Behind the Scenes: The Reality of Solo Travel

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Behind the Scenes: The Reality of Solo Travel

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When I landed in Paris a month ago I had a lot of enthusiasm about the following weeks of solo travel. Since I needed to be in Florence on October 15 for my Escape to Tuscany blog reader trip (SO much more on that later!) I convinced Dan that it’d be a great idea if I hopped a low cost flight a few weeks early to explore and help my UX clients, under the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. Such a poetic plan, right?

After posting this picture on Instagram, I realized that a number of close friends would also be in Paris during my first week there. My days quickly filled with dinner plans and crepe lunch dates. My busy social schedule made Paris my oyster and I had a ball pretending to be a local with places to be.

The following week was an incredibly different story. My friends had left the city and I had adopted a sinus infection. Joy. I anticipated that this would be my chance to experience true solo travel, not knowing a soul on the busy streets all around me. In the morning I’d get up, walk and walk and walk, find lunch somewhere, park it on bench and read from my kindle then continue. My camera kept me company but after awhile but felt empty. I tried to remember my original plan – bring my laptop to a cafe to work remotely, just a like a techy Parisian. But, how could I possibly sit around in a cafe? I felt like I was squandering my time in Paris. Typically when traveling I’m charged with energy and excitement for the day but during this time alone I felt full of conflict about how to spend my time. Perhaps my sinuses lended a hand, but I felt lethargic and short of motivation to actually get out and experience the city.

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After a few nights in Paris I moved on to Venice and finally Florence, totting my cold along with me. In Venice I lucked out with gorgeous, crisp fall weather and snapped my way through 128 GB of memory cards. While there I followed the advice of my Instagram buddies and tried Dal Moro spaghetti (I die! So delish!), rose early to see sunrise on the Grand Canal and perused books at Liberia Acqua Alta. The most lasting and memorable experience though was a night I spent cozied up at a cicchetti bar. Was it the tasty but cheap red wine or free appetizer toasts? Not at all. For the first time in days, I sat and chatted with other travelers. I approached a group of Aussies and Brits with an odd introduction of “Hi! I heard you speaking English so I wanted to say hello…” (in hindsight: so weird). The group conversation lasted all of an hour before the bar closed but I walked home along the dark canals with a big, goofy grin.

I arrived in Florence with a new goal. Instead of focusing on knocking off tourist sights I put myself in situations were I could interact with others. I’d read amazing things about a wine bar near my Airbnb and forced myself to take a seat at the tall brass bar for dinner. Shortly after ordering a glass of red and my meal an elderly man from Beijing sat in the chair beside me. His English was somewhat broken but I slowly introduced myself then prodded and asked his thoughts on Florence. Fast forward an hour, and I learned that he was in Italy studying Tuscan wines and had brought his favorite bottles into the bar that night to share. We poured generous sips of Tuscan reds into glasses for the 4-person waitstaff and me. Based on everyone’s expressions and boisterous “fantastico!” ‘s, I understood that these were very, very special tastings that my mediocre wine budget would never be able to offer. I walked home that night, again, with a big, goofy (and this time wine-stained) grin.

I shared my solo travel experience, with all of it’s highs and lows, with others that I met during the remainder of my trip. A middle-aged Brit quickly concluded “Well, it’s the people that make a place.” and changed the topic. I appreciated his simple, precise evaluation of why my solo travels included blunders. For those that are considering a solo trip abroad the most important piece of advice I can provide is to ensure that no matter where you are, in the shadow of the Eiffel tower in or a remote Swiss village, ensure that you put yourself in situations to interact with others. Consider staying in a hostel, sitting at the bar, joining a tour group or taking a class to open up the door to conversation on the road. No matter the size of your camera’s memory card, it’s the memories of toasting and chatting with locals and fellow travelers that will stick with you long after you’ve returned home.

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  • Nikki Prsa

    What a great post – it’s so true. The people really do make the place! That’s why I feel like you hear a lot of people say things like “Budapest is so overrated.” or “I LOVE Budapest.”

    • Margo

      Exactly! While I know it’s only human to generalize about a place based on a experience but it’s almost laughable how people do that. Case in point for me, my visit to Vienna coincided with an extreme cold spell – to this day I’ll tell people to bring a jacket with them on their visit, even if it’s in the summer. “No, just bring a jacket.. I’m sure you’ll use it.” For the record though – I love Budapest. 😉

  • The wine tasting with the older man at the bar sounds so special!

    • Margo

      It was! I should have taken pictures of the labels so I’d actually have something legitimate to brag about. Shame on me! Ha!

  • Maria Salomonsen

    I can relate so much to this..! I’ve just been solo for two weeks in Italy, and some of my most cherished moments are actually of the social situations, like talking all night with a roommate in the hostel or an impromptu dinner with strangers at the local pizza pusher.. That’s what takes solo travel to a different level I think 🙂

    Maria @ http://momentumtravels.com

    • Margo

      Bingo! You totally get it. While I love airbnb I think I should’ve stayed at hostels just for the experience of meeting other travelers. Next time, right?

      I’m so curious about this dinner with random strangers – where you getting a slice then someone asked if you wanted to sit at their table? For some reason I’m having flashbacks of middle school lunch. 🙂

      • Maria Salomonsen

        I was getting a pizza at Gusta Pizza in Florence, right after they opened for the evening. The place is packed, so if you’re only one you’ll have to sit at a round table with others. I sat with a guy from Costa Rica and a couple from the Netherlands and talked travel and US election for, like, an hour. Really a nice experience! 😀

  • This post has me longing for a solo trip like this!! Experiencing Europe with friends and my husband has been amazing, but going solo? What a unique experience! i LOVED reading this post and hope you can share more.

    • Margo

      Thanks so much, Macy. I was honestly a bit nervous about sharing this honest feedback about solo travel. I feel like there are SO many articles out there that advise that everyone should travel solo and how it’s the only way to find yourself. Oh yes, there are definitely perks but I didn’t love-love it, so I figured I might as well be open about it and just write my impressions of it here. I’m so glad you enjoyed my story. 🙂

  • I’ve always shared London with my best friend but this year I went alone. I missed sharing my experiences with her, but in the end I had a pretty good trip!:) But I know what you mean, it gets lonely if you don’t have anyone to talk to about your day, to share your joy of discovering new things

    • Margo

      Right, exactly. So what made your London trip ‘pretty good’ in the end? While I wasn’t a huge fan of traveling alone, I did appreciate all the freedom I had to wander and do whatever I pleased. Dan typically has a time limit on photography walks so when I was alone I had a hay day. On the flip side, now I’m in the process of editing all my pictures and I’m going nuts with the absurd volume of them. Ha.

  • Good point. I’m probably more introverted than you so I thoroughly enjoyed my time being by myself in Cambodia, but it made me all the more excited for the times to get together with my team (of Cambodians), and I don’t know how I would’ve been able to process my experience there if my parents hadn’t visited for two weeks (I was there by myself for 5-6). I do relate that the week that I had to spend mostly by myself I started to feel a bit lonely/lethargic, but fortunately I was able to chat with hotel staff and tuk tuk drivers every now and then as they were pretty friendly.

    • Margo

      Gosh, it sounds like you had an unforgettable trip! I haven’t been to Cambodia yet but from what I’ve heard it’s really a sensory overload with amazing sights, people and food. Perhaps being solo you were able to absorb it all the more? Your take on being alone on the road is definitely inspiring and, in my book, I’d mark you down as courageous. Kudos, my dear!

      • Good point! There is definitely sensory overload, so maybe that’s why I felt totally fine holing up in my hotel room alone at night. 🙂

  • I love this post Margo! I’m off on my first truly solo trip in four years in two weeks time. As an introvert I am excited about exploring a new city on my own but realise it’s important to talk to those around you to make the most of the experience.

    • Margo

      Good for you, my dear! Where are you headed? I think my biggest flub in it all was not realizing that going into the solo travel experience that I needed to make myself available to engage with others – not just lounging around my airbnb when I’m tired. It sounds like you already understand that and will surely have an incredible trip. Let me know how it goes and if you need anything (moral support etc!) feel free to email me! (margo@theoverseasescape.com) I’m rooting for ya!

