Solo travel has been a big part of my life for five years now.
Yes, Solo Traveler is five years old this week and though this fact is likely insignificant to you, it is important to me.
It causes me to pause and think about what these years have taught me. What I have learned. And what's important.
With my fifth anniversary priorities straight, I first ran a post on Monday celebrating you. After all, you have contributed so much to this blog and the solo travel community. Please read: Celebrating You! First time solo travel stories.
And now I offer some of the things I have learned about solo travel in these five years. I'm sure that to some of you these may be self-evident. For others they may be new. I hope it is an interesting read for all.
Solo travel: What I have learned about travel these past 5 years.
- No one between me and the experience makes for better memories. Traveling solo I am totally aware of every aspect of my travels because I'm responsible for every aspect of my travelers. The result: my memories are more vivid. You may want to read I Was a Lazy Traveler… until I went solo.
- Accommodation makes all the difference. Over the last five years I've stayed in high-end hotels and some pretty basic hostels and what I've learned is that my accommodation can make all the difference. Sometimes I need the former – when I'm looking for a little coddling. But other times I want a hostel because I know that I'll meet friendly people. Accommodation is so important that we crowdsourced a guide for everyone who travels solo.
- The size of a city can make a big difference: Staying in a small city rather than a large one can be less expensive as well as safer and easier to get around. People are often friendlier and you get to experience a local culture rather than that of a cosmopolitan city. For all these reasons I sometimes like to stay outside a major city. Think Girona rather than Barcelona.
- The small of a city can make a big difference: When going to a large, iconic city I think of neighborhoods as great points of entry. As places to see the real city live out its day. Think of the many unique arrondissements in Paris.
- That I can have an interesting and fun time just about anywhere. Just as I learned that small cities can be a great option to the grand, iconic cities, I've also learned that I can have a great time just about anywhere. That's where I use the Skyscanner “anywhere button” which allows me to put “anywhere” into the destination field and it gives me flights to anywhere from cheapest to most expensive.
- Arriving at night is a bad idea. I learned this lesson the hard way. On my very first solo trip, I arrived in Havana late at night. My hotel was on a pedestrian street so my taxi couldn't drop me off at the door. On top of that, the hotel had its doors closed and lights off to conserve energy. I walked right past it. If it wasn't for a security guard I may have been completely lost. Yes, now I always arrive in the daylight.
- Being a poor planner is a great weakness to have. I always have some ideas of what I want to do on a trip but I'm not a great planner and I've discovered that I like it that way. Planning light let's me adapt to new opportunities and explore on a more local level.
- Check to see if there's a Greeter programs. I didn't know about Greeter programs before I started the blog. Now I check to see if there is one before visiting any major city. Being introduced to a city by a local is a wonderful experience. See: 8 Ways to Find a Free Local Travel Guide
- There are services to connect me with locals. There are other services that connect ravelers to locals such as Meetup.com. More recently I discovered Voulez Vous Diner which is one of a few sites that will help you book a dinner in the home of a local.
- Engage people in my safety. I learned this when I was young. If you're feeling unsafe, look for help. The people you choose are likely okay whereas the people who choose you may not be. You might want to read: Solo Travel Safety: My Kind of Strangers
- Slow things down if I'm feeling unsure. It's easy to get conned when people are asking you to make decisions on unfamiliar ground quickly. If that happens, I slow down and if slow is not good for someone else, I simply walk away.
- How to cope in a foreign language. I feel comfortable in countries with Latin languages but when I was in Russia I really found language to be a barrier. When you come across bilingual signs (they were infrequent to be sure) take a photo of them so that you can study the basic words like exit, entrance etc., when you have a moment.
- Major cities always have free options. From walking tours to city museums, most major cities have free offerings for tourists. Google your city name, “free” and “tourist” to find out what's available. Since I travel more now these free and low-cost options are more important to me than ever.
- Having an automatic savings account makes for nice surprises. When I started Solo Traveler I also started a monthly auto-withdrawal from my checking account to a dedicated saving account at an online bank. Because it's at another bank I don't keep track of it carefully – only when I'm planning a trip that is beyond my normal budget. I often get a very nice surprise.
- A good price for airfare is possible. Now in this case I'm lucky to be in Canada. I always check SQM.ca before booking. They are a secret shopper service that pays back 50% of your airfare cost once you have completed the secret shopping questionnaire. For others, sign up for airfare alerts. Many of the flight search engines have them.
- Slow is better than fast. It's tempting to build a lot of travel into a short amount of time but it's not worth it. I really like basing myself somewhere and exploring from there.
- By road or rail, I need at least three nights in any place. I've learned that I need at least three nights in a city. With only two nights I only have one full day there which is not enough. I learned the hard way that you can't count a travel day as a full day in a city.
- Seeing the sights is a low priority for me. I'm more interested in the people and culture of a place than the standard sights. Yes I want to see certain iconic buildings, sculptures, etc., but I'd rather go to a small festival and mix with the people instead.
