How I Became a Solo Traveler

by Gray Cargill on April 23, 2010

Time in Solitude

When people hear that I travel alone so much, they often say “I could never do that.”  I sometimes wonder if they think I came out of the womb ready to toddle off on my own to parts unknown.  Not at all!  When it comes to solo travel, in fact, I was a bit of a late bloomer.

Growing up, I was very shy and introverted.  When I traveled, I stayed close to people I knew.  My first semi-solo trip came at 18, when my uncle bought me a plane ticket to come visit him out in Tucson, Arizona for a month.  I was so excited! An adventure!  But. . . I was so timid, I didn’t have the guts to hop a bus and explore Tucson on my own when he was at work during the day, so I pretty much sat around the condo watching soaps, playing with his cat, and going out to swim in the pool.  The only times I saw Tucson and the surrounding desert was when he was off work and could take me places.

I could kick myself thinking about that experience now.  What a waste!  What was I so afraid of?  Getting lost?  So what–you get lost, you ask someone for directions.  Was I afraid someone would accost me, single young female that I was?  Maybe. I grew up in a very small, rural town and all I knew of large cities was what I saw on TV.  Today, cities are my favorite places to explore, and I love taking public transportation!  How did I go from country mouse to city mouse?

London Doubledecker buses

My first real dip into the solo travel pool came in my late twenties when I went to England.  I took a three-week summer class through the University of Vermont called Shakespeare on the Page and Stage.  It was everything an English major/Anglophile could possibly hope for!  We would attend class each weekday morning, performances by the Royal Shakespeare Company at night, and have afternoons and weekends to explore London. I knew no one in that class when I signed up for it.  But it seemed to me a safe way to travel solo.

It was perfect for me at that time.  Sometimes, I hung out with my new friends in the class, and sometimes I explored the city on my own.  I got used to taking the Tube and buses and just walking all over the city.  Sure, I got lost sometimes, but it was never a big deal.  I would just backtrack or ask someone for directions.  I began to realize the things I’d once feared were no big deal.

After that I built up my courage to go other places alone.  Each trip worked wonders on my personal growth and self-confidence.  I found I was much more capable than I’d ever suspected.  But although I was perfectly comfortable traveling alone, the prejudice remained in the back of my mind that solo travel was a “last resort” for those of us who didn’t have anyone to travel with.  It was just a temporary stopgap measure until Mr. Right came along, at which point I would have a built-in travel companion.  Imagine how excited I was when I finally started dating a man who told me he enjoyed traveling.  (Prior to that, I had not met many date-worthy Vermonters who did.)

I quickly discovered that my new boyfriend wasn’t exactly the ideal travel partner I had always dreamed of.  When we traveled, it was almost always for business.  We spent all day every day in meetings and seminars, leaving us with little to no time to tour an area.  Everywhere we went, he was constantly in sales mode–and flirting with other women whenever my back was turned. And that wasn’t all.  He was the strangest person to share a room with I’ve ever encountered.

hotel bathroom counter

Imagine 2 people's toiletries AND a hotplate, frying pan, spatula and groceries on this counter

First off, sleep was nearly impossible to achieve, because he insisted on listening to motivational CDs while falling asleep at night (out loud, not on an mp3 player). They made him fall asleep. Me, they kept awake until his snoring started, which also kept me awake.  Second, he insisted on eating breakfast in the room every day. I’m cool with that concept, but usually “breakfast” is something like bagels, donuts, or a cereal bar.  Not Mr. Health Nut. He insisted on bringing everything one needs to cook omelets in a hotel room–hotplate, frying pan, spatula, collapsible cooler to store eggs, cheese and veggies. Which meant he also packed like a girl. No, wait, I can’t say that. That’s an insult to girls.  Let’s just say he made me look like a backpacker.

There were never enough towels in the bathroom, because he would use them to stuff under the crack in the door to prevent any light leaking in from the hallway (he couldn’t sleep if there was any light in the room, and obviously hadn’t heard of a sleep mask). To avoid being caught with the contraband hotplate, he never allowed housekeeping into the room, so we didn’t get to replenish those towels he threw on the floor or have the overflowing trash emptied. The room tended to get pretty ripe.

After traveling with him a few times, I began to dread our trips together.  Was this what travel was going to be like from now on?  Because he was sucking the joy out of it for me.

room at the Marriott NOLA

Let the sun shine in!

Fortunately, that relationship finally came to an end.  When I began to travel solo again, I appreciated it in a way I hadn’t before.  It’s amazing how little things now make me happy, like being able to sleep in peace and quiet, or how long my room towels will last when they’re not being thrown on the floor, or eating breakfast in a restaurant.  If someone’s boyfriend is flirting with other women in the lobby of the hotel, I don’t have to worry any more that it’s mine.

