Why You Need to Take a Solo Trip in 2020

Travel Tales

Travel Tales Argentina Adventure Solo Travel Longform 2020

I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face as I walked — practically strutted — down San Martin road back into the village of El Chalten in the Patagonian region of Argentina. Just over my shoulder was Mount Fitz Roy, the peak emblazoned on the Patagonia clothing logo, and a few blocks ahead was La Cerveceria Chaltén, the craft brewery that I’d had my mind set on for the last nine hours.

That morning, I had squeezed into a rickety van and been dropped off in the middle of nowhere to hike the famous Laguna de los Tres trail. I’m not a hiker by nature (my most native state is lounging around on the couch). I’d done Machu Picchu (well, the one-day version on the last stretch of the Inca Trail) and a rock scramble trail in Orebic, Croatia, but those were both with friends. This was a 14-mile hike through Los Glaciares National Park — with no cell reception — and I was traveling solo.

What started as a simple walk through a wooded forest on an autumn-like day kept doing quick changes, as if Mother Nature was throwing Amazing Race challenges, testing my ability to survive on my own. One minute, the sun would beat down on an open meadow as I mentally rationed out my water supply and then, moments later, I’d be struggling to balance on a winding path as the wind forced me over. At one point, I bundled up and gazed in wonderment as soft snowflakes settled on the mountaintops and soon after, I was dodging muddy puddles as hail pelted down.

For someone who is shaky even going down the subway stairs in New York City, each element presented new challenges that I had to problem solve completely on my own. But after single-handedly passing all those hurdles — and beating the clock to make it back to civilization before the sun set — I felt a kind of self-confident pride I’d never experienced, a new sense of my own durability. And it overcame me like an indescribable dose of elation, an elixir I didn’t know I needed.

That’s when I realized: this is why there’s so much hype about solo travel. Traveling solo isn’t about not having anyone to go with. Rather, it’s about purposefully choosing to go on your own — and surprising yourself along the way. In my mind, I had always seen myself as a wimp, an adventure-dodging introvert incapable of anything more than a literal stroll in the park. And here, I had conquered a trail I later learned was ranked “Challenging” — and I did it without anyone’s help, or even knowledge.

I’m not the only one who has discovered how powerful solo travel can be. After all, one in four Americans prefers to travel alone, according to a Travelex survey. In fact, 18% of global bookings are from solo travelers — a 7% increase from the previous year, as a 2019 Travelport study found.

“As much as sharing fantastic moments with others is great, there is something exceedingly special about having them to yourself,” Kinga Philips, the host of the Travel Channel’s Lost in the Wild, said. “Whether you are sitting at a cafe alone watching the world go by or climbing a sand dune at sunrise stopping to howl with the coyotes — I’ve done both — you just created a little bubble of a moment that belongs solely to you.”

While that Patagonian hike was alluring for me, like Philips says, I’ve felt that same energy during solo adventures, laughing it up with servers at Churrascaria Palace in Rio de Janeiro, channeling my inner Hufflepuff at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios Hollywood, enjoying a pint of craft beer at Deschutes Brewery in Portland, joining a volunteer project with All Hands and Hearts in Puerto Rico, watching the opera in German (which I don’t understand) at the Vienna Opera House, and indulging in perogies at Pierogarnia Mandu in Gdansk, Poland. The adventures didn’t have to be grand — they just had to be mine.

“In the frenzied world that we live in, it’s about this rare window to do exactly what you want, when you want, without answering to anyone else,” Lee Thompson, who co-founded the solo travel company Flash Pack, said. “Often, you discover things about yourself that you never realized before, simply because you haven’t had the space to explore who you are outside the context of the people who know you.”

With so many challenges around us, especially in this day and age, the value of being able to step away and recalibrate has turned solo travel into a healthy habit we should all embrace. So here’s why this is the year to consider finally taking that solo trip.

Learn to Transform Fear Into Fuel

Rachel Chang

Even though I’m now a converted solo travel addict, I get what the view is like from the other side. I’ve been at that restaurant looking at the solo diner in the corner, hypothesizing why they are alone. I’ve been the one traveling with a loved one, secretly feeling sorry for the single traveler who didn’t have a companion. I understand the stigma.

“There’s a fear of being judged for traveling solo,” my new friend Pete from England — who I met on a Flash Pack trip to Finland — admitted to me later. “It’s a daunting undertaking. ‘You’re not going on holiday with someone?’ was a common question and was almost universally accompanied with quizzical confused looks — almost like I was a social pariah.”

And that’s the reason Thompson created Flash Pack with now-wife Radha Vyas — to combat that exact feeling. “We’ve all got this inbuilt bias toward the status quo,” he said. “I think everyone has that fear or flicker of uncertainty. It’s all, Am I up to this?, Will I be lonely? and I’m not sure I’m brave enough. But I deal with it by using it as fuel.”

