emily Cotton
I took my first 'solo' trip post uni. I was 21, had worked my way through three long years of a degree I hadn't loved as much as I had hoped and, as well as wanting to reward myself, I craved an adventure. I put 'solo' in inverted commas as I wasn't entirely on my own. I'd signed up to a three week tour of Thailand – as most people seem to do at that age – which meant I would be meeting a group of people there when I arrived.
I was nervous about many things before I went – my first flight alone, meeting new people and, most worryingly, that I'd absolutely hate it, miss home comforts and not be able to come home any earlier than I had planned. But none of my concerns ever came to light. I had an incredible time immersing myself in the country and its culture and flew home wishing I'd been able to stay a few days more.
Following Thailand, a seed was planted in my head that I was fully capable of flying the nest, even for just a short period, and the following summer I took the leap and booked myself a four day trip to Barcelona – alone. I knew this time round would be different and that I'd be completely solo. I wouldn't be meeting others in a similar boat to me, I'd have no itinerary to follow (unless I created one myself) and, something that I'd avoided at all costs previously, I'd have to sit and eat three meals a day at a table for one.
It is assumed travelling alone will leave you feeling sad or lonely, but in retrospect it does the complete opposite. Removed from the context of your everyday life, with nothing and no one to remind you of your usual flaws, you realise that you are capable of many things.
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I've always hated asking strangers for help, and with a language barrier the prospect seemed even more daunting. But when I found myself a little lost in Park Güell, searching for the entrance to the Monumental Core where I'd find the beautiful mosaic works of Gaudi, I had no choice but to ask for directions. One thing I've learnt from travelling alone is that as human beings we are a lot kinder than the world makes us out to be. People are, 99.9% of the time, happy to lend a hand and no matter how negatively you think you might be perceived for travelling on your own – irresponsible, a loner or, thanks to films like Eat Pray Love and Wild, heartbroken – no one will even bat an eyelid to the fact its just little old you.
Enjoying your own company is another hurdle that solo travel brings. In Barcelona while sitting along Las Ramblas watching the world go by (with a large glass of sangria in hand) I realised this wasn't something I needed to fret over. My biggest insecurity was that I would be lonely but, after a busy day sightseeing (when you're too busy to remember you're even alone), sitting with your thoughts and truly taking in the experience, you're having is something to cherish.
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Unlike my trip to Barcelona, when I travelled to Copenhagen on my own a year later, I hadn't put any thought into what I was going to do when I arrived. I knew of a few tourist sights that I should probably see – Tivoli, Nyhavn, The Little Mermaid – but had no real plan for my time there. And this was okay. Each morning when I woke up in my hostel bed, I could go out and do whatever I fancied in that very moment. And, if I wanted to change my plans at the last minute, I could do so easily without disappointing anyone else. While it's often seen as selfish putting your own wants before others, it's incredibly liberating being able to fill your days as you please without worrying about what a fellow traveller would rather be doing.
Spending time alone comes with a bit of a stigma. We're programmed to think that solitude is bad - children are given time-outs as punishment and prison inmates who don't follow the rules get solitary confinement. But it's a life-altering, educational, enriching and wildly freeing experience that I believe everyone should encounter at least once. Yes it can be scary or overwhelming at times too, but I can't think of much else in life that can be as transformative or rewarding.
Your solo travels - Why did you decide to travel alone and what did you gain from the experience?
Nisha Haq: I think for me, my solo trip to Amsterdam [a couple of years ago] was about finding independence and confidence, as well as knowing that I could navigate my way, explore things for myself and experience what I wanted to do which was mainly an arts/culture/photography trip. At that time, I was also starting a new job and wanted a mini escape for a few days first.
Benjamin Bowthorpe-Weller: For me it was mostly the fact that I enjoyed my own company - travelling alone in Istanbul meant I could go on my own agenda and work off my own timetable. Being alone kind of forces you to use people around you as a resource, especially if it's not somewhere familiar. I also worked abroad in Gibraltar for five weeks alone. It was important to go for dinner and do things by myself, to enjoy my own company and rest (especially as I was working in intensive care at the time).
Cat Rayson: I've done a summer camp and a build project in Peru alone, with some US travel on my own too. My friends were all at uni at the time and not able to spare the time or money - I preferred to go alone than not at all.
James Leach: I drove round Europe on my own and it was the best time ever, although filled with both ups and downs. A time during my trip that stands out the most is probably the first time I ate out on my own. I t felt weird and I was really conscious that I was all alone. I was also always self conscious about being able to make friends off my back rather than being introduced by others and the first few times I approached strangers I found very daunting. When I got speaking to people, I didn't find language barriers a massive problem though. I spent a whole night with a few Colombian people during my trip and we solely used Google translate the whole evening - it wasn't an issue at all. I would do solo travel again in a heart-beat as I felt it gave me a real boost and I learnt a lot about myself and that (most) people aren't scary and do want to talk to you.
Rachel Moore: I tried visiting Vietnam and Thailand alone a few years ago and while I struggled with it, I don't regret going. I still learnt a lot about myself. I had planned 6 weeks though Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand and decided to go alone was because I couldn't find anyone who could come with me due to time or money restraints. But I'm an introvert and very shy so I struggled to meet people. I found it very lonely and I found it hard work doing all the planning and decision making by myself so in the end I booked on a tour. Once I joined the tour I made friends, I could relax, and I really enjoyed the experience. I still think solo travel is a good thing for everyone to try at least once, but it's also okay to struggle with it and in a way give up and do an organised tour instead.
Tara Edwards-Jones: I'm backpacking Australia at the moment. I was going to travel alone but my friend wanted to go too so we went together to start. After a little while we got to the point where I wanted to be in a beach town and he wanted to be in the city so we went our own way! The unknown is always a bit scary, but I knew where I wanted to go, and it was exciting and a lot easier than I thought. We both made friends straight away and I actually really like solo travel now.