A love letter to traveling alone

A very different sort of writing than I usually do at the Guardian, but hey, trying out something new this week: Why you should travel alone, even if it’s just around the block.


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31 comments for “A love letter to traveling alone

  1. Marksman2010
    August 1, 2013 at 1:55 pm

    “There are worse things
    than being alone
    but it often takes
    decades to realize this
    and most often when you do
    it’s too late
    and there’s nothing worse
    than too late.”

    ― Charles Bukowski

  2. Marksman2010
    August 1, 2013 at 1:58 pm

    “there are worse things
    than being alone
    but it often takes
    decades to realize this
    and most often when you do
    it’s too late
    and there’s nothing worse
    than too late”

    ― Charles Bukowski

  3. Marksman2010
    August 1, 2013 at 1:59 pm

    You’ve got stories to tell. Have you ever tried your hand at writing fiction, Jill?

    • August 1, 2013 at 2:08 pm

      Thanks Marksman! I have tried, but fiction-writing is terrifying so I’ve never shown anyone the results. Maybe in another decade.

      • John
        August 3, 2013 at 12:58 pm

        You should definitely try fiction writing, I’m sure you have a novel or five in you. You obviously have talent. This article was IMO the best you’ve done for The Guardian.

      • Marksman2010
        August 3, 2013 at 3:44 pm

        I agree.

        Jill, you have the intelligence, the talent, and life experience. Plus, that voice, that voice…

  4. Ms. Kristen J.
    August 1, 2013 at 2:05 pm

    I love traveling, dining, running, being alone for some of the same reasons. So much of my daily life is about accomodating others (which is how is should be in social situations), but its fantastic to step back from Kristen the Wife, Kristen the CoWorker, Kristen the ____ and just be Kristen who sometimes only eats appetizers and sometimes likes to wear things that don’t exactly match and sometimes wants to stare really hard at that tree for a few minutes because its kind of interesting.

  5. Valdi
    August 1, 2013 at 2:36 pm

    Yes

    My first trip abroad, I spent the first two weeks of it alone, and it was possibly the most self-affirming vacation I’ve ever had. Going to London and Canterbury, I was afraid that I would be lonely and would have no one to do anything with (save for once when I would meet friends for the day). Instead, it proved to be a fantastic trip. As I first checked into a hostel and got a feel for the neighborhood, for perhaps the first time I was free to determine how to explore and enjoy a new place without having to take into account someone else’s fatigue, money, or interests.

    I would spend most of a day at the British Museum, ride a bike through Hyde Park, wander through Notting Hill until I found the most amazing corn-dough pizza place, write in cafes, watch soccer with newfound companions at pubs, and go to bed whenever I felt like.

    No, I didn’t really have clubbing companions, but that just let me discover new and different enjoyable habits. Most nights I fell asleep really early and woke up early for a good bike ride around the park.

    There were risks to being alone. I’m sure that being alone increased my chances of being the target of a number of bad things. If I got hurt, I didn’t have anyone nearby that I felt close enough to to have with me as I negotiated a foreign medical system. I didn’t trust myself to get too drunk, or to walk down streets I hadn’t seen at daylight at night. These risks and precautions were my own though – even they helped me feel independent.

  6. Mary Been
    August 1, 2013 at 2:42 pm

    Great article, and what a great antidote to all the “women should never travel alone” articles. My best travel experiences have always been while traveling alone: invited to a Tibetan home for yak butter tea, invited to a Chinese home for dinner, invited to a New Mexican home for ice cream and art….. Yes, I’ve had challenging and difficult experiences (experiences by any traveller, male or female), but those were far outweighed by brilliant and memorable hours and days while alone and on my own…. These experiences were almost never matched by companioned experiences (except for those with my Scottish friend Rosemary).

  7. Matthew
    August 1, 2013 at 2:47 pm

    Thanks Jill. I really enjoyed the article.

