Flying solo

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Before I embarked on my latest set of wanderings around the world a few weeks ago, one of the things that was playing on continuous loop through my head was a nagging question.  Can I do it?  Not the act of travelling per se – I think I’ve done that enough times for it not to hold too many fears in and of itself.  No, what my over-active brain was questioning was whether I was cut out for an extended period of solo travel, particularly through developing countries.

With a couple of exceptions, trips of any length in the past have been with either a mate or girlfriend, or to meet up with existing friends around the world.  It was only the week or two that I spent by myself in the US a couple of years ago that opened my eyes to the potential benefits of flying solo.  Still, a fortnight in large American cities is a far cry from close to three months around South East Asia, and no amount of positive thinking seemed to completely dispel that hint of self doubt.

In the end, as always, the only way to know what I was capable of was to give it a go – to get on a plane and find out.  Departure day finally rolled around in a blur of wrapping up of loose ends and after one last drunken farewell I found myself in the check-in line at the airport, somewhat intoxicated and entirely alone.  Guess what, Dave?  Ready or not, you’re doing it.

I’m now pretty much halfway through the ‘solo’ part of this trip and as I sit here in a riverside cafe in Vientiane sipping Beerlao and cheerfully ignoring the tuk-tuk drivers wanting to sell me weed, I think I’ve answered my own question.  Can I do it?  Yes.  I absolutely can.  Travelling solo for the last six weeks has been many things.  Challenging, entertaining, eye-opening and mind expanding.  Hilarious, drunken and incredible.  It has certainly never been boring, and I wouldn’t change it for the world.

One of the great things about travelling alone on this trip is that in reality, I haven’t spent much time actually doing that.  Instead, I’ve spent hours talking to strangers on buses, in restaurants and while drinking in bars.  When you are dining by yourself and your choice of conversation partners are either a potted plant or the people at the table beside you, it’s not a difficult decision to make.

Without the safety net of a travel companion, I’ve put myself out there a lot more than on previous trips – and gained so much more in return.  In our so-called normal lives, we all carry round hang-ups and distractions that create barriers to meeting and creating friendships with strangers.  While travelling those barriers disappear, especially when you are by yourself, and forming strong bonds with people takes days rather than months.

Twice already on this trip, a chance encounter has ended up with altered plans, immense fun and new found friends.  Looking up from my book, starting a conversation, buying someone a beer, saying yes rather than no has led to some wonderful experiences.

Hiring scooters and riding the crazy roads of Vietnam, for instance.  Holding down conversations over a few days that were switching between Spanish, Italian and English mid sentence – despite only speaking one of those languages.  Dancing till the small hours, football in the streets, introducing the brilliance of Eddie Vedder to my Lao guesthouse owner on Don Det.  Whatever it may have been, it all started with a smile and a willingness to get involved rather than sitting on the sidelines.  Probably a good life lesson at any time, but especially while on the road.

I’ve been asked by a lot of people if I am travelling by myself.  When I answer in the affirmative, the response varies from a look of incredulous disbelief that I would want to do anything so ridiculous, to a nod of respect or a smile of agreement.  In many cases the follow-up question is ‘why?’.  My usual response is ‘why not?’.

There was nobody else that I knew who was interested in doing what I’m doing at the moment – backpacking for months around South East Asia, staying in cheap accommodation, eating street food and taking overnight buses from place to place.  Most of my circle of friends are busy living somewhat different lives – careers, mortgages, children, whatever it may be – and their priorities are quite different to mine.  On that basis I had two choices – don’t go, or travel by myself.  I chose the latter, both because I’m not willing to give up my dreams just because other people don’t share them, but also because it scared me a little.  I think that’s a good thing.

The other question that sometimes comes up is ‘would you rather be travelling with somebody else?’.  That’s a harder one.  Now and again when I see happy couples being all happy and couple-like as they wander down the street with matching backpacks or a group of mates laughing loudly as they drink another bar dry, I do feel a little sad that I’m not sharing all of these amazing experiences with somebody else.

I think it’s human nature to want the people close to you to be a part of the great times in your life, and this trip has undoubtedly been one of those times.  I guess, though, that it’s a moot point.  I’m single, and putting off more travel until the right girl comes along to do it with seems a little silly.  Travelling in large groups isn’t very appealing either – I love the freedom and flexibility of making my own decisions.  When travelling solo I only have myself to argue with about what to do next – and it’s an argument I tend to win.

Ultimately I think there are many benefits to travelling with other people, and equally large benefits to doing it alone.  There’s no right or wrong way – giving both options a go is the only way to find out what works best for you personally.  For me, I’ll happily travel either way – or better still, both ways – if it means I get to keep seeing amazing places and meeting incredible people.

I’ll certainly be taking the lessons that I’ve learned from travelling by myself to heart for the rest of this trip and every subsequent one, regardless of how many other people are coming with me.  Staying flexible, putting myself out there, getting out of my comfort zone and being a travel participant rather than merely a spectator.  That’s what flying solo means to me.

