Travel slowly, staying in vacation rentals (villas, farms, cottages, apartments)
Slow & Solo - The (almost) Guilt Free Travel Alternative
Ellen Singer (EllenS)
Acknowledgement: Thank you to all the Slow Travelers who took the time to share their insights and experiences with me as I developed these notes. You enrich my travel regularly on the both the main site and the message board, and I appreciate your willingness to both pay back and, at times, pay it forward.
My first trip to Italy, in October 2001, was also my first time traveling alone internationally. Although I'd often traveled within the United States and Canada on my own, it was usually for my job and, therefore, I had specific objectives to accomplish, places to go and people to meet with. I'd only traveled on my own for pleasure on a couple of occasions, and then for only a few days at a time.
That first trip to Italy was an eye opener for me. I discovered that I enjoy travel alone as much as with others. I learned that while I do have boundaries, they are broader, higher and more flexible than I thought. I realized that the same things that had been holding me back from trying solo travel were, in fact, among the most freeing aspects of it. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I returned home understanding myself a little better, with enhanced self-confidence and the willingness and desire to push myself even harder the next time.
I've talked with many solo travelers over the past several months to learn why they strike out on their own and what they have learned from their experiences. Although their backgrounds, ages and nationalities are different, some common themes emerged.
Why Travel Alone?
From the practical to the whimsical, there are a variety of reasons to travel solo. Sometimes it comes down to a choice between going alone or not going at all, because you have more time or money to devote to travel than your companions do, or because a spouse has died or a relationship ended, or because your interests, desired destination or style of travel doesn't appeal to others as much as it does to you. Whatever the reason, what is it that we get from traveling alone that is different from traveling with others?
Most of us have limited time and money for travel, and going alone allows us to focus precious resources on the things that are most important to us. For example, a full service hotel is a must for some, while others prefer to save money on accommodations in order to spend more on meals, or transportation, or other priorities. It seems inevitable that when we vacation there are more things we want to see and do than there is time to accomplish them. Compromise, by definition, requires giving up some personal needs or desires to find common ground with others.
Traveling solo doesn't solve the "too much to do, not enough time" problem, but it does mean that everything you do is what you want, and you set the priorities. Removing the distractions caused by companions, however pleasant they may be, enables the solo traveler to maximize their time, money and enjoyment. According to Bill Thayer of Chicago, Illinois, "when we travel with others, our social side takes over; we talk to each other about various things. This detracts from our concentration on what we're seeing" and, as Bill points out, we can talk with these same friends "at considerably less expense and trouble at home." Furthermore, when traveling solo our reactions to what we see and do are ours alone, uncolored by the responses and opinions of others.
Freedom & Flexibility
Traveling alone means you get to make the schedule, set the pace, and change everything whenever you want, for any reason at all (or for no reason at all). You can be responsive to opportunities that arise more easily than you can when there are other people to consider.
The first time she spent time alone while traveling, Dorothy K., a Slow Traveler from Vermont, said "I spent quite a bit of time on my own and got into the habit of taking long walks all over the city, savoring the air and the sounds and the light in a way that is quite different from the experience you have with a companion. I also got addicted to discovering the unknown around the next corner and allowing myself to follow a ray of sun wherever it led me."
There is also the pleasure of just being out of touch for a while. Most of us live very connected lives; between cell phones, pagers, fax machines, handheld e-mail devises and lightweight laptops, it's often nearly impossible to just "get lost" for a while. A little bit of isolation can be a welcome break.
Some solo travelers say they are often more willing to try something new when they are alone than when they are with people who know them. Some believe it's less stressful to risk being wrong or making a fool of themselves when no one they know is watching. Others feel so restricted by the expectations or needs of friends and family that they find themselves avoiding the very adventures that enticed them to travel in the first place ("what if I got injured doing this - who would look after my children while I received help?").
Experienced solo travelers suggest:
Accomplishment Without Guilt
One of the greatest gifts of solo travel is the absence of guilt. No matter what happens, you're not responsible for ruining anyone else's trip or wasting their time or money. Your choices, good, bad or indifferent, impact only you. Your successes are yours alone, your failures as well.
You discover strengths in yourself that you never knew you had. Inevitably, at some point in your first solo journey, you face at least one of your fears and work through it. The sense of accomplishment and self-confidence you gain from that is invaluable.
