The Not So Great Things about Solo Travelling

Mountains in Washington

As much as I am a fan of traveling and seeing places, I did not start traveling solo until about two years ago. People belong to different schools of thought as far as traveling solo is concerned. Some feel that it is a wonderful thing to do, while some worry about the different challenges and boredom that comes with it. My family is not a very fond of travelling, and I did not start traveling until I moved to the US. My family would love to spend an entire vacation indoor, cooking, eating, and planning what to cook next, other than watching television or hanging out with people. For them, the hassle of planning and executing trips is not worth the time, and the little bit of traveling they do is mostly to visit people, not places. That is fine by me, but I soon realized how isolated one could feel here in the absence of a social group, and while you are alone and missing the familial comforts, it is perhaps a good idea to pack your bags and explore the many beautiful places around you. Learning to drive here opened a new world of traveling opportunities, for the public transit system is probably not the best in the US.


I grew up being told that we are social beings who prefer to hang out in groups. For the longest time, I had serious hesitations about traveling alone. Forget the main concerns like safety and security, I just balked at the thought of the uncomfortable feeling of people staring at me, wondering if I was out of my mind traveling alone. For years, I coaxed, begged, and urged people to travel with me, and stayed at home if I was unable to convince people to go on a trip. I was confident that traveling alone is not for me. However, I met a few wonderful people who love to travel alone, and that changed my philosophy about traveling (and about life) for the better. I still prefer traveling with people. However, if I really want to go somewhere, have the time, money, and enthusiasm, but haven’t been able to convince people, I just put on my travel gear and set off.

Having traveled both in groups and alone, I am aware of the advantages and disadvantages of both. Before I convince you about the innumerable advantages of traveling alone, I would like to share some of the challenges I have faced during my solo trips.

Sunset

1. Safety and Security

Nothing bothers you more than concerns about safety and security when you are in an unknown land on your own. I have barely traveled in India, hence I cannot comment on that. Comparing US and Europe, I would think that the safety of a place depends entirely on the place itself. Usually, US is more predictable that way, with the same structure of things that will help you figure your way around. If you are traveling alone in the US, chances are more that you will be driving, and will have a GPS. The freeways are predictable, there are McDonald’s and Subways everywhere, and the gas stations are pretty well-stocked with food and restroom facilities. The measure of safety is also a function of the place you are actually visiting, and the time of the day. Touristy places like Florida, crowded cities like New York, are especially easy to navigate. However, that doesn’t mean these places are safe.

Europe is a different story altogether. I have never driven in Europe, usually walk or take the public transport, and safety would be more of a concern for me there. Of the many places I have traveled, Sicily felt a little uncomfortable at night. People barely spoke English, and these were quaint little places with hardly good public transportation. I mostly had to figure out my way with sign languages.

You surely decrease your chances of being mugged manifold when you travel in groups. Even a company of two is sometimes better than being on your own. The last thing you want is your passport and money stolen, be it in a foreign land or back at home. As a female traveler, my predicament is usually manifold. Even if you are not being attacked by robbers and lunatics, you might end up getting quite a bit of unwanted attention from people.

How do I work around it?

If alone, I stick to a few ground rules no matter how familiar I am with the place or how confident I feel. I would never go to a place that is less touristy (but still beautiful) if it doesn’t feel safe. I am extra alert at night, when you could be caught off guard easily. I don’t stick to my plan of covering all the 15 destinations I had planned to if my instincts tell me to head back. I don’t mind seeing fewer places, it’s not an exam or a competition. I keep my passport and money extra safe, usually under multiple layers in waist pouches, making sure that the zips of the pouch are secure. In the US, I try not to drive at nights, or stop at a gas station to refuel if it looks desolate. These are instinctive steps which develop with experience. I remain alert but calm, trust my instincts, do not hesitate to ask for help, and back off if need be. I always inform at least a few people about my itinerary, and tell them how frequently they are going to hear from me. It is great to see a dozen places, but it is even better to return back home safely, with all your money and belongings intact.