- Solo travel doesn't necessarily mean traveling alone. This I experienced in my twenties but I had no idea that it would be so easy in my fifties. I often meet up and travel with others for a period of time. What I didn't expect is that age wouldn't matter much. I've traveled with people twenty-five years my junior.
- Age really doesn't matter. Through the blog and Solo Travel Society on Facebook I've met people traveling solo well into their seventies. Really, age doesn't matter.
- Joining forces makes difficult countries easier. In India I met Penny at an ashram and we decided to travel together. It's not the we each couldn't have managed India alone but together we figured things out easily. That made it easier when I took off on my own.
- On the road you can recreate who you are. Being on your own, not defined by family and friends who expect you to act in certain ways, you get to see yourself differently and recreate who you are in smaller and larger ways.
- It takes time to re-enter home. It's not always easy to return home and get back to the normal routine. I have changed if only by degrees. I am tired whether due to jet lag or simple travel fatigue. I give myself time to get back into life.
- Home is never the same place that you left. It can't be because in your travels your perspectives have shifted if only slightly by the locals you meet, by other travelers, by seeing how challenges in your country have been resolved elsewhere.
- Not every trip is fabulous. You would hope that every trip is fun, amazing, fantastic! But it's not the case. However, I have learned that with time, even the trips that were not fabulous at the time remain with me in interesting and valuable ways.
- The travel industry in changing. Yes, when I first started Solo Traveler there was very little in the way of tours, resorts and cruises for those traveling alone. Now there are more. Not lots, but more. Sign up for the Solo Travel Advisory to get the deals we find into your inbox every month.
Solo travel: What I have learned about people.
- People are the same but different. This is certainly not an original thought but it is so true and the more I travel the more it's driven home to me. People all over the world love, laugh, hold love of children as the highest value, work hard to make a good lives for themselves, whatever that means in their context. At the same time, they walk, talk, dance, joke, work, play… differently. So fascinating.
- Don't judge a book or a person by its… When traveling I meet and talk to a wider cross-section of people than I do at home – and I learn. I learn how someone I might assume has little to say has lots of very thoughtful things to say. Slowing life down with travel, enough to meet a wider range of people, I return home knowing that those many people I don't have the time to engage with and might not expect to find interesting, likely are.
- Respect is global currency. Everyone deserves respect and treating everyone with their due makes you a great ambassador for your country and often the recipient of great kindnesses.
- People want to help. When people learn that I'm traveling solo they want to make sure that I'm okay, safe, having a good time… and they'll often go far out of their way to make it happen.
- People are hospitable everywhere. Regardless of wealth, I have found people all over the world to be generous and welcoming. From them I have learned to be more generous and welcoming.
Solo travel: What I have learned about the world.
- The evening news is a bad source of travel information. How a country is presented on the news does not necessarily reflect what is actually happening in that country. Sometimes it does. But most times unrest is much less than described to sell papers or catch viewers. It's important to be careful but it's also important to find other sources of information. And even where unrest is reported in a country, it's quite possible that some parts of that country are quite safe.
- Other travelers are a great source of information. As I travel and explore a country I also meet other travelers and often hang with them for a while. Talking to them about their home country, seeing the country we're exploring through their eyes and culture, I learn not just about my destination but about the homes of every person I talk to.
- Everyone is proud of their homeland. Wealthy or poor, living in an area that is stable or rife with unrest, every person I have ever met is proud of their culture. They may have problems with their country, its politics and history but they are proud of their culture and where they come from.
Solo travel: What I have learned about myself.
- I'm more capable than I thought. This is always my first answer when someone asks me what solo travel does for me.
- Age doesn't matter. In fact my age is an advantage. I can go to hostels and high-end hotels and always feel at home.
- Solo travel doesn't have to mean independent travel. Five years ago I thought it did but in writing the blog I've had to give real thought as to what solo travel means. In my mind it means leaving behind those who define you on a daily basis.
- I am a patient person. When things go wrong I don't fret. When I'm struggling with how to connect with a place and its people I relax, take a seat, watch, learn. What I want out of solo travel all comes in time and that's okay by me.
Solo travel: What I have learned about life.
- Eleanor Roosevelt was right. “You must do the things you think you cannot do.” What a challenge to offer. What a mantle to wear. But isn't it wise. By traveling, by learning, by stretching oneself we grow as individuals and can therefore contribute more.
- Enriching oneself enriches others. Travel is an enriching experience. All that is learned, the enthusiasm gained for other cultures, recipes brought home, art on your wall… all that you bring home opens avenues to discussions that continue the enrichment gained on the trip and enriches all those engaged in the conversation as well.
- People respect people who travel solo. It's interesting to me how people respond to the fact that I travel solo. You will find the same. People respect those who travel alone. They seem them as strong and capable.
- The meaning of life is still elusive. The number 42 is still as good an answer as any (Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy).