When Solo Travel Sucks

by Gray Cargill on May 1, 2012

Post image for When Solo Travel Sucks
Elevators

Elevators by Chris D 2006

I had a conversation recently with a fellow travel blogger, in which we were discussing how important it is to write about our failures as well as our successes. I may be an advocate of solo travel, and I do love it and think most people should try it at least once. But I don’t want you to mistakenly think there’s something wrong with you if your solo travel experience isn’t an immediate, raging success. Sometimes, it isn’t–for any of us.

Loneliness does creep in sometimes, even with an experienced solo traveler like me. Things will go wrong. The question is: Will you take that as a learning experience, or let it cause you to retreat?

Last May, I had a very bad night in Madrid. I had gone out for dinner, where I was the only solo diner at this particular cafe. People around me were conversing in languages I didn’t understand, and all I could do was focus on my food. As I people-watched all the way back to my hotel, I saw lots of couples, families, and groups of friends and few if any solos. I started to feel lonely, vulnerable.

Back at my hotel, I went to the elevator bank and pushed the button and waited with an older American couple for the next car. We joked about something—probably the slowness of the elevators. An older man and two older women came up behind us, speaking what sounded like Italian, and waited with us.

When the elevator arrived, the Italians pushed ahead of the rest of us to get on. When I tried to get on the elevator with them, the man shooed me away. He didn’t want to share the elevator with me.

I was so stunned, I didn’t know how to respond. I backed out of the elevator, staring at them, and said “Are you kidding me?”

“Hey, come on!” said the American man behind me to the Italian man. “There’s plenty of room in there.”

To prove it, he grabbed his wife by the elbow and got on the elevator and didn’t let the Italians bully him. He gestured for me to join them, but by this time, the elevator really was pretty full. And I didn’t know which floors any of them were on–if the Americans got off first, I didn’t want to be stuck in the elevator alone with the rude Italians.

“No thanks,” I said. “I’ll wait for the next one.” The doors closed on them, and I pushed the button again, feeling humiliated.

Madrid

Madrid

I fumed about what had happened all the way to my floor, berating myself for not being more like the American man, hating myself for backing down and letting the Italians treat me badly. As soon I got to my room, I burst into tears. The unexplained rejection and shocking rudeness compounded with my lonely fragility were just too much to bear in that moment. I felt like the wussiest solo traveler ever.

As I so often do when I’m feeling vulnerable, I had internalized the Italians’ rudeness. Instead of acknowledging that the problem was theirs, I started to go to my “What’s wrong with me?” place. It was not a good night.

After a bit more self-pity, I got online and tweeted something about what had just happened and someone tweeted back something along the lines of “Don’t you hate when people are jerks like that?”

That helped put it all back in perspective for me. Their rudeness wasn’t about me. It was about them. They didn’t want the other Americans sharing the elevator with them, either. The only difference was that I avoided confrontation, and the American man didn’t.

This is one of the negatives of solo travel: When something like this happens, and you don’t have a travel companion who can reassure you that you’ve done nothing wrong, that what happened wasn’t your fault, you sometimes blame yourself. Thank God for the Internet at times like those.

I went to bed, got some sleep, and when I woke up in the morning, the sun was shining and it was a new day.The incident from the previous night was still a vivid memory, but instead of “what’s wrong with me?” my feelings about it had shifted to “how rude those people were!”

We all have moments of vulnerability when we’re traveling solo. Sometimes, our own insecurities get the best of us. Sometimes, we feel fragile. But those moments don’t last. I promise. And, painful though they may be while they’re happening, they are good for us. They strengthen us and make us more empathetic toward others. If you’ve ever felt the stinging pain of a stranger’s rudeness when you’re at your most vulnerable, it should make you less likely to be rude to others yourself, right? At least, I’d like to believe that.

