Fear: Friend or Foe of the Solo Traveler?

by Gray Cargill on August 6, 2014

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Don’t you just hate being afraid of things? Fear can be so limiting. Wouldn’t it be great if we could learn how to be completely fearless?

Er, not so fast. Yes, fear is our foe when it paralyzes us and keeps us from doing things we want to do. But fear can also be a solo traveler’s best friend.

You’ve heard that expression “Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer,” right? There might just be something to that when it comes to fear and solo travel.

Fear Helps Us Grow

You know how self-help gurus often challenge you to “do something that scares you every day”? Facing one’s fears every day sounds exhausting to me, so I wouldn’t go that far, but the theory in general is sound. Stepping outside our comfort zone is scary. But every time we face down one of our fears and act anyway, we grow a little bit more. And without fear, there would be no opportunity for courage.

What is it about solo travel that scares you? Is it the idea of navigating a strange place all alone? Is it the difficulty of communicating in a country where you don’t speak the language? Is it talking to strangers? Is it eating alone in restaurants?

Whatever it is about solo travel that you fear, find others who have done that thing and learn all you can from them, then do it yourself. There is no more triumphant feeling in the world than overcoming your own fears.

I’ve always looked at people like they’re crazy when they tell me how “brave” I am for traveling alone. I don’t think of myself as brave, nor do I think you need to be brave to travel alone–if you stick to what’s comfortable. But in some cases, they may be right. Traveling alone in the U.S. is easy for me, but every time I travel to a country where I don’t speak the language, my stomach starts to feel like a fish flopping around on the beach.

Madrid Cafe

Facing my fear of ordering food in a foreign language was empowering.

I have this fear (rational or irrational, it doesn’t matter) that I might not be able to communicate my needs once I get there, and my overactive imagination starts to run through all the resulting bad scenarios, like not being able to convey if I’m sick, or getting hopelessly lost. . .or starving to death because I can’t order anything edible in a restaurant. (Okay, maybe my imagination is a little melodramatic.)

Of course, none of those things have ever come true. But I had to face my fears to find that out, didn’t I? Did I say “Oh well, I can never travel to France, because I don’t speak French”? No!

But because of my fear of not being able to communicate in a foreign country, I always make sure I learn a couple dozen essential phrases in the native language whenever I travel overseas. I quickly learned that’s all you really need. And the locals really appreciate the effort.

I cannot tell you the pride I still feel over being able to order food in French in Paris and in Spanish in Madrid and Barcelona. Or how pleased I was to be able to help two Americans who didn’t speak a word of Spanish get on the correct train and find their seats, because I could speak just enough Spanish to ask the right questions of the station attendant. They acted as though I saved them from a burning building. Talk about a confidence-booster!

La Rambla

La Rambla in Barcelona is rather notorious for its pickpockets.

Fear keeps us safe

On the surface, you might take that to mean that fear keeps us at home, on our couches, in our living rooms, safe from the “big scary world out there”. I don’t mean that at all. I’m not talking about the paralyzing fear I referenced above that prevents us from acting. That kind of fear is our foe, remember?

No, I mean that a healthy amount of fear gives us a healthy amount of caution—it’s that “spidey sense” in our lizard brains that alerts us to danger. It’s how much more acute our hearing is when we’re walking down a dark street at night, listening for the footsteps of somebody walking too fast toward us. It’s the way we notice other people around us, if they’re standing too close or seem to be paying too much attention to our bags.

There’s this saying “There’s safety in numbers”. While that is sometimes true, I think sometimes, being with a group just gives us a false sense of security. I’ve heard more than one person express shock that they were pickpocketed when they were traveling with friends. They swear they never noticed anyone near them.

Well, of course they didn’t, they were probably too busy talking to their friends and not paying attention to what was going on around them. But when you travel alone, you notice what’s going on around you. You notice when someone is standing in your personal space. You have to. There’s no one else to watch your back.

My first day in Madrid, I was walking around Puerta del Sol with my backpack on my back while waiting for my room to be ready. It was very crowded with people, which naturally makes me wary of thieves. My spidey sense started tingling. I glanced over my shoulder a couple of times and saw a woman walking a little too close behind me. I got a bad vibe off her.

So I stopped and turned to look at her. She stopped and turned away from me at the same time and pretended to be digging around in her purse for something. I walked past her, in the direction we’d just come from. She didn’t follow me (because that would have been too obvious, right?), but when I did finally get into my room at the hotel, I found a slash mark on my backpack that hadn’t been there before. I know she did it, and I know I stopped her in the act, just by being a little paranoid in a crowd.

So we can think of fear as our enemy, but I prefer to think of it as a “frenemy” who always keeps me on my toes and pushes me to grow.

What do you think? Have you learned to embrace fear as a solo traveler?

 

San Juan Street

Cute street during the day, creepy at night when it’s deserted.

