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The Case For Solo Travel

Get ready to start planning your next trip

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It was 5AM and still dark when the tall Brit whose name I’d forgotten told me to get on the back of an idling motorbike. “This is Wa-Wa,” he said, gesturing to the gangly teen at its helm. “Go with him.”

I was standing barefoot in a bikini on the side of a pitted road in the Philippines, surrounded by a handful of strangers, and clutching my water bottle like a teddybear. I took a deep breath, ditched the bottle and got on.

My new buddy Wa-Wa pointed at the two surfboards teetering off the side of the bike and told me to hold them. I stretched one arm around the boards, the other around him and I’d barely lifted my feet before we were off. Twenty minutes or maybe two hours later, the bike veered sharply to our left and went flying into the jungle. That’s what you get for getting on the back of a motorcycle with a 15-year-old, I thought to myself. Also: my mother is going to kill me.

Before I could catch my breath, I realized we hadn’t crashed and were instead on what I can now, thanks to the generosity of hindsight, call a trail. 15 more minutes of bumps and branches and the jungle spat us out onto a tiny, white sand beach with crystalline waves rolling 50 feet off shore and, I shit you not, a rainbow arched across the sky.

I never thought I’d be so happy to find myself alone and half naked with a strange and pubescent boy on an empty beach on an island 48 hours and four flights away from my apartment in New York City.

I took my first solo trip almost exactly one year ago, at the ripe age of 31. It was a whim, mostly. I was long overdue for a vacation and decided to plan a girls’ trip to Nicaragua to learn to surf. But something happened as I researched. The more I read, the more excited I became, and the more I realized this wasn’t a trip I wanted to share. My time was precious—it had been a while since I’d had any days off—as was my money. The thought of compromising on a hotel or giving up a potential stop was already making me resentful—and I hadn’t even booked anything yet. I emailed my friends and bailed. (Technically speaking, I uninvited them. Sorry, guys!) It was the best decision I’ve ever made. (Well, at least one of the five best decisions I’ve ever made.)

Traveling alone for the first time is terrifying, especially as a woman, and especially especially if you’re someone who errs towards the more practical and responsible side of the life-living spectrum. What if something happens to me? What if I get lost? What if I’m miserable and do all the wrong things and end up regretting the whole trip? These are all valid thoughts—and, actually, important ones to consider when making the decision to go it alone.

To ease my own mind for Nicaragua, I ended up following in the footsteps of friends and acquaintances who had been before, which made me feel like my decisions on where to stay and what to do had been vetted. I also opted to dedicate half my trip to a retreat-like setting, specifically Buena Vista Surf Club in Playa Maderas, which is a great way to take some of the guesswork out of solo travel. (So great, in fact, that just a few months later, I booked myself on a five-day boating adventure in Palawan. And I’ve currently got my eye on this surfing retreat in Sri Lanka.) Pick something you’re into — yoga, photography, sailing — and I can guarantee there’s a retreat for it. Less into activities? Instagram geniuses El Camino Travel organize delightfully curated and immersive group trips to places like Colombia, Trinidad and Tobago, and, yes, Nicaragua.

Traveling alone leaves you eminently more open to meeting people, which is one of the best ways to explore a foreign place and immerse yourself in an unfamiliar culture. And probably what you’ll notice most quickly when you’re flying solo is how many other people are also traveling alone. Before the Philippines, I don’t remember the last time I made a brand-spanking-new friend out of a stranger. But on that aforementioned boat trip, I ended up camping most nights with a fellow solo female traveler named Kate. We still talk almost weekly.

In some ways, safety is the easiest hurdle to jump. There are plenty of things you can (and should!) do to be safe. Put together a detailed itinerary (including flight info and hotel numbers) and share it with your family. Pack lightly. Leave your jewelry at home. Check in with your family by sending a quick email or text, if you can, whenever you get to a new location. Don’t accept mixed or unopened drinks from strangers. Be mindful of your surroundings. None of this is earth-shattering stuff; just plain old common sense.

