So last week I wrote a blog post entitled, ‘9 Reasons Not To Travel Solo – Seriously’. No word of a lie, it took me about 30 minutes to write (most of my posts take hours of careful thought and consideration) and was a nice little therapy session, allowing me to take out all my frustrations about solo travel in 1 simple little blog post.I knew writing something controversial would result in many hits to my blog and would hopefully open up the debate on the pros and cons of solo travel.
To say that many people didn’t like what I had to say would be a HUGE understatement. My phone literally beeped all night long from the moment I published it. Blog comments, both good and bad, a crazy amount of tweets and endless FB debates started overnight. I actually received hate mail (bit extreme) and my blog benefited from almost 20,000 hits in less than 12 hours. It was all a bit mad.
While I don’t regret writing it, and I stand by all the points I made, I wanted to write a more positive post about the merits of solo travel. We’ve all seen those inspirational quotes about travel, clogging up our Facebook feeds or popping up on Instagram. But what’s it REALLY like to hit the road and travel solo? In the interest of a balanced debate, and so that people deciding whether to make that big leap and head off on a solo trip have both positive and negative posts to read, let me share with you all the incredible things that have happened to me while traveling alone. Things that definitely would never have happened if I had a travel buddy or group of friends by my side.
That’s the thing about solo travel. While it’s daunting and scary and sometimes dangerous, it’s also one of the most exciting and rewarding experiences you will ever have. You open yourself up to the world, and suddenly the world and so many of its amazing people, open themselves up to you.
Below are 9 incredible things that only happen when you travel solo. Well, they happened to me anyway.
9. You’ll meet the kindest strangers
The amount of times I have encountered the most generous and helpful strangers while traveling solo is unbelievable. In fact, from the minute I leave home on a solo trip, good things seem to happen all thanks to the kindness of strangers. I once had a millionaire (250 million, that is) buy me drinks and dinner at Heathrow airport. The same man once famously said, “The departures lounge at international airports has been the best education!” and it’s hard not to agree with him.
Another kind man also shared his table with me at an airport and when I left to pay, it turned out he kindly paid for both his meal and mine. Also, when coming home from my travels last year, my ATM card stopped working and a guy in the queue saw my panic-stricken face and offered to buy my ticket for me. I asked for his contact details and he simply said, “I know you will pay it forward to another traveler in need someday.” More wise advice from an airport departure lounge!
Over the years I have had kind strangers go totally out of their way to help me when I was lost. One woman in Warsaw went 30 minutes in the wrong direction just to direct me to my hostel. When hitchhiking, both in Ireland and abroad, I have encountered the most generous souls who offered me so much when they found out I was alone. I have encountered kind Canadians in Kenya, who invited me to stay in their place for free. I have been offered free rides, free food and once even found myself on a free flight!
The kindness of strangers is, often times, only something you encounter when you open yourself up to others, and solo travel is the key to that openness.
8. You will become fearless
I would say there is nothing scarier than packing up your life into a bag, hugging your friends and family goodbye and setting off on a solo trip. You are saying farewell to a comfortable lifestyle, security, great friendships and a sense of belonging. Solo travel is an absolute roller-coaster of an adventure and will force you to face up to any fears you may have.
I’ve had to use squat toilets that had snakes both in the toilet and hanging over the toilet. I’ve had to check my shoes for poisonous spiders in Australia. I’ve gone to bars alone, found hostels alone, got dodgy taxis alone. I have had to sit on squeaky buses for hours on end as they trundle along roads that are seemingly perched on cliff tops. I’ve had to sit in buses that have men with AK47 guns in rural Kenya and have fed wild Hyenas meat from my mouth in Ethiopia.
I’ve experienced crazy turbulence on long distance flights with no ones hand to hold, no one to say my last thoughts to. I’ve been picked up by a murderer in Detroit (or so he said), and I’ve been locked in a car by a man high on drugs. I have had men expose themselves to me and try to attack me in Dublin city. I’ve been held at knife point in South Africa. One thing can be concluded from all these crazy experiences while traveling alone; solo travel will turn you into one seriously fearless human, something that will most certainly help you as you go through life.
7. You will become more tolerant
I took my first solo trip when I was only 16 and I was probably a total brat. I was totally unaware of other people’s cultures, had no real understanding of how things work differently in other countries, and wasn’t always that keen on learning. The more I traveled, and the more interesting people I met from all over the world, the more tolerant I became.
I strongly believe people who travel, especially those who travel alone, become some of the most tolerant people you will ever meet. Travel teaches you that everyone is different. You realise that there isn’t always a right and a wrong no matter how strongly you may feel about it, or what you may have been taught in school. Some people will look down on you for wearing short shorts, while you will look down on others for wearing a burka. You will find it strange to eat with your hands, while others think you are strange for using a fork.
The more of the world you see, the more you realise that it’s not as black and white as you previously thought. Not all countries use toilet paper. Not all people hug or kiss or shake hands when they meet new people. Religion and language and hand gestures and etiquette can all be confusing and frustrating, but learning from others makes us better people and will teach us to love and cherish and welcome everyone we meet, regardless of however different they may be from ourselves.
