We love to romanticize certain aspects of life. For me, it has always been traveling alone. It has always been that vision of myself with a massive backpack crushing my spine, navigating new streets, meeting people from all over the world and listening to their stories, reading a book in a coffee shop where I can’t read the menu, and staring out the windows of airplanes and trains. It has always been that vision that I see before I go to sleep at night that keeps my ambition more alive than ever.
Recently I made an immense change in my life. I decided to take a tremendous leap toward my aspirations. But before that, I had to visit. Thus, I took a solo trip to Europe before the big move. That was not only the first time I traveled alone, but the first time I left the continent.
Before embarking on this short journey, I did everything I could to prepare myself. I read many articles on solo traveling and bought everything necessary to keep myself safe and prepared. I noted precautions, studied the maps, and asked questions. Yet nothing prepared me for the little things that can make a big difference. These realities were prevalent and I had to quickly learn to handle them.
Here are the challenges of traveling alone:
Navigating. Well, this one was very predictable. Having to follow the walking directions on your phone while also looking up, keeping an eye on your stuff, and not getting run over is a tedious task. I recommend taking screenshots of every street, trying to memorize where to turn on what street, and stopping at times to prepare for your next several steps. It is imperative to not make it obvious you are navigating. Travel like a local.
Everything is on you. You choose where to eat, what time to sleep, what to see, and who to become friends with. Every decision up to you. I had trouble often walking endlessly for hours because I did not know where to stop. I would end up at the same place every day. This problem was solved after the first few days by having a rough idea of where to go. Also, your hostel may have walking tours where you will make new friends and be able to plan where to go together. This helps tremendously.
You will feel lonely. You will make a lot of friends from all over the world. Yet this doesn’t stop the feeling of loneliness. Going from the airports, train stations, or bus stations alone can be a frightful experience especially if it is far. You may wonder at times why you are even traveling alone and how much easier it would be to have someone with you. This is overcome when you remember all the remarkable components of venturing in this world alone (which will be mentioned shortly).
You will always meet new people. This was by far my favorite part of traveling alone and the main reason why I will keep doing it. However, always saying goodbye can be heartbreaking, especially because you know that you may or may not ever see those people again.
You always have to be cautious, no one is watching your back. I had a small purse, backpack, and carry-on with me. Keeping an eye on all of this all the time while trying to get to certain destinations was a bit overwhelming at times, but again, having a sense of where you are going and keeping most things in front of you helps.
You will be exhausted (and dirty) some days. It is vital to take afternoons (or even whole days depending on how long you are traveling) to relax. Lay in your hostel/hotel bed, read a book, watch a movie, or sleep. Spend an evening sitting at a coffee shop. People watch. Take time for yourself.
Here’s why it is worth all the challenges:
Independence. While I had the choice of spending the days with new friends, I chose to spend some days alone. Because of that, I got to know myself even more. I stopped when I grew tired, I got lost and found my way back, I wasn’t in a rush, and everything was up to myself. I spent several hours listening to live musicians in the park while I read a book and wrote. There was no one pressuring me to leave and I could enjoy what I loved to do to the fullest extent.
New friends. Saying goodbye often made me despondent, but I learned to cherish people immensely. I learned to value every moment spent with my new friends in every city because of the fact that I would have to say goodbye the next day or so. I got to know them very well and I know that I will see at least a few again in their hometowns or at some point traveling. Crossing paths and having strangers become people you quickly grow to know and love teaches you to value each human and their story, regardless of the time spent.
You will stop caring about what others think. Eating alone the first day was a bit odd honestly. Yet after the first meal, I looked around and realized that no one cares. There are other people alone. There are other people in large groups. It doesn’t matter.Taking yourself to a nice restaurant or to some street kabobs is showing yourself some love and it is admired. You will quickly learn that you are the only one that is worried.
You will become stronger. After even a few days of solo travel, I felt as though I could do anything. No new city or problem could overwhelm me. I even caught a train once about ten seconds before the doors closed- in a French-speaking country! This was something I could have never envisioned myself doing without any stress. Yet even as I was rushing to the next train, I knew that everything would be okay, even if I missed it. When traveling alone, it is essential to keep a go-with-the-flow mindset. Come what may and love it.
You will learn to ask for help. This world is filled with lovely humans who will do whatever it takes to help you. I experienced this even before I got on the airplane that left the states. I approached a woman who had a Spanish passport simply asking how to get to my hostel when I arrived there, and rather than just give me advice, she offered to drive me from the airport to my hostel and helped me every step of the way. To this day I still speak to her and her wonderful daughter who went completely out of their way for this stranger they met. Take the initiative and ask for help.
You will learn to overcome fear. I was terrified the first day. I was still sometimes fearful in the very few taxi rides I took. Yet I learned to not enable trepidation to overwhelm me. I was quick to diminish fear and recall that I am greater than my fears. Everything is in my own mind. Your courage is a powerful force, and with that, all you face in life you are able to overcome.
You will have a deeper love for the Earth and for humanity. I took overnight buses, long trains, got lost with my luggage and had to walk long distances, and got off at an incorrect stop. However, I was as happy as could be through that all. Simply looking out the windows gave me a vast, inexplicable joy of being alive. Even through how uncomfortable some rides were, I couldn’t have been more grateful to be alive and out in this world. I couldn’t have been more grateful for all those people I met, even for just the few hours they sat next to me on the bus and we had to use google translate to understand each other.
I was told that as a young female traveling alone to places I have never been to was berserk. I was told that this and that could happen to me. I was told I wasn’t capable. Yet after three weeks of not just traveling and meeting people, but also planning out the next phase of my life that will be in a completely different place, I can assure you that you are more than capable of anything. While being smart and alert, you can take on anything life will throw at you. It will be tiring and frustrating at times, but nothing will compare to the fulfillment you will feel during and after, as well as the pure joy while looking out from window at this world. Nothing compares to being out with other travelers from all over the world as you sing and dance under the street lights of new cities, as you listen to their stories, and laugh until tears run down your face. You will be eager to go on your next solo journey again before the current one is over, just as I was.
Nothing compares to the extraordinary reality of traveling alone.