    As someone who sometimes suffers from depression I’ve always found travelling on my own can either be fantastic or miserable, depending on how mentally strong I’m feeling. And even though sometimes I find it hard to just sit back and actually relax properly, I still think that being on one’s own, sipping coffee and watching the world go by can be very therapeutic.

    • Hrovitnir
      August 1, 2013 at 4:16 pm

      Exactly what you said!

      I am not very good at being alone, but sometimes it’s amazing. I got stuck in LA airport for 7 hours, been able to drink for years in my country and was (just) too young to have a beer. But it’s a really good memory of mine, sitting and people watching and actually being able to relax because I was just absorbing the people around me and waiting.

      • August 1, 2013 at 7:31 pm

        I was stuck in Auckland airport for nearly that long a couple of years back. It was just the turnaround between the flight from LA and the one to Melbourne. Thank goodness for those long lounge seats!

      • Hrovitnir
        August 4, 2013 at 3:43 am

        Oo, Auckland airport is pretty bloody boring. LA airport at least I got to see lots of cultures I don’t normally, and laughed at the ECG machines around the place (that I’m starting to see here now!), and talked to some cool people.

        What was *not* cool was getting to Hamburg and my delay meaning I *just* missed my flight to Vienna despite some lovely Army dudes letting me go in front of them, and my mobile roaming not working so not being able to contact anyone. Got there in the end though.

      • August 4, 2013 at 4:55 am

        Ha, you want boring, try Tullamarine.

        I didn’t get to see much of LAX that I remember. The one good part is the Encounter Bar, where a bunch of friends and I had an uproarious lunch on my first trip to the US. The spaceship theme was so kitsch it was cool, and our waiter was the best dude ever.

  8. August 1, 2013 at 3:35 pm

    Yeah, I agree. Some of my favorite trips ever have been the ones I’ve taken alone.

    The last couple of years have involved the realization that I’m probably going to spend most of my life “alone,” for some definitions, and it’s only lately that I’ve stopped feeling like I have to wait to have someone to do cool things with. Nope!

  9. amblingalong
    August 1, 2013 at 3:48 pm

    I hate traveling alone; I’m just extroverted to the point where I have a tough time enjoying much of anything by myself. But I love going to new places alone, because I know I’ll always make a group of friends in a day or two, and that’s a deeply enjoyable process.

  10. August 1, 2013 at 4:02 pm

    Traveling alone is a fucking blast, if you’re organised enough to do it without getting into trouble like running out of money or losing essential papers. I find I don’t do so many touristy things when I’m traveling alone, but I like the feeling that I don’t have an agenda, or anyone’s preferences to take into account. Particularly since my ability to sightsee varies wildly based on shit I really can’t control, like the weather (which can leave me in horrible pain even indoors) and my anxiety levels re: other people. I spent a week just walking all over Berlin, once, only stopping when something caught my fancy. I only did a couple of tourist things in the process, but gods, I had an amazing time.

    Thanks for this post, Jill. It’s really fuzzy-making to read.

  11. August 1, 2013 at 4:12 pm

    Oh, I should add – and not as a Joke, but Seriously – women travelling alone should be very careful.
    It’s a shame and shouldn’t be that way, but I can’t help but think of women like the lady from NYC who went missing in Turkey last year. She was in daily touch with her husband and family by phone, but it only took a moment of opportunity for a maniac to murder her, for sexual reasons of course, the day before she was about to leave for home.

    SMH

    • tinfoil hattie
      August 4, 2013 at 9:07 pm

      “Don’t get raped, Ladies!”

  12. August 1, 2013 at 7:28 pm

    I’ve been to France and the UK twice with my mother, and to Scotland and the US on my own, the latter twice. I’ve also travelled interstate here in Oz on my own. The limitation is that I don’t drive, so am stuck with public transport or relying on friends (visiting the US is to see friends).

