Solo travel is mind-expanding, confidence-boosting, personal growth-promoting, fun, and exciting.
But let’s be real: there are times when it can also be stressful.
It’s not necessarily any more difficult than traveling with others, there are just some aspects that are challenging in different ways. I asked the 250,000 members of the Solo Travel Society, our awesome Facebook community for their thoughts on what stresses them out when they travel. According to these veteran travelers, they face 5 major challenges.
We have solutions for all of them to help you enjoy stress-free solo travel.
Managing Luggage and Other Belongings
Whether waiting at an airport, navigating public washrooms, or trying to enjoy a day at the beach, solo travelers have sole responsibility for their belongings. We don’t have a travel partner to watch our stuff and save our seat while we take a dip or grab a coffee or freshen up.
Mel told us that because bathroom stalls around the world can be very small, even traveling with just a carry-on size backpack can be problematic as many public washrooms do not have hooks to hang your bag up, and floors can often be wet and dirty. And if you have a large suitcase, it can be frustrating trying to maneuver your bags and yourself into a cubicle. Even just getting to the facilities can be a slog, according to Patricia, if you have to lug your baggage up and down stairs in places without escalators or elevators.
Elaine pointed out the problem of leaving your restaurant table to use the restroom: do you take your luggage with you and risk losing your table, or leave it there and risk having it stolen?
Then, there is the question of what to do with your belongings when you want to go swimming at a beach. It can be stressful worrying that you may return to your beach chair to find your wallet and flip-flops gone.
Whenever possible, travel with only carry-on luggage with wheels or a backpack—or better yet, said Lori, wheels and backpack straps! To free up your hands when you have a rolling suitcase and, say, a laptop, a coat, a sleeping bag, etc., get a really good luggage strap. I swear by the Demi-Hugger and take it on every trip. Because it secures everything to my suitcase, I only have one item to roll into the bathroom and stash in the corner of the stall. Or, do the exact opposite and check all your baggage to keep your hands free during long airport layovers.
At the beach, consider these suggestions: At the Beach Solo – 13 Tips for You and Your Things. Or try Adele’s method: “I always travel with carabiners, so I tethered my bag to the beach chair I rented. If anyone was going to run by to quickly snatch my stuff, they'd be dragging a big chair behind them. Hardly stealthy.” Waterproof floating bags are another option if you want to take your essentials into the water with you, said Cecilia.
Navigating a New City and Deciphering the Transportation System
Anne describes this source of solo travel stress very well: “Constantly having to decide where to go, checking the map, time tables, and street signs and being aware of everything around you is super exhausting and drained me completely on my last solo trip to Italy.” When you travel with friends or in a group, these tasks can be divided up. On your own, you are in charge of everything. There is no one to confer with or to lighten the tension by making you laugh.
It can be disorienting to come up to street level from the subway or an underground train station and not know which way you are facing. I don’t always have a terrific sense of direction, and this is one of the things that drives me crazy when I travel solo. Janice noted that by frequently stopping to look at a map she feels she is making herself a “tourist target.” Cat finds that “when you are on your own it can be stressful walking streets in a strange area.” And Anne shared that using her smartphone to access Google maps drained her battery, while she prefers to keep it charged in case of an emergency. Several readers mentioned that getting a handle on public transportation can be a confusing and stressful process.
Download Google maps ahead of time so you don’t need Wi-Fi or waste data when you need them. Carry a small battery charger with you, and don’t forget to recharge it and your phone every night. Use the compass function on your phone to orient yourself when you emerge from a subway station or exit a building. Include room in your budget for the occasional taxi when you need it. I make liberal use of Uber in cities where it operates, especially if I am there for a short visit and don’t want to waste time getting lost or taking public transit. When you are lost and stressed out, sometimes all you need is to be picked up and returned to a familiar spot to get your bearings, relax, and start again. Check out Janice’s tips on How to Navigate a New City Solo.
I like to take a hop-on, hop-off bus tour shortly after arriving in a new place. I find it gives me a visual overview of the layout of a city that my brain doesn’t quite grasp from a map. And if I am heading out to a specific destination from my hotel, I ask for directions at the front desk. I have found them to be incredibly helpful. They frequently have paper maps of the city and will draw the best route for you right on the map so you can take it with you. Bonus: staff will often share with you their favorite coffee shop or other little local tips.
Dealing with the Curious, the Judgmental, and the Rude
In some cases, a source of travel stress can be the attitudes and behavior of other people towards those of us who travel alone. It’s not necessarily malicious—sometimes it is mere curiosity or a desire to be helpful—but it can be challenging nonetheless.