I no longer see solo travel as a second-class experience.  It’s an act of self-love, a gift we give ourselves.  I still hope someday to find a man whose core values and travel style match mine more closely than that  disaster–but I also hope he understands when I suggest we take separate vacations once in awhile.  Now that I know the value of solo travel, I don’t ever want to give it up completely.

Photo credit: jswieringa and SalimVirji.

Interested in long-term solo travel, but not sure where to start? You can now buy The Art of Solo Travel: A Girl’s Guide by Stephanie Lee, which contains all the basic information you need to get started on your long-term solo journey. Read my review of the book here.

Gray September 25, 2011 at 9:33 am

Thanks Lisa and nurul!

nurul September 25, 2011 at 8:27 am

omg totally loveee this! ((:

Lisa @chickybus September 25, 2011 at 8:17 am

I love this story–very interesting to see you got into travel–especially solo travel. Wild re: how your ex traveled. Very challenging. I really like/appreciate what you said re: solo travel being a gift to one’s self and a form of self-love. I agree!

Ian January 20, 2011 at 1:33 pm

Finally, I understand you from traveling solo… I have to admit I am the one questioning your preference to be solo because I prefer traveling with group. I makes me feel secure and all and you, you are so brave and know I would that is pretty amazing. You are contented of being solo then be it. At least now I know your story.

Gray January 21, 2011 at 12:26 am

Thanks, Ian. Yeah, different strokes for different folks, I guess. 🙂

yvonne December 31, 2010 at 3:52 pm

Could you please recommend a few travel agents within the USA who would cater
to solo travellers who do not wish to pay a Single Supplement. All Inclusives/hotel-airfare.

SoloFriendly December 31, 2010 at 6:38 pm

Hi, Yvonne – I usually book my own trips, so I don’t use a travel agent. I don’t know of any specifically who cater to solo travelers. Perhaps you could put a request out on Twitter?

Janet September 14, 2010 at 3:54 am

i like your story and i feel like a late bloomer myself! i’m solo traveling in my later twenties now.. but i still sometimes haven’t built the courage to ride public transit by myself! my “solo travel” usually just means i can find friends to join me, or join at any point, but that ultimately, i am a single female in this single, travel adventure!

i loved your story of the incompatible travel partner too! definitely reminds me that the first nomadic guy that comes along isn’t necessarily going to be perfect. i’m quite content staying solo for now 😛 travel partners.. especially men.. seem way too complicated.

Anonymous September 14, 2010 at 11:05 am

I started out in my late twenties, so I hear you. Everyone has something they’re nervous about in the beginning (and later on, frankly!). Being content going solo is the most important thing. Happy travels!

Gary Arndt September 14, 2010 at 3:37 am

“First off, sleep was nearly impossible to achieve, because he insisted on listening to motivational CDs while falling asleep at night”

Wow. That is a sitcom character in the making.

Anonymous September 14, 2010 at 11:00 am

🙂 He could have listened to a marching band for all I cared, as I long as I didn’t have to listen to it.

SoloFriendly July 19, 2010 at 10:01 pm

Thanks for your comment, Ayngelina. There are definitely benefits to going solo once in awhile even when you do have a great travel companion–as you're obviously learning.

Ayngelina July 19, 2010 at 12:40 pm

What a wonderful post, I agree that we shouldn't look upon it as a second-class experience. In my last relationship I had an ideal travel partner, we really clicked as travelers, but he didn't want to come on my RTW. So people ask why I chose to go solo and while I didn't really choose it, I'm so glad I did it.

Kara July 19, 2010 at 3:48 am

Oh, Gray. I love the description of the ex! Don't blame you one bit for going solo!

SoloFriendly May 2, 2010 at 6:05 pm

Oh, I know. I just took a family trip last weekend. What a difference! Not all bad, of course, but very different from solo travel.

grrrltraveler May 2, 2010 at 1:03 am

I've been so busy these days but I”m glad I took time to check in. Love your story, Gray! I guess when travel is propped up against not so wonderful recollections of traveling non-solo, there's so much more of the solo experience to appreciate. LOL. These days I either travel as a group or solo. Don't let me get started on the group thing; its almost always a compromise of sorts.

SoloFriendly April 29, 2010 at 12:09 am

Hey, you're not alone. I have a day job too. I just make time to travel a few times a year. I'd like to do more, but money becomes an issue.

Chinese Girl April 28, 2010 at 5:38 pm

Whenever I read a good travel article I feel like wasting my life sticking with my day job, thanks for making me feel it again, this is really nice post encouraging people to explore the world when they can.

