Y’know all these guides to solo travel, where the writer bangs on about how it’s going to be the ‘best time of your life’, you’ll meet ‘lifelong friends’ who’ll help you ‘find yourself’ and you’ll ‘be bitten by the travel bug foreverrrrr’ etc etc?
Well, I’d say 99% of them are at least 88% exaggeration.
The Realistic Guide to Solo Travel
Obviously, I’ve made a career out of helping people to travel, I’ve travelled solo, and actively encourage others to do the same, but one of the things that I really want to enforce in this mini solo travel guide series is that there is no one way to do things, to experience travel or to expect your trip to be.
Solo travel can be hard, it can be lonely, people can be douche bags, places can be a underwhelming, and trust me, there’ll be times you’ll wish you were back at home in bed watching a bitta telly, rather than trekking through a jungle to see some blummin monkeys.
After travelling solo for three years, and loving most of it but definitely not all of it, I want to give you a more realistic guide to solo travel. And it’s not all sunning your bronzed body on a tropical beach with your flock of new best friends. Not everything turns out as smoothly as in your favourite travel books.
Just so you know you don’t have to suffer alone, or in silence, I’m telling you right now: sometimes, just sometimes, travelling solo is actually a bit shit.
– The people you meet
– Making friends in the hostel
– Dirty, skanky hostels
– Seeing the sights on your own
– The responsibility of being a solo traveller
– Feeling uncomfortable by yourself
– Explaining yourself
– Eating and drinking alone
The people you meet
I’ve met some awesome people while I was travelling, but ‘awesome’ was few and far between. The more you travel solo you realise how true those ‘people you meet travelling’ lists really are. You can nod along to the ‘white rastas’, ‘guitar wankers’ and the ‘lads lads lads’ that seem to pop up no matter where you are.
– Me, 21, in Oz, with one of the best people I’ve met travelling, Jules from Australia
The trouble is, as you travel along a well trodden backpacker route chances are you’ll meet the same people time and time again. Wherever you are the popularity of travel means that everyone is more or less on the same path. Sometimes you’ll spot someone as you check into that hostel and be happy to see them again – joyful even – but then there are those others, where you’ll want to back out as swiftly as you walked in.
Some destinations are friendlier than others. For example, travel to Tokyo solo and usually your time is limited thanks to the cost. You have your things you want to see and your places you want to go and that’s that. You’re not really open to someone else’s itinerary, or at least, I wasn’t. I barely spoke to anyone for the entire 5 weeks I was in Japan. (Loved it).
Whereas, when I travelled to Caye Caulker in Belize there wasn’t that much to do on the island but chill out. It was such a small island that the backpackers got to know each other and after staying for a week I’d made some good friends there that I would’ve travelled on with if I hadn’t already planned my trip onwards.
For me solo travel definitely wasn’t a case of just rocking up in a hostel room, instantly making friends and all going out together and having a great old time. I’m far too self conscious and anti social for that.
I think I felt very judged when I was travelling solo. You arrive in a situation and people are instantly assessing whether you’re worth talking to or not. They’re wondering why you’re old, where your friends are, why you’re by yourself and just generally whether you’re worth the effort or not. Solo travel for me was not a laugh a minute.
Stay confident in yourself and don’t assess your validity on whether someone talks to you or not. Know when to move on and don’t reveal your exact future travel plans if you’re not inviting people to come with you. At the same time keep your plans open so that if you do meet some cool people, you can carry on travelling with them.
Also, be the person that approaches others to talk, and don’t judge others on first impressions. Don’t leave anywhere on bad terms and if someone annoys you, try to just let it go. It’s not worth it. In a few hours / days / weeks, you’ll never have to see that person again. Hopefully.
Making friends in the hostel
I’ve been staying in hostels for almost 15 years now (yeeshp!), I’ve seen the vibe change. Nowadays you’re lucky if you even know what your room mates’ face looks like as they’re usually so buried in the blue light from their phone and on the scroll.
