Learning the Art of Solo Travel
I started my travel adventures, as many people do, during a study abroad program in college. My program took place in London where I had the opportunity to intern in Oxford Circus (sounds cooler than it was), and take a class with forty other students from my university. This program was absolutely awesome, but it lacked in the “getting out there” department. When you travel with students from your university, teacher included, it’s very easy to depend on the familiarity and miss out on valuable experiences. I knew that I wanted to try the whole solo travel thing for myself so I stayed an additional month after my program to see if I could actually do it. After my program finished up and spending a week with my best friend in Barcelona, I packed my bag and boarded a flight to Cinque Terre, Italy for my first solo travel adventure.
When my flight arrived at the Pisa airport I knew I needed to take two separate trains to reach my final destination: Riomaggiore. Anxiety ridden, I ran back and forth through the airport, like a chicken with my head cut off, looking for an ATM and a place to purchase the train tickets. One missed train later I managed to communicate, mostly through hand motion and expression, with a nice Italian women who helped me get my tickets and board the right train. The two and a half hour trip to Riomaggiore was a peaceful one as I kicked back, listened to music, and enjoyed the views passing by. The hardest part was over, but I still needed to locate my hostel. All thanks to some very detailed directions from the website of the Mar-Mar hostel that I had printed out and packed with I made it right before dinner. At this moment I felt extremely proud and accomplished that I had made it this far, while simultaneously feeling lonely and awkward. This sense of awkwardness disappeared once I worked up the courage to ask a canadian girl, also traveling solo, if she wanted to join me for dinner and drinks down by the water (romantic, I know). The next thing I know we are sitting at a cute italian restaurant devouring an extra large pizza margherita, drinking beer, and talking about things that I don’t talk about with some of my closest friends. It was like we had known each other for years yet we had met an hour before. After dinner it was back up to the hostel where an artist from Berlin invited us to enjoy some beers on the terrace before bed. What an incredible feeling it was, being in a foreign place alone, making friends with ease, and drinking a beer overlooking the Ligurian Sea. It was this moment that made me fall in love with solo travel.
Unfortunately, my canadian friend left me in the morning to head onto her next destination, Milan. Since I had already planned to hike some of the villages I headed out to get my Cinque Terre Card and figure out the trains between each village. As I was about to board my train to Monterosso I overheard a couple having trouble figuring out how to get a pass to hike. I stopped to help, feeling especially awesome giving other people directions only two days into my solo adventures. It turned out this couple was on their honeymoon after having just graduated from Butler University, about forty five minutes from Purdue, AND the girl was in the same sorority as me (talk about a small world). There’s something really special about meeting people from home in a foreign land. We spent the next couple of hours together before I headed off to finally conquer one of the many hiking paths between the villages. Due to various path closures I was only able to hike the path from Vernazza to Corniglia, but it was amazing nonetheless.
The next couple of days I found similar friendships everywhere I went, from a kayak rental shop to a gelato stand, I never felt awkward or alone the rest of my trip. I was even able to contact my aunt back in Cambridge off someone else’s phone to let her know that I had not died or gotten lost somewhere in the middle of the Italian countryside. Two days later I said goodbye to Cinque Terre, sad to leave this amazing place that proved to me that I could, indeed, do this whole solo travel thing.
Here are my top 5 tips for newbie solo travelers:
1. Do your research. Solo travel, especially for first timers, can be extremely stressful. Having information such as what trains you’ll need to take, the directions to your hostel, and what passes you’ll need to purchase can help alleviate some of that stress and oftentimes save you money.
2. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. It can be very intimidating approaching someone for help, even more so when you can’t speak their language. Don’t let that fear cause you to miss a train or buy the wrong train ticket. People are usually more helpful than you would expect.
3. Reach out and make friends. Every solo traveler has had their “awkward and alone” moment, but the beauty of staying in a hostel is that there is always someone to connect with and share travel stories. Bonus: You’ll usually get priceless travel information that could help you plan your next trip or pick your next destination.
4. Lose the cell phone. It’s a scary thought, I know, but I have never felt more present in the moment, than I did on this trip. It forces you to let go of everything back home and figure things out on your own. For those of you concerned about letting loved ones know you are safe, you could do what I did and borrow someones phone or you could seek out an internet cafe to send a quick email and maybe enjoy a coffee while you’re at it.
5. DO IT. I can’t tell you the amount of people I’ve talked to that say “oh that’s so cool that you travel alone, but I could never do it.” Not only can you do it, but you need to do it. There is nothing more satisfying than the sense of accomplishment one feels when successfully navigating a foreign land on their own. It helped me discover so much about myself and learn valuable life lessons that I never would have while traveling with other people. Don’t underestimate yourself, just go.