I am writing this from my dorm bed at a hostel in Chiang Mai, Thailand. The sheets are white and pressed, there’s a small cafe down the hall that serves pad thai and green tea, and I can hear tuk tuks buzzing by. This is the dream, and it’s a dream I made come true when I finally built up the courage to backpack around Southeast Asia by myself.
I have seen beautiful and amazing things, have challenged myself, and have learned so much about the people and culture here. However, not everything has been easy, exciting, or inspiring. Traveling solo carries with it obstacles that those who travel with others do not have to face. And though it is easy to romanticize the idea of trekking across the globe with just yourself and your backpack, the reality is that sometimes things can be much more complicated. And exhausting. And frustrating. And real.
Here are some things I have learned regarding what traveling solo is really like.
1.You are alone
This one sounds like a give-in. You decided to travel by yourself- something that sounds like an exciting adventure of growth and exploration. And it is. Traveling alone means you alone get to decide what to do, where to go, and how you want to do things. This can feel amazingly freeing, especially if you have felt bogged down by social expectations and responsibilities. You alone decide how to fix your own problems, how to respond to emergencies, and how to handle conflict. It can be challenging and rewarding.
At the same time… you are alone. Sometimes handling conflict proves more difficult than expected. For example, I was lost in Bangkok for two hours because I had no internet, couldn’t find anyone that spoke English, and I was exhausted from traveling the day before. It took a lot of walking around until I figured out where I was and how to get where I needed to go. I wasted a lot of time and money taking the wrong busses and trains, and by the end of the day I was beat.
If I had had a travel buddy, they may have had insight into where to go and how to talk to people. I would have had someone to talk to when I got scared and confused. Sometimes two heads are better than one, and in a new environment, some added brain power can be a lifesaver. Ultimately I made it back to my hostel safe and sound, but at that time I really would have appreciated a travel buddy.
2… except you’re not
Unless you are traveling in some remote country in the middle of nowhere, chances are you will come in contact with other travelers. Sometimes, more than you hoped for. The reality is that you can nearly always meet people if you simply have the guts to start a conversation. Meeting other backpackers can be a great way to combat loneliness, save money on tours, and feel more safe while traveling.
You may also meet people that make you question your beliefs and see things from a different perspective. They may even piss you off a little bit. Or a lot. Just like back home, you may not get along with everyone that you meet. You might find yourself getting sick of being around SO many people more often than you feel lonely. The point is that finding travel companions isn’t impossible, but it can bring with it its own challenges. Don’t be afraid to take some time for yourself, even if you feel like you *have* to be social. It’s okay to take a break.
3. Miscommunication sucks
Being away from friends and family is difficult. Try as you might to keep them informed on where you are and how you are doing, sometimes things can seem so fast paced and exciting that it skips your mind. Your mom back home may be wringing her hands wondering if you are safe, and even a simple Facebook message can set her mind at ease. But sometimes you can’t find wifi, or plans change, or you get in a fight with your partner from back home. Relying solely on text messages and video chat can be difficult. Sometimes it doesn’t heal the homesickness, and sometimes your thoughtful love letters are lost in translation. Try as you might, it’s just not the same as face to face communication, and this takes some getting used to. I recommend setting up times that work for both you and your friend/family member to chat, especially if there is a large time difference. It adds a level of consistency and lets them know you are thinking about them.
Getting in a fight with your partner can be painful and confusing. It may feel like there is nothing you can do to console them, and chances are they are having a hard time with you being gone. They worry about your safety, loyalty, and your promises that you will return. Realize that it is hard to be the one “back home”, so stay patient, understanding, and loving. Don’t do anything too rash because you are tired, jet lagged, or emotional. If you were doing well when you were together, chances are things will turn out okay. If they simply have a problem with you traveling, and this is something you are passionate about, that is a conversation to have in person. Ultimately you know what you need in a partner and must decide if this person is supportive of you. Traveling solo can be a difficult thing to manage for both parties, so stay positive, be smart, and don’t make any decisions when you are at your lowest low of the day.
4. You will get tired
You may be physically exhausted at the end of the day. You may get tired of dealing with pushy street vendors. Maybe you will get tired of eating Thai food everyday. Doesn’t matter what it is, you will get tired during your travels. You may even get tired of traveling.
All of that is completely okay. You are human. When you need sleep, sleep. When you need solitude, don’t go to that party everyone is going to. If you haven’t peed for 3 days, for crying out loud drink some water. Your body will tell you what you need… listen to it! Do not become too obsessed with the idea that you have to go white water rafting, eat a scorpion, take shots with your new travel buds, and get a tattoo all in one day. You decided to take this trip on your own, so it shouldn’t be about satisfying anyone else’s expectations or pushing yourself to absolute mania. Sometimes taking a day just to walk around the city, drink tea, and read a book can be the best thing you can do for yourself. Listening to yourself will keep you from getting burnt out too early and will ensure that you have a better time overall. I promise.
For some great suggested books to read on your travels, check out this post by my friend at Young and Undecided!
5. You’re probably not as smart as you think you are and vice versa
It takes a special kind of person to take the leap to travel on their own. It is something a lot of people are afraid to do, for a variety of reasons. You can pat yourself on the back for making it this far. Maybe you are a total bad-ass. Maybe you are a genius. But I guarantee you will feel like an idiot at least once on your trip. Why? Because the universe has a sense of humor and will humble you real quick.
As much as you feel prepared, you will still fuck up. You will forget to pack underwear. Or you will pay $12 for a taxi when you should have paid $6 (like me). Or you will get lost (like me). Or break your sandal in the middle of the rain forest (like my friend). Shit happens. Of course, #1 reminds you that most likely you will have to sort these mistakes out on your own. However, people can sometimes surprise you and come through when you are in a bind. Learning that you don’t have it all figured out can be a hilarious, valuable lesson. Embrace it and learn from it.
At the same time, you may surprise yourself and succeed in something you didn’t think you would be able to do. Maybe you find out you are great at reading maps, bargaining at the markets, or riding an ATV. Making these discoveries can be a huge confidence boost! Traveling solo has a way of pushing you to and beyond your limits and making you discover exciting new things about yourself. As someone that struggles with anxiety no matter where I am, it can be hard to try new things. But the best way to learn is to simply DO, and I can say that every experience has been fulfilling thus far. Be prepared, but also be surprised. Stay open to new things, and know that sometimes you don’t have all the answers.
6. You’re pretty awesome
You’ve made it this far and that is such an accomplishment. Even while combating loneliness, fatigue, and confusion you will have a great time. In this crazy world, sometimes things can go awry, but the human ability to adapt and overcome is truly amazing. Trust your instincts, follow your heart, and stay positive! You are capable and you are amazing. And whether you are currently traveling solo or simply planning to, have confidence in yourself. That applies to every part of life, and with that you will do things that you were afraid to do before. Every person has their unique talents and abilities. Traveling solo can be a great way to discover what those are. So take that leap and GO.