The Ups and Downs of Solo Travel

My first solo trip was in 1998. I was working as a data entry clerk and decided to throw caution to the wind and backpack through Scotland for two weeks. My family thought I was completely insane. I was over-the-moon happy. I bought a Rough Guide’s Scotland book, purchased a Scottish rail pass and a youth hostel card. Other than that I had no plans. All I knew was that I was going to Scotland alone for two weeks.

I still remember that trip. I remember what it was like to hike up to the castle in Culrain where I was going to sleep. I remember jumping onto the railroad tracks and chasing the train because it forgot to stop. I remember laying on the grass near Waverly station in Edinburgh on a Sunday afternoon listening to bagpipes and staring at Edinburgh Castle off in the distance. And I remember reading the wrong train schedule and spending an entire day on the train, only to end up back in Edinburgh that night.

Ever since that trip to Scotland I have travelled alone. It wasn’t something I had set out to do on purpose. When I was younger I would have loved to travel with friends, but they all had other priorities.

Travelling alone has its benefits. I’m usually more open, which makes it easier to interact with locals. I can get up at the crack of dawn and wander the quiet streets of a new city/village without having to drag someone along with me. I can be utterly lazy and stay inside all day long if I need a rest day. It’s complete freedom. Empowering even.

And sometimes it’s also my own personal prison.

The more I travel alone, the more introverted I become. I have to force myself to stay in hostels so I can interact with other travellers from time to time. And when events roll around, I have these big internal debates about whether or not I should go. Why? I’m shy.  I’m that girl who quietly sits at the back of a room and watches everyone else. I’ve been that girl since I was around 12 years old. As a teenager my friends thought I was doing it for attention. I can even remember some awkward chats about that. That was never the reason though. I am just that shy. Sure, if you know me, you’d say I was crazy, but it’s true. Things like small talk are difficult for me unless I feel a connection with the person I’m speaking to. Otherwise I stand there feeling like a moron because I have absolutely nothing to say.

There are days when I wish I had someone to travel with. Days when I’m tired of making ALL of the decisions and doing ALL of the work myself. I dream of having someone take charge and being able to sit back, relax, and just tag along. Oh, how sweet that could be (with the right travel partner of course). I could actually have a discussion with another human, rather than talking out loud to the walls and having the people around me wonder if there is a mental institute offering a reward for my safe return.

I usually don’t realise how bad my isolation is until I meet someone and morph into some kind of deranged speed talker. Which is exactly what happened when I met Suzanne Barbezat in Oaxaca. It was sad. Like really, really sad. After having lunch with Suzanne I saw her the following day at a tamale cooking class, which is when my brain overloaded and switch my mouth into overdrive. Poor Suzanne was bombarded with random non-stop chatter because she was the first foreigner (and Canadian, and travel writer) I had conversed (and connected) with in several days. My verbal diarrhoea was so bad that I started apologising, and then continued to speak non-stop. (Wow, kind of like this whole paragraph. OMG!) And it continued liked every single time I saw her! I’m not even kidding. Ask her, she’ll tell you.

Isolation can be a good thing, in small doses. Too much isolation can be dangerous; especially when you’ve created imaginary friends with complete back stories!

I know, I should write them all down on paper or something. But then y’all would know the extent of my insanity and I’m not sure that would be a good thing. You know?

As much as the downs get me, well, down, there are far more ups. The trick is to remind me exactly what those ups are!

“The way I look at a solo project is, I create what I want with whoever I want.” – Sebastian Bach

As a solo traveller, I make all the rules. I choose where to go, for how long, what I do or don’t do. I have control over most of my decision making.

When I travel solo I find myself being more adventurous and daring. I do things that others don’t think I’m capable of (mostly due to my Scottish/Irish/English stubbornness). I come up with completely insane travel ideas and then email friends to tell them how awesome it is that I am completely off my rocker, and OMG you wish YOU had thought of this rad idea, right?! If I won $50,000 tomorrow I could say “See ya! I’m off to live in a hut in Bora Bora!!”, because I have nobody to answer to. I can literally log off right now and board a plane to anywhere in the world (as long as I had the money to buy the plane ticket, and had the required visa…).

Solo travel is a balancing act, and as with almost everything in life, too much of a good thing can be dangerous. I love being open to new cultures and experiences, but I would also love a chance to share those experiences with someone else (let’s not even attempt to talk about travel, and dating).

While solo travel is not a cake walk, I think it’s something everyone should try at least once in their life. Test yourself. See what your limits are. Learn how to balance your isolation, and make it work for you. And know that it’s totally okay to spend a day in bed and be bummed from time to time. I mean, nobody can be 100% happy 24/7, right?! Everyone has their down days. The trick is to let the happy ones outweigh the downers (Days, people. Not pills.).





About The Author

I'm a travel writer and photographer who specializes in bespoke travel experiences. I write about boutique, savvy and cultural travel. My writing has been featured in Outpost Magazine, Travel + Escape, and UP! Magazine.

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13 Responses

  1. Adam

    I go back and forth on how I feel about solo travel. It’s very much an “up and down” feeling for me as well. Sometimes I like, sometimes I don’t!

    • Pamela MacNaughtan

      Finding a balance is hard! I see groups of friends or couples and wonder what it would be like to interact with someone other than myself for a change.

  2. Maria

    I can definitely relate to being *that* shy. I have not had the opportunity to travel solo though.
    I am living in Bangkok now with my partner and am bummed out with the lack of communication I have with the locals. I imagine if I was completely solo, it would take on a whole new level. I’m curious to see how that would go. I guess I’ll add solo travel to my list of things to do this year!