Castles

2. Figuring it out

An important consideration of solo travel is the fact that you are solely responsible for figuring things out. You have to be extremely meticulous about planning things, and need some serious research work beforehand. Technology is sometimes not that friendly and gets you lost if you have not done some ground work already. Phones might not work, the GPS might unexpectedly lose connectivity, and maps from your backpack could strangely go missing. It always helps to plan beforehand, and to mentally simulate the steps one by one, what bus to take, where to get off, how to take the connecting bus, etc. I usually write down directions on paper as a backup option. Other than the fear of getting lost, there is also the pressure of seeing everything you have wanted to see. You don’t want to miss out on anything significant when you know you might not be visiting that place anytime soon.
Figuring things out usually involves a lot of small, both independent and related strategies. It is always helpful to have a friend who lives in the area. I usually make a list of all the things I want to do or see in a day, write down all the possible ways of getting from place A to place B, research on the potential food places I would like to stop at, and thereby create my customized travel map based on my interests. You work a lot less when you are in a group, for the same reason that everyone will be doing their share of research, and if nothing works out, figuring things out in a group is easier. Having said all that, some of the best events in my trips have happened unexpectedly, discovering a beautiful lake while driving, discovering a new food place that looks interesting, or even taking a different and lesser known route if the local people suggested it.

How do I work around it?

I do some serious research before a trip. I look at all the places I would like to visit, all the buses and trains I need to take, and identify different resources. I talk to people who have been there before. I take extensive notes. I learn to navigate and read maps. I run and execute the entire trip in my mind again and again. I assume that my phone will lose connectivity, my GPS will fail, and there is no way I will be able to ask for help. I refuel my car when it is a little less than half full. I write down a list of useful words and phrases in the local language if I am in an unknown country.

Portugal

3. Economics

Traveling single is sometimes more expensive than traveling in a group. This does not hold true if you have to buy individual tickets anyway, and there are no group discounts. However if you are driving with a bunch of people, sharing rooms, cooking in groups, or can avail group discounts, the travel costs are cut down significantly. Solo travel does not bother me as much in Europe (where I take the public transit) as it does in the US (where I drive). Comfort traveling is a hobby fit for the rich. As a student, it is very difficult to manage both time and money to travel. However, if you share my philosophy that traveling does not have to be expensive, you are good to go anywhere.

How do I work around it?

I travel on a shoestring budget. I try to explore more of the local places, especially if they are within 8 hours radius of my place (that saves me money from taking a flight). In Europe, I stay in youth hostels. I avoid fancy meals at restaurants, since I am not much of a culinary explorer anyway. I usually target the less expensive and less hyped places. I plan my trips well in advance, especially if I am flying. I look at all the major conference locations and avoid those places (since I would be attending those conferences anyway). I don’t get carried away while shopping. I save money all year and plan my expenses to maintain a healthy travel budget.

Lakes

4. Photographs

If you are someone as fond of your own pictures as I am, and love to pose and smile whenever you see the camera, solo traveling is a real pain. You end up with hundreds of pictures of the place, and barely a handful of your own. It is always a hassle to ask strangers to take your pictures, they never take it the way you want them too, they never frame it well, and if you have a heavy camera, you mostly end up with blurry pictures of you as someone did not know how to hold your camera well. Sometimes a tripod and a self-timer in the camera helps, but it only takes you so far. You cannot ask someone to take your pictures multiple times if you didn’t like the first few ones. On a related note, a funny episode happened in front of the Eiffel Tower in Paris. People usually oblige when you ask them to take a picture of you. However, on two occasions within a few minutes, I asked two different couples to take my picture, and both of them refused. That surprised me, since people are usually not that rude. I soon realized that both of them looked at my camera and thought that I am a professional photographer who wanted to take their pictures for money. When I motioned with my hands to the Chinese girls who understood functional English that I wanted my pictures taken, not theirs, they understood, apologized, and obliged.

How do I work around it?

I keep my expectations low, and understand that I might have an entire trip without a single good picture of mine. I always oblige when people want to have their pictures taken, and I take multiple pictures of them from different angles to earn some good photo karma. People are usually ready to return the favor when you have shown some effort taking their pictures. I try to approach as many people as I feel comfortable doing, so that at least some pictures come out to be okay. Most importantly, I don’t bother about my pictures at all.

