The Case for Traveling Alone
I knew I’d made the right decision to travel alone when an elderly man from Alabama propositioned me in the Philadelphia airport. After a series of airline mishaps (looking at you, American Airlines!), our flight to Amsterdam had been canceled and both Larry and I were resigned to staying at the airport for the night. Had I been traveling with someone, he never would have hit on me. The sweet, Santa-like man with a southern accent never would have asked if he could “hold me all night” if someone were already by my side.
But I’m glad he did. Because in the midst of an annoying situation compounded by an even more annoying situation, that’s when my humor and patience kicked in and I knew then – even before touching international land – that traveling alone was going to teach me lessons I didn’t know I needed to learn.
There’s power in numbers. You’re more likely to avoid some of life’s messier
situations, the lonely Larrys who ask inappropriate questions.
I suppose traveling solo and saying yes to a 2:00 a.m. dinner with a stranger to put off sleeping on the airport floor for another hour isn’t for everyone. There’s power in numbers. You’re more likely to avoid some of life’s messier situations, the lonely Larrys who ask inappropriate questions. There’s, at minimum, two of you to read a map, shake off an aggressive cat-caller or split a bottle of cheap Rioja that’ll probably give you a headache. A travel buddy is a built-in second brain, security guard, and sounding board.
Being a stubborn Taurus, though, I prefer to do things on my own. Including telling Larry, no I don’t want you to hold me, I don’t want you to touch me at all, ever, and thank you for sharing your bag of corn chips and life story with me, but I’m leaving now. Chin up. I felt independent. I felt strong. I felt that rush you get when you do something, say something, decide something that no one else in your life knows yet.
In traveling alone – for a couple weeks, around Europe, for no other reason than the flight was cheap and the timing felt right – I learned more about myself than I have in the last decade+ of being adult-ish. I’m now well aware, perhaps too aware, of my weaknesses (learning languages), my strengths (an innate sense of direction), what annoys me about others (indecisiveness) and what annoys others about me (I can be stingy).
By saying yes, by relying on nothing but your own two eyes, two ears and that beautiful brain sandwiched in between them, by putting yourself on the other side of the globe, you realize that, though we may have different alphabets and accents and eye shapes and Gods, we’re all human. Travel teaches you this. Traveling alone especially teaches you this.
So here’s my take on why you should travel alone. Next month, next year, whenever you can. Cash in those vacation days and ship your kids to my house; they can stay with me for a while.
Some people won’t understand. Some people won’t think it’s safe. Some people will make snide remarks about how selfish it is. Some people – “I wish I could do that!” – will be inspired. Opt to inspire.
(And if you run into Larry at the airport, tell him I say hi. It’s still a no-go to the whole cuddling thing though.)
WHY YOU SHOULD TRAVEL ALONE
You’ll become a problem solver.
Which way to the train station, which word on the menu means pork, which man’s come-ons to ignore. Once you navigate a foreign city with a foreign language with no wifi, you’ll feel like you can do anything. There’s no one to tell you left versus right, unless you ask someone, which sometimes you should. Other times let your sense of direction and memory pull through.
You’ll face your weaknesses.
If you’re inner compass spins in circles, you’ll soon be reminded of it, over and over again. If you’re constantly needing a bathroom, you’ll become well aware of it when you’re doling out a euro here and a euro there to use public restrooms. If you’re lax with money, next month’s credit card statement will shove that in your face, but so be it. While traveling alone, you’ll end up ironing out some personality kinks, solely because there is no one to judge or annoy you but, well, you.
You’ll be on your own schedule.
Want to wake at sunrise? Do it. Want to skip the dance club scene? By all means, so would I. There’s a forgotten freedom to scheduling your day how you want, not when you and your travel partner decide is probably a good time to get started for the day to make it to the museum/church/restaurant. Your mornings are your mornings when you’re not waiting for someone to dry their hair. Your nights are your nights when no one is sitting, arms crossed, next to you while you sip on one last glass of Sancerre to flirt with the bartender. There’s no “I don’t know, what do you want to do?” or “Are you getting hungry?” Eat, sleep and do what you want, when you want.
A funny thing happens when there’s no one
to complain to: you don’t complain.
You’ll learn patience.
Traveling isn’t all seaside views and Parisian patios. Sometimes your hostel-mate snores. Or you miss your train. Or you wear the same pair of pants five days in a row. A funny thing happens when there’s no one to complain to: you don’t complain. Take a deep breath and practice your patience. It’s all part of the process, right? Plus, bad experiences (lonely Larry) ultimately make for good stories (see above).
You’ll go at your own pace.
If you want to meander around the Louvre from breakfast through dinner, do it. (And you should. Because it’s the size of a small country and you probably waited a couple hours in line to get in.) When traveling alone you can stare at a Picasso piece for however the hell long you want. You can sit in a park for an hour to journal. You can let go of worrying whether or not someone else is hungry, tired or having fun. All that matters is you, you, you; embrace some selfishness.
You’ll meet forever friends.
It’s human nature. Eventually, you’ll crave conversation and companionship, and – unless you’re backpacking through the desert – you’ll find it. You’ll chat with the bartender or someone interesting will sit in the empty bar stool next to you. Or, not saying I did this or anything, you’ll exchange numbers with a Lebanese man your mother wouldn’t approve of. I now have a collection of friends (Hi Alexa! Hi Juan!) who grew up on different continents than I did and speak different languages than I do, but who I now consider lifelong friends – you’re stuck with me, guys! – because we met and fell in friend-love at a formidable time. I’d let them crash on my couch any day, whether it’s tomorrow or two decades from now. That’s priceless.
You’ll become a better traveler.
The more you travel, the better you become at traveling – particularly when you have no one to rely on but yourself. You’ll learn to streamline your wardrobe, bring a backup set of contacts and you’ll get the airport route down pat. And best yet: you’ll understand how the world works just that much more.
You’ll spend as much (or as little) money as you want.
If you want to eat exclusively at Michelin-starred restaurants, who’s to stop you? If you prefer to graze on snacks out of your purse, go for it. We all know money is a touchy subject. So with no one to monitor your spending, you get to spend however much you want on whatever matters to you. Me? I buy art. I skip meals. I could drop you-don’t-wanna-know-how-many euros on a lingerie set, but refuse to spend a few euros on a cab ride, deciding to walk instead. Whereas, with travel partners, I play it cool, splitting the check evenly even if I didn’t order the $17 cocktails. I’ll take whatever mode of transportation they’d prefer.
Bonus: When traveling solo, you’re opening yourself up to so (!) many (!) more (!) flight options. When a flight deal appears – I snagged the flight from Minneapolis to Amsterdam for $380! – you can hop on it, not needing to wait for a friend to get their time off approved or your husband to agree on a locale.
But if you do travel with someone, make it a photographer.
Megan McCarty is a writer, editor, etc.-er who has written about life, love and – shh, don’t tell her mother – s-e-x for Garance Doré, Apartment 34, Rue and more. While based in Minneapolis, she’s always ready, willing and oh-so eager to pack a bag, board a plane and wander new streets.