I’m not a solo traveler. I never claimed to be one, I never used the label “solo female traveler” or the hashtag #wegosolo. Yet there were a few occasions I traveled more or less by myself, and my latest getaway to Vienna and Bratislava was even a classical solo trip. But honestly, I’m conflicted about solo travel.
I know, many travel bloggers rave about the experience of traveling solo. They all live by the phrase “alone is not lonely” or “solo travel is the best way to travel”.
But you know what? I’m not going to write a post like that about solo travel. Because it’s not just always great and “oh-you-will-meet-so-many-people-once-you-travel-alone”. I’m conflicted about solo travel although it took me a while to figure this out.
I had just turned 18 when my parents arranged a home stay in the United States for me. They distinctly wanted my sisters and me to spend some time overseas before we graduated from high school. It was a financial burden to take on for them, but both my parents had traveled through the States when they were young, and they wanted us to broaden our horizon in the same way. I was excited, but really, really scared: Security checks at the airport, a 9-hour-flight by myself, arriving in a country on the other side of the world without having ever met the people I was staying with… it was all really scary.
But people were kind even though I didn’t fill out all the forms correctly (I’m not sure customs would be this nice in 2014, but back then it really helped to be a scared little girl) and actually, flying across the Atlantic by myself it wasn’t so scary after all: It’s not too hard to figure out an airport by yourself, and a 9-hour-flight is not too bad by yourself if you have a couple of movies to watch. But still, during my two months in the States, I experienced a new kind of loneliness: Because it is possible to feel lonely when being surrounded by kind and caring people: As a foreigner and as someone who doesn’t know the language in all its depth, there will always be cultural barriers you can’t overcome easily and yes, you will feel lonely abroad.
After my American summer, it took me a long time to travel solo again.
It actually never even occurred to me that I should go anywhere by myself. Why would I?
Obviously though, I still had a lot of wanderlust-y thoughts stuck in my head and I had always dreamed of spending a longer period of time abroad and so I started saving up and planning my semester abroad in Portugal. I knew it was going to be tough figuring everything out by myself, but I also knew that I had to do it, because I had to become a more independent person eventually. After all, I was the kind of person who would ask her roommate if she could call a cab, because I was too afraid to talk to strangers on the phone.
I was 24 when I boarded my flight to Portugal. Just me and two suitcases. No friends, no help, no apartment, no profound language skills. I remember repetitively thinking “Why would you think you could move to a country all by yourself?!” on the plane.
Naturally, I got badly ripped off by my taxi driver, but I was glad to arrive at my hostel in Lisbon finally. I asked for directions to the nearest supermarket and felt nauseous when I left the hostel by myself. I felt followed, about to be pickpocketed, mugged, anything. I could feel people stare at me, I could hear their thoughts “look at that totally not-Portuguese lost blonde girl staring at a map over there”.
Of course, this walk to the supermarket was only 300 meters, in a super save area of town, and nothing happened to me. But it was the first time I walked somewhere by myself in a foreign country. And when I arrived back at the hostel with my soy milk, I felt like I had achieved something gold-medal-worthy — only to realize then that it was 8pm in the evening and I had no idea what I was supposed to do with myself. I had never stayed at a hostel before, I had no idea what common rooms were. I heard people in the kitchen, but I didn’t think I was allowed to go in there while other people were cooking. So I pretended to be tired and went to bed.
But then I gave myself a new task every day: Buy a metro ticket by yourself, find the university by yourself, find an apartment by yourself.
And by the end of the week, I had walked all over town by myself, found an apartment, made new friends in the hostel, sorted out all organizational things with my university. There were times I was scared. When I got lost in a less nice neighborhood in Lisbon for example, or when I was alone with a huge sweaty landlord on a backyard patio (he took my away my backpack and wanted me to have dinner with him, ugh, those kisses on the cheek). But I managed it all and I learned that I can do things by myself, even if they scare the heck out of me. Lisbon is the place where I learned to be alone — and be absolutely okay with it.
One encounter from those first days in Lisbon stuck with me though: An Australian girl traveling by herself. “How old are you?” was my first reaction as if traveling had anything to do with age. She was 25. Only one year older than me, the girl who had just learned how to buy soy milk by herself. “And you are traveling alone? Why?!”, I didn’t get it. I didn’t think it was possible. Especially as a girl. I thought this girl was rare and extraordinarily courageous.