[Photo courtesy of Arkadiusz Szymczak]

Have you travelled by yourself?  What were the best – and worst – aspects of solo travel for you?

23 Responses to “Flying solo

  • Nigel Dean
    13 years ago

    Very good article – esp interesting as I am reading “Sideways” by Patrick O’Neil in which he spends time travelling alone and in a group. Both of you have certainly had some adventures on the way round the world.

  • Wow, I felt like I was reading a blog post about my own past few months!

    I left about 4 months ago with one backpack for a solo trip through India, Vietnam, and now currently Nepal. It has been an incredible journey do far and my life has been flipped upside down (in terms of direction and focus).

    I think the most important point in this post was the part about not waiting. If you have no friends or anyone willing to take the adventure with you, DON’T WAIT. Just go. You can handle it. And you’ll learn so much along the way, about yourself AND others!

  • Sounds like my life, or probably most of us mid-20’s to mid-30’s solo travelers. Disconnected from the lives our friends choose to live back home, and on the road, struggling with the freedoms of solo travel vs sharing all the amazing experiences with someone.

    Good news is that although we sometimes feel like we’re the only ones, there are plenty of great solo travelers and travel bloggers to bounce these thoughts, feelings and ideas off of.

  • @Raam – so very true. If you wait for other people to join you on your adventures, you may very well end up never having those adventures at all. As you say, just go!

    @Dustin – yeah, it’s not a unique story that’s for sure, even just amongst the fellow travel bloggers I’ve met on this trip! The freedom vs the solitude is always a tough balancing act, I guess … we’ll figure it out one day! Maybe. 😉

  • I’ve been traveling by myself for the last 4 months through Central America and plan at least another year of solo travel. You would be amazed at how many solo female travelers there are here. I found the first week hard but after that it was smooth sailing – well smooth with a few emotional breakdowns but apparently that’s normal.

    • @ayngelina – I’ve finally had a chance to read through your last several posts – I think anyone planning long term travel alone, and especially women, should take a read if they need any reassurance or inspiration!

      @Nick – fears and reservations are totally normal and expected – the good thing is that so few of them actually come to pass! 😉

  • I’ve not traveled alone yet but I soon will. I’m glad that the reservations I’m having now will will prove themselves wrong based on your experience and the many others that I’ve read.

    I’m glad to know that I’m not the only one going thorough the motions.

  • I’m about to set off solo around South East Asia in January 2011. It’s less than 2 weeks till lift off and I’ll admit, I’m getting a bit nervous, especially as my travelling experience is pretty much ‘holidays with parents’ when I was a teenager lol.

    However, when I started planning for the trip, I knew the only way I could do it would be to go solo. Kind of mad as I’m a pretty introverted kind of guy and not the most confident when it comes to socialising, but I have a feeling I’ll be fine!

    Just noticed the date this post was published so apologies for being 6 months late! Have a fun NYE and a good 2011 though!

  • I’ve only been traveling by myself for about a week now, but I totally agree with you that solo travelers are never “alone”. I’ve actually been WAY more social in hostels and on buses than I ever was with my husband while we were traveling. I guess you just have to be. It’s also nice to be able to have some alone time when you want it as well. Good post!

    • Absolutely – when you’re out of your comfort zone and don’t have a safety net of someone to talk to all the time, you’ll start talking to anybody! The alone time helps me a lot too … social when I want to be, anti-social when I don’t. 🙂

  • I traveled solo for ten weeks through Turkey in 2009 and had a wonderful time, then I got the bright idea to do something more challenging. I’m about two months shy of leaving to travel through Africa solo for a year. Your story and feelings resonate so true with what I’m feeling at the moment. I’m freaked at all the possibilities of what could go wrong but ulitmately, I know things will work out. Any setbacks will pale in comparison to the experience as a whole. I also agree with other folks about being more “social” when you’re on the road. I’ve found it easier to hook up with people for a day, week, or whatever when they are doing the same things. Awesome post, thanks Dave!

  • Lets face it, traveling abroad by yourself and setting of into the unknown by yourself is a very daunting prospect for the toughest of people. Arriving in a far away land where you do not know a single soul is scary enough without having to deal with taxi drivers at the airport trying to con you for a ride into the city, i gues thats kind of when you realize the benits of strength in numbers when you travel. But doing it all on your own makes you stronger in caracter and helps you to deal with tough situations and also helps you grow up to a large extent, theres no mom and dad to help you out, you gotta do it yourself.

    Some people in their 30’s still cant do anything without the help of their parents, cause mom and dad is always there to help. Go out there into the big wide world alone and see what real life is all about…eben better see what your made of…….cause it will be one of the best and biggest learning lessons about life and yourself you will ever experience…..PRICELESS

  • Hi can I just say great site but reading it makes me Jealous that I was never introduced to travel, I only went abroad for the first time when I was 18 sad I know…

    Any way I have made up for it over the last 10 years. Iv never done the long time travelling like most on here have done, but I been to loads of cities and other places for holidays and weekends and last year did 1 month in Oz with a roadtrip involved and loved it and since then I feel the need to do more and for much longer but although I would love to give up my job and home etc I do have a few problems…

    My job is very well paid and Iv worked hard to get there, I would give it up for 6-12 months if I could come back to it but this is not possible and I have no qualifications….:-(

    and the final reason is if I gave up my home I would have no where to live when I came back due to having no parents and lack of family with space for me, living with 3/4 kids would drive me mad….

    BUT on a happy note Im going for 2 months round SEA and I cant wait and im going solo which is alittle scary, Im going alone as friends just dont have the same passion as me, most have families, children or they would rather go the same pub and holiday resort weekly and yearly which is ok if it suits but ill repeat what has been said……. your not here for a long time…

    Anyway glad this blog has given me a little more confidence as my main worry was and is being alone over christmas and new year which I love to celebrate..

    Ill be leaving at the end of November 2012 till the end of Jan 2013,,, hope I love it..


  • Glad you shared this post! Old or not it is really good 🙂 (embarrassing because of lack of photos and long paragraphs you said? That is the way I still do it 😛 haha)

    “When you are dining by yourself and your choice of conversation partners are either a potted plant or the people at the table beside you, it’s not a difficult decision to make.” I especially loved this sentence! It is so true that when you are faced with the reality of being alone you tend to be more sociable. It has definitely worked for me, and knowing myself, I am probably the least sociable person roaming this earth! But solo traveling just makes wonders 😀 Even after the trip was done, back home friends and family noticed that I have changed! 😀

  • I am planning on a year plus of solo travel next year. Having only been bitten by the travel bug a few months ago my emotions change from exited euphoria to intense fear at the prospect of solo travel. I know that it’s something that I really want and have to do though.

  • I just booked my trip leaving June next year and tell you the truth im scared shitless, leaving a high paying job which is rare i auckland, coming from a small town in Northland and not really branching out besides close friends at home, is it really that easy to meet and connect with people on the road i mean ive been on vacations before and met the odd person but no one to hang with put it that way.

    cheers, Dylan

    • Hey Dylan,

      I know that feeling well. Seriously, that’s pretty much exactly how I felt before leaving on the trip I talk about in this post. I had all the reasons in the world why I wouldn’t meet anybody – I was older than most of the other backpackers in SE Asia, I hadn’t travelled much on my own before, whatever.

      Four days after arriving, I met a group of guys on a beach in Hoi An and we hung out on and off all around SE Asia for the next three months. Every place I went, if I was in the mood to socialise, I found someone at the bar, or breakfast, or on the bus, or wherever, that I could hang out with. Everyone else is in the same boat as you, remember – it’s not like back home when everyone is so caught up in their own lives that they haven’t got time for new friends.

      You’ll have a blast. 😉

  • i’m currently planning out my first trip I had the dream to travel Asia as a kid but never thought it feasible but here I am about to make my dreams come true i’m leaving NY in august and spending 3 months traveling through south east Asia solo starting in Saigon and finishing in Thailand any tips from fellow travelers would be appreciated so excited to start this journey of self discovery

  • Dave – thanks for this. This post could be the kick up the backside I need.

    I have solo travel planned in SEA – but that’s it – I have no flight. I have the money saved, I have the backpack – I just haven’t booked the flight because I am terrified of the rest.

    What if I’m sad all the time? What if I don’t meet anyone? What if people don’t like me. All stuff running through my head and I want to get over this and get a flight booked.

    • Yeah, I hear you — it *is* terrifying the first time you travel solo! All those things you mention are things I worried about too. As I mentioned in an earlier comment, though, don’t forget that everyone is in the same boat as you. They need friends just as much as you do. It’s also a LOT easier to meet people when you’re travelling — people have time on their hands, and none of the excuses (busy work schedule, family commitments, tube strikes or whatever) from back home. Being able to up and leave if a friendship isn’t working also makes people form them much faster, I find… easy come, easy go, to some extent.

      Long story short: you’ll be fine! Book that ticket already. 😉

      • Of course you are spot on! You are completely right. My fear is that I won’t fit in any time, there will be well established friendship groups and I find that intimidating. Gahhh. I hate these fears.

        Also. I did a solo trip of the US three years ago and I agree with you in that I was never alone. I met some amazing people. I just don’t remember these fears before the trip so I am wondering am I now more reserved etc.

        • A friend and I have talked about the ‘more reserved’ thing a lot over the years — how you’re often the best version of yourself when you travel, and then slowly, insidiously, “real life” infects you when you return and a year or two later you find yourself doubting your ability to do exactly the same things you were doing every day on the road.

          You probably ARE more reserved now than you were a few years ago. The good news, at least in my experience, is that’ll change within a few days of hitting the road again.

          • Dave – thanks so much for this. I do believe you to be right – just gotta go be brave 🙂 :S

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