      • Aw thanks so much Margo! I’m heading to Tasmania in Australia, somewhere not too far from home where they speak English so I’m sure I won’t be pushed too far out of my comfort zone.

  • Taste of France

    I traveled solo for years. One time, alone at a café in Paris, the place suddenly became packed. I saw people turn away, disappointed. Little did I know it had just been featured on TV and everybody came to check it out, but the French have “hours” for when you eat, and I had been lucky enough to get there early enough for a table. Well, I invited a couple to join my table. Turned out they lived outside Paris and had come in for the day, just to see the café that had been on TV. They were shocked that I would invite them to join me–not done–but they were thrilled to enjoy the café. They turned out to be lovely and we stayed longer than any of us expected, enjoying the conversation.
    Another time, on an overnight train in Kenya, I had a great time drinking Tusker beers and talking frankly with two Kenyan business women who shared my sleeper compartment. When you travel with a companion, you don’t get opportunities like that to talk to local people.

    • Margo

      It definitely sounds like you understand the art of solo travel. These experiences in the Parisian cafe and on a night train in Kenya are truly unlike anything you could ever hope for in a guidebook. I applaud you for putting yourself in them – you’re definitely brave by my measurement and for embracing all the goodness that came from it. We could all learn a thing or two about traveling independently with an open mind from you! Thanks for sharing!

  • It has been a very long time since I went on a solo trip… and I think it might be time again! Love the story about the gentlemen at the bar. Love meeting people from all over the world and hearing their story.

    • Margo

      Isn’t that the best? At the end of the chat he asked if I had some sort of Chinese equivalent to FB so he could share his wine suggestions with me. Since I don’t our brief friendship started and ended at the bar stools but it’ll definitely be a conversation that I’ll remember for a long, long time. It was an encounter I never would have predicted or could have hoped for.. and now hear I am, back from one month in Europe and it’s the first thing I want to share. How odd is that?

      Hope all is well, sweetie! Hugs!

  • There is definitely an art to solo travel. As the tag-along spouse of a frequent business traveller, I often explore and dine alone. I’m an introvert so striking up random conversations is difficult for me, but when I’ve done so it’s always been worthwhile.

    • Margo

      Well, you’ve definitely got the perfect blog name then! 🙂 I’ve tagged along in the past and definitely found lots of pros and cons to that method for experiencing a place. Kudos to you though for putting yourself out there and seizing the opportunity to see and experience the world, no matter the format it comes!

  • What a beautiful post, Margo! This is so SO true. I definitely learned this when I was in Taiwan for so many months and forced to explore on my own every day. Some of the most memorable days and moments were when I interacted with locals. I stayed in a hostel for the first time in Hong Kong and it was super cool to meet the other girls in my room. If I were to ever do a solo trip in the future I would definitely choose the hostel route. I can be painstakingly introverted, but sometimes I get really brave when I travel and it’s easy for me to talk to strangers. My boyfriend actually mentioned recently that he wants to do a trip where we stay at hostels just so that we can meet other people while we’re traveling. It really is the people who make the place, especially when you’re alone. It sounds like you had some beautiful adventures, thanks for the reminder 🙂

    • Margo

      Thanks so much, Marlena! Considering all your exotic travels, I know for certain that you are definitely a brave gal. I was lucky in that my time solo was spent in destinations that had a ton of english speakers, I can’t imagine how much more isolating that would be if that weren’t the case. Kudos to you! Also, I really appreciate your bf’s thoughtful request – to essentially travel to meet people, what a novel and beautiful idea.

  • Oh what a great post. It made me really feel that sense of loss you feel when you’re by yourself and wish to share a moment with someone but can’t. At the same time your post is definitely not making me want to travel alone lol I absolutely hate to put myself in a position that I have to introduce myself/interrupt people to get an in…god the introvert in me is not happy about those moments haha. I have it on my list before I turn 30 in a few years to do a trip by myself but I feel it probably would be a short weekend getaway where I would enjoy being by myself and that’s it.