After I came home from Portugal, my wanderlust had only grown and I started reading travel blogs. Suddenly, I read the stories of so many girls who were traveling by themselves. I had no idea solo travel was this common!
Still though, it never occurred to me that I should try it myself at first. Of course, I flew to places by myself. I read in a Starbucks in London by myself and I took the night bus to Paris by myself. But I always had a friend waiting for me somewhere. It was only last year that I dared to do more alone than that — like in Utrecht, where I visited the cathedral and a museum by myself.
Then, I challenged myself even further last summer and booked a trip to Paris by myself. Four days in the City of Love, all alone. However, I knew I could meet up with my friends Ashley, Edna, and Danielle, so I didn’t have to spend all the time by myself, but still — this was my first real (semi-)solo trip.
And again I learned: It’s actually a beautiful experience to get couscous to go in Paris and eat it sitting on the banks of the Seine, watching couples pose on the Pont des Arts. It’s a beautiful experience to walk through Place des Vosges at 7 am in the morning and have a proper French solo breakfast in the sun afterwards. It’s beautiful to stroll through museums and parks alone and to eat a salade de chèvre chaud outside a café shortly before a summer storm rolls in.
I finally understood the advantages of solo travel: Do, see, eat whatever you like whenever you like. This solo trip to Paris was like discovering a new side of me: A side that actually prefers to drink coffee and go to museums alone.
After this solo trip to Paris, I did all of my sightseeing in Dublin by myself last year, and I truly enjoyed it. I hunted down coffee shops in Berlin by myself this spring and loved it. And I didn’t hesitate for a second to stroll around Madrid by myself this year and my solo café con leche was the favorite coffee I had on this trip.
Then, when I stumbled upon a cheap flight to Vienna recently and there was no one to come with me, I knew I would also have a great time by myself.
But honestly though — I think my trip to Vienna and Bratislava was my last trip as a solo traveler. I get the advantages of traveling alone now, I know why people would prefer it, but I think it’s not for me when I weigh out the pros and cons:
This is always the very first thing coming to mind when discussing solo travel, especially as a girl. I wouldn’t dare to say this about any other continent, because I have no personal experience, but Europe is perfectly save for girls traveling alone. And personally, I feel safer alone than with a bigger group, because I can disappear into the crowds as a solo traveler. No one can hear that I’m a foreigner, because I don’t speak (loudly). When I have to look at a map, I do it discretely in a corner where not too many people see me and I try to memorize it so I can walk like I know my way around.
Those tourist groups suddenly stopping in the middle of a busy underground station discussing where to go next? They not only annoy the locals, but they also put their guards down.
I have to clarify though: When I talk about safety in Europe, I mostly refer to pickpocketing and men following you around, maybe shouting inappropriate things after you that make you feel unsafe. These are (luckily) the only things I experienced myself.
As a tourist in Europe you will always stand out and the pickpockets are usually extremely well trained in recognizing foreigners, but there are ways to make it less obvious: Wear a lot of black in Europe’s capitals, walk very self-confident and fast, carry a purse instead of a backpack (and please, no fanny packs!), keep your camera, map, and guide books in your purse most of the time, watch the locals and try to behave like them (e.g. read a novel on the subway, or wear heels (cobblestone alternative: wedges!) in Western Europe).
Just one recent example: This spring my mom was pickpocketed in Rome (on her 50th birthday!), because we let our guards down: We were traveling in a group of four, it was only shortly past 8am in the morning and the city was just waking up. We were in a bit of a hurry and rushing down a bigger street with traffic, and we didn’t see my mom’s little backpack had been open and her wallet was gone until we arrived in a more quiet street. If there was a checklist test with things to do wrong in Rome, we had scored an A: We were obviously a group of tourists with comfy tennis shoes, colorful backpacks, and shouting German at each other. We felt save because it was early in the morning. We didn’t think of watching our stuff because we were in a hurry.
Lesson learned: When traveling in a group everyone assumes the other is watching out, but no one is really a 100% aware of the surroundings. We were a group of four and no one of us saw anything until it was way too late. As a solo traveler however, I’m absolutely hyper-aware of my surroundings and extremely watchful, because I don’t get distracted with things like discussing directions.
