One of the scariest moments of my life was stumbling out of a plane in Frankfurt, Germany, jet-lagged, knowing about three German words, flummoxed by public transit (perks of growing up in a small town?), with a phone that didn’t work and useless money in my wallet. I was 31, traveling internationally by myself for the first time and in that moment really regretting this life choice.
It took a good night’s rest, some German pastries and taking a train to the city where I was born to realize how much I loved it and that, while traveling alone is (still!) scary, it’s also incredible. For Plan a Solo Vacation Day, allow me to tell you—yes, even you, you big ol’ extrovert—why you should travel solo at least once.
You don’t have to share. Not your food, not the narrow beds and not time behind the wheel on the autobahn—it’s all yours. So stretch out, eat the whole bag of cookies and enjoy the accelerator in that little German car that shifts into sixth gear as effortlessly as a warm knife slicing through butter. It also means you don’t have to share the embarrassing story of how you didn’t know how to shift into reverse in cars with six gears because you’ve always driven a car with five gears and you had to ask a random guy on the street where all the gears are in German cars.
Now, you should share that story. Moments like that are what make travel memorable. But you don’t have to share it, which makes it a quirky traveler’s tale instead of an epic fail. 😃
To that end—there are no witnesses when you do something dumb. Like the times—yes, it’s plural—when I got stuck in an elevator. (In my defense, in old buildings in the Mediterranean region, they are very small and the doors don’t open automatically.) Or when I accidentally booked a hostel 200 kilometers away from where I was staying. Or the time I ended up at the train station and not the beach and actually thought the map was wrong. (I … might not know right from left without thinking through which hand I write with.)
The only person you have to worry about having fun is you. You know what I did not enjoy at all? The Louvre. I wasn’t alone on that trip, and I didn’t leave as early as I wanted—but I left earlier than my travel companions wanted and none of us were happy.
Which leads to …
You only go the places you want. My first trip abroad, with my mother and sister, we went to so many art museums. It’s Europe! You see the art. Well, it turns out I hate art museums. I don’t “get” art. Give me a museum on chocolate, cheese, football (soccer for the Americans), communist sculptures, history or leprechauns and I am set.
You get to go at your own pace. Ever gone hiking with someone so much slower than you that you spent most of the hike waiting for them? Ever been that person? You know what I mean. It’s fun to power up that mountain. It’s also nice to take a rest day. And it’s amazing to rent a bike and go on a self-guided “Sound of Music” tour of Salzburg without worrying if someone else is nerdy enough to sing “How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?” while you go.
It’s easier to make friends when you don’t have any built in. If you haven’t guessed by now, I am an introvert and am super into spending time by myself and not talking to people. But I’m not a total hermit, and I like a little human interaction every now and then. And not having a travel companion has allowed me to strike up conversations with travelers in buses and hostels, to say yes to that dinner invitation from the vegetable peddler in Athens, to chat with guides on small tours or surfing lessons that were unexpectedly private. (Pro tip: You get a lot of private tours when you travel during the off season because no other tourists are signing up. In fact, if you want a mostly-solo trip with a little human interaction, look into small group or walking tours, cooking or some other kind of a lesson or my personal favorite—food tours. If you’re not already booking food tours on trips, start immediately.)
I’ve also spent a delightful morning with a friendly cat at a pineapple plantation. You gotta find your … people, in a manner of speaking.
Now, will being alone mean you get approached more, especially as a woman? It’s definitely possible. But I’ve never felt unsafe traveling alone. The same rules apply—be alert, pay attention to your surroundings, avoid dark alleys, walk with a purpose, try to keep your face as grouchy as possible so people don’t want to approach you. (Not advised if you, like me, are constantly lost and need directions. You do need to be able to switch from get-lost face to please-help-me-nice-stranger face quickly.)
You get to experience things quietly and let the grandeur of the moment sink in.
In August, I went to Egypt. It’s the kind of trip that feels like the culmination of an entire life; I knew more about King Tut and the pyramids than I did about American history until my teenage years. I climbed Mt. Sinai in the middle of the night, beat the other tourists to the top (thank you, living at 7,000 feet!), and I had a beautiful, quiet 10 minutes of solitude on top of that mountain that is sacred to three religions. I was alone inside pyramids—which, after a frighteningly real nightmare about mummies 30 years ago, was a noteworthy accomplishment all by itself. So much of the world’s history happened in Egypt, and I got to sit quietly and reflect. I highly recommend it.
That also means …
You get the quiet when you most need it. One of the times I have been most grateful to be alone was on the bus back from Auschwitz. I needed time to decompress, to consider the emotions I felt and the stories I heard, and to weep. I didn’t want to talk. I needed the solitude for my own emotional health. I felt the same at the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum and the Bosque Redondo Memorial. I wished it had been an option on the U-Bahn back from Dachau, the longest-running concentration camp in Germany, but I unwittingly sat next to two Americans who wanted to talk about Dan Marino.
You feel empowered. I learned public transit and city layouts. I can say “thank you” in a bunch of languages. (If you learn no other words, learn “hello,” “please” and “thank you.”) When you travel alone, you have no one else on whom to rely. It is definitely scary and sometimes uncomfortable. I have been lost, I have been unsure of what to do next, I have waited for a bus that I wasn’t sure was going to come and gamed out how to hitchhike back. I
have cried. I have felt stupid asking for help. And I’ve been lonely. But traveling solo is a rush unlike anything else I’ve ever done.
Now, I get it—traveling solo is not for everyone. And I’ve had some amazing moments traveling with people—my mom and sister and I laughed until we cried after getting dumped on while on the top of a double-decker bus in London. My mom and I occasionally remind people about the mama bear and cubs who strolled right past our bus window in Denali. The time my best friend and I bottomed out kayaking in East Texas would have just been sad on my own. And you never have to awkwardly ask a stranger to take your picture in front of whatever beautiful and/or historic place you’re visiting.
But give it a whirl. You might find a whole new person who can confidently stride into a restaurant, ask for a table for one and then promptly pull out a book so strangers don’t try to talk to you.
Heidi Toth is assistant director of NAU Communications and avid solo traveler. Her favorite place to travel is Germany. Have questions or want to share travel stories or pictures? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.