Some of the best journeys I’ve had have been alone. I’m a very independent person, sometimes to my own detriment perhaps but also sometimes in my favour. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had fun on trips away with friends and I’m sure it’s really nice to travel with your other half, but it’s not imperative. One of the benefits of being single is you don’t have to wait for anyone so you can go on a holiday and you don’t have to compromise on where you want to go. Other than the desk job, I have nothing really holding me down just yet. Recently I have a cat but he’s a pretty independent little guy himself now and we live with other cat owners who are happy to take care of him while I roam. As long as he has regular meals, plenty of cuddles and his general well-being is looked out for I’m happy (for a while). And do the same for my fellow cat owners when it’s their turn to take a break.
I used to grumble that I never went anywhere. I never had much money, I worked on minimum wage for many years and my time off was generally taken up with studying, or kicking about close to home. I wasn’t really feeling very fulfilled. My friends and I would talk about going away and seeing new places but it just never seemed to materialize. I would wait on other people to have money or get time off or share my enthusiasm, but then I got tired of waiting or of all talk and no action. So I started to flight trawl for cheap deals and just go.
I tested the water to begin with, going to places in the UK where I could meet people I knew when I got there, but then braved further afield with no security blankets. I did have to save up for a month or two before a trip. I still do. It sounds like a horrible idea at first but the not going out drinking, budgeting the food bill and not allowing myself to shop for nice clothes and shoes was worth it once I got away.
There is an initial fear of the unknown, the what if something happens thoughts. But you plan well and get over it. I think on my first journeys I was a real control freak. I planned out my routes, I used Google maps to satellite view the city to get my bearings virtually and I planned almost every day out like a step-by-step itinerary. I checked everything before I left from train prices to food prices to recommendations on public transport and safety in certain districts.
I made a decision not to go to Brussels, the last stop on my first solo European trip, because I was arriving into the station late evening and a backpacker I met a few days before in Amsterdam told me it scared the hell out of him. He had arrived there but got off the train and felt swarmed by beggars and surrounded by people who he thought looked intimidating, so he just got back on the train and left. I felt a similar discomfort in Antwerp. The train station was beautiful but stepping outside it the atmosphere was tense and uninviting. I sat on the windowsill in the train station with my backpack to the wall and moved only to switch window sills when someone sat too close to me and worried they’re intentions weren’t kind. It didn’t help to be told by the train station adviser that there was a train at 3pm and when no train showed up at 3pm and I asked about it he said ‘oh it doesn’t go from this station…’ Helpful guy. Luckily it wasn’t long before another train to Bruges showed up.
I wondered if maybe it was just a paranoia that everyone experienced after leaving the safe and chilled vibes of Amsterdam. Leaving Amsterdam was like stepping out of a safe warm house full of happy people, onto a cold, dark, empty street. At the end of the day though, I tend to go with my gut feeling and if you want to enjoy your time away and not feel on edge, sometimes it’s better to just cancel a stop, retreat to the sanctuary, go back to Amsterdam.
Sometimes people have looked at me like I’m not all there when I tell them about my solo adventures. They are clearly under the impression that if I don’t have someone to see the world with that I shouldn’t see it at all. I disagree entirely. It’s liberating to do things alone. You’re able to get out of your shell and you aren’t confined by other people’s expectations or opinions of you. Sometimes with a crowd I know I feel like I just fade into the background and let the louder more confident ones do the talking or I just stick with them and enjoy their company. But when you travel alone you have to get out of the comfort zone and mix, you don’t have a familiar friend to hide behind. And having people around who don’t know you so it can be refreshing. For example, say one time you went over on your ankle while dancing and you told your friends you don’t like dancing. They’re attentive and they listened to you which is great in a way, but say then they never ask again if you want to dance. And it’s been a while since the incident so when you go away on your own, out on a hostel organised drinking tour of the local pubs and you meet nice people, no-one knows about that old aversion you had to dancing so they do ask, and you say yes, and you have a great time. That’s the joy of making new friends. You learn things about who you are now and aren’t treated based on who you were once.
You meet a diverse range of people when you travel alone, especially staying in backpacker hostels. I met people I never would have had the chance to otherwise, people from all over the world in places I would never have imagined going and hearing about what their cultures are actually like, and not what my media constructed view of it is. You can do the same for your own culture too. I remember in Montreal meeting a tattoo artist whose boyfriend really wanted to go to Ireland to the Guinness factory. She was agreeing to go under duress and was really worried about the violence here. Her media informed view of Ireland was of a dangerous country with many terrorist groups and dangerous areas. I guess it’s down to the fact that generally speaking in global news the only time you hear about a small place is when there’s something wrong.
The skewed view can happen easily. When my friend and I visiting Krakow, shortly after the spell of unrest and armed conflict in the Ukraine, we met an American girl who had been teaching there in Kiev on her year out. She had left Kiev under pressure from her family who were hearing about the trouble there on the news and were worried for her safety. She left to calm them but when we asked her about the atmosphere there and what her experience had been there she described a very positive atmosphere, really nice people and good times. She said what you see on the news doesn’t represent the city and the trouble there was confined to certain areas while the rest trundled along about their business. If you don’t go you don’t really know! Remember propaganda can go a long way.
Top Tips for Travelling Solo:
- Plan ahead! I can’t stress this enough. Plan it out. Check out the climate, the transport system, the language spoken, the hostel reviews, anything you can find.
- Travel light but don’t forget the essentials! What I consider essentials are mini toiletries, a phone and charger for it (remember the travel plug!), currency, a change of clothes or two (don’t go overkill, you might need room for shopping and you don’t need to change everything every day!), a book or music player, a raincoat/ jumper/ layers (just in case), comfortable shoes, one nice shirt/ top for a night or meal out.
- Look after your things. Use the hostel lockers if they have them, most do, look for it on their website to be sure but don’t take any chances. Usually hostels are safe enough, most people travelling just want to have a trouble-free trip and look out for each other more than anything else, but if you have valuables it’s your responsibility to mind them. I tend to keep valuable items to a minimal when travelling anyway but things I can’t afford to lose I keep close to me at all times.
- Don’t drink too much. I’m not saying stay sober entirely, but keep your wits about you. You are in a new place so if you go out with hostel pals on a pub crawl and you get blind drunk, they will not necessarily look after you like your friends at home would. They could ditch you and leave you in a bar you don’t know how to get back from. Or you could just be having too good a time and forget about them, chatting to anyone and then you get split up – you’re in a city you don’t know, drunk late at night, no numbers to call anyone, no idea how to get to the hostel again, throw in a language barrier and you are on the road to a bad time.
- Have fun! Talk to people that look like they’re travelling alone too. Just say hi. More than likely they will be glad of the company and friendliness and are off travelling to meet new people and see new places too so don’t be shy. You can stay as little or as long in their company as you like. It’s ok to say after a while, ‘I better go, maybe see you again’. You don’t have to get stuck, you don’t have to make friends for life with everyone you meet, just mix and then use your own good judgement.
Most importantly stay safe and enjoy yourself! Life is short.