But the best part of doing anything alone is, well, being with yourself. Some of my favorite memories from these trips exist only in my head. There was no one else there to see it. No one to take a photo of me experiencing it. And trying to recount those particular moments, those sunsets, that taxi driver who took me to his favorite roadside fruit stand, the silent boat ride at sunrise out to a hidden reef, or, say, an empty white beach on a tiny island in country far, far away, is the perfect kind of impossible.

Which brings me back to that beach in the Philippines. I’m going back in November. This time I’m bringing my friends with me — and I can’t wait for them to meet Wa-Wa.

Photographed by Krista Anna Lewis; Flatforms designed and created by L. Michelle Reneau. Check out her Instagram @flatforms; flatforms are wearing Prada with a Steamline luggage stowaway and Dries Van Noten with a Prada carry-on.

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  • Charlotte

    Perfect timing! I am writing my MA thesis and I hope to travel alone after I hand it in. I think its scary and exciting at the same time. Learning from books is one thing. But after years of studying its time to learn from experience ‘out there’!

  • Sam

    I’ve traveled alone before and it was an excellent experience both times! I got to be fully present with the people I was visiting and was able to indulge my own whims while solo. Additionally, when I wanted to sit in silence and people watch while drinking coffee and generally take in the environment, I was able to do that. It was quiet inside my head and the overwhelming “lost” feeling as well as the anonymity…well, you can’t put a price on it. It was incredible to feel like a ghost.

  • Maia

    Solo travel is the best kind of travel!

    I just returned from a year spent traveling abroad, and while I was certainly anxious at the very start, it proved to be the best and most fulfilling year so far of my 20-something life.

    Also, my own two cents: For anyone planning on traveling for more than a couple weeks’ time, I highly recommend looking into doing some kind of work exchange while abroad – it’s an excellent way to meet other travelers from all over the world and to more directly get involved with the local communities you’re visiting. The wwoof (world wide opportunities on organic farms) organization, as well as the workaway.info websites are both superb resources!

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  • Maia

    PS. Man Repeller, I’d love to read a round table-style discussion on the politics and culture of traveling and vacation time here in the US for young professionals (as compared to other countries). Much of Europe gets 4-5 weeks paid vacation a year, and in the US – although the average offered by employers seems to be about 2 weeks – there’s no minimum whatsoever (check it out: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_minimum_annual_leave_by_country)! Do we Americans not know how to travel? Do we fear being perceived as “slackers” for taking off from our jobs for two weeks? Is there any gender bias at work here, too?

    • Sam

      I think part of it is, like you said, the paltry amount of vacation we generally get (if any), and then the discouragement (possibly from work or family, whatever) from using it all at once to go somewhere. We usually end up nickel and diming our vacation days to use for mental health days or days when we need to catch up on other things. I know a gal who periodically uses a vacation day to catch up on bills! Not exactly relaxing.

    • Krista Anna Lewis

      I want to read this too! I have my vacation days sitting in the proverbial bank, and I just don’t know what to do with them or when I could even use them! Working on such a small team makes me not want to give anyone else all of my work because I want to learn to surf for a week.

      • Verena von Pfetten

        Taking vacation is SO important! You don’t do anyone on a small team any favors by letting yourself burn out. (TRUST ME ON THIS ONE.)

      • Maia

        I know what you mean about working within a small team – definitely makes it tougher to vacation guilt-free.

    • Verena von Pfetten

      This is a great idea! Might just do this.

  • Kate Barnett

    Yes!!! One of my top ten life experiences was traveling alone in Argentina. I met two lovely men in Ushuaia, convinced them we should rent a car and drive up Route 40 through Patagonia, freaked out a day in and tried to bail but accidentally crashed our car while driving to pick up cash to pay to my portion of the rental, which resulted in us needing to flee town and continue on one of the best adventures I’ve ever had.

    • Krista Anna Lewis

      You never cease to amaze me.

    • Verena von Pfetten

      Let’s plan an MR road trip. I’ve always wanted to go on the lam.

      • Haley Nahman

        I’ll bring the snax

  • It’s really nice to go on a solo trip… I love that ! You’re just free to do what you want when you want ! Enjoy

  • Jacquelyn Bonilla

    Great article! Traveling alone is a liberating feeling. I traveled to Istanbul this year for 8 nights and it’s one of the best decisions I made so far this year. You learn more about yourself on your solo travels.

