There’s no cure for wanderlust. There’s only temporary relief. When you hear the ca-chunk of a customs official stamping your passport, it hits your system like a fast-acting drug, and your insatiable need to travel is momentarily satisfied. As soon as your vacation is over, though, you start jonesing again. All you can think about is planning your next trip.
But if you’re a frequent flyer, it can be hard to find friends or family members who are up to join you on every single one of your adventures. Conflicting schedules, budgets, and opinions can leave you travel companion-less. What’s a one-woman wanderlust addict to do?
It was a question I pondered for quite some time in my early twenties. I had a pristine passport and a hankering to see the world – but no one was interested in going with me. After several months of fruitless begging, I finally decided to buy a single round-trip plane ticket to Heathrow Airport, and I got on a plane to London all by myself. And that was the moment I learned: solo travel is the best kind of travel there is.
“But Don’t You Get Lonely?”
Every solo traveler gets asked this question at least once in their lives. But being alone and being lonely are two very different things. Loneliness is a pervasive feeling of isolation, a sense that you’re disconnected from the world around you. Travel, on the other hand, is all about making connections – with the people you meet, with the places you visit, with the emotions each new experience stirs within you.
When people ask you the loneliness question, most of the time, what they really mean is, “Doesn’t it feel uncomfortable to do everything by yourself?” We’re social animals, and we tend to travel in packs, or at least in pairs. Sometimes, we wear travel companions like shields, keeping us safe from the judgmental eyes of others, and assuring us we’ll never have to ask the maître d’ for a “table for one.”
But, really, a table for one can be heavenly.
The first time I ever took myself out to a proper sit-down dinner was in Sydney, Australia. Earlier that morning, I’d arrived in the city after a 24-hour flight from JFK. I was exhausted and jetlagged, but energized by the spirit of being in a new city in a foreign country in a whole different hemisphere. I wanted to see the Sydney Opera House as soon as possible, so after I checked into my hostel in Haymarket, I hopped a bus down to the harbor and spent several hours taking in the sights and sounds of the scenery. Before I knew it, the sun was going down, and I was starving.
I could’ve grabbed a sandwich from a storefront and snarfed it down on a picnic bench while I buried my nose in my guidebook – and that was exactly what I’d planned to do. But then I passed by this beautiful Italian restaurant, with outdoor seating and perfect views of the lights twinkling on the water. It looked like a date spot, all couples canoodling and smiling and splitting desserts. My stomach growled at the thought of a big bowl of pasta. My heart fluttered at the thought of eating dinner with such a spectacular view. So I went inside, and I asked for a table for one.
When I think of that meal, I don’t remember feeling lonely. I remember the crisp Pinot Grigio, the tender manicotti, and the breathtaking beauty of my first sunset in Sydney. I felt alive, plugged into the world. I felt like I’d made my own dream come true.
Embrace Your Autonomy
That’s why solo travel is so empowering: you’re the driver of your own destiny. Every morning, you can wake up, decide what you want to do, and then do it – without answering to anyone else. Let’s say you’re in Hong Kong, and you want to wake up early to grab a quick breakfast before catching the first tram to the top of the towering mountain, Victoria Peak. When you’re on your own, you don’t have to worry about your friend’s fear of heights, or the fact that your boyfriend can never seem to drag himself out of bed before noon, or reaching some group consensus on where to eat breakfast – or, worse yet, how to split the bill. Instead, you just pack up your purse and head out the door. Simple as that.
There’s also an inherent flexibility to solo travel that brings with it more opportunities for adventure. Change your plans without asking for permission. Make last-minute decisions on a whim. Embrace your autonomy, and bask in your independence.
Best of all, traveling alone is a great reminder that you’re perfectly capable of taking care of yourself. Women are often told we’re fragile, at risk, and constantly in danger – that we need someone to protect us from harm. But we can be our own protectors; in fact, we can be our best protectors. Being on our own in an unfamiliar setting forces us to rely on our smarts, our instincts, and our common sense. And it builds confidence that lasts long after our travels are through.
Get Lost to Find Yourself
Solo travel isn’t just about seeing other places; it’s also about seeing yourself, in a whole new light. Without travel companions engaging you in constant conversation, you have the time and the space for some serious introspection. I’ve spent many a long-haul flight staring out the airplane window at the endless blue sky, wandering freely around the inside of my own head, asking myself questions: Why am I doing this? What do I hope to gain from my trips? What draws me to the destinations I choose?
It’s also a rare opportunity to try on a new personality. And by that, I don’t mean you should lie to strangers about your name and your age and what you do for a living. (Although, if that’s what floats your boat, give it a whirl!) What I mean is, you have the freedom to let yourself be who you want to be, unfettered, without having to live up to expectations of who your friends and family think you should be. Maybe you’re usually the quiet, reserved one in your group of friends. How might it feel to spend a week on your own, in unfamiliar territory, acting a little wild?
Traveling alone takes you out of your usual context, and while there’s freedom in that, it can also be a starting point for self-examination. When your routine is disrupted, when everyone you know is in another time zone, when you’re stripped of all your comforts and your armor and your assigned roles and expected responsibilities… when all of that’s gone, who are you? There are undiscovered worlds spinning inside us. Solo travel can help bring them to the surface.
Flying (Almost) Solo
Traveling has a way of making the world feel a little smaller, too. As you immerse yourself in different cultures and climates, you quickly learn that people everywhere are remarkably similar. You honor your differences, and celebrate your common ground. You cultivate the elusive yet essential quality of empathy. You make connections.
Solo travelers always have a way of finding each other. We congregate in hostels and expat bars, we frequent social media, we talk to locals, and we leave our schedules open for unexpected twists and turns. And the moment you meet another solo traveler, you already know you’ve got at least three things in common: a love of the world, a thirst for adventure, and a severe case of wanderlust.
So even though you may start a journey by yourself, there’s no telling who you might meet along the way. Some of my dearest friendships were forged while traversing Europe on a coach bus or sipping drinks on a catamaran in the Balearic Sea. If I’d set out on those trips with a travel companion by my side, I doubt I’d have made such deep, enduring connections with these wandering strangers.
The memories you make while you’re traveling the world will far outweigh any discomfort you might feel at the thought of being alone. Travel will shift your perspective, challenge your beliefs, and may even change the whole trajectory of your life. Without my years of solo travel, I would never have been inspired to write The Wild Woman’s Guide to Traveling the World. Not only did I have incredible experiences, but I also gained a new career.
So if you’re on the fence about buying that single plane ticket to a place you’ve never been, I say: indulge your wanderlust. Set out on the adventure of a lifetime, all by yourself, and make your own dream come true.