6. You’ll totally lose track of time
I have to admit, this is one of my favourite things about setting off on a solo trip. Working life and life back home can be so controlled. You work Monday – Friday, you eat your meals at the same time, you do roughly the same things each weekend and go to bed at roughly the same time each night. You always know the time, the day, the date and you can never just get lost in the city, miss your train and decide to sit in the park and read your book for 5 hours. Something that I absolutely love doing when travelling solo.
When you are alone, there is no one waiting for you, no one relying on you. A huge weight is suddenly lifted off your shoulders as you realise you have a new-found freedom. You can eat at whatever time you like. You can sleep all day and party all night, if that’s what you want. There’s no one there to judge how lazy you been. The fact that you spent 6 weeks in Sydney but never bothered to see the Opera House. The fact that you spent 1 week in Bangkok and pretty much never left your hostel.
You can wake up on a deserted beach off the coast of Cambodia, like I did last summer, and have no clue what day it is. You ask strangers what time it is and they always reply with the same answer, “Who cares?” And they’re right, who does care? If you’re hungry eat. If you’re thirsty, have a beer. Solo travel is the freedom to do whatever you like, whenever you like.
5. You’ll master sign language
Even with a travel buddy, communication can be the toughest part of traveling. When left alone, you really have to get creative and find yourself doing the oddest of things to get people’s attention or to get your point across.
I remember actually ‘mooing’ like a cow to a woman in Vietnam, trying to figure out what type of meat she was trying to get me to eat. I may have looked stupid, but I really wasn’t in the mood for more snake meat or maybe even my first taste of dog meat. She laughed at my odd noises, but knew exactly what I meant!
In Korea, sign language also helped me get out of some weird situations and I know that it managed to get my friend a massive discount when doing her grocery shopping!
4. You’ll meet that guy. Or that girl.
It doesn’t always happen, and it certainly doesn’t always last, but your chances of meeting some amazing members of the opposite sex (or same-sex depending on your preference) are a whole lot higher when you travel solo.
Whether it’s a romantic kiss on a beach in Bali, an impromptu travel buddy to entertain you for a few weeks in Thailand or someone who you fall head over heels for while backpacking through Africa, holiday romances are serious fun. When you travel solo, you push your boundaries a lot more than usual. You meet new and interesting people who you would probably never met at home.
You share cramped dormitories, squeeze next to guys on buses or boats or rickshaws. You dance the night away at full moon beach parties and have self-pity pizza parties together when you’re too hungover to leave the hostel common area. You laugh together, you cry together and you get lost together. And, as cheesy as it sounds, sometimes you get lucky enough to find each other.
3. You’ll question your life decisions
First things first, solo travel inevitably leads to questioning your sanity at some stage. You will scream at yourself wondering why on earth you decided to backpack through Ethiopia by yourself (I did, anyway!) and you might even break down a cry for a few hours wondering why you saved for months to stay in a rat infested hostel in the middle of nowhere!
You will then get over the ‘questioning your sanity’ phase and start questioning poor life decisions that you have made. You will look at your career choices (or lack there of in my case!) and wonder if you made the wrong decision. You’ll also question why people on the road keep questioning you, wondering if perhaps you are ‘running away from something‘. Are you? Should you be?
It’s funny because these things might seem bad, and sometimes they can be overwhelming, but in a way solo travel gives you that perfect chance to question your life choices, to look at things with some perspective, to think about life without any distractions as you lie on that over night train that will take 17 hours to cross Vietnam. Without influence, without prying eyes or bossy voices, you can figure out in your head what you want from life, what you really want from life, and then you can start making a plan about how to set the wheels in motion.
2. You’ll learn to budget
When you have 3 months to survive on whatever meagre savings you have accumulated, you will quickly become a master of budgeting. You’ll learn shortcuts. You’ll buy in bulk. You will probably never take taxis, unless you’ve found some other travelers to split the fare with. You will plan your meals and share with others. You will have to make decisions… big decisions such as whether you should buy yourself a nice dinner or a giant bag of goon (cheap, Australian wine.)
You will have to be prepared, plan your route and try to stick to it to some degree. How much will your visas cost? How much are hostels? Is the train cheaper than the bus or maybe it is cheaper to just fly? Once you run out of money, that’s it. You friend, your boyfriend, your parents or no one else will be around to help you and good luck getting money sent via Western Union to a tiny village in Tanzania or a lake side lodge in Laos!
1. You’ll smile at the little things
While traveling solo can be really challenging when faced with difficult situations and it can be hard to just laugh off the little things such as a missed bus or a stolen wallet, the opposite is also true. I often find myself smiling like a mad woman at the smallest things when on the road, things I probably would not take the time to appreciate if surrounded by others. You learn to take notice of the smallest things in life and learn to really appreciate how beautiful this world really is. Sitting on a beach, watching the sunset over the Gili Islands in Indonesia as I sipped on a cheap Bintang is a memory etched into my mind. I was alone, I was happy, I was thankful.
Seeing street kids happily play with rope and rocks in the slums of Manila, watching a group of Kenyan boys play soccer with a ball made from plastic bags, being offered a free taster of some pad thai from an old lady on a street corner in Thailand. It’s these small, insignificant moments that make the difficult situations worthwhile.
I smiled then, and I am smiling now.
Author’s note: Delighted that this post has been shortlisted for Best Blog Post in the Irish Blog Awards 2015 and has also been shared over 40,000 times after getting re-published on Matador Network!