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Winner of Contest 2006

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?

Efficiency

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.

Adventure

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:

  • Try on new roles for yourself, or live out fantasies, as a way to make the most of your time alone. This can happen entirely in your head or you can play it out like an actor researching a role or a writer developing background for their next novel.
  • Do things you don't have ready access to at home or wouldn't normally do even if it is available, especially if it is a specialty of the location you are visiting (take a hot air balloon ride, walk somewhere you would normally drive, go to an opera in Italy or a soccer game almost anywhere in Europe, etc.).

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:

  • Try ordering "to go" meals occasionally.
  • Sit at the bar where there are others eating alone.
  • Carry something to read or a journal to write in, something to focus on other than your discomfort at being alone.
  • Ask to be seated at a common table, pick restaurants where everyone sits at common tables.
  • Converse with the waiter; ask questions about the food, the neighborhood. They live there and may be willing to share insights or hints.
  • Take "half board" at a hotel or pension and dine with other guests.
  • Ask to be seated at a booth if they are available. They offer more privacy, room to spread out and the security of "walls" around you.
  • Look into room service if it is offered at your hotel; you may be surprised to learn that it doesn't cost much more than dining at a restaurant.

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.

Some suggestions:

  • Carry a dictionary and/or a phrase book with you at all times.
  • Ask someone how to say something, or pronounce something correctly, in his or her language.
  • Make a list of key words and phrases on an easily accessed index card (not as obvious to predators as pulling out your dictionary).
  • Remember that struggling to communicate can lead to some funny situations and you can meet people who might not otherwise have interacted with you.
  • All those hours of playing Charades and Pictionary will come in handy - gestures go a long way toward facilitating communication.

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.

Some suggestions:

  • Listen to your gut. If a situation doesn't feel right, get yourself out of it.
  • Planning helps many people to feel in control and, therefore, to feel safe. For example, especially at night, know the bus schedules and stops, the address of the place (or places) you are going to and the location of taxi stands before you set out.
  • Make copies (electronic and/or paper) of tickets, reservations, passport, visas, credit/debit/ATM cards in more than one place. Keep an electronic file that you can access from the Internet (e-mail it to yourself if necessary and keep in your current mail folder).
  • To minimize the down time associated with lost or delayed luggage, write down the brand, size, and color information about your luggage, and/or carry a picture of your luggage that you can match up with the examples the airline uses. Before you leave, make an itemized list of everything that is in your luggage so it will be immediately apparent if anything is missing.
  • Make a list of key names, numbers and addresses on an index card or other easily accessed medium to avoid digging around in public looking for things, and being distracted when you need to be alert to your surroundings.
  • Bring commonly used over-the-counter (OTC) medications with you, as well as band-aids. The last thing you want to be doing when you're not feeling well is dragging yourself around a strange place looking for a pharmacy and translating labels looking for a pain reliever, laxative, an anti-diarrheal, etc. This is a time when you'll really miss a travel companion if you haven't planned ahead.
  • Be doubly aware of your surroundings, check the window and door locks in your room/apartment immediately upon checking in to ensure they are in working order. Consider the layout of the hotel and ask for another room if you feel uncomfortably far from the stairs/elevator or an emergency exit. There is a lovely, major brand American hotel in Minneapolis that I refused to stay in because the design of the building results in long hallways with several turns. Many rooms are a long walk from an exit and I could not see more than a few feet behind me or in front of me, and I didn't feel safe walking "blind".
  • Particularly if you will be away for an extended period, consider renting or buying a cell phone to stay connected. Also, for those on long journeys, it's a good idea to have someone at home acting as your contact. Keep this person apprised of where you are and how you can be contacted as well as any changes in your itinerary so that if something happens your steps can be traced back. If you truly want to get away from it all, have friends and family check in with the contact person to keep tabs on you (but remember to bring your contact person a really fabulous thank-you gift.)
  • Try not to get distracted - it makes you vulnerable. Be aware of your surroundings at all times.
  • Don't drink too much. It's fun to let go of some inhibitions, that's one of the reasons we drink, but it also makes you vulnerable when you are alone.
  • Limit hiking to areas where there are other people around if help is needed.
  • Prepare ahead to drive alone - get good maps, plot your route, pull over and check as often as needed, rather than get hopelessly lost. Let other drivers pass you if you need more time to read signs and orient yourself.
  • Minimize the stuff you bring, because you've to take it with you everywhere you go (no one along to watch it while you run to the bathroom) and there's only you to hoist it up the train steps or into the overhead luggage compartment.
  • Depending on the situation, consider quietly asking for directions rather than pulling out a map.
  • Be aware of local social customs and expectations - eye contact is not always a good or welcome thing. Smiles can sometimes be misinterpreted.
  • Organize your money ahead of time, know what you have and where you put it. Leave flashy jewelry at home.
  • Many travelers report feeling more safe and secure in foreign locations than their own home city - but that may be because they just don't know enough to be afraid. Try to find a balance between fear and recklessness, between too much knowledge and not enough.
  • Language (or lack thereof) is a safety issue - write down and memorize key phrases, have them readily accessible.
  • Have an idea of how long it should take to get from your arrival point (airport, train station, marina) to your accommodations to avoid getting ripped off by unscrupulous taxi drivers.
  • Carry yourself with purpose and confidence - people tend to believe what they see.
  • Don't share too much information with strangers. In a casual conversation, there's no need to share last names, or phone numbers, your address or where you are staying. If someone gets too inquisitive too fast, back off.

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:

  • Walking tours are a good way to learn about a place and meet others - the pace is more conducive to conversation.
  • Check the SlowTrav calendar and look for others who will be in the same place at the same time, arrange a get-together.
  • Take a class - cooking, language, gardening, whatever interests you.
  • Look up and around you - don't have your nose buried in a book.
  • Wear or carry something that is unusual and may elicit comments from others.
  • Help someone else out - you often get more than you give. If you see someone who is lost, offer to share your map to help them get oriented. Strike up a conversation with those in line around you and suggest sites they may have missed or restaurants you particularly liked. Offer directions or information on public transportation if you can, or help someone figure out the ticket machine in the train station.
  • Ask for help - most people genuinely want to help each other if they can. Ask specific questions that they are likely to be able to answer ("do you know a good place near here for gelato", "where can I find inexpensive clothing", "what site has impressed you the most in this city/country", etc.)

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.

Resources

Internet sites and message boards

www.Travelaloneandloveit.com

www.cstn.org

www.solodining.com

www.Independenttraveler.com

www.sololady.com: A good source for single living, single parenting, single travel. An interactive web community for solo women.

Books

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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