Picture a solo traveler. Who do you see? A bronzed, gangly 20-something single male in a misshapen vest and board shorts? Well, the times are changing. In recent years, there’s been a shift in the demographic of solo travelers to incorporate a growing number of women, people in committed relationships, and over 45s. The overall number is also increasing: one in four people ventured out alone on their last overseas trip. The stigma of doing things alone appears to be evaporating slowly, and not just in the world of travel: Open Table, the online table restaurant reservation service, has reported a 62% increase in tables for one over the past few years.
What’s driving this trend towards solo travel?
Broad societal and technological developments underpin the growth in solo travel. People are getting married and having children later, affording them more time in their twenties for footloose travel. The demands and opportunities of our professional lives have also evolved. Complex work schedules make it more difficult to coordinate with friends to arrange a trip. Many jobs have become independent of concrete locations and can be carried out remotely, whether in a beachside hostel or a downtown boutique hotel. Travel has also become easier: cheap short-haul flights and online bookings enable a high degree of spontaneity, and the popularity of bespoke trips abroad has increased. All these factors make it easier to tailor travel to the whim of the individual.
Finally, with the advent of social media, one is never truly alone. The loneliness the prospective solo traveler fears can be allayed, at least partially, by a free WhatsApp call home, or a few friends’ comments under a Facebook photo. Experiences can be shared — filtered and in real-time — with everyone back home, as well as with complete strangers who are willing to admire and reinforce one’s adventurousness. What’s more, platforms like Instagram and SnapChat actively encourage us to develop a narrative of ourselves as an individual, plotting our route through life by way of the people we meet and the places we go.
Whether you’re an avid Instagrammer or not, travelling alone can be an immensely enriching, liberating experience. Here are five reasons why everyone should try it.
1. The logistics of travel become simpler
There are some optimal times to travel in life: in retirement, just after school or, if you choose to head for college or university education, in those wondrously long breaks. During these periods it can be relatively easy to find someone to travel with you as you all adhere to a similar schedule. After these years, however, career and family responsibilities pick up, and opportunities to share an extended trip abroad begin to dwindle.
Travelling alone enables you to err on the egocentric with your plans: you can tick off your bucket list entries as quickly or slowly (why did I put skydiving at number 5?!) as you like, decide on your own itinerary and extend your stay in your favorite places, and there’s no need to balance someone else’s budget, or worry about compromising on your own.
2. Your comfort zone will become much more spacious
The subversive French author Michel Houellebecq describes a scene to which you may be able to relate. His protagonist is about to embark on a trip, alone, when he is afflicted by a sudden case of the jitters: “An immense aversion to the voyage, an imperious need to remain calm washed over me.” Travel can be unnerving, especially when you do it on your own. But this feeling is almost impossible to decouple from the sense of anticipation and invigoration that comes with venturing into the new and unknown, and feeding and satisfying our innate curiosity.
“Sometimes I wonder if it’s a biological need, perhaps a biological flaw, that compels me to seek the excitement and challenge that comes of being in a place where nobody knows me.” (Rita Golden Gelman)
Houellebecq goes on: “In the beginning the solitary traveller meets with scorn, even hostility. Then, little by little, people get used to him … and dismiss him as a harmless eccentric.” Here, he may be referring to the spotlight effect — the belief that one’s actions are under much more scrutiny than they actually are, and often assume negative inferences from their “observers.” Research has shown that the inhibitory impact of the spotlight effect is heightened when alone, which results in people refraining from participating in indulgent, pleasurable experiences. One of the first tasks of the solo traveler is to overcome this.
“Wandering is the activity of the child, the passion of the genius; it is the discovery of the self, the discovery of the outside world, and the learning of how the self is both at one with and separate from the outside world.” (Roman Payne)
The heightened sensitivity to your surroundings encourages introspection. Without the familiarity of your normal physical and social surroundings, you begin to become intensely aware of the strength of context on your personality. Novelty becomes the new normal, and you find yourself more prepared to enter situations you may never have considered at home, whether that be a tango class in Buenos Aires, a singalong at a German Schlager concert, or simply attempting a conversation in a foreign language with your taxi driver.
3. You’ll make friends and influence people
It’s not only the situations which are novel — the people are too. Just because you’re travelling alone doesn’t mean you stop hankering after the company of others. We’re social animals. To satiate our need for social contact, we open ourselves up to the serendipity of encounters with strangers, sometimes out of desperation, sometimes because we’re on a roll, sometimes because we’re enjoying the liberation of anonymity; and other times, I’m sure, for entirely different reasons. We prop up bars and start conversations which naturally skip the awkward platitudes and go straight to what you really think of the country you’re in. These conversations are fleeting, but they can still be meaningful. They can include a recommendation for a place you would otherwise never visit, or a cultural insight that may be banal to your interlocutor, but eye-opening to you.
If you’re alone, you’ll also benefit from the locals’ inference that you’re travelling out of a genuine interest in the formative act of travel and the country you’re in, rather than simply boozing your way down the coast with your buddies. This inference turns you into an object of interest for the locals, and they’ll no doubt ask you for your impressions of their country — which might mean you should brush up on the language before you go.
4. You’ll become more independent
The heightened gregariousness of the solo traveler is a kind of survival mechanism. Even if you feel inhibited and tend to avoid social contact with the locals, at some point you’ll inevitably require their help for something, whether it be checking into a hotel, asking for directions, or ordering food.
Traversing a few linguistic barriers and overcoming a bit of social awkwardness is just the beginning though. If you take the backpacker-on-a-budget approach to travel, you’ll have to lug around your entire life with you everywhere you go, navigate unfamiliar and (sometimes) unreliable transportation networks, and nourish yourself without resorting to the local McDonald’s, all the while trying to make sure you’re having fun. When you return to the routine familiarity of your homeland, you may find the pace of life slower than you remember, and the daily tasks that you once perceived as mountains will have become molehills.
Much more significant than the practical independence gained through travel, however, is the independence of thought. As the philosopher Alain de Botton says:
“It seemed an advantage to be travelling alone. Our responses to the world are crucially moulded by the company we keep, for we temper our curiosity to fit in with the expectations of others … Being closely observed by a companion can also inhibit our observation of others; then, too, we may become caught up in adjusting ourselves to the companion’s questions and remarks, or feel the need to make ourselves seem more normal than is good for our curiosity.”
5. You’ll stop fetishising work
Back in the 1930s, the economist John Maynard Keynes reckoned we’d all be enjoying fifteen hour work weeks by now as a result of technological innovation and automation. And yet we live in a world where, at the time of writing, politicians are winning power in our advanced Western democracies on the promise that they’ll increase working hours and up the age of retirement. This is what people want. Whether you regard this as progress or not, for most of us, work is an indelible introduction to our identity, and disentangling oneself from it can be arduous. How are you going to answer the inevitable question, “And what do you do?” if you don’t have a job?
For those taking a break from work to travel, this may constitute a very real challenge. A wise step may be to odd-job your way around a country or a continent and learn one of those delightfully universal skills with which you can travel, whether that be cutting hair, working as a hostel receptionist or a surf instructor. Perhaps you’ll uncover a hitherto concealed passion, learn a language and change the course of the rest of your life. Or perhaps you’ll just have a bloody nice time.
“I learn best and most happily by doing, touching, sharing, tasting. When I’m somewhere I’ve never been before, learning goes on all day, every day.” (Rita Golden Gelman)
Now you know the reasons why you should travel alone, you’ll need some destinations. Here are the top 6 destinations for solo travel. And here are all the things you should consider before embarking on your trip, courtesy of the splendid people over at Intrepid Travel.