    Next stop.. Mexico City baby.

    • Sam

      Omg isn’t Istanbul magical? I was only there for a few days (en route to a wedding in Malta, made a stop in IST). I have never felt so gloriously alone and ghost-like as I did in Istanbul. The way people in Taksim just wash over you like waves and spill into every corner is almost overwhelming. My room was on the fifth floor of a hostel and in the evenings I’d sit on my balcony and just listen/watch people bustling on the street.

    • Beatrice

      Istanbul is the most incredible city!! I lived there for a summer when I was 19 and it was life altering. Have fun in Mexico City–another absurdly fascinating place.

  • Amelia Diamond

    I have never traveled alone before in this capacity and it sounds AMAZING. I am dying to.

    • Verena von Pfetten

      You can DOOOOOO it.

  • I took my first completely solo trip last year and loved it. It got off to a bad start because I didn’t receive my baggage, but once I got to exploring the city I started enjoying the fact that I was completely free to do whatever I wanted for the whole duration of my trip. I loved not having to wait or depend on anyone else.

  • Aydan

    I’ve been traveling alone for a number of years and yes yes yes do it! There are so many magical incredible places all over this world and being a woman and exploring them on your own is one of the greatest ways to be in-tune with yourself and the world around you! Highly recommend!

  • Mae

    I can say with total conviction that nothing gave me more confidence than travelling alone for two years in my early 20’s. Europe, SE Asia, Australia, Sri Lanka, India (note I saved the more challenging countries for when I was more experienced!) all taught me so much about the bigger picture, other cultures, etc, but mostly about myself. I came back to Canada at 25 knowing that I could do whatever the F I wanted if I could do all of that. Also I made some serious life long friends that I still keep in touch with and plan trips with to this day.
    And as a side note, Verena, Sri Lanka is incredible and I’m fomo of your surfing trip.

    • Verena von Pfetten

      I’m so glad it’s got your stamp of approval! I’ve been dying to go there.

  • Bug’s roomie

    I just went on a solo trip and feel vindicated by this article! My schedule didn’t sync up with anyone else’s, and while I had some anxiety around it all, it turned out to be an amazing time. I think solo travel is super important for personal growth!

  • Michelle Li

    I love traveling alone! In the past two years I have had the opportunity to spend a month in Egypt/Tunisia and most recently New Zealand (with a week working on a honey bee farm) because my parents believe that traveling while young is important. I was always open to meeting new people but more than that it has really taught me a lot about how I like to travel. I enjoy traveling for a specific reason, mostly because of a hike I want to do and I end up meeting other girls who are also hiking alone along the hike (and we become this girl group of solo hikers that meet at the next campsite and help each other hitch hike). I do think that traveling alone has become somewhat glamourized though and many times in pop culture they don’t touch on the struggles of traveling alone and then having to deal with it by yourself as well (like having to rub sun lotion on you back <3).

    • Verena von Pfetten

      The sun lotion thing! That is probably the biggest pain. I’m just ruthless/super annoying about asking people to do it.

  • Liz Warners

    I have solo traveled and would recommend it to ANYONE. Now my adventure was tame compared to Nicaragua and Argentina and so many other people’s stories, but I loved it all the same. At 25 I went to spend a week in Seattle all on my lonesome. I am from Michigan and previously hadn’t been further West than Missouri.
    The best parts? Going to bed when I wanted, napping when I wanted, waking up when I wanted, seeing a movie at an indie theater, drinking as much coffee as I possibly could, and never once getting into a cab, bus, or car. Pure bliss.

    • Verena von Pfetten

      I almost included a whole section about how solo travel doesn’t have to be crazy adventurous! Just taking yourself for a weekend out of the city counts. I’m also dying to do a solo South West road trip or just trip in general. Also, I’m from Vancouver and Seattle is one of my favorite places. SO MUCH GOOD FOOD.

  • I’m a huge fan of traveling alone – everyone should do it at least once in their lifetime (even if its only a day trip to a nearby spot). You get to be a little indulgent and do things that you want to do on your timetable, be alone with your thoughts if you want, or get to know other people. And other solo travelers tend to come into your life when you need a friend.

    Next up – I want to explore more of Central and South America!