Lisbon

5. Unforeseen Circumstances

If you have watched the movies “127 Hours” or “Into The Wild”, you will know how wrong things can go when you are exploring a place alone. I myself have a good record of getting into trouble in foreign lands, be it twisting my ligament on the streets of Sicily, or fainting in Lisbon due to high fever.

How do I work around it?

I always travel with the best health insurance I can afford. I always inform some people where I am, and how often they should expect to hear from me. I never hike in a forest if I am not comfortable doing it, or if I don’t see many people around. No matter how much I love to travel, I steer clear of adventure sports like bungee jumping, skydiving, or river rafting. I try not be get eaten up by animals during my solo hikes. Lastly, I pray that nothing goes wrong health wise, and I come back in good shape.

There goes my list of the most important challenges I face during solo traveling. This certainly does not discourage me, but only makes me plan my trips better. Hence, if you still think traveling alone is hard, I will be back soon telling you about the most awesome things you can expect when you embark on that journey alone.

P.S.: I have taken all these pictures during my trips. You are welcome to appreciate them and marvel at them, but please try not to be tempted into downloading, uploading, or passing them along as your own.

19 Comments

  • Mukesh Bhalse says:

    devsmita,
    Very interesting post. quality narration and beautiful pictures, specially first photo its really awesome.

    Thanks.

  • Hi Devasmita,
    Really good account of the pros and cons of Solo Travel!
    I guess the first requirement a person must have the courage and guts to do it alone, and secondly the spirit of adventure.
    Looking forward to your next post on the same subject.

    • Devasmita says:

      Dear Vijay, courage and guts comes with doing it … I never had the courage for years, but then one fine day I just took the plunge.

  • Debjani says:

    Loved reading it. Looking forward to the “Advantages”.

    Just FYI, I have always envied you for this whole “travel alone” thing. I went few places alone and never enjoyed it.

    You go, girl. :)

    P.S. The pictures here are awesome. :)

    • Devasmita says:

      Debjani, fortunately, you don’t have much need to travel alone :) It’s single, hapless souls like me who always feel the dearth of a compatible travel partner :)

  • Rahul says:

    An insightful observation of solo traveling…almost agree with all the points mentioned…

    • Devasmita says:

      Rahul, since you said “almost” agree, is there anything you disagree with? Would love to hear about your opinion.

  • abhishek.aks says:

    Really a nice writeup, I can see my own feelings to in sync with your points, especially on photographs and photography.

    I would suggest you use some watermarking tool to watermark all your pics before you publish it. I have faced a situation of my picture being used by a TV journalist :)

  • MN says:

    Hi DC,

    Very nice blog, great photos the reflection of the mountain on the lake water & enjoyed reading. I agree about the concern on safety & security in unknown lands when you or any traveller will stand out as an outsider and sometime it can be a uncomfourtable situation. Hats off lady for travelling with so much courage in so many strange places where you don’t even speak the local language solo.

    Travelling alone or in groups has its own advantages and disadvantages.

    A sucess formula you have just shared with all “I dont get carried away while shopping. I save money all year and plan my expenses to maintain a healthy travel budget”

    Great DC..Looking forward for more..

    WR,
    MN

  • Naman says:

    Ma’am, I’m short of words to describe your article… Just A-W-E-S-O-M-E ;)

  • Nandan says:

    A very useful and thought-ful story Devasmita.

    There are some gems like Photo Karma, convincing people to travel along and they refuse every single time :-) (almost happens to all Ghumakkars, I would bet), phone would lose connectivity, GPS going kaput and so on.

    My share in solo travels is zilch. Shame.

    Back here, traveling alone is still a very very niche thing. Read Amit’s interview where we wanted to know more about reasons behind his solitary-travels (https://www.ghumakkar.com/2011/09/30/in-a-tete-a-tete-with-amit-featured-ghumakkar-author-for-september-2011/)

    Eagerly waiting for ‘The great things about solo travel’.

  • C V Kumar says:

    LAKES — Peotry of stillness.

    CVK

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