The idea behind the company is to ease into traveling alone by bringing solo travelers together for group adventure trips — which, of course, attracts many first-time solo travelers, like Pete.  This particular trip was a two-night excursion in Finland, exploring the craft beer scene and outdoor Allas Sea Pool in Helsinki and camping in the Nuuksio National Park (sleeping in hanging hammocks!).

Within that safety net of not getting judged for traveling alone — and being with other people doing the same thing — I found myself doing activities I would never consider doing back home... some with success (stand-up paddleboarding) and some without (riding fat bikes).

But what made the strongest impression was chatting around a campfire with strangers well into the night — I naturally found myself sharing more with these strangers than I would with some friends at home. Being in a place where no one had any preconceived notions about me, I was more open to revealing thoughts that had been locked up. (The games of “Would You Rather” sure helped!) And it felt rejuvenating.

“It made me feel like a badass exploring a new place on the other side of the world on my own,” Deb from Westboro, Massachusetts, another first-timer solo traveler in our group agreed.

Recheck Your Personal Values

Credit: Ibrahim Rifath/Unsplash

With so much information available to us these days, it’s easy for our own opinions to get muddled in the groupthink mentality.

And when we travel with other people, our observations about a new place are influenced by what our travel companions see. Every action we take on a trip — from choosing a restaurant to what time to get up — becomes a group decision, a compromise of sorts. But when you’re a single traveler, every move you make is 100 percent yours — an opportunity for you to see how you operate stripped of your familiar surroundings.

As a chronic self-doubter, whenever I come back from a solo trip, I’m more driven, forward-thinking, and assured. And I’m wondering if it might come from a phenomenon I didn’t even realize I was doing until Philipps brought it up: Conversations with myself.

“I like a good bit of loneliness as it tends to first heighten and then silence the voices in our own heads,” she said. “You start to have some rather lovely conversations with yourself, whether it’s talking yourself through something unfamiliar or sharing a moment of awe with yourself. I’ve had some pretty extraordinary experiences once I got past the inmate discomfort of being on my own in a foreign place.”

Without even being aware of it, I realize that there is a difference when I explore the unfamiliar on my own. When I’m in a new place, there’s a constant dialogue running through my brain — almost like seeing the world with silent closed-caption Popup Video commentary.

“The toilets on top of Table Mountain in Cape Town reeks. Oh, look, there’s a sign, it’s an eco-toilet. That’s worth the smell.” “Whoa, that girl in front of Juliet’s House in Verona just put her hand on the statue’s boob — oh, everyone’s doing it. It must be a tradition.” “Waze wants me to pull onto that dirt road and go up an unlit hill to get to my Airbnb? This is so Joshua Tree.”

While those subtle observations may not feel impactful in the moment, overall, they’re letting you see the world unfiltered without any extra commentary — for example, no one is telling me how I should feel about the smelly bathroom, so that I had a chance to explore the (very honorable) reason behind the stink.

“It’s a space that teaches you about your own triggers, fears, strengths and response mechanisms. From how you interact with strangers to where you feel most in your element, you are constantly hyper-aware of your thoughts and feelings,” Philipps said. And that helps you rediscover the inner depths of your personal belief systems.

“There is also a pace to solo travel that slows down the spin of modern existence and helps us to recalibrate,” she said. “It’s the quintessential 101 class to finding yourself and creating a dynamic and honest relationship with self first.”

Conquer Challenges With Confidence

Credit: David Marcu/Unsplash

On a solo adventure, you never know what you’ll be hit with — for instance, the very first thing that happened on my first-ever solo trip to Ecuador was that my luggage didn’t arrive. But the ability to figure it all out — often when you don’t know the language or geography — provides that extra dose of fearlessness to problem solve better.

“I personally believe that when we are solo, especially as women, our senses heighten as a primal response to being more aware and safe in foreign surroundings,” Phillips says. “That feeling lends itself to elevating the five senses in terms of how you process what’s happening around you.”

Sometimes the problems may seem small — like battling loneliness on the road. But Philips has figured out a surefire method that works for her. “When I do feel like some company, I seek out older folks who are also on their own,” she shared. “I’ve found they often love the company and have terrific insights into life and location.”

Other times, things can feel overwhelming, like when I was standing at the bag carousel in Quito, not understanding why such a large group of us didn’t have our luggage. But as I picked up clues, I also found other Americans who were in the same situation as me. While it ultimately took three days to get our baggage, along the way, I made new friends in the moment — and beyond… since I ended up working with one of the girls who also lost her bag!

“Solo travel for women has become far more accessible in recent years. If you are off grid you have access to tools like satellite phones for safety,” Philips says. “When you are in more populated areas, cellphone coverage and Wi-Fi lets you stay in touch with friends and loved ones taking away the layer of being completely alone if you don’t fancy.”

When it comes down to it, traveling on your own is just like any other basic skill. “Solo travel is a bit like riding a bike,” Thompson said. “You really just have to throw yourself at it. Because if you wait until you’re ready, you never will be. Every time you try something new or scary, your self-confidence grows a little further. And that’s useful in all aspects of life.”

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