I never thought I would travel solo. It kind of just…happened. And I’m glad it did, because it changed my life.
Growing up, my vacations consisted of Caribbean cruises and road trips spent searching for thrilling roller coasters and America’s best beaches.
It wasn’t until I studied abroad in Sydney at the age of 20 that I got the itch to expand my travel horizons. During my time studying abroad my roommates took an impromptu trip to Thailand, which I sadly wasn’t able to afford. But I was determined: I would save up and go the following summer.
Right after Christmas I began asking friends and family if they would be interested in joining me on my Southeast Asian journey. Doing homestays, hiking through rice terraces, taking cooking classes, perusing night markets and volunteering to help build a village dam. Who could resist such an adventure? Apparently, everyone I knew.
When the time came to book my ticket I was faced with a big decision: travel solo or stay home and give up on an experience I’d been looking forward to for months. I worried I would feel awkward or that I would be lonely. I worried I wouldn’t be able to communicate with anyone because of language barriers. I worried about finding accommodation and ordering food and getting ripped off.
Most of all, though, I worried I would miss out on an enriching opportunity. A round-trip ticket to Bangkok, please. How many passengers? One!
Since my first solo travel experience in Thailand I’ve had many others: a summer through Europe, three months through South America, an adventurous journey exploring French Polynesia, some alone time in Morocco, and numerous solo trips around the United States.
You see, every time I travel solo it’s like a self-esteem boost, as I’m reminded of all that I’m capable of. Traveling with others, you tend to rely on different people for different things. Maybe Joe handles the map because he’s good at navigation while Jen smooths out any ordeals because she’s an excellent problem solver. When traveling solo, however, you’re responsible for it all: reading the map, navigating local transportation, communicating through language barriers, problem solving when you miss your train or your motorbike runs out of gas, getting un-lost in unfamiliar cities, and any travel mishap in between.
And guess what? You’ll do it! You may not think you’re equipped to handle all the issues that arise, but you’ll surprise yourself. Because when you’re forced to, you’ll accomplish anything and everything.
Learning To Shine
Before I began traveling solo I was much more reliant on other people. I was shy and would hide within my friends circle. After traveling solo as a female, though, I realized I could be a social superstar if I tried.
I think I truly reached my full socializing potential when traveling solo through Europe. The culture is extremely social in itself, with people mingling and sharing wine in public squares. Suddenly, people were coming up and starting conversations with me in money exchanges, train stations, parks, buses, piazzas, hostels.
As I assimilated more into European way of life and the friendliness of the backpacker circuit, I began initiating conversations myself —a feat seemingly impossible in my pre-solo travel years.
I would bring a bottle of wine to a park, offering to share with picnickers in exchange for some cheese and bread. Or I would invite people from a walking tour out for drinks. I made great friends, many whom I still keep in touch with. Even more, I realized how easy it was to make friends once you came out of your shell, a skill that’s helped me in work, friendships and relationships.
While I’m thankful to have helpful parents, being young and inexperienced in the world left me dependent on other people; however, that one solo travel trip to Thailand left me transformed.
When traveling solo, independence isn’t something you try to attain; it’s just something that happens naturally. There is nobody there to rely on for money, to watch your luggage when you go to the bathroom or to show you the way when you get lost. It’s all up to you. And the more you figure these things out, the more independent you become.
I remember, backpacking Europe, when my luggage was lost on a flight from Munich, Germany to Nice, France. It took me a week to get it back, and the airline made me travel 12 hours to pick it up. Which made me almost miss my train to Florence. Which made me almost get to my Florence hostel too late to check-in. Yes it was a hassle, but I figured it out and solved the problem — all on my own.
The best thing about traveling solo is it forces you to interact with locals and not just talk to your travel buddies from home. Before traveling solo, I lived in a bubble where everyone spoke English and tourism catered to my needs. This all changed when I began exploring the world. When you visit a foreign place you must adapt to the local culture, figuring out how to order food, dress appropriately and ride local transportation. If you don’t know how to use a squat toilet in Thailand they’re not going to roll out the red carpet for you and bring a flusher.
You figure these things out as you go. As you encounter new situations and cultural facets you’re able to engage, process and react to them without influence from others.
For example, when backpacking South America I spent much time riding the bus. This is a cultural experience in itself, as you sit with locals for 20 hours at a time, meet artisans, hear traditional musicians, sample typical foods and see what the farmers are selling. If I were traveling with a friend I may have been too consumed talking to them to actually notice the everyday nuances of culture going on around me. Solo travel has allowed me to take culture in and interact with it without distractions, transforming me into a more worldly and open-minded individual.
Probably the greatest gift solo travel has provided has been the experience of ultimate freedom. When you travel solo you decide where you’ll go, what you’ll do and when you’ll do it. There’s nobody trying to change your plans and there’s no need to compromise.
As I’ve gotten used to exploring on my own, I enjoy traveling without making plans. When I arrive to a place I discover it organically, asking for recommendations from locals and using CouchSurfing to meet new people. I change my plans daily based on how I’m feeling and who I meet.
Life is one big adventure full of experiences to be had, and there is nobody there to tell me I can’t have them.
From Vacations To Journeys
As the name of my blog “Jessie on a Journey” states, I’m on a journey. This journey is my life’s mission. I’m not looking to turn life into one long vacation, but to have unique experiences around the world on this journey called life.
Solo travel has showed me how to stop being stagnant and keep moving to experience more with my short time on Earth. I don’t need to wait around for my best friend to have time off from work or for my boyfriend to save up enough money to accompany me. I’ve got big plans and there’s no time to waste.
It Isn’t Permanent
What’s helped assuage my fears of traveling solo from the start is one realization: I’m in full control of my trip planning. This means that if I’m unhappy on the road, I can hop on a plane and fly back home to NYC.
Many people seem to forget that travel isn’t permanent. Once you arrive to your destination, give yourself a few days to get used to being on your own and orient yourself in the destination. If after you’ve given it a fair shot you genuinely feel miserable, change your location or go home. When you’re traveling solo, it’s all up to you.
Whether you end up loving traveling solo or decide it’s not really your thing doesn’t matter. Regardless, you’ll end up having an enriching experience. Because really, the worst case scenario is you feel some awkwardness, while also discovering what you’re truly capable of and immersing yourself fully in a new culture. And if you really feel uncomfortable, you can always hide in a comfortable hotel room or change your ticket to board the next flight home.
Has solo travel changed your life? Are you thinking of hitting the road on your own? I’d love to hear in the comments below!
Solo Travel Packing List
This stylish garment is great for throwing on for cool evenings. It also doubles as a travel blanket AND works for picnics.
Wear it as a bracelet and pull the pin to have a piercing alarm blare. It’s great for hiking as it scares away potential dangerous wildlife!
Simply affix this sticker to your SIM card to get local rates in over 200 countries. Most unlimited data packages are only $7.99/day!
This line of pickpocket-proof garments means thieves never know your carrying cash or cards.