    • Pamela MacNaughtan

      I LOVE Bangkok! Thai is hard, but you can still have amazing experiences without speaking Thai. Plus there are a lot of English speakers there as well.

  3. MariaPurt

    As i only got back from a 5 weeks trip a week ago, and it was a solo trip, i have t say that indeed traveling solo makes us even more intraverted… but for me at some pont it also means becoming lazier – if i had someone with me, i’d surely not waste half a day in Romanian capital to just sleep, i’d probably be braver in Bulgaria where after 4 crazy days of moving around the country i found myself bored and relaxing for 3 more days in Sofia:( and then there’s the part of a trip in Turkey where i visited my friend and we even went camping lmao… hell, i just think we travelers don’t need this much independency and *freedom* – sometimes it’s better to be pushed/ yelled at by ur travelling partner 😀 Back to ur first trip to Scotland, i bet if u weren’t alone, ur friend could’ve spotted the mistake in that train timetable:))

  4. Colleen

    I’m definitely savoring my solo globe trot right now. It helps me to know there are other women going solo, too, but not as many as I’d like to see! Where are we? How do I find more of us??? Seems like most travel bloggers I find are in a couple.

    • Pamela MacNaughtan

      There are A LOT of couples travelling out there. Where are you travelling right now? I swear, we should have organized solo female meet-ups or something.

  5. Suzanne

    I didn’t think – and I don’t think now – that it was sad AT ALL when we met and you “turned into a deranged speed talker.” It was rather amusing, actually. 🙂 It’s just a symptom of spending too much time alone with your thoughts that when you meet someone that you connect with you just kind of go into overdrive. It happens to me too which is why I recognized it for what it was and didn’t assume you talk the ear off of everyone you meet. I enjoyed it, and getting to know you, and we had some laughs. How is that sad?

  6. SuzieD

    I think the important thing for a solo traveller is not where u go, but what options are available.

    I *really* recommend going on a group trip with Exodus or Explore, etc. THey are excellent and a great way to meet other people. I have been on the Atlas Descent Bike Trip in Morocco, Lake Garda Mountain Biking, Sea Kayaking in Greece and the wonderful Multi-Activity in Turkey. Honestly, they are wonderful.

    If u decide to go fully solo, my main tip is go to Eastern Europe (for great value and things to do) and then…

    1. Stay in hostels, they are THE BEST place to meet other travelers.

    2. If there are no hostels, go on 1 or 2 day activity outings, e.g. diving, climbing, canyoning, etc. They are another great way to meet people.

    3. Carry your smartphone with you and join websites like Travlbuddy, Wandermates and VivTrav to help meet other people. None of them are perfect, but they are useful.

    4. Go on a backpacker-type bus tour, e.g. Paddywagon or Backpacker tours. They are brilliant also and a great way to hook up w people.

  7. Rachel

    Yep, yep, and yep. Also, when I travel with friends it’s often exhausting because they are on two-weeks’ vacation and need to see it all right now. AND when I travel alone, I leave myself open to making new friends. Also shy, I still crave company when I’m alone so I talk to people more than when I’m with friends and on occasion those conversations turn into strong, long-term, friendships and connections.

  8. Jessica

    You’re so right that solo travel is a balancing act – particularly if you’re introverted. When I travel alone, it’s easy for me to just slip around quietly and not speak to anyone. It feels good for a while, but then I’ll finally talk to someone and realize that my voice comes out scratchy because it’s been so long since I’ve used it. That’s usually the point when I realize that it’s time to push myself out of my own little world.

  9. Brett

    After decades of global travel, both personal and for work, I can definitely say that the majority of my most unique and memorable travel experiences arose out of the capacity to be extremely, almost selfishly spontaneous. To be able change my plans to arrive earlier, leave later, and detour without having to consult anyone else and for no reason other than a gut feeling for the potential of the experience. The minute you start travelling with other people, you plan more – from the entire trip, down to where you are going to eat dinner. Often the most enjoyable and engaging meetings came from the fact that I had to converse with other people I didn’t know because I was alone. These people could be other travellers who give you tidbits about great side trips, or locals who want to tell you about local events or share their hospitality. Invariably, to suddently choose to follow their advice meant anything from forgoing dinner, to completely changing my travel plans (or lack of). Irrespective of how open travelling companions might have been to these ideas and oppotunities, I know that I would not have become aware of many of them if I had been in the company of travel companions.
    Now, as a father and professional traveller, I get the best of both worlds. I adore introducing the attractions of the world to my children, and when I travel for work, I have the benefit of travelling with a group of very like minded individuals, choosing freely when I will travel with others, and when I will go it alone. And “alone” invariable can be lonesome. As an example, eating alone is never as much fun as it is with company. You do become more introspective and lazy.
    I fully recommend solo travel, but have always found a great idea is to engage in locally arranged, like minded activities as soon as you arrive in a destination. A local walking tour, interpretive cultural experience, cooking class, dive tour, adventure activity, etc, where people with similar interests are thrust together in a class, vehicle, etc with plenty of opportunity to mix and mingle for a few hours can introduce you to people that you will have the opportunity to engage with further while you are in that destination – or not. Always scan a restaurant and choose a table next to another person dining alone – or sit at the communal table if there is one. While you are at the restaurant or the hostel – scan the noticeboards. They are great for learning about what’s happening locally. Good quality hostels and BnBs also increase the likelihood of interaction. Solo travellers by their nature are gregarious, open minded, and remarkably spontaneous – they have to be or the road becomes very lonely. By meeting a few likeminded people as soon as you arrive somewhere, the choice as to whether you want to socialise with others remains yours, but at least you have the option.


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