If there’s one thing I can say for certain, it’s that traveling solo has been the most connecting experience I’ve had in my life. It’s given me the opportunity to share moments with hundreds of people I’d never have the chance to meet otherwise, the chance to resonate with unique cultures, ideas, belief systems, and practices I’d never be exposed to otherwise, and the blessing to make families out of once distant strangers and homes out of once foreign places. For me, these connections made possible by the go-with-the-flow-and-follow-it-deeply nature of solo travel are the most beautiful part of it. These are the stories you read about on the travel blogs you follow and the pictures you see on your friends’ Instagrams, but here’s the thing that social media doesn’t show you -
travel, especially solo travel, can also be shockingly isolating and lonely at times.
So let’s talk about that- solo travel and loneliness.
The way I see it, the “loneliness” that we can experience when traveling solo can be stripped down, summed up, and classified into two categories: solitude and disconnection.
Pure solitude. Arriving and leaving a place completely alone. Those first moments of not having any plans or company can be overwhelming, anxiety provoking, and I might even add terrifying! And those last moments- after everything is said and done, and the memories have been logged and recorded, and you are making your return to “normalcy” with no one to reflect with and help integrate these amazing experiences back into your normal life- can also be daunting and dismal. Solo travel can also sometimes mean going hours or maybe even multiple days without having anyone to talk to. Solitude. Those moments when you realize you’ve experienced more dialogue in the novel your reading than in your real life. Those moments when you realize the closest thing you’ve felt to the warmth of a hug, is the warmth of the first sip of free hotel/hostel coffee from 7-10 am in reception. Solo travel sometimes means having to face the challenges and stresses of travel completely by yourself, navigating public transportation, figuring out what to do when you’re lost, or problem solving when things don’t go according to plan. And perhaps one of the things I see challenging people the most; solo travel can also sometimes mean experiencing the incredible parts, and having no one to share them with: dining alone, taking in an amazing view alone, overcoming a fear alone, or accomplishing a challenge alone.
If all that doesn’t seem daunting enough, let’s dive into what I call type 2 loneliness:
See, while solitude can and most likely will find its way to you during your solo travel venture, the truth is, and you can ask anyone, most of the time when you’re traveling, you’re never alone at all. Chances are most of your time will be spent surrounded by people - lots of people. Whether it’s on busses, trains, or shuttles, in your 8 person hostel bedroom, homestays, free walking tours, group treks, classes, other guided activities, bars, markets, festivals- whatever your travel plans may include, I guarantee you’ll find yourself surrounded by people more often than not. But, sometimes even when we are surrounded by people we can still feel isolated and alone. When traveling, we can sometimes find ourselves amongst people of completely different cultures and languages, not really sure of how to connect. Other times we can go days, maybe even a week, having thousands of conversations with hundreds of people, and still feel like there’s just no one we really connect with. It’s only natural that this might happen as that’s the nature of constantly putting yourself in new places with new people.
So what can we do in these moments? In my experience, there are only two ways to hang with loneliness: reach out or reach within.
Reach out!! The social norms within travel culture tend to be a lot more open than in the social settings we find ourselves in in our day-to-day lives. Think about it- every other traveler is also in a new place just trying to experience as much as they can. So reach out. If you see someone going somewhere, ask to join them. If you see a group of people chatting at the hotel/hostel bar, pull up a chair. Join that class, go to that group activity- see what it feels like to put yourself out there! I promise that these things are not only common, but welcomed and even appreciated by most travelers. So while seeing a group headed out to dinner and asking if you can tag along might not be the most socially acceptable at home, it’s a completely normal social practice when traveling. In fact, chances are that group is comprised of solo travelers who reached out and asked the same question!
And if reaching out isn’t exactly working out for ya, it might be time to reach within.
Be your own best company. Build that relationship with yourself. Sit with that loneliness for a second. Embrace it, ask it what it really pines for. Then go out and get started on creating those things for yourself, by yourself, with yourself. Here is the space you need to do so. See what it feels like to take yourself out on a dinner date, or for a walk, or to a museum or a concert, or to watch the sunset, all on your own. If it sucks, sit with that, feel it, reflect on it, write about it. If it’s actually kind of cool, or relaxing, or empowering, sit with that too and reflect on that. Write, read, explore, make art, breathe, treat yo’self, whatever you do, own that solitude. This is your space. And remember: while solo traveling can be an opportunity to connect with so many amazing people, places, cultures, and ideas, it can also be an opportunity to connect with yourself, and that’s pretty amazing too.
Finally, if there’s three things I wish I knew before traveling solo it’s:
Sometimes is going to get a little lonely
it’s completely normal and temporary
it’s going to be OK
And not only is it OK and normal (and 100% something that your cool friends and those travel models on Instagram also go through), but it’s also wonderful, divine, soul food that’s going to propel you into an even more amazing version of yourself.