3 reasons to try solo travel
As I stood and drank in the view from the rustic apartment, I knew. This was a moment I would never forget. Dubrovnik, you officially popped my solo travel cherry.
One of the first things I noticed when I arrived at the ramshackle building was the small army of beasties crawling around the bathroom sink.
Travelling on a shoestring budget I hadn’t exactly expected Waldorf plushness. This was the first test of my resolve. I surveyed the rest of the room; the outstanding view of the cityscape and the bright flowers bursting all along the balcony.
Small beasties be damned. It was the first stop on my big inter railing adventure and I was already hooked.
It took a single inter-rail pass, one pair of trusty canvas gutties and one of those rucksacks that have more pockets than a magician.
Travelling by train around central Europe at 32. It reeked of an early mid life crisis. But to me it was a deeply personal mission; I was one of only a few of my friends who had never taken the plunge and travelled solo.
From the age of 15 I had kept a folder of cuttings of places I wanted to travel to but had been so afraid to take time out from responsibilities, work and career that I had settled for a week here and there, trips and city breaks with friends and partners.
While going through a divorce I felt compelled to go solo. It was a very grown up way to handle the situation; go far away.
Like many late developers, ahem, what I lacked in experience I made up for in sheer enthusiasm. So what if I was the oldest person in my hostel dorm?
Starting off in Dubrovnik I fell in love with the rugged charms of Croatia and travelled there for longer than planned, stopping off at enchanting island Hvar, the buzzing city Split and the utterly charismatic capital Zagreb.
Each place brought new sights, smells and a cornucopia of sensory impressions. I set out with many fears about personal safety, beasties, eating out alone and getting lost. One by one those fears diminished like manifesto promises after an election. If you are considering travelling solo, here’s three reasons why your fears don’t need to hold you back.
You meet people along the way
You will meet and get to know incredible people. My flight to Dubrovnik hadn’t even landed and I bumped into an old friend who I later met up with for dinner after a couple of days getting to know the city.
On a two-hour journey through ramshackle villages with ‘landmine’ signs in Croatia I had a conversation with an elderly man who had a face that told stories. He couldn’t speak a word of English. Somehow we managed to communicate for that entire journey.
He pointed out towns and sights and was waving animatedly as if telling me their histories and what seemed like his own memories. He shared his lunch with me and continued to smile and chat warmly. I continued to nod and told him about the book I was reading. It was remarkable. We exchanged conversation without language but somehow, with an understanding. I left that train feeling uplifted. Like I made a friend. I would never see him again but it was like the world opening up before me.
On a tight budget? It can be an adventure!
Forget about the backpack, sleep deprivation and the sporadic showers. Staying in hostels is a great way to meet other travellers who are open to meeting new people.
The dreaded eating out alone in restaurants is not so daunting; for me it had turned into a chance to meet people or write my travel journal.
While eating out I made friends with a couple in my hostel room in Vienna and after going on a tour of the city together we ended up spending the night at a DJ battle dancing until 4am.
It’s the surprising encounters that make the hostel experience totally worthwhile. In Ljubljana I hit a wall through lack of sleep; a trade off you have to make for cheap accommodation. I lay awake listening to the racket of seven teenaged boys all farting, snoring and getting up to smoke. What the hell was I DOING?
Minutes after waking to the sound of ‘Merde!’ I made my way to the computer to research the next leg of the trip. Then I could smell the twenty something Belgians before I saw them. One staggered along the hall and seemed unable to cope with the light switch even though it was in the usual light switch place.
I came to his rescue. By 7am while still engrossed in conversation we noticed we had been chatting for 3 hours and headed out for breakfast. Just a block away we found a little cafe that was at that moment lifting their shutters to open. We were the only customers.
After another couple of hours of laughter and genuine connection, we reluctantly said goodbyes. I was sad to say goodbye and got an invitation to join them on a road trip to Venice but it was time for me to check out and catch a train. My next stop: Lake Bled.
That’s when I noticed something major had shifted. I started to look forward to the experience of getting lost.
You get savvy at finding your way around
If there’s one way to make the most of solo travel it’s to get truly lost and embrace being lost. I came to think of it as a form of extreme discovery.
I have always been a bit challenged when it comes to reading maps and my sense of direction is well, questionable. But I got better at it. I had to. Suddenly, navigating unfamiliar places was not scary.
With only a day or two at best in each place I wanted to leave with a lasting impression of it. I cycled around Lake Bled in Slovenia almost falling off the bike into the lake I was so captivated. My battered gutties went climbing in the Alps; stood on Juliet’s balcony in Verona; danced at a DJ battle in Vienna and had a break when I went skinny-dipping in the clear Adriatic off the Dalmatian coast in Croatia.
I didn’t just stick to obvious tourist attractions; I wandered and got lost to get my bearings and find my way around. I even tried asking locals with my basic knowledge of the language. It all developed an invaluable sense of place, freedom and independence that I have never since experienced.
If you don’t follow tourist routes or stick to the beaten paths it makes you feel like you really get to know the place.
My last point in the trip was Lake Garda, the largest lake in Italy. When I found my way to the hostel without asking any locals for direction or getting lost once, I knew I had cracked it. That sense of achievement is utterly addictive.
There is no greater satisfaction than arriving at point B after arriving at point A with no clue how to get to B. You develop resilience. You feel like you can do anything. Go anywhere, just you and your gutties. So what are you waiting for? Go on, get lost!