I have been dying to get out-of-town for a few weeks now. Last week, we were SO close, but were bumped from the plane to Toronto after a previous flight was delayed. The rest of the long weekend I kept on thinking this is great but I could be in Canada. There are a lot of reasons that plans don’t work out, and sometimes the time is right to hit the road alone. Maybe your friends are flakes. Maybe your spouse just isn’t into it, but life is short and traveling helps you grow.
I remember the first time that I traveled by myself. It was a road trip. I had just wrapped up a semester in college. My group of friends had made plans to go out to the Appalachian Mountains and do some hiking and rent out a cabin. We had spit out the idea over a couple of bottles of wine on the last Friday of classes, and I thought that we were good as gone. The next day, one called and said that her head hurt. She was out. Another texted me saying “I forgot but I start my job on Tuesday. SORRY.” Two other friends dropped out (because of the loss of momentum, I think) and then here I was, SUPER excited for a trip that wasn’t going to happen. So I thought it through. Anyone else want to go? Maybe this was a sign not to go at all? Maybe I ought to go it alone.
I filled the gas tank of my ten-year old car and threw a bunch of clothes into a laundry basket. I grabbed a bottle of two buck chuck for good measure and made off down the interstate toward Chicago. I ditched my mountain plans and considered the road an opportunity. I had 6 days.
This is what I learned:
Eating alone can feel really unnatural when you are traveling. Unless you are eating out of a cooler or camping, you don’t have a lot of options other than eating at a restaurant. This is ok! And don’t hesitate to eat in restaurants. They often are a big part of the trip! If you are feeling social, or want the opportunity to talk to strangers in the new place, go to a restaurant with a bar or counter. People tend to be open to chit-chat, and at the very least, the bartender will be willing to talk. This is a great opportunity to ask “regulars” who are local about the city are in. If you aren’t in the mood to chat, bring a magazine, book, or newspaper. No one will bother you. If solo restaurant dining isn’t your thing, street food, food-trucks, and farmers markets are great places to pick up on the local culture without feeling isolated. Twitter and Thrillest are great ways to plan to eat local.
Sleeping alone is often the trickiest part of traveling alone. Most hotels charge you for a built-in rate assuming a double occupancy. There is little you can do about this in a lot of US cities. But the market is growing for options. One option is a hostel. Hostels are more popular in Europe and Asia than the USA, but they are starting to pick up. I have stayed in a world-class hostel in New Orleans for under $30 and have recommended it to friends! Hostels are inexpensive and a great place to hide in a crowd. Airbnb has emerged since I was on my trip as the best way to stay as a single. You can either rent a room or an entire flat. This is a really affordable and convenient way to find something if you are planning ahead or tripping spontaneously.
Being alone doesn’t have the stigma that it used to. Most people I know feel very comfortable going it alone for a whole day driving in a car, going to work, shopping, or running errands. In some ways, this is the area where I think travelers need to exercise the most caution and feel a little less comfortable. Letting loose and having a little too much to drink, or trusting someone who seems really nice can backfire huge. So I say ALWAYS USE YOUR GUT: If your radar goes off, listen to it—no matter who sets it off. A really nice woman who comes off as a little pushy might be the pickpocket, not a man with a pistol. If someone is just a little off, trust it. Who cares if you offend them by ditching out? You will never have to see them again. ADJUST YOUR SCHEDULE to be safe. If you feel uncomfortable going out at night, don’t force it. Instead, sight-see during the day, make lunch your biggest meal, and turn in early. Men and women should avoid walking home at night. Just try to think about how tomorrow is going to be so much better without being mugged or assaulted. It will keep you from feeling FOMO. AVOID FLIRTS. I was advised about this when I was 18 and working in a restaurant, wear a small wedding band. It sounded really stupid to me, until I realized that people can be animals. Latin countries, Mediterranean, and some Asian countries’ norms are different from ours, and unwanted attention can be difficult to shake. I don’t want to overstate this, but it can just feel safer to be “off the market” when you are traveling, awful as it is.
Thriving alone is the thing I learned to do for the first time on that trip East. Being in the moment, alert to the sights and sounds because you are in thought and silence helps you to grow. I love traveling with friends and family because it gives me an opportunity to learn more about them. But traveling alone gave me the opportunity to learn more about myself. I learned to use a subway, I learned that it’s easier for me to ditch a car in a public parking lot than to worry about it. I learned that I lean toward eating less fried food and more fresh foods when I travel alone. I learned that I don’t like to sleep in on trips because given the opportunity to get one more hour of sleep or to see what Baltimore is like in the morning, I choose getting out.
OH AND DON’T FORGET THE SELFIE STICK!