    • Margo

      Ha, well I do applaud your interest in putting yourself out there as a solo traveler given your awareness of what a challenge it’d be for you! I’m definitely an extravert in terms of needing to be around people and engage so perhaps this whole solo travel thing would actually work way better for you then you’d expect. If you recharge well independently then I can’t think of a better route for doing it. 🙂 Let me know if/when you go! I’d love to hear your take on it.

  • I love the way you tell this story and can completely relate. Leaving people after you’ve been with them for an extended period of time and then being forced to travel solo is painful sometimes. I just finished a month-long yoga teacher training in Costa Rica and leave today to continue traveling solo for six weeks. I’ve traveled solo for extended periods of time before but I think this time will be harder and much different because I’ve been around people for the last month who have now turned into family. But what’s beautiful about those solo trips and sometimes difficult periods, is that often you learn so much about yourself that you maybe didn’t know. Great post, thanks for sharing.

    • Margo

      Casey, it sounds like you really understand what this solo travel business is all about. Gosh, you’re so well-traveled, I’m sure you know a thing or two about how to find fun and enjoyment on the road – even when you’re alone. I agree, solo travel definitely has it’s beautiful side in terms of learning new things about yourself that you never knew before. Thanks so much for weighing in on my story. It was definitely an interesting chapter for me.

  • Marissa

    Love the moral of your story here. I’m taking my first big international solo trip in a few months, and while I’m energized at the idea of going it alone, I also know that I will miss the companionship of a fellow traveler. But, to your point: it doesn’t have to be one or the other. I look forward to meeting other travelers along the way and learning their stories — though I doubt I’ll be lucky enough to have the wine tasting experience you had! 😉 Cheers,
    Marissa (lifeasmarissa.com)

  • I loved reading this and it’s such good advice. I’ve been contemplating a solo trip somewhere in Europe and will be sure to remember your tips if I ever follow through with it

  • I have actually been thinking of taking a solo trip to Seoul! This post came at the perfect time! 😉

  • I absolutely 150% agree that the people make the place. I recently took a 6 week solo trip to Canada and spent my first night in Toronto in a shed load of tears (I blame the jet lag) after that I forced myself to talk to people and it was definitely them who made the trip for me. Even if I didn’t like the city itself that much I would still have an amazing time because of the people. I’m so glad it wasn’t just me who was unsure at first! Really great post.
    Steph x
    https://adventureswithsteph.com/

  • YES!! You most definitely have to put yourself in situations where you can interact with others!!

    I end up going on solo trips because my friends can’t come with me, etc and then I get scared. But then when I’m there, I have to remember to go out and explore and yes, it’s daunting at times but so worth it! I most recently went to Timor Leste on my own and I had the most amazing time ever!!

  • This is so so cool! I’ve never taken a solo trip, I’m still scared of being all on my own somewhere. But this post is very inspiring and I feel like I’m one step closer 🙂

    Julia

    ExploresMore.com

  • I just got back from my first solo trip overseas last month & completely agree with you that people make the place. I found whilst in Amsterdam that people weren’t all that friendly (aside from the American guy who sort of helped me find my hotel when I was jet-lagged & emotional + an Italian waiter I got chatting to who’d lived in Australia – where I’m from – for a while), whereas I felt that Berliners & San Franciscans were the opposite. I know at times during my own trip I felt lonely, but this somewhat introverted gal wouldn’t have traded it for the world as the whole experience was one of the best things I’ve ever done. I learnt a fair bit about myself & I know for sure that I wouldn’t have learnt those things had I remained at home.

    To anyone who’s contemplating a solo trip but feels too scared to do it, feel the fear & do it anyway!

    Shell // The Novice Life

  • Absolutely! It’s the interactions and new friendships that really stick with you, you are right about that. I’ve always loved solo travel, but very rarely have I actually been alone.

  • Natalie Redman

    I love the idea of solo travelling but I see it must get quite lonely. Well done for doing it though!

    http://www.upyourvlog.com

  • Natalia Cooke (The Petite Expl

    I found solo traveling far LESS lonely than traveling with people. It’s far more terrifying though, and you really do just have to throw yourself at it.

  • Maggie Burch

    I love how real this is!