While traveling solo, Ann has encountered the difficulty of “explaining to people in more conservative cultures why I am divorced and don’t have children. I could concoct a fake family, but I have never been very good at bending the truth. I get even more tired of men telling me I just need to find a good man and get married.” Danielle has experienced this in a different way. “I am married, but my husband doesn’t like to travel as much as I do. I always get questions or side eye for traveling alone without him.”
Amber says, “Traveling alone can free you up to talk to new people, which is cool, but it can also make you a target for unwanted attention.” Deborah dislikes “Couples who ‘take me under their wing’ and then I can’t get rid of them.” Jean finds it stressful “being around people who are uncomfortable with me being alone.” Ben hates “that ‘pity look’ people give you when you tell them you are traveling alone.”
When it comes to people who don’t understand or don’t approve of solo travel, Kathryn says this: “Some cultures will just not understand our position, and we can't expect them to. Just tell them how it is and then just shrug when they show their disbelief. Not much else we can do. Two totally different cultures. But I agree it is uncomfortable when the subject is brought up.”
My favorite response came from Solo Travel Society member Judy: “I just tell them I enjoy being independently owned and operated. Both men and women tend to smile at that idea.”
As for avoiding extra chatty or invasive strangers, Luana has a suggestion: “Earphones work wonders in these situations. I try to always carry them with me.”
Ever since the launch of Solo Traveler, way back in 2009, fear or discomfort with eating alone has been a constant concern of readers. In 2012, I wrote Dining Solo: A Confession and a Discovery. It was such a hot topic at that time, a journalist picked it up and quoted me on Oprah’s blog.
Of course, this isn’t a problem for all solo travelers—some of us quite enjoy solo dining. But even now, when I posed the question about what most interferes with stress-free solo travel, the largest number of responses were about dining alone. Kelly said, “I don’t like eating alone, and not having conversation at dinner. I sit at the bar and eat fast, not very enjoyable!” JT agreed, saying, “I think it’s the hardest thing I am having to get used to on trips.”
Angela finds that she is “happy doing most things alone, but eating alone is terrible. I feel like I miss out on a lot of good food experience because I end up in McDonalds or something!” Some readers shared experiences where they were treated differently by restaurant staff because they were alone, including Erica, who “was turned away from a handful of busy restaurants. It felt like they weren’t interested in accommodating a solo diner. It wasn’t worth their effort.”
Elaine offered a different perspective on the situation. “Have you ever looked at couples sitting in a restaurant that are not talking to each other or just look really miserable? I have, and I say thank goodness I’m not in that situation. So happy to be here enjoying my food and not having a grumpy sod in front of me.”
Janice says that she likes to “take a good book or travel guide to read while eating or take along postcards to write or a travel journal.” In addition to carrying a book or Kindle with her, Luana takes small bluetooth earbuds and listens to podcasts downloaded on her cellphone while dining. If you like to have something to look at, choose a table near a window or on a patio so you can engage in some people-watching.
If you enjoy meeting new people, look for restaurants with communal tables. Or, if the restaurant has a bar, you can sit there and strike up a conversation with the bartender or other patrons. And I would definitely agree with Wendy on this one: “It can be a bit awkward sometimes, but I've tried not to let being alone stop me from enjoying a nice dinner. When I'm traveling solo I try and be my own best friend and spoil myself.”
Making All the Decisions
By definition, when you travel alone, it’s all up to you. All the research. Every single decision. It means “never being able to leave decision-making and planning to someone else if you are exhausted,” says Mer. What Lotte finds stressful is “Just having to do everything myself: planning, arranging transportation, thinking about what to do and where to eat. It can get pretty overwhelming!”
Angelica describes it this way: “It sounds crazy because it’s the reason I love solo travel the most — making all the choices — but sometimes you just want to not think!” Brittany agrees. “For me it's the rare times when I don't want to make all the decisions. It usually drives me to travel solo. But every once in a while, I want someone else to choose where I eat dinner and navigate me there and back. It's stressful sometimes that I make every decision. And there's no one else to blame if the decision is a bad one!”
Sometimes you just need to take a break. Patricia shares, “That is one of the reasons I go on tours: all I have to do is show up. Then I choose one place and stay there on my own for a while, taking my time and doing whatever I feel like doing.” There is no shame in taking a day off from decision-making. Stay in bed all day and order room service. Go on a bus tour. Sit by a lake and read a book. Go to a movie. Whatever it takes to help you relax and regroup. You’ll find lots of tips in this post, inspired by a letter from a woman who found herself in an unfamiliar country and completely paralyzed by indecision and fear: When You’re Feeling Overwhelmed: 43 Tips for Traveling Alone.
What have you learned along the way to help you experience stress-free solo travel? Please share your tips in the comments section below.