Traveling alone can be intimidating because it demands that you get to know yourself better.
The customs officer at the Copenhagen airport wearily looked up at me from my worn USA passport. Holding the stamp in her left hand, she glanced at the line of antsy travelers behind me and asked, “Are you by yourself?”
“What are you doing in Copenhagen by yourself?”
“Well, I’m actually on my way to Budapest; this is just a layover. I’ll be traveling to a few European cities over the course of the next few days.”
She raised an eyebrow. “Alone? No friends? No family?”
I gave her a perfectly rehearsed rendition of my abridged explanation. Giving me one last pointed look, she mechanically stamped my passport and slid it through the slotted glass partition.
“Be careful,” she noted, as I made my way past her booth and towards the next gate.
Having been on eight different flights to six different cities in the past five days (yeah, my itinerary is slightly crazy), I’ve gotten quite accustomed to this discourse with the customs officers I’ve encountered. Iterations of their same question (Why would you want to travel alone?) and simplifications of my same answer (I’ll be delving into this more). It got to the point where I tried to crack a joke after the last officer emphatically asked about my not having any traveling companions (my sarcastic remark was something along the lines of, I don’t like people very much). Unfortunately, he did not find it funny. At all.
But it’s not just customs officers that ask about it. A Croatian fellow I grabbed drinks with pointed out that in his country, people rarely traveled alone for pleasure, especially women.
“Aren’t you scared?” He playfully pivoted his glass bottle of Ožujsko on the ceramic table.
“Of what?” I scoffed.
“I dunno…being by yourself? And in another country too, where you don’t speak the language.” He proceeded to make fun of how I had butchered the pronounciation of Ožujsko previously (oh-joy-skow, not oh-zoo-juh-skow).
Rolling my eyes, I countered, “Okay, maybe ordering a beer is a bit tricky, but I’d like to think that I can figure other more essential things out, especially with the help of my best friend, Google.”
“Fair. But what about being alone? Aren’t you lonely?”
“Well, I’m talking to you at this moment, right? Doesn’t feel lonely to me. Also, being alone isn’t the same as being lonely. You should try it sometime.”
Grinning while shaking his head, he raised his beer for another toast. “Maybe I will,” he noted, as we clinked glasses.
I decided to travel alone on a whim. A couple of close friends and I had tossed out the idea of backpacking around Europe, and due to scheduling differences, it turned out that the first leg of my journey would be a solo trip. I recall the moment I booked flight tickets for myself: the slight adrenaline rush after pressing “Confirm Order,” the thrill from committing the itinerary into my memory, the delight from not telling my parents about my decision (Yes, that’s correct, I didn’t tell them I’d be traveling alone because had I done so, I wouldn’t be traveling at all. And no, I do not condone such behavior for others).
So let’s get to the basic questions.
Aren’t you afraid of being by yourself as a woman? I wouldn’t say I’m afraid. Cautious, yes. Observant, definitely. But scared? No. And I think it’s incredibly important to not look timid or shy when traveling alone. I’m a huge proponent of the “fake it till you make it” attitude when I’m out by myself. If you don’t look like a lost and vulnerable tourist, people will be less likely to assume that you are a lost and vulnerable tourist. Do your research beforehand, figure out how to blend in, and don’t look timid. A lot of it is common sense, really.
Isn’t eating alone at restaurants awkward? Nope, not if you don’t make it awkward. Most of the fear of eating alone comes from our own magnified perceptions of ourselves. What if people notice me? Will they think I’m a loser? Better break out my iPhone and pretend to furiously text someone. In all honesty, nobody really gives a shit. As someone who is an unabashed foodie as well, eating alone really gives me the chance to enjoy and savor what I’m eating, rather that just shoveling bites in between sentences. And when I’m in another country with its own unique cuisine, I want to take advantage of the opportunity to truly taste the food.
How do you meet people? Hostels are by far one of the best ways to meet fellow travelers. I’ve met people from all corners of the world: an art student from Ecuador, a couple from Australia, an banker from Holland, a graphic designer from Amsterdam. Typically, the hostel traveler is a solo traveler, so most of the people you room with are genuinely interested in striking up a conversation and meeting you as well. Depending on your hostel, it might have community activities organized for its residents, such as pub crawls or pancake nights.
Do you go out alone? Personally, I don’t go out by myself; I prefer going out with a new friend that I’ve gotten to know, or joining one of those organized pub crawls that some hostels host. As a woman, I often feel like I have to be extra careful, which is an unfortunate reality for many of us. But use your judgment, double check online to make sure the clubs/bars aren’t sketchy, and stick with a pal!
Any other tips?
- Put the earbuds away. I get it — having your own daily, life soundtrack is fun, but listening to that album you’ve already heard 142 times only distracts you from being present during your travels. Listen to the rush of the city, or the stillness of the countryside. Hear and digest the aural ambience of the town that you’re exploring. Also, as a general safety precaution, don’t blast music while walking through a busy city; who knows if you’ll get honked at for *jaywalking inappropriately? *Me.
- Ask questions. Don’t be shy. Especially if you have no idea what to do or where to go. Worst case scenarios: they ignore you or give you a bad answer. Best case scenario: you make a new friend and also gain insight!
- Walk as much as you can. Not just because you’ll probably be eating all of the wonderful, new foods in the area. Walk so you can get a close-up view of your surroundings, so you can soak in all the little details that you’d miss if you took an Uber or bus. What do the storefronts look like? What texture is the road? What do the people around you look like?
- Take it easy. The one thing I don’t understand is when people resort to stressing out during their travels. Sure, not everything is going to go according to plan, but that’s part of the fun of it all, right? And speaking of plans…
- Don’t plan excessively. I’ve met people who plan their trips down to the hour, and that just seems crazy to me. Do you really want to feel constantly hectic since you’re trying so hard to stick to your schedule? Plus, that’s just the perfect recipe for burning out during your trip. If you don’t feel like trekking out to a tourist trap at 8:00pm because you feel tired and hangry, then don’t. Don’t pressure yourself to do everything. Make sure you’re having fun.
Those are my general tips for traveling alone! Everyone is different, and has different preferences, so make sure you have a clear understanding of what you prefer when you venture solo. Traveling alone can be intimidating because it demands that you get to know yourself better. But that’s what makes it beautiful and rewarding. Some of the introspective moments I’ve had on my own adventures have become some of my fondest memories. I definitely would not be the person I am today without them.
This article was originally published on Medium.