    I haven’t had transformative moments while travelling. I visited the UK because I’ve loved its history all my life; I visited France because of the transformative moment years earlier (seeing Mr K’s portrait in a book) and wanted to see the places he knew. Going to the US was exciting – getting to meet internet friends in the flesh at last, and seeing Yosemite. But transformative? No, not at all.

    I’m no extrovert and much prefer to travel alone, or at least have time alone when I’m with other people. It feels too much like I’m beholden to do what they want all the time, otherwise. Apart from that, I need that time to be able to contact Mr K; I can very seldom hear him when there’s the natter of other earthsiders around. When I’m not meeting friends I won’t socialise at all outside talking to people working in shops or cafes I’m using, and that suits me fine. What I really miss when away from home is my cats! When Mum and I were in London the first time, staying in a flat, we went out of our way to do our shopping, because we’d found a street with lots of friendly kitties living in it. They assuaged the withdrawal symptoms somewhat. :)

    • August 1, 2013 at 7:38 pm

      Just remembered one, not transformative, but sweet moment, on the first trip. There was a picture of Mr K I was trying to track down at Chiswick House. Mum had come down with a bug, so I went alone – easy to get to by train, I loved London’s rail system. It was the first time I’d been On My Own for any length of time during the whole trip. Much as I love my mum, being together all day every day was getting on my nerves, so having a day out alone was special. Even more special was getting to Chiswick and seeing the portrait in question, which in those pre-Internet days I’d never laid eyes on. It was unlike any I’d seen (every other one of him as an adult showed him in armour) and I loved it, and sat staring at it and writing descriptions with lots of exclamation marks and taking photos. Happy day.

  13. Tony
    August 1, 2013 at 11:33 pm

    My favorite trip — to New Delhi and Agra — was alone.

    Perhaps it’s because I don’t travel much but I still feel a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment just from successfully planning and navigating a new place on schedule and without getting lost.

    When I’m with others, I have to share that sense with them, but when I’m by myself, I know that I’ve driven the entire day and that feels good.

  14. mslaurie
    August 2, 2013 at 6:47 am

    I haven’t really travelled overseas alone, but I’ve had some mini-adventures alone when the mr & I wanted to do different things.
    Most memorably, in Aswan, Egypt, the mr stayed in our hotel for the afternoon while I went exploring. I ended up helping a man in a jewellery shop draft a “happy new year” message in English to his Australian relatives, got lost down alley ways, and met a 7 year old girl who dragged me into her house to meet her family and practice her English! Ended up sitting in the family’s main room drinking tea, helping miss seven with her school books & testing her vocab (and trying to advance my Arabic beyond “thank you” and “no”), and being taken on a tour to the roof to check out the chicken coops! Fabulous day!

  15. August 2, 2013 at 8:21 am

    Never been overseas but I used to embark on long distance road trips every other summer or so… Usually to Northern Ontario (it takes about two days to get to Manitoba from where I live… Ontario is Huge) or to Quebec and I also loved the feeling someone described of not being accountable to anyone else’s moods, finances or comfort zone. If I wanted to sleep in my car (which I often did) I could sleep in my car, but if I wanted to say screw it and get a hotel room, I could do that too.

    I still do a lot of road tripping with the boyfriend, who is more accustomed to hitch-hiking and gets frustrated with the complication of throwing an actual vehicle into the mix.

  16. Angie unduplicated
    August 2, 2013 at 12:19 pm

    I spent two years living in my pickup truck’s topper and roaming around the Southeast alone, doing temp work and seeing the sights. Not covered in the tourist manuals: brisk chilly 4AMs spent drinking cold coffee and watching stars on a dark country road while catching late-night radio jazz before work, meeting new people at a county jail after being found on a vacant lot with out of date driving papers and a real-live police chase (not recommended), driving the genuinely beautiful Ozarks, flea markets and country stores. I figured that if Steinbeck could do it, so could I, without the fleas. I really wanted to raft the Mississippi but that dream died fast after an overnight visit from the numerous and voracious mosquitoes. If and when I retire, I plan to take the Bondo Condo out to a different region, solo and with insurance current!