And one more thing regarding going out, because getting home after a night out is always an issue for solo girls. I’ve always walked home alone in Germany, even when I was a bit too tipsy. I had no issues walking home after a few cocktails in Lisbon’s Bairro Alto at night, but my walk home was only a 30 minutes walk, mostly along a street that was lit all night and had constant traffic. I walked back to the hostel in Dublin by myself, because Dublin on a Thursday night at 4am is crowded like Paris on a sunny Saturday.
I never had problems walking home alone, but I also wouldn’t want to risk it when I wasn’t absolutely sure it was absolutely okay to walk. Public transportation can also be scary at night, but on summer nights in Paris for example, it’s totally not a problem to take the metro in the city center at 1am. And I know that drunks sleeping in the metro hallways might seem scary, but they are harmless and I assume most of them would even help if a girl was in trouble. Personally, if I encountered a large group of wasted 17-year-old guys looking for a dare, that’s when I’d leave a underground station and hail a cab instead.
It is true what they say: Meeting people is easiest when traveling alone. As I was planning to explore Vienna by myself, but didn’t really want to be alone at night, I booked an 8-bed-dorm room in a backpacker hostel.
The first thing I saw when I walked into my dorm was a girl sitting on her bed blow-drying her phone. I asked if her phone was okay and we chatted about wifi reception and coffee houses in Vienna. She was a dentist from Melbourne and seemed really nice and since it was a Friday night I asked her if she had any plans. We ended about sipping white wine in a bar talking about travel and learning languages — and it was a great first night in Vienna.
Most people stay in hostels to hang out with others from time to time so by just asking simple questions — did you just get in? can you recommend the hostel breakfast? what was your favorite sight so far? do you know how the shower works? — conversations usually happen quickly and as traveling is most likely a mutual hobby, running out of topics is rare. I’ve also met people when traveling with other people, but never as many as when I was traveling by myself.
From all the things you could possible do by yourself, for me, eating alone is the hardest thing. I hate eating alone. I can’t stand the sound of my own chewing. Even at home, I always need a TV or a computer to entertain me if I don’t have someone around to eat with me. That’s why eating is always the biggest challenge on solo trips for me.
I started practicing at home a bit though: Sitting in a coffee shop with a book was a good start. From drinking coffee alone I went to eating small meals like a soup, a panini or a bagel by myself. I learned to do this at home, so I have no problems doing the same abroad.
However, I still haven’t managed to eat inside a proper restaurant alone though. It feels like the world’s most depressing thing to me, because I feel watched and pitied and I never know where to look.
But I’ve come up with the solution of eating outside: When sitting right by a street, which is quite common in Europe, there’s always something going on and I don’t have to stare at my hands all the time. (Other people maybe like reading while eating, but I guess I’d spill even more food than usually then.)
In Vienna, I challenged myself by sitting outside in a rather fancy restaurant and eating a real lunch, including starters, a glass of wine and a coffee afterwards. I still didn’t really like the way the waiter looked at me (that might have been a Vienna thing though), but it was actually not as horrible as I thought it would be. To be honest though, the other meals I had in Vienna were more Asian-noodle-box-to-go-in-the-hostel-common-room-style. Partly because eating out in Vienna is crazy expensive, partly because I feel just way more comfortable when eating in company.
Traveling solo has one major advantage, and one major disadvantage when it comes to photography — and I still haven’t made up mind which predominates.
The advantage is that if you’re really passionate about photography, it’s so much easier to travel alone than with other people. My mom and sisters for example, they just don’t get how long it takes to get a great shot sometimes and it drives me crazy.
I can’t just take walk-by-snapshots. I have to stand still, I have to adjust my camera settings, I have to try different angles and perspectives. Sometimes I want to wait until the traffic light is red so I don’t have cars in my frame, sometimes I have to wait for someone to walk through that ray of sunlight.
I want to get up early to make use of the soft morning light, I don’t want to nap during Golden Hour, and I don’t want to see that park in the harsh noon light. I know, I sound high maintenance, but people who are into photography will understand. And when I travel solo, no one has to wait for me while I wait for the light to be right or the wind to untangle that flag again. I can take all the time I need to.