 

Karen Lim March 30, 2016 at 8:03 pm

I came across your website and thought like this ‘wow, now I know my passion in solo travelling is normal’, I am a 27 yo female from Indonesia, I start to solo travel to many countries (mostly Europe) about 5 years ago. I’m not a tour person, the thought of scheduled activities as well as have to stick along with 20 to 50 ppl most of the time is just so not appealing for me. I always get ‘wow you are so brave! or wow that’s crazy’ from ppl around me or even from locals in my destination when they know that I’m travelling on my own.
Now, I’m so excited as this summer I’ll go to the US for the 1st time on my own, gonna do west coast for 3 weeks, any advice for USA novice like me? *one thing that I’m so happy about is everyone speaks english in the US!* LOL

Gray Cargill April 16, 2016 at 6:39 pm

Hi, Karen, I’m so sorry I didn’t reply sooner. I’m excited for you, that this is your first trip to the US. Be prepared for things to be expensive. Sadly, we are not a cheap country to visit (or live in). But if you’ve been to Europe, you won’t be too shocked. I wish I could give you some advice, but the truth is, I haven’t explored very much of the West Coast of US myself. I did love San Diego–highly recommend checking that out. Las Vegas is one of my favorite cities. It’s been many years since I was near Los Angeles, but I loved the beaches in southern California. I’ve heard great things about San Francisco, and that’s definitely on my list, as well as Seattle. Wherever you decide to explore, I hope you have a great trip!

Martin July 20, 2015 at 6:56 am

Those are great tips! I’ve read you article before I went to Russia, but now I wanned to say thank you! It is so easy to lose your guard when traveling because there are so many distractions. Your tips and Travell all Russia agency helped me a lot, but I can say that those stories about assaults in Russia is more of a myth than true. I imagine South America or Africa is more dangerous, but again, it might be another rumour that I have to break sometime:)

Gray Cargill July 20, 2015 at 6:42 pm

Hi, Martin – I’m glad this helped you. I agree, some countries have a bad reputation that isn’t necessarily deserved. I’m glad you had a good trip to Russia.

Racheal Morgan September 21, 2014 at 5:40 pm

Actually I think that is excellent advice, thank you. Sometimes you have to join a tour to see a place anyway (like hiking Machu Picchu- you literally have no other choice) so even though it’s not a choice I usually opt for, I’m also not completely against it. Thanks for that advice.

Gray Cargill September 21, 2014 at 7:20 pm

You’re very welcome!

Rae Morgan September 20, 2014 at 11:09 pm

Thank you very much for this post. I’m usually a solo traveller myself, since everyone around me has convinced themselves they can’t afford it, and I want to scream to the skies that someone else understands solo travel the same way! I’m wondering what your opinions are on females traveling alone in countries with high rape rates or a lot of rape gangs though. I really want to visit some countries like that for their interesting culture and food, but part of me says the fear is my friend in that case. I’m often torn about that.

Gray Cargill September 21, 2014 at 11:41 am

Hi, Rae – Well, I have to admit that countries that are not particularly female-friendly (those where you hear a lot about women being attacked or treated like second class citizens) aren’t at the top of my travel list. I’m sure others feel differently, but I choose not to spend my hard-earned money on places that are hostile to women. That’s a personal choice on my part. There’s sometimes a difference, though, between our perceptions of how dangerous a place is (the media has a tendency to spread hysteria) and how dangerous it really is. This is where fear can be your friend, because it makes you stop and think about safety issues. Sometimes it requires a lot of research and consulting with other women who have traveled solo to those places. That said, in terms of general safety, if there were a place I really wanted to visit but did not feel safe going there alone, I would probably join a group tour. I’m not the tour type as a rule, but sometimes, it just makes more sense. Just my opinion, of course. I hope that helps.

De'Jav Speller September 10, 2014 at 7:40 am

Yes there is a fear when a solo traveler. I think that fear though helps us to be excited as well communicating, eating new foods, just being in a different environment. If we never, lived outside our fears nothing would be accomplished in life.

Gray Cargill September 11, 2014 at 7:25 pm

I completely agree, De’Jav.

Peter August 12, 2014 at 5:56 am

Hey Aleah, Thanks a lot for writing such necessary content. You were lucky and alert. That’s why your backpack was save. This post will make a lot of people aware about this situation.

Gray Cargill August 12, 2014 at 6:05 am

Hi, Peter – I’m Gray, not Aleah (Aleah was kind enough to share my post with her followers), but no worries. I’m glad you liked it.

Aleah | SolitaryWanderer.com August 7, 2014 at 3:30 pm

When my readers ask me if I don’t feel afraid of solo travel, I always say that of course it’s natural to be afraid. The trick is knowing how to deal with these fears, because you’re right, you can definitely use it to your advantage as a solo traveler. Great post!

Gray Cargill August 7, 2014 at 7:42 pm

Thanks, Aleah. Yes, that’s exactly it: You can use it to your advantage.

Aleah | SolitaryWanderer.com August 9, 2014 at 2:52 pm

Will share this on my FB page on Sunday, 10th of August. 🙂

Gray Cargill August 9, 2014 at 9:49 pm

Thanks, Aleah! I’m honored. 🙂

Glendon August 6, 2014 at 9:00 pm

So true about being more aware of your surroundings when you’re alone. I remember this British couple on the Metro in Paris when the doors opened and people moved out the lady realized another woman had her hand in her purse, the woman took off and the British lady was in awe and her husband too. They were busy chatting and not paying attention to being squished in with a bunch of people. Uh hello perfect opportunity

Gray Cargill August 7, 2014 at 12:15 pm

Yes, Glendon. My point exactly.

Maria Falvey August 6, 2014 at 3:22 pm

This is a great topic. Fear can stop you in your tracks, but I love your take on it, “fear… always keeps me on my toes and pushes me to grow.”

Gray Cargill August 6, 2014 at 7:08 pm

Thanks, Maria. I often read articles about defeating fear, but you know….I think fear really does serve a purpose for us human beings overall, as long as we don’t let it completely rule our lives.

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