Here’s how it goes: you’re ready and raring to make friends and go and explore. You arrive in the social area and they’re all heads down, phone on. It feels too intimidating and terrifying to infiltrate the concentration. So instead, you join them, sitting in the ‘social’ area scrolling away on your screen, then someone looks at you and does the same, and so begins the domino effect of social media until all of a sudden the entire social area in the hostel you picked for its ‘fun vibes’ in deepest Guatemala is brain deep in friends from home’s Instagram Stories.
Not the fun social travel experience you dreamed of.
I’d describe myself as an introvert. Anyone who knows me personally would probably disagree but if they met me for the first time again, they’d think differently. I find it hard to get to know people in groups and don’t really interact well in situations like that. The idea of going up to someone in a hostel and striking up a conversation makes me want to burn my passport.
To be honest, I don’t really mind if I haven’t / don’t make friends when I travel. It’s different when I have work to do. I’m more than happy to go and explore for a day and come back and work, or vice versa. I don’t feel the need to party into the evening with people I’ve only just met. Not anymore.
As the online world has got more social, the offline world is moving to the opposite. This can lead to some lonely travels along the way if you don’t stand up and make the first move. Do it. Push yourself out of your comfort zone without pushing yourself out of a plane and just go and say hello to someone in your hostel.
Breathe in that adrenaline rush.
If you’re travelling as an introvert, and you actually want to make friends, you’re going to have to work hard at it. Otherwise you’re never going to get those fun lovin’ group shots for your Instagram feed.
Dirty, skanky hostels
I’ve stayed at some grimey, dirty hostels. Been in showers so filthy I can’t face looking at the person who’s just left it. Bed sheets so worn I’d bet they’d been there since the first Lonely Planet was published. Mouse poo when you pull back the covers, bogies on the wall by my bed, shared fridges with mouldy science experiments coating the walls, and fellow hostel backpackers who snore through the night, rustle their plastic bags from 5am and slam every door on the way out.
It’s quite rare now that I stay in hostels, but when I do, I have a strict vetting process.
I only stay in wooden beds, in female dorms of less than four, with modern bathrooms (not in the room), lockers, and an 80%+ satisfaction rating. I check the last few comments for red flags, and I’ll always search for information on how good the Wi-Fi is. It’s just not worth it to lower my standards any further.
Other travellers are weird – no matter their gender, race, heritage, outlook – start living with them and their colours will shine through. I’ve left many a hostel and hated my room mates, and I’m sure the feeling is mutual.
Errr, have you watched my little video on solo travel?
Seeing the sights on your own
Going to see the sights on your own can get a little flat after a while, with no one to share the experience with. You kind of look at it, take a few pics, have a wander and then that’s that.
And bloody Instagram. You know most of the photos you see of the big sights and attractions around the world on the Insta are all over processed and edited, right?
One of the worst things that all this technology and technical know-how is doing to us is to make places seem better than they actually are. The colours, the vivacity, the amount of tourists there. LIES. Or at least… EXAGGERATIONS.
We’re setting ourselves up for disappointment.
HOW DID THEY LOOK SO GOOD WITH SO FEW PEOPLE IN FRONT OF THE TAJ MAHAL?
If you start to feel a bit over seeing the sights on your lonesome then sign up to tours, or see if anyone in your hostel is planning on going out for the day too.
Be realistic. Be cynical. And focus on the ambience rather than the sight. Don’t believe the Instagram hype and either learn some slick AF editing skills before you go travelling or accept that your pics will be more selfie than styled.
Also, if you’re travelling solo and you want the pics to prove it, you’re going to have to work on that confidence to ask strangers to take pics while you hold onto your hat in front of that monument.
The responsibility of being a solo traveller
Go travelling with friends and you can rely on each other to stay awake / check the train times / read a map. Go solo and every… little… decision… is down to you. This can be totally overwhelming, and, to be honest, you’ll mess up at some point.
Sometimes I’d get so angry at myself for going the wrong way, or doing the wrong thing, but when every day is a new way to a different coffee shop / museum / attraction, of course you’re going to go a little bit AWOL. It’s what happens.
Relying on yourself in as little as bringing enough clothes on the air conditioned buses, to making sure you don’t visit any sketchy places, can be overwhelming. Being solely responsible for your safety and wellbeing is exhausting when you’re trying to navigate the globe.
