Whenever I tell people that I’ve backpacked alone, the normal reaction is either “Good for you!” or “Are you crazy?!”. Travelling alone is not for everyone and it doesn’t mean that you’re more or less adventurous or selfish. It’s a matter of preference – similar to whether you like boxers or briefs, salad or fries as a side, or rom coms or blowup action movies (all the latter for me!). My first backpacking trip was with a travel buddy to Europe but after I felt comfortable with being new environments and gained some travel savvy-ness, I decided that my next trip would be a solo mission to South East Asia and this continued on my trip to Africa.
So here are some pros and cons with travelling alone. Some of my pros may be your cons so I suggest you make your own list and regardless or which way you go, you’ll end up having a great time as long as you open yourself up to experiencing new cultures and commit to having a memorable trip!
- You can be selfish. Feel like sleeping in all day? Go ahead! Rather go hiking instead of checking out a museum? Who’s stopping you? Travelling alone lets you decide what you want to do, when you want to do it. You don’t have to compromise and whatever you want to accomplish on your trip is up to you. You don’t have to play with your friend the awkward mind game of “I don’t know, what do you want to do?” and ultimately, you are responsible for your decisions, whether good or bad.
- You’ll be more open to meeting new people. You don’t have a social crutch anymore. If you don’t want to eat alone, you’ll have to chat up that nice-looking Brit staying in your hostel. This is one of the main reasons why I travel alone. I get to meet other people like me and discover those instant best friends forever connections. Sure, there are times where you may just want to be alone, but you’ll find while travelling alone that if you make the first move and chat up your bunk mate or bus seat partner, almost everyone will be more than open to tell you all about their trip experience so far and where they’re headed next. After you get through the small talk chit chat, you may find that these people will become your trusted travel buddy or maybe just an interesting story to tell your friends back home.
- Curious locals will want to talk to you. Once you pick pass the touts who are trying to sell you things or for the ladies, creepy guys that are picking you up, talking to locals is a great way to gain insights into the places you are visiting outside of the “tourist bubble”. This is especially true for solo female travellers. Locals will see you taking selfies and ask questions, maybe even have no shame asking very personal questions (“Are you married? Why aren’t you married?”). Just be nice, smile, answer whatever you feel comfortable with and ask them questions in return. This is the way I found out that certain Thai islands have a strong Rastafarian culture or that there’s a witch doctor in Tanzania who’s a pastor and can apparently cure heart diseases and diabetes.
- You will get preferential treatment. It may be a demoralizing situation but when you’re travelling alone, you will get special treatment from people who feel sorry for you. Hey, they can feel sorry for me all they want, I don’t mind as long as I get something out of it! In South Africa, it was the spacious front seat of a smelly, packed minibus, beside a friendly local driver, Rob, who told me all about his 7 kids and taught me phrases in Xhosa.
- Everything is divided by…1. The costs of your trip will be higher if you’re travelling alone simply because you can’t share the costs of accommodation or taxi trips with anyone else. However, if you are good at #2 above (making friends), this will help bring down your costs. If you’re in an anti-social mood, look for shared accommodation in hostels or just take local transportation like everyone else to lower the drain on your wallet.
- You’ll have to keep funny things to yourself until you can tell someone. Every time I meet someone new after being alone for awhile, I get a major case of verbal diarrhea. It’s just that I literally haven’t talked to anyone for awhile (talking to yourself doesn’t count, although you’ll start doing that after about 3 weeks of travelling alone. Don’t worry, it’s completely normal. Right?) and have seen/experienced so much that I just need to tell someone. Travelling alone means you won’t have someone to confirm with that yes, those are blatant abortion ads plastered on lamp posts in Durban or laugh with you over the random child that was tossed in your lap for an 11 hour minibus ride to Tofo. Keeping a journal helps remember and get some of those funny moments out on paper. I still laugh reading through my journals because it brings me back to those exact moments.
- You have to be more aware. Travelling solo means that you don’t have someone else looking out for you, this doesn’t mean that you should be yelling “back off!” to anyone who comes within 2 feet of you but you will need to be more cautious (especially women). I’ve experienced some shady situations (getting dropped off the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night or sleeping with my tiny Swiss Army knife under my pillow) but in the end, I’ve never been robbed or harmed while backpacking. This is because of a simple rule I made: I vowed never to put myself in any dangerous situation. This meant not going out by myself at night in a shady neighbourhood or getting so drunk at the bar that I couldn’t put myself to bed. Use your common sense, street smarts, buddy system, peripheral vision, instincts, whatever it takes to keep yourself safe.
- It gets lonely. Even after all my trips, I still get home sick around the 4 week mark. It’s just human nature to miss creature comforts – your family, friends, your bed, etc. This coupled with being alone will give even the most optimistic people the case of the Mondays. How to prepare for this is to tell yourself that it’s totally fine to feel lonely, and instead of having a pity party for one where you’re the guest of honour, it’s your trip and you can do whatever you want. So eat your feelings with that tub of ice cream on the beach but remember to look around and take in your beautiful surroundings because when you’re back home in your tiny cubicle at work, the place where you rather be is on that beach eating a tub of salty tear-infused ice cream.
Obviously, there are many other reasons that I haven’t included so feel free to post them below. For those who rather travel with a buddy, you can check out TravBuddy, FindMeetGo or search the Thorn Tree travel forums for travel companions. Whether you decide to take the “table for one” route or make it an extended group hang with your closest friends, your trip is what you make out of it so go out there, chat up your neighbour and try to learn as many swear words in different languages as possible (we all know those are the first words we learn so don’t even try to deny it)!