What Traveling Alone Is Really Like

When you look at their Instagram posts, it's easy to be jealous of your jet-setting friends. But there are grimier sides to traveling alone.

Traveling alone has a lot of perks, but it isn't as glamorous as Instagram makes it look. (Mihtiander/iStock)
Photo: Mihtiander/iStock solo travel

When I first started traveling over ten years ago, I went alone. Not because it was trendy or to “find myself,” but rather because I just didn’t have anyone else to come with me.

Nowadays you only have to scroll through Instagram for a minute before you’re inundated with perfectly posed selfies in the perfect location at the perfect time of day. These are clearly intended to send the message that solo travel is tidy, glitzy, and flawless. But those carefully crafted images aren’t real. From sleeping on airport floors with your arms wrapped around your bags to prevent them from “wandering off” to being sick without anyone to turn to, traveling alone is messy, hard, and often not the least bit glamorous. And that’s something so-called influencers don’t like to talk about. It doesn’t sell.

But every solo adventurer has to deal with these harsh realities, and knowing what to expect is much better preparation than another perfectly styled Instagram post of a first-class flatbed airplane seat the size of a canoe.

Perhaps the worst part of traveling alone is getting sick. Someone should invent an Uber Eats for doctor and pharmacy visits abroad, because it doesn’t get much worse than dragging yourself out of bed with the stomach flu to ride a scooter in search of questionable meds from someone you can’t communicate with at a dubious Southeast Asian clinic. You only suffer through that once before you build up your own mini pharmacy to cover all manner of illnesses. Plus, nothing builds new friendships like sharing your stash with a hostel buddy in desperate need of Imodium.

Another major cause of solo-travel disasters is simply not having someone to bounce your hairbrained plans off of. We all know that good decisions in our heads sometimes have no basis in reality, and that can result in such type-two fun as winging it and assuming you can sleep in a tiny rural airport two hours outside Paris. Or wandering the outskirts of the city when said airport closes and you’re stuck with nothing but a big touristy backpack and a handful of drug dealers for company. The loneliness certainly kicks in then.

While I’m a proud introvert, that loneliness can hurt. I know what you’re thinking: duh, Liz, of course solo travel gets lonesome. But I would argue that isn’t exactly true. I actually make friends and meet a lot more people traveling alone than I would otherwise. But you have to work for it, and just when I think I have this solo thing nailed down, I am slapped with another reminder of my aloneness, like when my bucket-list dream to dive with sharks required a two-guest minimum. And don’t even get me started on being single in romantic destinations like the Maldives. More than once I’ve had to toss rose petals that were artfully arranged in a heart on the bed onto the floor. At least there’s usually a whole bottle of champagne to keep me company.

For me, the loneliness usually appears when I take myself out to dinner. Surrounded by groups and couples, it’s such a social setting that you often can’t help but feel like you stand out. To keep the isolation at bay, I usually bring a book, but I also smile and make eye contact with other friendly looking patrons. You might be surprised how often people will engage a solo diner in conversation from a nearby table. Another good option is dining at the bar. It’s a magnet for solo travelers, and at the very least, bartenders are professionally chatty.

That’s a good example of how loneliness on the road is often a choice. As soon as you put yourself out there—joining a pub crawl, signing up for a cooking class or a food tour, couch surfing, or staying in a shared Airbnb or hostel—you immediately have the chance to connect with new people. Something fundamental is stripped away when you only have yourself to rely on, and I’ve found myself more able to connect with strangers. You just have to be open to it, and being lonely is the best time to force yourself out of your comfort zone, despite how hard it may seem.

That is until you’re approached by creepy men asking you all kinds of personal questions. While there are a million ways to mitigate risk, you’ll always have that cautionary voice in the back of your head warning you of danger when you find yourself alone in an uncomfortable situation. More than once I’ve had to lie, saying that my partner is in the bathroom or walking right past my hotel when I was being “helped home” by someone I’d met so he wouldn’t know where I was staying. And when my gut gives me bad vibes about a person, I don’t think twice about walking away as fast as I can.

But at the end of the day, while traveling by yourself is full of ups and downs, the peaks are far higher than the valleys, and it’s an experience that will teach you more than you can imagine. Just make sure to pack extra Imodium in case shit hits the fan. 

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