I came back to England and couldn’t wait for someone to make a decision for me. I’m a Libra and was totally decisioned out.
Be kind to yourself and take it slow. Don’t blame yourself for getting in the wrong place, or doing the wrong thing. A little self care when you’re travelling can be a lovely thing, so if you’ve had a particularly long and arduous journey, treat yo’self.
Going wrong when you’re travelling solo is perfectly normal and fine. And, best thing, there’s no one there to say ‘I told you so’.
READ MORE: Am I Lonely? Travelling Solo?
Feeling uncomfortable by yourself
Of all the feelings in the world you could possibly have when you’re travelling the world solo, feeling uncomfortable is definitely going to be one of them. Whether you’re hanging out with a bunch of bell ends who are just not on your wavelength, you’ve signed up for some extreme activity you never woulda done back home, you’re sat on a wheel arch while traversing the Guatemalan highlands in the rain, or you’re holding your bowels in trying not to erupt on a tiny plane.
When you backpack solo ‘feeling uncomfortable’ is par for the course.
Embrace the uncomfortable – it’ll make you stronger. Remember when you were a baby and your parents tried to make you walk / talk / eat – weird wasn’t it? Imagine if you’d never tried.
Make sure you have a few days where you are comfortable – reset your batteries. You don’t have to tear around your destination at a million miles an hour doing and seeing everything. Don’t feel bad about chilling in the hostel either. Long-term travel is different to a holiday.
Relax, recharge and get ready to push yourself out of the comfort zone again soon.
One of the most common reasons for stopping travelling solo long term is the regular requirement to explain yourself. You’re meeting new people every day, all day, and the need to explain why you’re travelling, how, and what led you to that point can get tiresome, and even annoying.
There’ll be times when you’ll have to repeat for the 50th time, why you’ve decided to come travelling by yourself, where you’re going and what you’re doing.
And even if you find the usual questions annoying, you’ll find yourself asking others the same.
Travel is a remedy for so many ailments now – trapped at work, finishing school, the end of an era, the end of a relationship. Some people travelling solo might not want to discuss their reasons, others will want to discuss them with everyone.
Try to change the course of the inevitable conversations. Ask different questions, give interesting answers, it’s down to you to steer what could be a repetitive conversation to cover something more interesting.
And if someone starts banging on about their recent break up for the 50th time, just leave.
Eating and drinking alone
I quite liked the whole eating on my own thing. It meant I could eat what I want, when I want. Although, for most places I want to go back to, my next visit would be all about the food I could eat there, and having someone to do that with.
Eating by yourself is one of the things that intimidates would be solo travellers the most, but honestly, two meals in and you’ll get used to it.
Oh would you look at that, I’ve written an entire blog post on the topic for you.
But it’s worth it… for a time…
I’ve really enjoyed travelling solo, don’t read this post wrong.
I just want you to know that if you’re not having the best time of your life ever, ever, for every minute of your travelling day, it’s ok.
Travelling solo makes you stronger. Plonking yourself in some distant country at the mercy of whatever unfolds gives you a sink or swim mentality, which you’ll definitely front crawl your way out of, giving you all the more confidence in other areas of your life.
I went travelling to see and experience things, rather than make friends or get in the travel way of life. I wanted to see all the places I’d been reading about while stuck in an office job in London.
Travelling by yourself is awesome, for some people, at a certain time in their life, and I would 100% recommend it despite any negativity above. Just keeping it real. I’ll definitely go off again solo, but for shorter periods of time – starting with two weeks in the Philippines in February.
Sometimes, as with anything, you just need to forget everything you’ve been told you’re meant to see and feel, and just start again. A blank mind with which to decorate with your own adventures. Knock all the ‘shoulds’ out of your vocabulary and thoughts, ignore that damn FOMO and have confidence that you are exactly where you need to be right now, whatever might be happening.
Even if it doesn’t feel like it at the time you’ll look back on your solo travels and realise that it definitely made your life better in some way. Mine helped me create my business, my job, meet some of my bestest friends, and to have more incredible experiences than I ever thought possible.