Whilst traveling with friends or organized groups is fairly common, by choice or by necessity many people travel alone. Traveling alone is a unique experience and can be a very rewarding way of traveling, despite a few drawbacks.
- One travels more usefully when alone, because he reflects more. – Thomas Jefferson
Traveling alone is not uncommon and most solo travelers are able to meet other travelers at hostels, bars, organised tours or any place where travelers tend to hang out or congregate.
Advantages of traveling alone
- Your time and budget are your own! It's all up to you how much time to spend someplace, what your daily modes of travel will be, etc. You need not take into account the preferences and demands of a traveling companion. You don't have to worry about boring a companion or vice versa. You also have more space to make your trip entirely your own. Solo travel can be a great opportunity for reflection and moving at an individual pace. (You are likely to bring whatever problems you have with you, but you may gain a different perspective on them, and if it's your first time travelling by yourself, you may have the privilege to discover just how resourceful you are.) Traveling by yourself, you only have to please yourself.
- It's easier to make friends with the locals. Many great opportunities to interact with the locals on a personal level can be found and enjoyed without a friend or other companion.
- You don't have any social obligations. You have space and time to be yourself, apart from your family and work roles.
- You will be far more flexible than non-solo travelers, and may find it easier to cope with unexpected setbacks and complications. For instance, if a flight or hotel is overbooked, you can make alternate plans more easily. There's nobody to blame you for your own gaffes, after all!
- You can more easily change plans, as you don't have to run your spontaneous ideas by all other members of your group. Do consider however, that most plane and train tickets have limited refundability and some hotel reservations are difficult to cancel (or keep all or part of your pre-paid money)
Disadvantages of traveling alone
- Personal safety can be a concern as there's nobody to watch your back and no one to share the driving should you get tired. There's also no one to watch the luggage while you go buy train tickets. You will have to carry all your gear yourself, which can be both inconvenient and stressful.
- Arrangements may be more expensive on a per-person basis, as there is no one with whom to share costs. Although transportation tickets are priced individually, hotel rooms are generally designed and priced for two people (with either a double bed or two single beds), and as such, charge the same price to a single traveler occupying the room. The same principle applies to renting a car if you so desire. You may therefore need to budget a little bit more than if you are traveling in a group. On the other hand, this disadvantage can be mitigated by limiting visits to restaurants, opting instead for less expensive alternatives.
- Some activities, such as eating alone in restaurants, can make some people self-conscious.
- You may experience moments of loneliness, as you have no-one to talk to. However, with nearly ubiquitous cell phone service in many populated areas, it is easier these days to stay in touch with people at home if you so choose and can bear the cost. It's also easy to keep in touch with friends back home using email. Finally, unless you are trekking through the Sahara by yourself, you are almost definitely going to be around other people. Try striking up a conversation with some of them!
If you are travelling by yourself in a country where English is not the native language, and especially if it's not widely spoken, it's particularly important for you to learn at least a survival level of the local language if you have no travel partner to converse with, strategise with, and potentially fall back on. It's really not so hard to learn basics of any language today. You can start with Wikivoyage's phrasebooks, but also make sure you hear some basic words and expressions pronounced and practice saying them before you go, if at all possible. Borrow some teach-yourself CDs at your local library and/or look for videos on websites. Common languages (that are more likely to be understood than English even in some places where they are not the native language) like Spanish (Instituto Cervantes), German (Goethe-Institut), Arabic, Russian, Mandarin Chinese (Confucius Institute) or (especially) French (Alliance Française) can be studied at universities or cultural representations of the country they originate in for quite affordable prices almost everywhere.
Look for organizations or venues which are visited by people of your own kind. As an example, Russians abroad usually go to chess clubs to find their countrymen. As stand-up comedy is traditionally an Anglophone art, many cities have comedy performances in English.
Some destinations lend themselves better to solo travel than others. You may find places where accommodations for a single traveller are less restrictive or expensive. There may also be places that cater to individual travellers.
Pack as light as possible. When travelling with friends the burdens can be shared; one person can watch the gear while another waits in line for train tickets, buys drinks or goes to the toilet. By yourself, you'll probably have to bring your things everywhere you go and prepare for tasks on your own.
When you have a choice, consider taking intercity trains instead of buses, so you can move around freely and mingle with other passengers. On most long distance trains the locals bring along a picnic, so take some extra food to share with your new friends. Longer flights can also a be good opportunity to learn to know fellow travellers.
Try not to look at maps in busy streets of foreign cities (which will mark you as an easy target for pickpockets) - do the map reading in a café, and unwind for a while, the refreshment will help you get your bearings. In many cities using a mobile device will blend better than standing on a street corner with a map, but in some parts of the world it's a bad idea to flash a smartphone worth four months' local salary! An inconspicuous alternative is to print out a map, cut it in palm-sized pieces and staple together the parts you'll need for your trip.
Guided tours, especially walking tours, can be a great way to meet other travelers. They are offered in English at many destinations, and a place to meet other English-speakers.
Lone travellers have a difficult time getting good photos of themselves; selfie mode on smartphones gives lower performance than regular mode, and selfie sticks might feel awkward. Lending your camera or phone to a stranger in the street is a risk factor.
Whenever you have some time with a trusted companion (or hospitality staff that is not too busy), ask them to take a photo of you. They can take it with their own equipment, and send it to you.
Try to find places with a casual atmosphere in European cities, such as cafeterias in department stores, a pub, or an outdoor patio during warmer weather. Other good places are fast food and takeaway restaurants, diner-style lunch counters, street food stands and eateries at hotels.
Also, if you wish not to stand out, you may prefer to pick establishments where you're not the only person eating alone. An expensive and exclusive place not located at an accommodation is the worst choice in this regard in some parts of the world. However, in American cities like New York, it's extremely common for people travelling alone to be able to sit at the bar of even the most highly praised high-end restaurants, and they are often able to order from the full menu there. In Japan, single individuals can reserve places at the counters of great sushi/sashimi restaurants and have omakase (the chef's choice) while interacting with the chef. At the low end, it is completely natural in Japan for single individuals to sit down at the counter of a ramen house and have a great inexpensive meal.
If you go to an empty bar or café, the staff is usually idle, and might be happy for a talk with a guest. For their own marketing, they prefer to have a place that is not completely empty. If you are lucky, they might even give you a special offer.
- In places where accommodation is expensive, you can try to team up with other single travelers to share a room and split costs. A good place to meet people for sharing is on the bus/train/plane in to a new place. Be cautious about who you trust, obviously, but it can be a great way to save money.
- The more travel-friendly the accommodation, the easier it will be to make new friends. If you're feeling lonely, head to a hostel, not a five-star hotel. Hostels are normally filled with solo travellers, many of them looking to make a friend or two to enjoy a beer with.
- Many hospitality exchange offers are one-person only. And in any case, they might allow more personal contact with the hosts, than you would get with hotel staff.
- Travel forums can also be a good way to meet other travelers who are in the same destination as you.
- Buy someone a beer! Start up a conversation! Even if you're not outgoing at home, now is the time to start. Ask someone that looks like they've been there a while about cool things to see. Politely offer help to someone just arriving, if you know the hotspots (but don't be overbearing) Better yet -- talk to the locals. In some countries, guesthouses are staffed by young people who like making new friends. Ask a local to teach you a few phrases in her language. Ask a local how to make a toast in the local language. Don't be afraid: at worst, you'll never see these people again, at best -- you'll make a new friend.
- Ask people to take your picture or offer to take theirs. It is a great way to initiate a conversation.
- Try something like couch surfing to see if you can find some local to host you. You can get a much richer cultural experience that way.
- Appearance and courtesy matters. Because you meet a lot of people in a short amount of time when traveling, it helps to put "your best foot forward". Prefer clothing similar to local fashion.
- Smoking may be out of fashion back at home, but in a lot of the world, offering up cigarettes is not a bad way to strike up a conversation.
- If you are up for romance, consider online dating. Most online dating service allows you to change your stated location, so you can find a match well before arrival. However, be honest with your intentions, and make your plans clear with a presumtive partner, to avoid heartbreak. Also, be aware that dating culture and gender roles differ a lot between countries, even between those that otherwise have much in common. Also be cautious about dating scams.
- In larger cities or in towns with a significant presence of a certain diaspora there are often supermarkets that cater to those communities and try to offer as best they can "food like back home". While they are often tiny and tucked away in otherwise residential neighborhoods they are usually advertised with the diaspora language and owned by a member of the minority in question. Besides being a good place to meet and talk to countrymen or locals who like your culture (or at least its food) they can also help you get the absolutely essential food item from back home when you feel homesick
Life is for the living, so don't go crazy with worrying, but a few simple measures can make your solo trip a lot safer:
- If at all possible, arrive at a new place in the daytime. This will give you time to scope out accommodations and get your bearings in the relative safety of daylight. Some places are fine in the day, but dangerous at night. Some places are dangerous in the day, but imagine how much worse they are at night!
- Keep a spare stash of cash and other important things, in a different place than you normally keep your money, as you have no one to spot you if you lose your wallet or have your things stolen. See also pickpockets.
- Pay attention to your instincts. If your gut tells you not to get into that cab, take another one. If you have a bad feeling about a neighborhood, a hotel, a person, stay away. Your intuition often picks up on tiny signs of danger before you consciously identify them.
- Be careful about drugs and alcohol. You don't have anyone to watch your back/assist you, or drag you home if you get too drunk to walk. It's a lot harder to make good decisions about who to trust, where to go, what to do, if you don't have your wits about you.
- Also be cautious about dating, or other sexual adventures. Carry condoms if there is any chance you will go to bed with anyone. See dating scams for some problems that often arise.
- Single travellers, especially men, almost anywhere will likely be approached by prostitutes (quite possibly of both genders), some will no doubt look tempting, and in some countries they are remarkably cheap. However, prostitutes anywhere are a risk for sexually transmitted diseases, in many countries the trade is illegal and in some the penalties are extremely harsh.
- If you're in a semi-dodgy place for more than a short time, try to develop relationships with locals you trust. If you find a good taxi driver (who isn't driving drunk), ask him if he's available to drive you on other days. If you find a good guesthouse/hotel where the staff seems reliable, stick with it. Find a favorite bar, make friends with the barman -- someone who will stick you in a cab when you're too drunk, and who won't set you up to be mugged in a back alley.
- Outdoor life alone can pose a danger. Prefer group tours, or locations which are not totally deserted.
- Business travel is a frequent reason to travel alone.