5 Reasons To Travel Alone
In 2016, the travel bug had been nagging me for a while and I was talking with a friend about taking a trip overseas together. Eventually, she had to drop out of the plans, but instead of waiting for a better time I decided to go somewhere on my own. To be honest, I didn't give it much thought; I just knew I needed to go somewhere and soon. Thank god for credit cards. I planned out my agenda, made some reservations, and flew to Bogotá, Colombia in March 2016 to start my first international solo trip.
Even though traveling with someone else has it's advantages, traveling alone is an invaluable experience that I do not regret in any way. Here are the top reasons why I think everyone should travel alone at some point.
1. Practice language skills
If you want to learn a language, the best way is to be immersed in it. When traveling with another English speaker, the natural tendency is to revert to the native language for the sake of comfort and efficiency. One of the reasons I chose Colombia for my first solo trip was to improve my Spanish speaking and comprehension skills.
I studied Spanish from 6th grade through college, but after graduation my skills fell off sharply and now it's been almost 10 years of not enough practice. At home, anxiety often gets in the way of me using my Spanish, but in Colombia I knew I wouldn't have a choice. To maximize my learning time, I enrolled in a week of Spanish classes at Nueva Lengua Spanish School in Bogotá. I highly recommend it, though I wish I could have stayed longer. Classes gave me the opportunity to practice in an educational setting, but since students came from all over the world and had varying levels of fluency, I did cheat a bit and speak English with some of them.
2. Meet new people and make friends in other countries
Sure, you can meet new people when traveling with friends or family, but it's more difficult and just not the same. For me, when I'm with anyone familiar I tend to interact less with strangers because it's more comfortable and effortless to stick to who I know. When it's just you and no one is present to act as a social crutch, you are forced - or allowed, depending on your perspective - to interact with people you may never speak with otherwise.
Traveling alone doesn't only lead to more interactions, but it often leads to more meaningful ones. If I go back to Bogotá, I won't hesitate to get in touch with the people I bonded with the most, including some of the staff at the language school. Since students at the school were from all over the world, I'll also have friends in Hamburg and Brasilia.
If I had traveled with a friend, I wouldn't have spent much one-on-one time with anyone else. For me, the closest bonds are made when I can just sit with someone at a cafe and have great conversation over drinks like I did in Colombia.
3. Do whatever you want
One of the best parts of traveling alone is the ability to make your own itinerary and change it whenever and however you want without having to consider anyone else's preferences. One day in Medellín, I was feeling a bit sick and still tired from traveling so instead of doing a walking tour as I had planned, I had breakfast in the hotel, slept in, and found a cafe where I could relax and people watch. If I was traveling with someone who was set on checking everything off the day's itinerary and not willing to go out alone, that may have been a problem.
In Cartagena, I went on a papaya bender. I always thought I didn't like papaya, but that was just because the papaya we get in the States is unripe and tasteless. Afro-Colombian women in traditional dress would sell papaya within the walled historic section of Cartagena, right across from my hotel, and the hotel breakfast always included a fruit bar. I can't count how many times I made a papaya detour, but I know it was enough to have irritated anyone who might have been traveling with me.
However you feel about the book Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, you can't deny that we could all use a long vacation to recalibrate when life gets hard. Part of the reason I was so quick to book a solo vacation was because I had gotten out of an unhealthy relationship about a year before, had recently gotten myself into another one that ended quickly and painfully (for me), was frustrated with my lack of career progress, and was dealing with family issues all at the same time. I was itching to get away from daily reminders and just spend time doing what I love to do - travel - away from those problems and with nothing to focus on but me.
While in Colombia, I treated myself very well. To be honest, I would do the same at home if I could afford it, but the exchange rate allowed me to go all out. I went on a date with myself to at least one fancy restaurant in each city I visited, didn't rush my dinner, and ordered whatever I wanted, including a bottle of wine for one. (No shame!) I went to a hotel spa in Cartagena (partly out of necessity, partly for enjoyment).
Even though I traveled between three cities, I connected with nature in each one and those were some of my favorite experiences from the trip. I visited big cities, small towns, mountaintops, waterfalls, and beaches and all of them provided much-needed self-care in different ways.
5. Challenge yourself and gain confidence
It's one thing to be independent and self-reliant when you're at home. It's another when you're in a new country with an entirely different culture, language, and way of life. You can and should do plenty of research beforehand, but some things have to be learned as you go. Traveling alone not only gave me a sense of accomplishment, but it reinforced the feeling of being able to manage whatever situation is thrown my way.
Luckily, nothing disastrous happened while I was in Colombia, but I did have to improvise and find my way with little to no help. Navigating the multiple bus lines to find my way to the salt cathedral in Zipaquirá, a small town outside of Bogotá and to Santa Fe de Antioquia, a small colonial town outside of Medellín was exhausting, but worth it. (Most improvisation revolved around public transportation.) Everything didn't go smoothly, but next time I'll be even more confident in my ability to make my way in the world, and that's a valuable lesson to bring home.