SoloFriendly April 27, 2010 at 12:35 am

Thank you, Sabina. Trust me, you don't want someone cooking on the bathroom counter when you're trying to dry your hair after a shower. Especially if you have long hair. 😉

Sabina April 26, 2010 at 11:50 pm

Hahahahaha! Your ex-boyfriend sounds like a trip! I would love to see someone cooking on a bathroom counter. Wow, no wonder you went straight back into solo travel after that. I am still laughing.

And thanks for sharing how your solo travels came about to begin with. This is a very interesting post.

SoloFriendly April 26, 2010 at 1:18 pm

Thank you very much, Andrea.

GlobalButterfly April 25, 2010 at 11:09 pm

Wow, your ex sounds a bit OCD–thank goodness he's an ex! I'm so proud of you for facing your fears and embracing solo travel. It's the best in my opinion!!! I wish you many beautiful adventures in the future AND that you find an incredible bf/travel partner.

SoloFriendly April 24, 2010 at 11:46 am

I can't wait to see how it works out for you. I certainly don't expect that you'll go home and say “Sorry, honey, I'm never traveling with you again,” but you might find it has its advantages for occasional travel.

Keith April 24, 2010 at 1:52 am

Your ex sounds more than a little freakish – sorry 🙂 I am very neutral on the topic of solo travel at this moment. I've had little experience with it and it wasn't as good as my travels with Sarah. I will know more about the other side of the coin soon enough.

SoloFriendly April 23, 2010 at 11:28 pm

That's the way to do it, Alouise! Thanks for sharing your story!

alouiseD April 23, 2010 at 11:13 pm

I always felt obligated to try and find a friend or someone to travel with. The first time I really traveled alone was a couple years ago when I went to London. And it wasn't scary or awkward or anything bad like I thought. Now I travel, and if a friend can come that's good, but if I'm by myself that's fine too. I'm not going to sit around and wait for someone to join me.

SoloFriendly April 23, 2010 at 10:34 pm

Indeed, Candice. I've definitely learned from mine.

SoloFriendly April 23, 2010 at 10:31 pm

Someday, I hope I find someone whose travel style suits me as well as Corey's does you, JoAnna. Wish me luck.

SoloFriendly April 23, 2010 at 10:31 pm

Sounds like a good compromise to me, if you're getting separate travel time due to business. Thanks for sharing, Akila!

SoloFriendly April 23, 2010 at 10:22 pm

Thank you so much, Hedy. Good to see you here.

SoloFriendly April 23, 2010 at 10:22 pm

I vote for both, Terri. If you want to see both, see both. Why limit yourself? 🙂

SoloFriendly April 23, 2010 at 10:21 pm

You're so welcome, thalia! Thank you so much for commenting. Believe me, we all have to work up our courage at first. It's worth it.

SoloFriendly April 23, 2010 at 10:20 pm

I know exactly what you mean, Steph. In fact, last year, I wrote a post called Solo Travel: It's a Choice, which was pretty much all about that:

Candice April 23, 2010 at 6:45 pm

Amen to that! I also wish I hadn't wasted my first solo experience. But we can only learn from our mistakes, right? Also, the ex sounds like a major Douchy McDouchebag.

joanna_haugen April 23, 2010 at 6:21 pm

Great story, Gray. However, I have to admit that even though I like to travel by myself, I really like traveling with someone who appreciates the value of travel like I do.

So glad you dumped the ex-boyfriend. That guy didn't travel; he holed himself up in the hotel room. No thanks!

Akila April 23, 2010 at 5:47 pm

I love this post. I loved travel before I met my husband and I like being alone. With him, it is even better because we both love what we are doing. We don't take separate vacations but when we travel apart for business, we take advantage of our time apart to see different things and to come home and convince the other that we need to take a joint trip there.

Hedy April 23, 2010 at 4:10 pm

Well said.

Terri April 23, 2010 at 1:06 pm

Great stories. As a not-so-young single female traveler, I can definitely relate. One of these days I'll get on that plane alone and head to Cuba or Greece. Can't decide which…. maybe both! And I won't be packing a hotplate….

thalia April 23, 2010 at 12:38 pm

thanks for the inspiration! i love reading solo traveler accounts- i'm working up my courage and this definitely helped!

Stephanie April 23, 2010 at 12:23 pm

I'm sorry but I definitely giggled reading about your ex-boyfriend. People are so bizarre sometimes!

I really like what you said though, “I no longer see solo travel as a second-class experience. It’s an act of self-love, a gift we give ourselves.” I think often often do see solo travel as a lost resort when in actuality, it has a lot of advantages and rewards unto itself.

“You're going alone?!?” is by far the number one question I get when I tell people about my travel plans. People just can't seem to grasp that someone might voluntarily choose to travel in that style.

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