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Plus, learn 10 ways to manage the risk and reward of independent adventures.
This is my best solo travel story.
I’d made my way from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to Hoi An, a city in central Vietnam known equally for its beaches and its tailors. I had two weeks before I needed to be in Hanoi, 500 miles north. I had a room in a hostel courtesy of the Discovery Channel. The weather: 82 and sunny. I was happy to be there. Then I met a guide, who said he’d translated for U.S. troops during the war and now escorted American veterans on motorcycle trips through the region. He made me feel at ease. He had a respectable-looking website. And he had an idea for a three-day trip that would take us through the interior mountains to Hue, about 80 miles north.
We made it 77 miles. The problem wasn’t the guide, who was courteous and knowledgeable. It wasn’t the rain, which poured down on us the moment we left Hoi An. It wasn’t the resulting mudslides, which intermittently covered the highways, leaving us to wade through muck and rocks.
Three miles short of Hue, just as we approached it at full speed, a cow in a field alongside our two-lane highway stood up. What my guide could not have known was that the cow was on a leash. And the leash was attached to a pole—across the highway.
We were too close to safely brake. The leash was approximately level with our necks—meaning that we were about to be clotheslined, at speed. And by “clotheslined,” I mean guillotined.
I’m writing this today, without injury, for the simple reason that the cow then decided to sit down. He laid his head on the ground, the leash went flat on the asphalt, and my guide and I completed the final three miles of our trip.
I would not have gone on that trip if my boyfriend had been with me. We would have flown between Hoi An and Hanoi. I would have worried about whether or not he was comfortable, as he would have worried about me; we would have sought out experiences that fell safely within the Venn diagram of his likes and mine. In fact, when he and I returned to Hoi An together, the following year, we spent most of our time at the beach.
Maybe you’re thinking, “Being killed by a cow alongside a stranger is exactly why I don’t want to travel solo.” I would argue that it’s exactly why we should.
That cow—a fluke, an accident, an incident utterly without violent intention—is responsible for my worst moment out of travel to nearly 60 countries, half of which I entered on my own. My one experience with violent street crime—being held up at knifepoint—happened not on a solo trip overseas but two blocks from my own apartment in New York City.
When you travel solo—when you alone are responsible for where you go and how you get there—interesting things happen. Traveling solo is scary, amazing, tedious, lonely, addictive and very fun. It is not a vacation, and it does not replace a vacation. It is more likely to be an adventure. An adventure without compromise.
Solo travel is as close as we can get to absolute freedom. It is something we should all experience.
Pick a place on the map, near or far. Go there. See what it has to offer. Meet the people, celebrate their culture and share some of yours. Chances are, you’ll come back better—more open, more empathetic, more connected—than you left.
There’s no better cure for boredom, anxiety, malaise or heartbreak. And no better way to develop empathy and understanding for the world around us. Plus, it is a lot more fun than a summer’s worth of Criminal Minds repeats.
Now, start planning—perhaps after reviewing these 10 ways to manage the risks and rewards of solo travel.
1. Solo travel is rarely solo the whole time.
Maybe you need a month alone in the woods. Maybe you need a few weeks hopping trains through Europe in the company of your own thoughts. Do that, then. For everyone else: People in the pursuit of adventure tend to find each other, whether at a craft beer meet-up in Tokyo or hiking the Camino de Santiago.
2. Travel for a reason
If you don’t want to be lonely—and here I’ll point out that being lonely isn’t the worst thing to happen; few things help us better appreciate friends and family—travel with a purpose and you will meet like-minded people. I began a four-year relationship on the third day of a solo trip to London: He was a teaching assistant on the course that brought me to England.
3. Take baby steps—literally—if you need to
Rio de Janeiro is next-level gorgeous, with incredible cultural sights and some of the world’s best urban beaches. When I first arrived there for a six-week stay, I was apprehensive about crime, so I explored my new neighborhood block by block, enlarging my comfort zone each day. I kept an eye on when streets were busy, when they were quiet, when they were deserted, and I adjusted my own behavior accordingly.
4. Make easy trade-offs
I’ll pay a little extra for a flight that arrives in daylight if I’m headed somewhere new. If I have no choice but to arrive late, I’ll stay at a hotel or hostel with a 24-hour check-in the first night rather than hope I’m ringing the right doorbell at an Airbnb rental. I’ll still hike alone, but I’ll choose a popular trail over a remote one.
5. Stay in touch
It’s easier than ever thanks to Facebook, WhatsApp, and everything else. Consider adding your itinerary—flights, hotel bookings, etc.—to a Google calendar shared with a family member. Some phone carriers make international calling easier than others. T-Mobile, for example, offers free, low-speed data and 20-cent-a-minute calls in 140 countries.
6. Don’t schedule your way out of discovery
Signing up for a guided group trip is one way to manage concerns about solo travel, but it also tamps down the potential for following your nose. Consider beginning a longer solo trip with a shorter guided experience—it could provide a gentle transition from the familiarity of home to a strange, new (exciting!) place.
7. Bring a book
Eating or traveling alone can feel weird—at first. If you bring a book, you’ll be less likely to pull out your phone and reconnect with home. Even better, bring a book by an author with a connection to your destination.
8. Fit in
It’s actually much easier to fit in as a solo traveler than as a couple. A woman wandering through a neighborhood in a foreign city is just a woman going about her day. A couple doing the same thing? Tourists. (How often do you walk around your hometown with your partner in the middle of the afternoon?) Beyond that, pick up local cues in terms of dress, whether formal or informal, and behavior: Does everyone take cabs after midnight? After dark?
9. Do the research
It’s up to you to understand the social and political climate of your destination, so be a responsible traveler and learn about it, from both local and U.S. media. Are there elections coming? Strikes? Is there political unrest? Can it be avoided? The State Department offers travel advice on every country—review it.
10. Consider the conclusion
Spending a lot of time by yourself can be intense—usually the good kind of intense, but intense nonetheless. The farther and longer you’re gone, the happier you may be to see a familiar face at the end of the trip, so consider meeting a friend, whether old or new, at the trip’s conclusion, before heading home.
Photo credit: Remains AdobeStock 809395