This is part two in a four part series, “What Solo Travel Looks Like.” After nearly a year away from my home country, I wanted to offer advice and a clear depiction of what solo travel was really like for me. Please read along with us and if you’d like to subscribe to my weekly newsletter, sign up at the bottom of this page. (You can read part one here.)
PART TWO: Isn't it lonely?
The short answer is yes.
Sometimes it looks like sitting alone on a dark beach late at night, black waves rolling before you, listening to the town and the people and the obvious sense of familiarity that everyone but you must be feeling, as you hang your legs over the edge of the dune and let the hot pizza on your lap warm you, in addition to the bottle of red wine still in its paper bag beside you, that you’d swig straight from after looking around stealthily and trying your hardest not to look too completely insane. You eat the entire pizza and down half the bottle.
Sometimes it looks like being the only one in the swimming pool in the guest house in the small town in the middle of nowhere, Thailand, with nothing to do but sweat profusely and look at bridges, locking eyes with the goddess statue in the corner of the pool and feeling like she must be you, keeping your beer above the water so as not to let it get too warm, and wondering if it’s the alcohol or the goddess in the corner that’s making you feel like maybe it’s okay to be swimming alone in a pool with a beer and no life plan.
Sometimes it looks like driving a motorbike on your own for the first time through a busy city in Asia, getting lost as the sun goes down, skidding over a manhole cover and narrowly avoiding a fall, getting chased down an alley by viciously barking dogs, all while managing not to cry and returning the bike on time, miraculously.
Sometimes it looks like leaving the pub crawl early because of the noise and the chaos and the drunkenness and your desire for sleep, and not realizing until you’re walking alone in the dark back down the island that it might not have been the smartest idea to leave by yourself, and then buying noodles from a brightly lit cart by the ocean from a man who can only use hand gestures to understand your order, and then eating the spicy noodles on your bed with the doors locked and the blinds shut.
Sometimes it looks like sitting alone in an airport terminal, not having spoken to anyone besides a flight attendant in over fifteen hours, and feeling the humanity wash over you when an old man approaches and starts a conversation about how he’s flying to Borneo with his daughter and how it’s been his lifelong dream and where were you going and how could you possibly be flying across the world by yourself?
Sometimes it looks like stopping on a dark street with thankfully no one around as you heave up all your insides at the start of a nasty bout of food poisoning, and then wipe your mouth on your shirt and enter the hotel reluctantly to retrieve your luggage, alone, trying to hide the fact that you just vomited down the alley, and then rolling your two extra-large suitcases down the busy bumpy streets to your next hotel as you try not to puke again on the way.
Sometimes it looks like sneaking into the fancy hotel where you order a glass of cold white wine in the lobby bar and pretend to look like you belong, the only one alone, because you can’t possibly spend any more time alone in a shitty hostel and it’s only 7PM and you can’t go to bed yet.
Yes, sometimes it’s lonely. Incredibly lonely.
But other times it looks like making quick friends with the attractive Brazilian men on the two-day boat ride down the Mekong River, or laughing so hard about the colorful plastic ponchos you’re forced to wear over your backpacks in the constant deluge of rain on an island that’s meant to be sunny and picturesque, or seeing a familiar face in a bar in Cambodia because you’re all traveling the same route and you’ve met this person at least three times, or chatting about whether or not the UK should pull out of the EU over ham and cheese toasties with a perfect stranger you've spontaneously booked a private room with, or sitting on a rickety balcony overlooking a chaotic Vietnamese square drinking an egg coffee and writing in your journal about how you’re so certain this is where you’re meant to be in this exact moment in life.
Yes, sometimes it’s painfully lonely.
But sometimes it’s excruciatingly beautiful.
You see, the thing about traveling solo is that yes, it often gets lonely. But in that darkness there is so much light. I'd often go through a bout of loneliness and consider throwing in the towel, and then two days later get to the other side of that loneliness and feel on top of the world. (Sometimes that looked like serendipitously making a new friend in the bunk above me, having a spontaneous exchange with a stranger, or hitting on an epiphany while writing in my journal.)
