traveling solo
Punting on the River Cam; Cambridge, England. All photos by Lauren Jo Sypniewski

As a transplant and someone familiar with the idea of starting over — of placing surface-level roots gently into the earth, only to be re-planted over and again — I knew the exhilaration of the blank, white canvas, the anticipation of adventure and rebuilding. But I also knew the trepidation that superficial roots create: Will you topple over and collapse? Will you be able to reach the earth’s nutrients? Will you be capable of stretching to other root systems to strengthen your hold? Traveling, especially traveling solo, mirrors this dichotomy, just on a smaller scale.

In general, people entertain the idea of starting anew, but for some reason they tend to wait for a certain time, a time that is never the present: New Year’s Day, the “next” year, the first of the month, when the wind is right, or when they get new friends, a new job, a new apartment, or a new partner. Slowly, “next” and “new” turn into “never.” Traveling solo prohibits this type of delay and instead offers the opportunity of a new year every day.

Traveling solo will boost your confidence and bless you with anonymity

Logistically, traveling solo untangles much of the complications inherent in planning trips. You won’t have to work around someone else’s schedule, budget, or interests, and you’ll be free to explore what truly fascinates you. Beyond this, though, you will be blessed with anonymity: No one knows you or expects anything from you.

If you’ve always been an incredibly social person, chances are you’ve been driven by peer groups, family, or partners much of your life, whether you realize it or not. While social interactions are beneficial and help develop us, you may slowly come to the realization that you have no idea how you’d react to a situation if faced with it alone. Thus, your decisions may surprise you. You might realize you’re a morning person or that you enjoy reading, two things you’ve been swayed from due to the constraints of your social calendar.

Because the familiarity of friendships will be gone, you will be forced to step across any boundaries you’ve created for yourself. Terrified at first, you may wonder if you’re “doing it right,” if people are going to judge you, or if you’re going to “get caught” as an imposter. Then, thankfully, you’ll start making decisions for yourself.

Once, while in Norway, I was approached by another tourist who — in broken Norwegian — tried to ask me for directions as she gestured wildly from her map to various streets nearby. Elated, I realized I made it; I’d reached the peak of traveling success: being mistaken for a local. Granted, it’s not quite the same as a local mistaking you for a local, but while traveling solo, you learn to relish small victories such as this — where I, in my confidence, was perceived as being a resident.

Traveling Solo
Exploring fjords; Norway

Traveling solo will teach you to be outwardly aware, strengthening your discernment and decision-making skills

The newfound confidence created by anonymity and the power of making personal decisions can be a dangerous weapon if not harnessed. It is not enough to simply make decisions for yourself; you must learn from these decisions to become your best self and be happy with your life’s direction.

Traveling solo expedites responsibility and maturity by forcing the decision-making obligation on your shoulders: Where should you eat? What bus should you take? Should you move on to the next hostel? Should you walk down this street? All responsibility, both in small and large choices, is yours. Sure, you could consult other travelers, maps, and travel books, but you have far less external input when traveling solo. You are no longer a follower but rather a leader of your own life.

Informed decisions are the best decisions; therefore, taking stock of your surroundings is vital. In your hometown, you may know the streets to avoid, the schedule that the bus keeps, the best restaurants. Traveling solo teaches you to be aware, to notice signs and patterns; it teaches you to keep your head up and your intuition on high alert.

Traveling Solo
Window shopping; Playa del Carmen, Mexico

Traveling solo will teach you to be self-aware and independent

Despite the surface-level perks, traveling solo shifts and solidifies the internal self, resulting in a journey of self-actualization.

Some solo travelers test out various facets of their personality, as their new lifestyle provides the potential for a continuous acting audition and to do things new or fresh or extreme. As stated, you may be surprised by the decisions you make when the choice is all yours. In my experience, I internalize the decision-making process, seeking to understand where my choices came from and what I want to learn from them.

During my nearly year-long solo expedition through Australia, I noticed that my emotions flipped almost constantly on a crazy carnival ride of perceptions and reactions. Less like a see-saw and more like a merry-go-round, my feelings spun on a ride of wanting on and wanting off simultaneously — enjoying the ride but getting too dizzy — to the point where things became hard to describe without sounding contradictory. I was so happy where I was, but I wanted the next step. Part of me hated traveling solo, and the other half relished the seclusion, the flexible independence.

Despite the emotional roller coaster, traveling solo has helped me better understand my needs and the way I process and integrate information. Even though life goes on while traveling solo, the experiences have helped me make more well-informed choices in my non-traveling life. Navigating the duality of wanting contradictory lifestyles has prepared me for life in general: the bittersweet of having to let something go in order to follow the next path.

Traveling Solo
Camping with kangaroos; Kosciuszko National Park, Australia

Traveling solo will teach you about the world

Perhaps this is the most common-sense statement, but traveling solo allows you to explore the world. Sometimes this comes in the form of exotic food or bizarre expressions, foreign landscapes, or odd customs.

In Australia, I took a sailboat out to the Whitsunday Islands, home to Whitehaven Beach — one of the most famous beaches in the world, known for its seven-kilometer stretch of silica sand and clear blue waters. The quartz beach shimmered unlike any shell or rock-based beach I’d seen before; it might have been the softest thing I’d ever stood on, and when I walked, the fine powder blew around my body and clung to everything it touched. Here, as stingrays and reef sharks swam passed me, I learned that those who take sand off the beach back to the mainland are charged with hefty fines, since — unlike other beaches, those made from rock and shell — the sand here can’t replenish itself. Only once has anyone taken the sand, when NASA needed it in order to help build the lens of the Hubble telescope.

Traveling Solo
Storm rolling over Darling Harbour; Sydney, Australia

In regards to my traveling solo through Australia, people back in the States had asked me what I was hoping to accomplish through the trip. I never knew how to answer that or even if there was an answer. At the time, it felt abstract and unreachable, as though my subconscious had a clear idea of my intentions on setting out to another country for a year but decided against sharing that information with my conscious self.

And I accepted my subconscious’s tight-fistedness, believing that even if nothing was revealed to me within the course of a year, I was opening up, receiving information, and experiencing people and life. Not having a clear direction turned out to be part of the learning process, allowing for flexibility within even myself. If I had gone with a group or if I had gone with a clear purpose, I’m sure I would have missed the opportunities to better myself as an individual.

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2 COMMENTS

  1. Travelling solo makes tourism a religious experience. It takes minimally 4 weeks to truly merge with another culture. Learning 300+ words and basic subject-verb structures also has a significant impact on one’s experience. There is nothing like it. Although Lauren does a great job describing the journey, some things words cannot capture. To all those inspired by this article, JUST DO IT… Plan well… Do your homework. Always research potential dangers and warnings regarding safety and crime at “state.gov” before you go… Lastly get travel insurance for emergencies… i.e Lonely Planet recommends Nomad, who I have used multiple times. Good luck, make the leap…

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