As a child, I was painfully shy. I can’t emphasize the word painfully enough. I stuck to my mom’s side so closely when we were out running errands that she would often accidentally step on me, or I would step on her shoes because I was tagging so closely behind. Once you got to know me, I was a bright, outgoing kid, with a cheeky sense of humor. But the outside world, with strangers and the chance of messing up and embarrassing myself? It petrified me.
Well, that grown up kid flew to Spain alone, met up with buddies, then explored Lisbon, Portugal by herself. About a year later, she hopped on a 10 hour flight from Auckland, New Zealand and flew to Hong Kong to explore the city alone, capping off a 12-day trip to Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong. When I do travel with the hubster, he understands when I say I’m getting up early to snap some pics and grab a coffee alone.
There’s something soul-satisfying about traveling alone. I fully believe everyone should travel solo at least once in their lives.
Fun fact: You will get scared.
There’s scene in the movie The Good Dinosaur where Butch, a T-Rex, and Arlo, a Brontosaurus, have a heartwarming exchange. What? Save your judgement for later. It’s a good flick! Arlo tells Butch he must not be scared because he stands up to bigger dinosaurs. Butch sort of laughs and replies in only the way someone with more experience can, “If you ain’t scared, you ain’t alive.”
I was so nervous stepping outside of my hotel in Lisbon, Portugal that I delayed it by a solid hour just moseying around my hotel room. I FaceTimed the hubby. I redid my hair. I double checked the bus schedule. I knew what I was doing, but I was scared.
When you travel solo in a foreign country, you’re the one with the accent. When you’re the only blonde or western looking person in the bunch, you feel like the spotlight is on you. (The hubster and I were stopped twice in South Korea to have our pictures taken with total strangers.) Everything feels magnified. More often than not, though, people are more willing to help, or chat with you, or take your picture if they know you’re a tourist. They want to show off their little corner of the world, so they will be friendly. Feeling the fear and doing it anyway is essential to learning more about one another.
Some bloggers come across like they are fearless. They aren’t. They are just as nervous and fearful as the next normal person; don’t let the pretty pictures and captions convince you otherwise.
And you know what? In those first few heart-pounding moments alone, when you step outside your hotel, or off the subway or out of the taxi, you will be overflowing with a breathtaking, finger-tingling sense of being alive.
Cause, “If you ain’t scared, you ain’t alive.”
You will do something embarrassing, and you’ll survive.
While in Hong Kong I took a food tour with Hello Hong Kong that would give even the snobbiest foodie wet dreams. It was magical. I finished the tour not only with a full belly, but also feeling inspired. I learned so much about the ins-and-outs of Hong Kong. I was staying at hotel in Kowloon, across the bay from Hong Kong Island where the tour started. In the morning, instead of taking the famous Star Ferry across the bay, I just took a taxi to get to the tour because I had just arrived the day before and wanted to get my bearings.
My friendly tour guide, Michael, walked with me back to the subway as he hopped on a train to get home and he pointed me to the ferry docks, right along the way for me to take the Star Ferry to my hotel. I must have misunderstood where the Star Ferry was located, as there are plenty of ferries that take you elsewhere around Hong Kong. I waited at a the wrong dock for probably a solid 45 minutes. I was completely alone, except for a few locals eating lunch that probably wondered what the hell this blonde chick was doing, standing alone, looking at her feet.
In the amount of time that I waited, the Star Ferry probably came and went 3 separate times (it’s a quick ride) before I decided to question whether or not I was in the right place. Duh, Caroline. I definitely wasn’t. I was flustered and embarrassed as I walked around the ferry terminal trying to figure out where the hell I was and which ferry to take. I could see my hotel across the bay–son of a nutcracker! I finally found where I was supposed to be going-the signage doesn’t always have English options-and bumped into a couple I heard speaking English. They were from Florida too! We chatted and I quickly forgot about my embarrassing 1 hour+ wasted. In fact, I ran into that friendly couple in the airport lounge on my way home. Serendipity.
My favorite embarrassing story though was when I did a hop-on hop-off tour in Lisbon, Portugal. It started pouring, so I moseyed my way downstairs on the double decker bus and found the only empty seat next to an elderly woman who didn’t speak a lick of English. I know this because she pointed at the headphone jack for your cheap-o headphones to listen to the tour in your chosen language, and waved it away saying she didn’t want to use it.
So I just listened to the tour in my headphone jack, but in the meantime a British couple had joined the tour and with nowhere to sit, they just stood in the aisle chatting quietly with each other. As you know if you’re a reader here, I love all things British. This couple could have read me bedtime stories and I would have died happy.
