Why travelling solo wins – almost every time
Travelling the world with others is amazing; going by yourself could be even better. Photo: Getty
As someone who needs copious amounts of alone time to survive, the prospect of solo travel doesn’t scare me as it might others.
I’m perfectly comfortable eating alone in restaurants, and bumpy flights don’t leave me reaching for a hand to hold.
So nothing seems amiss during the first few days in a new place full of foreign experiences and sights.
Stumbling off a bus into Québec City earlier this year, I dropped off my luggage at a hostel and (after an appropriate period of recovery from dragging two full suitcases up three narrow flights of stairs) set about trying to photograph every square inch of the surrounding area.
In Old Québec, the city’s French origins seeped through charming terrace buildings, which I keenly soaked up with my eyes and camera. In Quartier Petit Champlain, I sat in total peace on a blue wooden lounger at sunset, working my way through two massive scoops of ice cream while a street musician charmed passers-by. I hiked down Montmorency Falls, happy to ask strangers to take pictures of me at pretty spots. And at the Museum of Civilisation, I took my time reading every bit of information on the exhibits’ labels, lingering as other visitors filtered past.
But by my final day in Québec City, something had changed. I started to feel the empty seat beside me, as the tour bus trundled through Île d’Orléans. I felt excluded by the excited murmurs of fellow tourists around me, and even more so when wedged between pairs and groups of travellers who were happy to keep to themselves during the various stops.
A day later I arrived, dishevelled and Starbucks-stained, in New York City.
My sense of isolation grew in spurts and stutters as I walked the trash-scented streets alone; as I struggled for space to take a selfie with the Statue of Liberty on a boat crowded with families, friends and couples; while I demolished a massive slice in the corner of a pizzeria, as a group spread across several tables sang a loud, tipsy Happy Birthday to a friend.
In slightly dramatic fashion, my solo travel status began to feel like an invisible partition separating me from everyone else, crowds parting around me like the Red Sea.
I suddenly longed to have someone there. Someone to drag to clubs, or to line up with for shows, or to share silent laughter when a local yelled out a spicy piece of gossip for the world to hear. Someone to share memories with, point blank.
A few days later, my wish seemed to be granted in Oaxaca, Mexico.
I’d met a couple of other solo travellers on a day tour, and we’d bonded over possible heatstroke, nervous swims in scarily-deep mineral pools, and several glasses of mezcal.
They invited me back to their hostel’s rooftop bar that night, which, unlike mine, was packed with tourists eager to drink, chat and meet new people.
For the first time in weeks of travel, I was enjoying the perks of being part of a group: Sharing the beginnings of inside jokes, tasting each other’s drinks and burritos, and alternating between discussing the most personal details of someone’s life to how they maintain their haircare routine on the road.
I made plans with one of my new friends to visit a local market the next morning, and it was everything I’d been missing in my lonelier moments. At last I had someone with whom I could explore, try new foods, window shop, and spin around on the sidewalk trying decipher where Google Maps was trying to send us.
Almost immediately, I was reminded of the critical drawback of exploring with another person. Suddenly, there was someone to please other than myself.
We spent a large chunk of time looking (unsuccessfully) for a specific item my friend was keen to buy. Whenever something caught my eye, I didn’t take a closer look lest I accidentally fell into my habit of annoyingly-slow browsing. When it was time to eat, each of us dallied over what food stall to go for, worried about choosing something the other would dislike.
Don’t get me wrong. We had a great time, and I would never take those hours back.
But the niggling, tiny annoyances left me breathing the smallest sigh of relief when we parted ways to continue with our separate, pre-arranged plans.
I had a renewed appreciation for moving at my own pace.
I didn’t have to consult anyone over where to eat or what to do.
If I wanted to spend half an hour meandering in and out of each shop I passed, or to sit in the town square and people-watch, I didn’t have to worry about wasting any time other than my own.
I’m lucky enough to have had the most amazing experience travelling with friends and family over the years. It’s even better when you’re close enough that you’re not scared of being annoying, and you don’t mind when they annoy you – because jet lag, spending days on end together and the general stress of travel pretty much guarantees both will happen.
And sure, solo travel can get lonely when you spend big chunks of time by yourself, surrounded by other people making memories together.
But there are so many small joys to be had in the selfishness of solo travel. If you sit back and embrace them, they can accumulate to form a pretty wonderful experience too.