I was 21 when I took my first solo trip.
At the time, I had been studying abroad in Paris, France and had come up with what I deemed a well-thought-out and strategic plan — fly from Paris to London to visit friends for two days and then spend another three days exploring England's capital on my own.
To me, it was a great way to ease into solo travel — start with some familiarity (I know these people!) and then transition into the unfamiliar (Now I'm alone in a completely new city.).
I discovered that perhaps this solo traveling thing wasn't so bad after all.
The result: I had a great time on my own despite a few first-timer mistakes (like not knowing when the London tube closes and getting stuck on a very confusing night bus by myself). Ultimately, I discovered that perhaps this solo traveling thing wasn't so bad after all.
Over the next nine years, I went on more solo trips: Belgium, Switzerland, Germany, France, Spain, Sweden, Thailand, Hong Kong, Ireland and, most recently, Mexico. Occasionally I knew someone in these places, but most times I was completely on my own, befriending strangers or partaking in solo exploration.
Along the way I've learned a lot — both about myself and other people. Here's what years of solo travel have taught me:
Solo Travel is Not as Scary as It Sounds
Before I took that first solo trip to London, I remember being terrified at the thought of traveling alone. Yes, I left Florida to go to college in a big city and had studied abroad several times, but I was also in structured environments in which I felt there was some level of protection. Traveling by myself felt like going deep into the unknown without anyone there to help, and it initially made me very nervous.
Looking back, I realize now that the thoughts in my head were far worse than the reality — though, that's often the case when it comes to fear. It can paralyze us until we find a way to push through to see what happens. So far, what's happened is that I've had some eye-opening, thought-provoking and mostly amazing experiences. And that's it.
Discomfort Often Leads to Growth
Thought I no longer fear solo travel, I still get nervous before going to a new place by myself, and I still feel initial discomfort in a new environment (chalk this one up to introversion). But, I have learned to embrace the nerves and discomfort because they help me grow.
While traveling alone in Hong Kong, I decided to try a restaurant I had read about in a food magazine. However, upon walking in, I quickly realized this was not a place to go by yourself. It was trendy, fun and perfect for a date or an outing with friends. And there I was … just me, myself and I (cue Beyoncé). As you can imagine, I immediately felt awkward and uncomfortable and was ready to hightail it back to my hotel to order room service, but I made myself walk to the bar to sit. I ended up making friends with an expat couple from New York and chatting with the bartender, Alex. I also had an amazing meal — all because I decided to step outside my comfort zone. Apparently, that's where the magic happens.
Many People Are Good
Traveling by yourself can be daunting no matter who you are. Throw in traveling by yourself as a female and person of color and it's even more daunting to know that these differences change how people react to you and, often times, how you are treated. Knowing this, I always wonder what my experience will be like in a new place. For the most part, I have discovered people are good and will treat you the way they want to be treated.
Over the years, I have had countless interactions with both locals and other travelers. Their reactions have ranged from curious yet welcoming to overwhelmingly friendly. Rarely have I met anyone who I deemed to be bad or dangerous, though I am fully aware these people are out there. More often than not, what I find are commonalities across cultural differences.
Go With Your Gut
Though I think most people are good, I also fully believe one needs to go with their gut when traveling alone. And if you don't trust your gut, think about whether you would want a loved one in the situation you find yourself and then determine what you need to do next.
A few months ago, I was walking around Stockholm taking in the city's vibrant nightlife and restaurant scene when an elderly gentleman stepped in front of me scowling. I immediately stepped to the left to walk around him and he stepped in front of me again, the same deep and ugly scowl on his face, clearly directed at me. Whether he was racist, crazy or something else, I'll never know. Just as a nice young couple stepped in to intervene, I backed away, thanked them, crossed the street and walked into a crowd of people. I went with my gut and acted quickly. These instincts have helped me any time I feel I'm in a dicey situation.
It's Okay to Lie — In Fact, Sometimes You Need To
This is a big learning lesson, particularly as a solo female traveler. It is okay to lie. In fact, it is more than okay. I highly recommend you lie whenever you need to because that lie may prevent you from dealing with a more stressful situation.
While traveling in Thailand by myself, I would occasionally encounter people who wanted to know where my companion was, and if I was traveling alone. Sometimes I would say yes but other times I would say that I had a friend from Bangkok who I was about to meet up with, or my friend decided to stay home because she wasn't feeling well. It's all about gauging a situation and knowing what's the appropriate response.
The Freedom is Addictive
One of the things I love most about solo travel is the freedom to do whatever you want, wherever you want and whenever you want. It's an incredibly freeing experience to wake up and decide what you want to do and then go do it. No compromises, no arguments — just you and your plans.
When I think about my first solo trip and why I decided to do more solo traveling, it comes down to the freedom. That freedom is highly addictive and, to me, often overrides any initial fears. I always try to be cautious and safe when traveling alone and there are some places I will not visit by myself, but it's my love of freedom rather than my fears that often dictates my actions.
Solo travel is not for everyone, and that's okay. But for anyone thinking about traveling alone, know that it's an overall liberating, enjoyable and empowering experience. Yes, it requires you to step out of your comfort zone, overcome your fears and think on your feet, but the end result is more than worth it.
Have you traveled alone before? If so, what was your experience like?