They mentioned that they’d like to hear the actual tour, but with no seats available, they didn’t have a headphone jack. So I politely told them that they could just listen with the extra spot we had available in our row. Except I said it WITH A FULL-ON ENGLISH ACCENT. I don’t know where it came from, guys. I just, spit it out like I was full-fledged Brit who had just downed a pint and bangers and mash at lunch. I worried the entire time they would ask me where I was from, so much so that I got off the bus a stop early!
You’re bound to do something embarrassing or be in an embarrassing situation while traveling, because it’s not home. It’s not your culture. It’s not your everyday life. Great news though, you’ll most likely never see these people again!
When in doubt, simply ask.
Learning how to ask if someone can speak English in the local language, is key. Lost? No signs in English? Look for a friendly face, smile and say “English?” You will find the more you travel, the better equipped you are to assess who to ask and who to avoid. More often than not, people are far more kind than you assume.
Making use of your hotel concierge or AirBnb host does wonders too! Explain you’re alone and they’ll be happy to provide you options of where to go and where to avoid.
Another awesome option I’ve used is to explore is Trip Advisor or Facebook groups. I usually look for what the best walking or food tour is in the area. I’ve met, hands down, the friendliest people on my food tours. Some have invited me out to gamble with them the next day on the island of Macau, some have met up with me at a bar later and some I’ve emailed afterwards.
While not totally my jam when traveling alone, I know a ton of people who swear by going to a bar each night as a solo traveler. Bartenders are always willing to chat, most likely speak English and can usually, and accurately, tell you where to avoid going when you leave their bar.
I popped into a pub near my hotel when I arrived in Sydney, Australia. I was waiting for my friends to arrive the next day and just explored The Rocks area of Sydney by myself. At the pub, I ordered a cider for my jet lagged self and sort of stared into space, while readjusting my bar stool awkwardly several times. The bartender most definitely took pity on me, sitting by myself, on a Friday, during happy hour as most people were getting off work and meeting up with friends. She offered a warm smile, explained what food was good to order and talked to me a bit about the local cider I was drinking. That was it. That was all that was needed to calm my nerves. So I definitely get why people often say belly up to the bar as a solo traveler.
Solitude is good for the soul.
How many times a week or, heck, even a day do you say to yourself, “I just need time to think!” The hustle of our everyday grind is wearing on our souls. I am 100% not impressed with people who proudly wear a badge of honor that they’ve worked so hard they barely have time to piss (or call their wives or see their kids). It’s not impressive – it’s actually embarrassing our culture admires it.
Solo travel offers the solitude your mind needs. One of my favorite things in the entire world is quietly walking around a new city, camera in hand, shit-eating grin on my face, snapping photographs of everyday life in another culture. It’s almost a zen-like experience.
Your inner namaste may be something different on your solo travel adventures. Here are few other things I’ve done: Sat by the beach reading a trashy book. Gone for a run early enough that the city is just waking up. Treated myself to a social-media-free dinner where I just sat…and ate. (Imagine that?) Shopped for the perfect Christmas gift along rows of sellers at local markets. Took a “junk boat” cruise (a type of ancient Chinese sailing ship) and sat quietly taking in the sites and sounds.
You should travel solo at least once in your life.
When people ask why I go on solo adventures, my retort usually is, “Why not?” But for those who need a bit more than a sarcastic response, hear me out.
The confidence gained when traveling solo is life changing. And I don’t say that flippantly. When you get back from traveling alone, and life throws you the inevitable curve ball, you know you can handle it like a champ. For fucks sake, you just got back from a trip where you were lost and asked twice by a stranger if you wanted to “Smok-ah the marijuan-ah?” (I pretended I didn’t understand, Dad.)
You learn you can depend on yourself. No more asking for validation if your choice is correct. No more debating over making the wrong decision. It’s up to you and you alone, and you learn that you’re pretty darn capable of handling it all and depending on yourself.
When you travel alone, you’re keenly aware of your surroundings that you may otherwise miss with a group or travel buddy by your side. The hubster bought me a “Field Notes” notebook to take notes during my adventures. Looking back on them, I wrote the most incredible details that I probably would have missed or otherwise forgotten. As a solo traveler, you’re somewhat forced to pay attention to these minute details and human interactions. As an armchair sociologist, I love that!
If you’re scared, it’s okay. (Read above.)
If you claim you have no where to go, I shall throw an atlas in you general direction.
If you don’t have the money, utilize travel hacking as I have.
You don’t have to go to extremes and travel to Hong Kong (ah-hem), you can take a weekend trip nearby at a hotel or AirBnb.
You can take baby steps too. Next time you’re on vacation, go visit a museum alone. Go get coffee and sit in a park alone. Tell your hubby and kids mama wants to see the Target in that area and run free down the aisles!
You can do this! I promise.
Feel the fear and do it anyway.
Share your stories! Have you ever traveled (near or far) on your own? What did you love or hate about it?
Get some more solo travel inspiration from my favorite kind of Not Your Average Gals: