Not So Lonely Planet: The Benefits of Solo Travelling

A break with the boys or a getaway with the girls might be nice, but to really explore a destination you’re better off going on your own.
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A break with the boys or a getaway with the girls might be nice, but to really explore a destination you’re better off going on your own.

'Have you seen Dave?'

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I once had to suffer the humiliation of two colleagues cackling at me for booking a flight to Reykjavik on my own. Their reaction to me telling them I was going solo to explore a people, culture and land that had interested me for many years was so extreme that you’d have thought I’d just stripped butt naked, covered myself in peanut butter and ran round the building chasing imaginary dandelions. They could not compute that someone was happy to travel with no company. Foolishly I tried to advocate with these morons. I asked them what their choice of destination and companion might be. One said “Eastbourne, with my fella, his mum’s got a caravan there.” The other said “I don’t go abroad, I don’t like foreign food, or foreigners.” Did he think Eastbourne was in another country? Horrible Muppets.

Iceland is one of the best trips I’ve ever done. I was adopted by a few local loons, saw way more than I’d hoped and my fascination was sated. I’d asked a few people if they wanted to come along, they either couldn’t afford the cost or time off work or simply didn’t find it appealing. My then girlfriend was generous in encouraging me to go, after her frustration at not being able to make it. I wanted to go, so I went, alone. It was a Top Trip.

Broadly speaking there are two types of foreign travels. There’s the ‘Holiday’ which normally lasts two weeks and consists of beaches and cocktails and sleeping and room service and requires your luggage to contain many changes of clothing for different stages in the day. Then there’s the ‘Trip’ that lasts as long as you think you will need to satisfy your desire and involves map reading and resourcefulness and adaptability and comfy trainers and a compact minimal rucksack. Over the years I have perfected the art of the latter. The finest way to do it is ‘On Your Tod’.

Iceland wasn’t the first time I’d gone away alone. Going away alone is something I cherish. After a trip to New York with 6 people a few years earlier I realised that trying to do anything productive with that number of people was horrendous, like herding cats. The bigger the group the slower they move, and the less efficient your precious time away becomes. Lesson learnt. I returned alone a few months later, on my first day, by noon (the time by which, on my last visit, I would have done little other than sit in hotel lobbies waiting for people to paint their nails) I had eaten a beautiful Catfish chowder, had a game of Speed-Chess with a ‘meth-head’ in Greenwich Village, watched a game of dirty Basketball on Waverley Street and been to the Guggenheim. That’s more like it. Nimble.

By noon I had eaten a beautiful Catfish chowder, had a game of Speed-Chess with a ‘meth-head’ in Greenwich Village, watched a game of dirty Basketball on Waverley Street and been to the Guggenheim. That’s more like it. Nimble.

Sometimes a companion is great, but only the right companion. The benefits are shared costs, support should things get a bit out of hand, and banter over refreshments. If it’s a girlfriend or boyfriend there’s all the familiar comforts, providing you travel well together. But no matter who you’re with things can run the risk of becoming slightly less random. The romance of sharing your (sometimes pre-arranged) experiences with someone and agreeing a schedule can take precedence over seeking true adventure, and can make your movements stiflingly less fluid.

You get more interesting propositions when you’re solo, there is an inherent trust and approachableness between lone travellers, and between the natives and lone travellers. It provide welcome surprises. These accents to your trip tend to less prevalent if you look as if you are within a decided multi-person unit. There are exceptions of course.

Sitting alone in a beach cafe, you’re far more likely to be invited on a house-boat trip with a total stranger who you happened to smile at as they sat down near you, and there’s no need for consultation with a buddy to whom you are committed. I once stopped my motorbike to drink at a road-side well in Egypt where a man was refreshing his Donkey. I left his home three hours later after being fed, introduced to his whole family and given great insight into the culture of marriage in their country.

Put simply, things happen when you travel alone. Different things. More things. Unpredictable things. Things that, years later, you remember as magical. Travelling alone is mint. There is absolutely no requirement to compromise. It becomes a drug. You feel like an indomitable discovery machine.

You get more interesting propositions when you’re solo, there is an inherit trust and approachableness between lone travellers, and between the natives and lone travellers.

You’re less likely to be hustled and hassled. A rip-off merchant is far less persistent with a single person, as there’s less return. Being alone means you can blend in with the locals easier which gives you more license to barter, goods, fares, street food, even the most hardened traders don’t mind charging non-tourist prices to a single person with a cheeky demeanour, as the amount they’re loosing is negligible. If you return to the same outlet they will love you. On a recent trip to Cuba my daily fruiterer was pretty much giving me my breakfast Grapefruit and Coconut for free by my fourth visit.

Women reading this may well be thinking ‘That’s all good for you being a six foot brick shithouse bloke’ and to an extent you’d have a point but don’t let this make you unconfident. It’s easy for a lone woman to develop a ‘Don’t give me any shit’ aura as defence when feeling vulnerable. And if you feel you haven’t perfected yours there’re plenty of people like me who will be happy to provide good company during trips to the Bazaar or during sleeper train journeys, or whatever is agreed upon over a cuppa. I’ve had many ‘Friendships of Convenience’ while away. They’re quite enjoyable and often a good source of knowledge for your future travels. It’s normally a colourful exchange from which friendships may develop.

Others reading this may well be thinking ‘Don’t you get lonely?’ If that’s you start reading again from the top. There is no time to be lonely if you’re hungry for adventure.

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