I was learning to be okay with myself.
I was learning that I could survive in a foreign country all on my own.
I was learning that I actually make pretty damn great company.
I was letting the silence and solitude show me so many new things about this person I was, this person who I was still getting to know.
There is so much power in solitude.
I don't want to travel solo forever. But in the meantime it's been the most radical life experience I've had yet. It's so good to experience this at least once. A travel partner would be lovely, of course — someone to share in the ups and downs of traveling. But for now, I'm welcoming the experiences just for me, and sharing them with strangers-become-friends all over the world.
Which is pretty lovely.
I backpacked through Southeast Asia on my own for three straight months, and then spontaneously moved to Australia where I didn’t know a soul and have stayed for 8+ months. I have no idea what’s next. Some days are incredibly lonely, and all I want is to go home to my family and friends. Some days are incredibly joy-filled, and I can’t imagine ever not traveling.
I’ve battled the lonely-demons time and time again, and below are my top 7 tips for handling the loneliness of traveling solo:
Know that you’re not alone. Despite the fact that it might seem like everyone else has a multitude of traveling friends and never spends one second feeling lonely, the truth is that plenty of people travel alone. More people than you realize are traversing the world solo, booking tours and staying in hostels and eating meals by themselves.
Give it time. When you’re traveling, things can change drastically, quickly. One day you might be in the depths of solo travel despair, the next day you might be wondering what in the world all the fuss was about. Relax. Go with it. Everything is temporary.
Book yourself into a group tour. When I first landed on the other side of the world and was having a nervous breakdown in my hotel room, I decided to join a free walking tour offered by a nearby hostel and met so many amazing people that way. There were lots of people also traveling solo, and I bonded immediately with a few lovely women who were easy to talk to. We’re still friends to this day. Do some Googling and find a group tour. Show up, alone. Do it for the sightseeing, but even more than that, do it for the people.
Put yourself out there. Push yourself out of your comfort zone like you never have before. I used to talk so quietly that people couldn’t even hear me — now, I’ve been known to march up to complete strangers and strike up a conversation. It won’t kill you, I promise. Stretch, stretch, stretch. It almost always works out.
Stay in a hostel. I already talked about this in part one, but I can’t stress it enough. Book yourself a bed in a reputable hostel. Do your research, of course, and then just go for it. Hostels can certainly be a little uncomfortable, but when you’re traveling alone, the community is completely worth it. There’s often plenty of free events going on, socializing opportunities, happy hours, organized tours, etc. Staying in hostels was definitely eye-opening for me (imagine the options in rural Laos.....oof) but completely necessary for me, too.
Make sure you can still communicate with friends and family at home. Make sure your phone can take a new SIM card, know where the wifi is, and make sure you have all the apps you need. WhatsApp is wonderful for texting with any phone number in the world. Voxer is a lifesaver when you just need to vent or hear a familiar voice, even if they’re asleep on the other side of the globe. Even Facebook Messenger now has a really great video chat option. Make the time to maintain those connections, especially if you’ll be away for a long period of time — you’ll want more than just occasional comments on your awesome social media photos.
Imagine that people are good. When I was first on my own as a backpacker, I found myself scared of everyone. I imagined that everyone was out to get me, that I had to be on high alert 24/7, that I couldn't trust strangers, that no one could possibly understand me. And while it's extremely important to be vigilant about your safety, the truth is that most people are kind and helpful and friendly. I started setting out in the mornings with the belief that people are good, and that most people would show up exactly how I imagined them to. (This is a pretty good lesson that's stuck with me even in my day to day interactions now.) It revolutionized my travel, and my worldview.
Missed part one? Find it here.
Stay tuned for part three!
Want to chat about solo travel? I'm all ears. Send me a message with questions, thoughts, or comments. xo