  • Brittany Berckes

    have been wrestling with the whole traveling alone thing for a while. This gives me much needed encouragement and motivation. Thank YOU.

    • Verena von Pfetten

      This makes me so happy! You should do it! Where are you thinking of going??

  • Patty Carnevale

    1. Amazing. 2. Currently booking a stay at Soul & Surf in India! Must compare notes.

    • Verena von Pfetten

      Wait, was that a coincidence?! Or you just decided to book??

      • Patty Carnevale

        Pure coincidence. Wild.

  • Olivia Peake

    LADIES. Solo travel is the greatest! Especially for a single gal (obviously coupled up peeps can travel alone too, but it can be harder to wrangle).
    My first solo trip was a three month stint across Europe at the age of 22. I was bright eyed and baby faced and the trip changed my entire opinion of myself- I learned that when there is no one else to lean on, I am resourceful and resilient and tough!
    If anyone is apprehensive about solo travel, please just take the leap- you are capable of so much more than you imagine.

  • Haley Nahman

    VvP you’re so cool

  • Ramya Reddy

    I have travelled solo many a times & noticed that there are increasing number of women who travel solo vs the men lot. I try doing a ‘food’ trail guided tours (Paris by mouth, Rome by mouth etc) in most places I visit & have lucked out in finding equal hangry et rowdy fellow diverse folks with time to meet for drinks & food other days too. Also make photocopies of your passport, travel documents with insurance and carry that with you in ziplock cover instead of the originals, most places accept them as valid identification except cops (they will travel to your accommodation to check originals)!

  • Alice

    For me this really resonates and ties in with you current ‘Mental Health Month’. Last year at 19 I took a year out between finishing school and starting college to work and travel. I ended up travelling solo and meeting different travel groups (mainly women I have to say but of all ages) through India, Thailand and Europe. Despite the obvious cultural interpersonal benefits the biggest surprise to me was how much I learnt about myself (as cliche as it sounds). I came back feeling stronger, more capable and with far more of a ‘can do’ attitude. I learnt perspective, the importance of my own happiness but most importantly I learnt how damn lucky I am: travelling with just myself to hold accountable I learnt that I have the capacity and ability to make a difference and do what I want in all aspects of my life, as we all do. Power to all bad-ass, independent, travelling femalezzz!

  • Niamh Rooney

    It was so good to read this post, perfect timing. I’m embarking on my first solo holiday in August to Morocco. It’s refreshing to read other female experiences and know that others feel apprehensive about little things too. Also, Istanbul is definitely back on my list after reading other comments below!

  • sin_plomo

    I don’t enjoy travelling alone but I’m also not someone who needs time to themselves a lot. I prefer to have someone or other people who I can share the experience with – reminisce with and say isn’t this/that great?

  • sin_plomo

    I don’t enjoy travelling alone but I’m also not someone who needs time to themselves a lot. I prefer to have someone or other people who I can share the experience with – reminisce with and say isn’t this/that great? But I do agree everyone should try it and see where their comfort zone/happy place is. Different strokes for different folks

  • cccc

    MR addes new types -TRAVELLING – which everyone daydreams and thinks of it every day to cheer up themselves.

  • Ah, what a fabulous post. I’ve always wanted to travel alone…

    http://www.makemeupmarie.com

    xoxo

  • ♡♡♡

    Six years ago, I bought a single roundtrip ticket to Paris. I knew no one there and barely knew the language. It was the most rewarding 5 days of my life. Then came a solo trip to London. Then Barcelona. I just spent this past weekend wandering alone in Toronto and picked up new friends along the way. Very few things will make you as comfortable and confident in yourself as solo travel.

    Traveling with others in my experience has led to unnecessary drama and pettiness. Also, people tend to dream up trips more than pulling the trigger on them. When I’m ready to go, I’m ready to go. Not being dependent on others to explore the world? It’s SUPER freeing.

  • Solo travel is the only way to really enjoy what YOU want to see, in my opinion. Love hearing other ladies doing it on their own, and I LOVE that you uninvited your friends hehehe. although maybe I should check in with my mom a little more often… usually she’s guessing where I am, and my response is “no, I was in that city two weeks ago”