This post was contributed by Ailish Casey. As a travel writer, photographer and filmmaker, Ailish is at her happiest when she is on the road and living out of a rucksack. She has travelled throughout over 50 countries, preferring to stay off the beaten track. When she does stay in one place, she’s likely to be found either teaching children with autism or dancing. She writes about each new wonderland she finds on ailishinwonderland.com.
There are many upsides to travelling by yourself: you get to meet new people, you get to make all the decisions, and of course you get bragging rights for being an intrepid, independent explorer. But solo travel does have its downsides: it can be lonely, upsetting, and, at times, dangerous. For me, spending four months travelling alone through South America was full of ups and downs, but ultimately it was something I’d recommend to anyone. Nonetheless, it’s worth weighing up all the pros and cons before making the decision to go it alone.
The most obvious upside to traveling alone is that you’re the boss! You can do anything and go anywhere you want. While this is freeing, it can also be daunting. I first arrived in South America with no real plan. Four months and a whole continent lay ahead of me, and I faced it with a combination of adventurous excitement and nervous uncertainty. But I grew to love not knowing what I would do next. I could stay in one place until I decided I was ready to move on and, while I was there, I could do whatever I felt like doing. There was nobody to negotiate plans with and, honestly, there often wasn’t a need to make a plan at all. I had previously travelled with friends who wanted our itinerary mapped out in advance, and, while I loved having my friends there to share the trip with, I resented having to stick to a plan and not being able to go wherever the mood took me.
Ultimately, our different attitudes towards planning didn’t become a major issue. But when you travel with friends you run the risk of discovering that, as much as you love them in daily life, you’re incompatible on the road. When you’re sharing every minute with another person, you may well find that even minor differences start to become problems. Tensions can end up running high, and, while hopefully any arguments won’t be long-lasting, they probably will occur. So it’s worth factoring this in when deciding whether or not to go it alone.
That’s not to say that leaving your friends behind is the answer, because, truthfully, it opens up a whole new issue- loneliness. And this issue shouldn’t be underestimated. Loneliness can lead to feelings of isolation or even depression, and is one reason why the decision to travel alone shouldn’t be taken lightly. While of course you’ll make new friends along the way, it’s never quite the same as being with your loved ones from home. I spent most of my trip in hostels, surrounded by other people whether I wanted them or not. But that didn’t mean I wasn’t lonely. For one thing, it took me a month or two until my Spanish was good enough to hold a conversation, and even then the “where are you from- how long are you travelling- where have you been so far” conversation can get old. I often found myself wishing I had someone from home to chat to.
For me, missing the people back home was the biggest downside to travelling alone. The world is getting smaller, and everyone is just a phonecall, video chat, or instant message away, but relationships are hard to maintain that way. My parents would call to say my sister was visiting for the weekend, and I would feel such a longing to be curled up on the sofa with them all, enjoying a home cooked meal. Facebook became a mixed blessing, as my newsfeed was filled with pictures of my friends at events I had missed. Most difficult of all was being away from my boyfriend for four months. When he visited for a few weeks I realised that travelling with him was way more fun than going it alone, and saying goodbye when he left to go back to work was the hardest part of the whole trip.
The good news is, even though you’re not surrounded by your loved ones, you are usually surrounded by a whole host of potential new friends. Travelling alone means having to be sociable, and it may bring out an outgoing side that you didn’t even know you had. Walking up to someone, saying, “mind if I join you?” and starting a conversation didn’t come easily to me at first. I’d feel nervous, fearing that they would reject me, or that we would have nothing to talk about. But the longer I travelled for, the easier it got. By the time I got to Rio, my final stop, I had no problem at all with approaching the group of backpackers gathered on the patio, cracking open a beer, sharing my travel story and making plans to join them for a futbol game the following day.
I ended up spending every day of my three weeks in Rio with my new hostel friends. When the trip ended, I came home having made new friends from all over the world. From my group of Rio buddies, to the pair of Aussies I got drunk with at a wine tasting, to the Argentinian girl whose couch I stayed on, and the American student who introduced me to all the best tango spots in Buenos Aires. Leaving your friends behind can be daunting, but meeting new friends can be eye-opening. While I may never see some of them again, these new friends from various walks of life have taught me a lot, and who knows, maybe our paths will cross down the road (and maybe I’ll have a couch to crash on).
Unfortunately, being surrounded by new friends doesn’t mean you have the support you need if and when something goes wrong. Almost everyone I met had some horror story of their stuff being stolen, not being able to access their money, or running into some other difficulty that would be much easier to deal with if travelling with others. When my bank cards had been blocked during a previous trip, I at least had my friend’s account to fall back on while I sorted the mess out. Far worse are the horror stories of muggings or scams. While this can happen to anyone, being alone ups the danger. In Buenos Aires, though it is a relatively safe city, I was constantly warned to not go out alone. Strangers would stop me in the street and tell me to put my camera away because it was dangerous to have it visible, or to wear my pack on my front in case of pickpockets. I kept myself relatively safe, taking taxis at night and not carrying valuables when I was walking somewhere alone. But to some people, the idea of being alone at all seems too dangerous. While hiking up a mountain I was stopped by an older couple who asked “You’re here alone? What if you get attacked?” The thought hadn’t even occurred to me.
Overall, perhaps the main argument in favour of travelling alone is that you learn about yourself. Many people say they hate their own company, and surely this is something they should try to change. I was happy to learn that, when it had to, my sociable side will win out over my nervous side. Maybe you’ll learn that this isn’t the case, and that’s fine too. Maybe you’ll learn that travelling alone is the best thing in the world, or maybe you’ll hate it and swear never to do it again. But you never know until you try.
Have you travelled solo before? Share your experiences in the comments!