On the other hand, when I travel solo, I usually never have photo proof of me being somewhere. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not overly obsessed with having my photo taken. But it’s nice to have a memory of myself at place, preferably one where I have my eyes open and don’t look fat (sorry for being girly). When sightseeing by myself though, I rarely have the guts to ask people to take my photo. So I photograph my feet, my coffees and my sunglasses instead. I like those images a lot, but sometimes I wish a had proof that my face traveled with me as well.
Have you ever thought about how much time you spent waiting for other people when traveling in a group? You wait for them to go to the bathroom. You wait for them to buy postcards. You wait for them to find an ATM, because they forgot to bring cash to dinner. You wait for them to make up their mind what to order while you’re so hungry you could chew off the table. You wait for them to ponder whether “that other restaurant we passed earlier looked way nicer and a bit cheaper though”. You wait for them to finally get out of bed while you’ve been ready to go exploring since 8am. You might not realize it at first, but basically you wait most of the time when traveling together with others.
The biggest freedom of solo travel is that you never have to wait for anyone. You can go to the bathroom, leave the hostel, and have a coffee whenever you want or need to. I’ve learned that I’m much faster with getting somewhere and finding places (especially on city breaks) when I’m by myself. I don’t usually make up my mind very quickly, but it’s the only mind I have to keep in mind to it saves me tons of time and nerves.
Most things listed above show that I do understand why people travel solo. Despite maybe dining alone and having only a few photos of myself abroad, I like traveling solo as well. But there are moments when I can’t keep up my new-found travel confidence.
Like currently, I have a bit of a painful heel infection and I just bought new shoes after my only pair of decent sneakers literally broke apart. Thus, my feet were full of blisters during my time in Vienna and Bratislava and my heel so hurt so bad sometimes that I could not bear standing for just a single stop on the subway.
After several hours of walking around the cobblestone streets of Bratislava I could not wait to finally take my train back to Vienna. I arrived fifteen minutes before the train was about to leave. The train was announced on the board, yet the platform was not. I stood underneath the board in pain, waiting for directions where to go next, but the train suddenly disappeared from the board and I was not on it.
I waited in line at the info desk, but they rarely spoke any English there and no one could tell me what had happened to my train. I was lost in translation and my feet hurt so badly that I was about to throw up. I had to fight against my tears in the middle of that crowded station in Bratislava. And all I wanted was someone to say: “It’s okay, Julika, let me hold your freakishly heavy purse with the camera and go find a place to sit so you can rest your feet. I’ll figure out what happened to that train.” But I had to be strong for myself. Of course, this situation sounds ridiculous to anyone who has ever suffered from food poisoning alone in the middle of a jungle somewhere, but I was exhausted and I didn’t want to be alone at that moment.
Of course, it’s a good thing to learn to figure things out by yourself, but it’s nice if you don’t have to be strong all the time. On my 26th birthday in Bruges I had such a bad migraine that I couldn’t get up until noon. But I handed my guide book to my boyfriend and he planned our route and activities for the day.
I waited until my meds finally kicked in so I could at least walk slowly, and I followed Steffen around all day without touching a map once. It was so relieving to give up on my “vacation dictatorship” for once and just be weak for a change. And it’s the best if you have someone caring for you when you have a really shitty day.
Sharing is the deciding point for me. The things I mentioned above are all debatable, and still see why people would prefer solo travel over traveling with others. But I really want to share the things I experience with others that care. I want to share beauty, funny things, and once-in-a-lifetime sunsets.
And I’m actually convinced that’s why most solo travelers have a blog. Humans are not made for being alone and keeping everything to themselves. They have to share. And I’m pretty sure even the bravest solo travel bloggers would feel crazy lonely if they couldn’t compensate sharing the things they experience through digitally sharing them with their readers and social media followers.
On my latest trip, I uploaded way too many photos on Instagram and I was sending photos to my friends, sisters and boyfriend whenever I had wifi. I wanted to share the beauty I encountered and the potential inside jokes that no one was laughing about with me. I wanted others to join me — even when only on the screen of my phone.
But I rather prefer having someone next to me than being glued to my phone all the time. There might be people out there who are islands, who are made for solo travel — but I don’t think it is for me.
Have you traveled solo? How did you experience it?