  17. Tim
    August 2, 2013 at 12:57 pm

    I would definitely encourage anyone to try solo travel if they want to. When I was in my 20s, I used to love to travel. I would talk about going one place or another on vacation by myself, and I had family members telling me, “oh, you don’t want to go alone, it will be so lonely,” and like a fool I listened to them. I did finally take one 3-week trip to the UK by myself, and it was great. Now I feel too old and sick and depressed and other reasons to even go across town or do anything but drag myself out of bed and to work every morning. So, my two cents worth of advice would be to go now and go often while you can.

  18. 30ish
    August 2, 2013 at 4:15 pm

    I took a trip to Japan by myself when I was 20, using up almost all the money that was in my account at the time. I’ve noticed that when I’m traveling alone I’m more likely to push my boundaries a little and do some things I wouldn’t otherwise do, even if it’s just eating alone in a restaurant. I also tend to feel more able to get things done by myself. Like asking for directions when I’m lost or making phone calls in a foreign language. And I’ve always met interesting people. The Japan trip is among my favorite memories. I hope I’ll get the chance to travel solo again, soon.

  19. August 5, 2013 at 1:50 pm

    I don’t have the money or opportunity to travel much, but I’ve recently gotten really into the short day trip and/or being a tourist in my neighborhood/town. The short day trip may mean camping or just driving to a small town nearby (usually for a thrifting/auction destination). The “tourist in my town” portion of it is due to biking, which I’ve really gotten into with my kids, because it gets us out into the community in a way that just doesn’t happen by car or by foot. We see the public sights, people watch, look at interesting houses and animals and flowers and whatnot, and hit parks on the way.

    Like you say as much in the Guardian piece, it’s a way of learning and challenging yourself. That first time my bike fell apart and I had to figure out how to get me, two kids, and a hunk of metal and rubber the last mile home? It was a learning experience. It also empowered me to learn the mechanics of my machine so I could fix it the next time around. It’s also an amusing story.

    It’s the moment of: I am not crying. I am still walking.

    This has never been more true for me than the last year. Bravo, great piece.

  20. karak
    August 5, 2013 at 10:48 pm

    I’m afraid to travel alone, largely because I have a fairly poor sense of direction, and a tendency to get lost fairly easily. And, once lost, I panic.

    I went on a foreign term to East Asia a few years ago, and got lost, alone, in Tokyo. I ended up in Shinjuku, crying in a bathroom stall, and finally decided, “fuck it, I’m going to enjoy this day and then ask a kanban to send a police officer to take me home.”

    I ate a cake by myself, bought a CD, talked to a small child, got flirted with, and ate some more cake. It was marvelous. And I found the way back to my youth hostel by myself. Only took six hours.

  21. CFQ
    August 6, 2013 at 6:18 am

    I’ve lived alone and travelled alone and loved it. At a time when my marriage has pretty much fallen apart and things I love doing feel incredibly hard, this article has reminded me that I can be brave and take pleasure in things that are maybe just about me, when for so long it has been about ‘us’. Seriously, thank you.

  22. A4
    August 6, 2013 at 7:22 am

    My friend is in the hospital right now. She’s 23 and just recently graduated from college and would like to take a semester off before grad school to travel a little bit, but she would need a full time nurse to help her manage her illness if she were to even consider traveling. Even with a nurse she is terrified of the logistics of keeping all of her medications and nutrition in order while traveling. All of her nutrition and fluids are delivered directly to her bloodstream via a permanently placed tube that runs into her heart, as are most of her medications. The ones not delivered to her bloodstream are delivered directly into her GI tract via another permanently placed tube.

    Traveling at all, an even more so traveling alone, are both quite the privilege.

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