Travelling solo had always been something I’d wanted to do, but rather like climbing Kilimanjaro, running a marathon or learning how to change a fuse, I had repeatedly filed it away under ‘sometime in the future’. I have enough friends who like going away as much I do, I’ve only ever had to decide where I want to go, ask a few people, and found myself with a travel buddy. So if I hadn’t been forced to go away by myself last December, I might never have taken that first solo trip. I’d booked to go to Copenhagen with a ‘friend’ but had a blazing row (the red wine stain on my living room ceiling is testament to how blazing) the weekend before we were due to go. I tried to find someone else to come with me, but everyone I asked already had weekend plans, so I took a deep breath and decided to just go on my own. And I loved every single minute of it. This Spring I went on my second solo weekend away to Stockholm, and I’m now planning a much longer solo trip.
I don’t think I was ever worried that I wouldn’t be able to cope practically travelling by myself. I’m usually the leader in travel groups, making most of the decisions about where to go and what to do, and I think I’m pretty good at taking care of myself. My mum said that she was really pleased I was going to India with Joe as he could look after me, and while it certainly made things easier travelling with a guy, we looked after each other. But I was worried that I wouldn’t enjoy it. Travelling is so expensive that I didn’t want to spend a lot of money on something and not like it. I was worried I would feel lonely and that I wouldn’t get the most out of places. So I vividly remember the moment in Copenhagen when I realised that I wasn’t just travelling solo, I was actually really enjoying doing so. It was during my first day, and I was walking along the side of the lake to lunch at Radio, a restaurant I was very excited about as it was to be my first taste of New Nordic cuisine. It was freezing cold and there was a light drizzle falling, yet despite this there was an icy quality to the light that made everything look bright and fresh. I realised how calm and relaxed I felt, vastly different from the previously stressed and anxious few weeks, and that I was simply happy. Not in an elated way, but in a quiet, content, this is good, sort of way.
Why I love travelling solo:
1) When away I like getting up and out early. If you add up all the minutes I have spent, ready, waiting in a hotel room for another person to get their act together and get dressed, it would be, well, a very long time. The best part of a day in a city is always the morning, and I like getting to the main attractions before the coaches descend. Not all my travel partners have felt the same way, and have often made me feel guilty, or weird, for wanting to leave early. So it was a revelation on my first morning in Copenhagen to be out of my hotel and on the hunt for decent coffee within an hour of waking.
2) I love the freedom of being able to decide what I want to do, and not having to take anyone else’s preferences into account. I walk a lot, and like seeing as much as I can – friends in the past haven’t always been able to keep up!
3) I love being able to eat five cinnamon buns a day if I so desire (I’m not saying that I did, but, well, yeah, I did) and of being able to walk a good 20 minutes out of my way just to find a really excellent one.
4) I love being able to sit in a coffee shop and read my book uninterrupted, and know that if I want to stay just a bit longer and finish it, I can.
5) I love spending my money on what I want to spend it on and nothing else. If you are with someone and they want to do an activity you often have to do it too, even if it’s not top of your list.
6) I love being able to make mistakes, to take the wrong bus or go to the wrong Copenhagen Design Museum (there are TWO with very similar names), and not be judged or feel guilty for adversely affecting someone else’s day.
7) Meeting people. On both solo trips I met far more people than I usually would. Locals. Other tourists. Waiters. People on business. Retired couples. I knew if I wanted to have contact with people I had to make an effort and start conversations, so I did. And it paid off.
8) I love knowing that the success of a trip is down to me, and me alone. It is not dependent on my relationship with someone or if they are in a good mood or not. There is something very pure about travelling on your own; it is just about you and the place, nothing else. And when you experience somewhere for the first time your reaction is only yours, it’s untainted by anyone else’s gripes or opinions.
9) I didn’t think I would ever say this, but I love eating alone. Before Copenhagen it was the one thing I was most anxious about. I’d booked a couple of really nice restaurants and I didn’t want to not go just because I would be on my own. They turned out to be two of the best meals of my life, and at least part of that is because I was able to fully taste every single mouthful. It’s much easier to concentrate on what you are eating when you’re not making conversation with someone else.
10) But most of all I love who I am when I go away by myself – friendly and inquisitive, keen to chat to people and make the most of every minute, independent and comfortable in my own skin and company. I’m proud that I have travelled solo. When I tell people that I went somewhere by myself so many say, ‘Oh, I’d love to do that’, and then list a variety of reasons why they haven’t. So don’t be one of those people – do it!
So while I can’t profess to be an experienced solo traveller, here is what I have learnt about enjoying it so far. This is not a practical guide to travelling solo, there are plenty of those, and some that offer some really good safety advice, it’s more about how to make the most of it.
How to enjoy travelling solo:
1) A lot of people worry what others will think of them being by themselves. The most important thing I have learnt is to act comfortable and happy, even if you are not quite there yet, and people will respond to you in kind. If you act nervous and apologetic for being by yourself then people will treat you as if it is something to be embarrassed about, if you don’t, then they won’t.
2) If you find yourself feeling lonely, check that you are actually feeling lonely, and not just worrying about feeling lonely. This might sound odd, but I’ve caught myself doing it a number of times, and each time realised that I was perfectly fine, I’d just sort of assumed I should be feeling lonely rather than actually feeling it.
3) Take lots of books and magazines. Obvious I know, but I refuse to believe you are ever alone if you have a good book in your hand. Magazines are easier to dip in and out of in-between courses at a restaurant.
4) Think carefully about your hotel. If you want to meet people then choose somewhere that is likely to have other people of a similar age staying in it, and definitely nowhere that is described as ‘romantic’ (nothing kills a solo travel buzz quicker than being surrounded by entwined couples). Look for somewhere that has communal areas you can sit and have a cup of coffee or a drink in, that is easy to get to and from the main sights, and that is safe to get back to at night.
5) Smile at people. Start conversations. If you are on your own for a long time then even a five minute conversation can give you the boost of human interaction that you do occasionally need. Ask waiters about the food. Ask locals to recommend their favourite coffee shops to you. Ask people to take your photo and offer to take theirs. Ask for directions. Comment on the book someone is reading. Ask someone to watch your bag when you go to the loo and then thank them when you return. There are so many ways to start chatting to people, and it is the one skill that I am most pleased to have learnt, and one that I am now trying to employ more often in London.
6) Start small like I have done with a couple of weekends away. Use them to build up your confidence, and figure out how you like travelling best, before going on a longer solo trip.
7) Do what you want. The whole fun of travelling alone is that you can do exactly what you want, when you want, and don’t feel like you have to live up to anyone else’s expectations. One night in Stockholm I got back to my hotel about 8.30 after an early supper, got into bed and watched Buffy on Netflix for an hour and a half before going to sleep. It was wonderful.
8) Unless you meet people, or are very brave, then you probably won’t get to see much of the nightlife of places. But if you do want to sample it then try going to bars before supper, they are much less intimidating around 6 or 7pm than they are later on. That said, don’t drink too much. You are very vulnerable after even a couple, and even more so without someone to watch your back.
9) In restaurants ask for a table in the corner, or if they have a bar then ask to be seated there.
10) Book a tour. They are a great way to meet people. I did a fantastic one, Bike with Mike, in Copenhagen, and loved chatting to people on it, and then going my own way at the end.
11) One quick tip safety wise, trust your instincts. I actually think I am safer on my own, as if I feel uncomfortable I can extract myself from a situation, and not have to go along with it because my friend is convinced it’s ok. Don’t worry about being rude if someone is making you feel nervous, they’ll get over it.
So has does anyone have any other tips for enjoying travelling solo?