Solo Travel

Zen and the art of traveling solo

Much like the art of motorcycle maintenance, traveling solo is often a philosophical journey.

A good friend of mine texted me yesterday with exciting news.  He was preparing to book plane tickets for a multi-country backpacking trip.  Over ten days, he would attempt to conquer four countries and he would do it all by his lonesome.  He sought advice and I suggested we get together over lunch to hash it out.  But, his inquiry got the wheels turning.  Traveling alone, especially in a foreign country, is something I suspect many people think about, but few attempt.  My first foray into solo travel was initially frightening, but ultimately rewarding.  I’m here now to offer up some tips and anecdotes to get the most out of your solitary sojourn.

–First trip on your own?  Planning ahead is your best friend.

I highly recommend ditching the reservations, road maps, and sense of time on your solo trips.  However, as I experienced on my first ever three country tour alone, not knowing where you’ll stay or how you’ll get there in advance can make for some very stressful and sloppy situations.

[“I shouldn’t have gone out with those Australians,” I thought as I frantically shoved articles of clothing into my pack.  I woke up with less than ten minutes to get checked out or else I faced a hefty 50€ fine.  A night out on the town with two Aussie lads started innocently enough, but it wasn’t long before we had hitched a ride on the coattails of a Red Light District pub crawl.  At 5 in the morning, the group long since disbanded, I found myself at the tour company’s office ripping shots with the pub crawl leader.  Barely 4 hours later, I sprung to life at the sound of my alarm and realized not only did I need to vacate the property post-haste, but I had done no planning for my next destination.  The sweats I experienced in the following hours were more to do with my pure anxiety than the mind-numbing hangover.  I ended up having to extend my stay at the hostel because the pressure was too great.  A day later I had my plans set for Hamburg, but my lack of planning had wasted my precious time — and sanity.]

 Until you’re comfortable as a traveler in general, having even a basic itinerary will save you time.  Have your hostels booked in advance, along with your modes of transportation.  Your mental health will thank you.

I eat alone, therefore I am.

It was every kid’s fear to be left out at lunch.  Sitting alone was a social death sentence.  You’d think though, that as we got older and less preoccupied with what other people thought, eating by oneself wouldn’t be such a big deal.  Yet it is. Eating alone is weirdly stigmatized.

Embrace your inner Glansberg.

Inevitably, this is something that the solo traveler must face.  In the beginning, it will be tough.  But over time, going into a restaurant and saying, “just one” becomes less and less daunting with every outing.  I can say in all honesty that I actually prefer eating alone most of the time now.  Ease yourself into it by taking a book.  Soon enough, you’ll be content just people watching or staring out a window.  There’s something relaxing about it.

[I sat at the bar in Dublin, eating dinner, drinking a pint, eyes buried in a book.  The bartender approached and managed to catch my attention as he slid another Smithwick’s my way.  “That man wanted to buy you a drink,” he explained, gaze shifting to the figure across the bar from us.  I examined this bearer of free booze; a man in his late-50s, paunchy, dressed with a cheeky grin.  I gave him a nod of thanks and returned to my book.  It wasn’t long before he sent another, then finally approached me to make conversation.  “Reading at the bar,” he said matter-of-factly, “is very intriguing.”]

–Have provisions, will travel…to the common room.

Never underestimate the power of food and alcohol when trying to make friends.  You may be traveling alone by choice, but that doesn’t mean you don’t want companionship.  Hostels can be hit or miss in their friendliness levels.  Sometimes this is because there isn’t a defined common area for people to meet.  Other times, you just happen to be in a place at a time when the other hostelgoers just aren’t very outgoing.  Regardless of the situation though, entering a room where people are gathered, toting treats and/or a sixer is sure to get attention.  Cue up some popular tunes and you’ve just gotten the party started.

One  is the lo[n]veliest number.

You are the supreme leader, El Capitán of your journey.  You decide where you go and when, what you eat, how long you linger.  Meeting people when traveling is, in my opinion, the best part.  But, the kicker is this: while you can make as many friends as you like during your trip, you never have to be tied down to any one person or itinerary.  The freedom you have to call the shots is liberating.  Being alone doesn’t have to be lonely.

You don’t know how many years on this earth you’ve got left.  Get weird with it.

Frank Reynolds put it best: life is short and unpredictable so don’t be afraid to get loose.  Step out of your comfort zone.  Do something spontaneous.  You’re already taking the first step by deciding to pick up and explore uncharted territory.  The rest is up to you to decide.  I hope you decide on weird.

When you’re at the airport waiting to board your flight, you may experience a moment of sheer terror.  Fight the urge to sprint to the nearest emergency exit (which incidentally might actually be an exit to an unused gate).

Don’t let this be you.

Convince yourself to find your seat and relax.  Once you land at your destination, you will hit the ground running and never look back.

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