Traveling alone is the ultimate self-indulgence; I do what I want to do, when I want to do it, how I want to do it and for as long as I want to do it. I can turn on the lights or the television in the middle of the night and not worry about disturbing anyone else. I can eat in bed, skip a meal, or keep going when others would quit - and I'm not infringing on anyone else in the process.
Lessons Learned about Solo Travel
Attitude is what stops people, not logistics or practicalities. The details can be planned for those who prefer planning, or they will fall into place for those who prefer more spontaneity. There are high cost and low cost alternatives. A trip can be as short as a weekend or as long as you want. With rare exceptions, the particulars don't make or break the experience, attitude does. Even when bad things happen, the way you deal with it can make the difference between a mere hiccup and an entirely failed experience.
Even more important than attitude, however, is self-understanding. When you are relying entirely on yourself, it is critical that you know what you like and dislike, what you fear, and what you need to feel safe, fulfilled and happy.
"My work demands a lot of highly concentrated interaction with other people", the focus is on "meeting the needs of the other person and not using the interaction to meet my own needs." By contrast, "doing things by myself where I have only my own needs to meet is very relaxing." Gedlin, a Slow Traveler from Pennsylvania.
Common sense can carry you a long way in the world. Dorothy K quotes an Arab proverb: "trust in God, but keep your camel tied." Particularly in the area of personal security, trusting your gut is often your best defense. Yes, try new things and have adventures, but keep in mind that when you travel alone there's no one watching your back. Develop and honor your instincts about people and situations.
Eating alone was the most frequently mentioned aspect of solo travel in my conversations with fellow Slow Travelers. Several pointed out that it can be more difficult to get good service in a restaurant when alone. Unless you are an unusually hearty eater the server is virtually guaranteed a lower bill, and commensurately lower tip, than a table for two or more. You can try chatting with the waiter, engaging them in some way, but you may not win them over.
Many also noted the discomfort of being stared at, but people aren't watching you as much as you think they are. They're much more likely to be thinking about themselves than you, since most of us are pretty self-absorbed. If they are thinking about you, it's just as likely that they are envying your solo status and self-confidence as feeling sorry for you because you are alone.
Some suggestions for beating the eating alone blues include:
Language skills, even very basic words and phrases, are more important for the solo traveler precisely because they have no one else to fall back on. Also, as a solo traveler you stand a better chance of learning a new language. "You never learn a new language by speaking your own", says Bill Thayer. When we travel with companions, we tend to speak our own language. Alone, we're more apt to try the language of the place we are visiting, whether out of necessity, or because we feel freer with no one we know to see/hear our mistakes.
Solo travelers mentioned safety and security, both physical and emotional, as often as eating alone. The best advice is to look for the best in people and situations but prepare for the worst.
One of the best aspects of traveling solo is the opportunity to meet people that you probably would not if traveling with companions. Some thoughts on how to encourage this:
Downsides, and how to overcome them
A few last thoughts about the most frequently mentioned issues that solo travelers face.
Sharing the Experience: The desire to share a particular experience with someone else (a meal, a view, etc.). "Keeping a journal and taking photographs helps to share the details later." Colleen, SlowTrav moderator.
Cost: The cost and, sometimes, small size of single hotel rooms. Research and negotiate, try other alternatives like convents, pensions, B&Bs. For size issues, consider paying a little more for a "double room for single use".
Loneliness: First, know that it will pass. "It helps to go out and mingle, whether it be to a cafe, or a restaurant, or a park, or a grocery store." Holly D., Slow Traveler from Reno, Nevada. If you are an animal lover, keep treats in your pocket to make new acquaintances (Dorothy K). Research ahead of time and know where there are bars or other businesses that cater to your countrymen (Irish bars in NYC, for example, or an American-style diner in Paris, God forbid).
Anxiety: Being responsible for everything with no relief in sight can be tiring. Keep things as simple as possible: "I pack light, I don't create a convoluted itinerary, and I don't over schedule my days." Colleen, ST moderator
Planning ahead overcomes a number of potential problems and safety issues, and provides options to choose from.
Internet sites and message boards
www.sololady.com: A good source for single living, single parenting, single travel. An interactive web community for solo women.
Thalia Zepatos, "A Journey of One's Own"
Deanna G. Wolff, "The Girl's Guide to Traveling Solo"
Eleanor Berman, "Traveling Solo"
Lea Lane, "Solo Traveler: Tales and Tips for Great Trips"
Sharon Wingler, "Travel Alone & Love It: A Flight Attendant's Guide to Solo Travel"
© Ellen L. Singer, 2005
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