Often, when I tell people I’ve traveled in Europe by myself, they respond with something like, “Wow, you’re so brave!”
I’ll let you in on a secret…
I’m not! At theme parks, I always get to the front of the line for rides and then chicken out. I’m petrified of the dark. I’m rarely confident enough to make decisions without getting input from half a dozen other people first.
All that to say…maybe it requires a different kind of bravery to travel solo, but I think it’s a kind that everyone can reach deep down to find. Fears or worries shouldn’t stop you from experiencing a new place on your own.
Have there been some stressful times during my solo travel? Yes. There’s the fear of getting lost in the middle of nowhere, for instance (but I find that Google Maps and a reliable data connection help). And there are the nights that you get back to your accommodation a little later than expected and find yourself wandering through dark, empty city streets. These scenarios are probably best avoided, but one of my favorite bits of advice about being by yourself in a strange place comes from, of all places, a children’s book. The book starts out by saying that it’s good to be street smart, “but you don’t have to walk around feeling scared all the time” (Andrew Clements, The School Story).
Here are a few reasons you shouldn’t be afraid to travel solo.
It’s just like home.
People are people everywhere. Far and away, the people I’ve met on my travels around Europe have been kind and generous and helpful, just like the ones I know back home. Cities and public transit and everything else are cut from the same mold anywhere you go. Chances are, when you visit a new place, you’ll find things there that remind you of home. And because you know how to get around back home, how to be smart and efficient and how to do all the little things that go into living life, you’ll be able to figure it all out somewhere else, too.
It’s true that I was primarily traveling in other English-speaking countries; that’s where I feel most comfortable. But even on my short solo treks through Italy, France, and Switzerland, I could communicate with the people around me—if not using words, then by other means. When a friend and I were lost in a less touristy part of Italy, strangers who spoke only Italian helped us reach the train station. Later, I talked with another person in Italy using Google translate when I was struggling to find my bus stop. And I followed helpfully placed maps around the walking paths in the hills above Geneva, Switzerland when my phone battery was threatening to give out.
Cultural differences end up being a funny story later.
Sometimes, the most jarring thing about traveling solo—actually, just traveling in general—is the little cultural differences that you run into when you’re least expecting it. Like, why are the hand dryers in Germany just a tiny bit different from the ones in England? I’ve found myself standing in the airport wondering why the simple process of washing my hands suddenly makes no sense.
There will always be things like this—things you don’t understand or know how to do right away. Even traveling around within the US has its moments of confusion. Like how exactly do you pay at a toll road? Why is this portable red stoplight sitting out in the middle of nowhere? (Turns out there was one-way construction around the bend.)
People in other places might do things a little differently than you’re used to, might speak or act a little differently. Sometimes you’re expected to know these differences right away. But the thing is, no one does! And there’s honestly nothing wrong with looking a little silly at first. Sometimes you’ll be in France and not know that in Europe, you have to weigh and label your produce in the grocery store yourself. Or your card will decline, and the clerk will be talking to you in a language you don’t know, and you’re not sure what to do. Or they’ll look at you like you’re crazy for requesting a gelato sample without paying in full first, even though you just got a free sample from the place right down the street. Sometimes you won’t have 10p in coins when you need it to get into the restroom at the train station (because let’s be real, who charges money for the restroom??). Sometimes you’ll buy the wrong type of train ticket and not realize until the conductor is inspecting it.
But these aren’t world-ending or even trip-ending; they’re minor inconveniences at worst. They teach you something new. And they give you a funny story to tell when you get home.
You’re not really alone.
You are always among friends in some capacity. One of the most unnerving experiences I had on my travels was descending a mountain in Wales after sundown. I felt totally alone—none of my friends knew where I was, and my family was an entire ocean away. But even then, I wasn’t actually alone. Once I reached the edge of the forest, there were farmhouses and cars passing by on the road. There were cheery neighborhoods branching off along the hilly path down into the town. There were other people standing on the train platform, even at 10pm. On another trip to Wales, when I was walking by myself (during the day this time), cars would pull over and ask if I needed a lift. I felt secure knowing friendly strangers were never far away.
You’re not really lonely, either.
Because people are everywhere, traveling alone doesn’t mean you’ll be lonely. All you have to do is talk to the people you run into. I’m pretty shy, and this happens to me anyway! Some of the most interesting people I’ve met have been on solo trips: in bookstores, in cafes, in hostels. I’ve found companions for the day in hostels and tour groups and wandered all over the city with them. You can learn so much about other places just by talking to the people you cross paths with.
Plus, technology makes it easy to Skype home if you’re having a lonesome night in, and journaling helps too. You’ll be home before you know it.
It’s a fun challenge.
Unless you’re doing something crazy like climbing Mount Everest or visiting the depths of an uncharted rainforest, chances are plenty of other tourists have paved the way for you. Sure, taking the subway or navigating a busy airport in an unfamiliar city might be confusing, but it’s not impossible, and the same goes for all the other logistics that go into a solo trip. Conquering the anxiety-inducing parts of your journey is the best feeling.