I’d also like to believe that the next time a stranger is rude to me, I’ll stand up for myself and my rights a bit better than I did that night. But one thing I am sure of is that a bad experience like this isn’t going to stop me from traveling solo in the future. Because I have far more stories about the kindness of strangers than the rudeness of them.

Photo credit: Elevators by Chris D 2006.

 

James Townsend December 5, 2012 at 5:26 pm

Hello!

Pardon me for jumping in. I had an experience in 2005 with a rude customer when traveling solo to Walt Disney World. I had just left Cape May Cafe (at the Disney Beach Club resort) after dinner and, after a day of running around the parks, sat down on the step to rest a bit. A family came by on a surrey bike and as they passed me, the guy turned to his wife and said, “He’s drunk”. I have cerebral palsy, which is a birth defect that causes damage to the motor areas of the brain; therefore, when I’m really tired I can sometimes appear drunk. I thought the guy was an ignorant posterior orifice, but, not having the energy to flip him off or cuss him out, I got up and slowly went to my room at the Wilderness Lodge. I happen to be a solo traveler because if I waited for someone to go with me I’d never leave home, but this resonated because it could happen to anyone.

Jim

Gray December 5, 2012 at 6:00 pm

No pardon necessary, Jim. Thank you so much for sharing your story. It’s such an unfortunate tendency we have as human beings that we often jump to conclusions without knowing all the facts. I’m very sorry that happened to you. I’m hoping Disney worked its magic and the rest of your trip made up for that poor experience?

James Townsend December 5, 2012 at 6:10 pm

Gray,

Thank you for your post. As it happened, Disney worked its magic and I had the kind of blast that isn’t possible with dynamite.

Jim

Gray December 5, 2012 at 7:51 pm

LOL! I like that, Jim! Glad to hear it.

Gray May 18, 2012 at 5:30 pm

Elle (your name is Elle, right?) – I know what you mean. I just got back from a trip where I was feeling pretty ill almost every day, but didn’t want to miss out on the travel experiences, since I’m a vacation traveler, and this pricey vacation was “once in a lifetime” for me. So I soldiered through the discomfort, but man, I don’t want to have to do that again. You do feel more vulnerable when you’re sick and traveling solo, that’s for sure.

Gray May 18, 2012 at 5:27 pm

Vicky, Lucy – Thanks. I haven’t dwelt on it too much since then. My point for telling the story is simply to remind people that sometimes solo travel isn’t all sunshine and roses, but that I hope people won’t let those bad experiences stop them from enjoying the positives of solo travel. The bad times happen, they suck, but life goes on.

Lucy May 14, 2012 at 3:17 pm

Yeah, everyone’s right. They’re idiots, you’re not, so of course you’re going to have a difference of opinion. Makes me sad that they upset you all night.

Vicky May 14, 2012 at 3:15 pm

Jeez, what a pair of idiots! How dare they be so rude? I would definitely agonise over that and rage about it, whether I was with my boyfriend or not. Some people are just so rude and mean – they’re horrible people, don’t give it another moment’s thought!

SOLO FEMALE NOMAD May 13, 2012 at 6:14 am

I think there are a few ups and downs as a Solo Traveller – although I feel that there are far more ups! Rudeness of strangers can make the experience a little more tough, although I agree that it can be cultural. The thing I find hardest as a solo traveller is being ill on the road. I then just stay in bed!

Kusum May 7, 2012 at 2:24 am

Very true. It happens sometimes. People are just rude but, we cannot blame ourselves for that!

Gray May 4, 2012 at 11:36 am

@Estrella – I think you hit the nail on the head. I find it feels a bit lonelier and more isolating when I travel to countries where the primary language is not English. If I’m traveling to English-speaking destinations, I’m fine. It’s so much easier to connect with other people spontaneously when you can speak the same language.

Gray May 4, 2012 at 11:11 am

@Christine – I’ll accept that virtual hug. I certainly needed one that night. Yeah, the American guy was my hero that night. And yes, I can speak of lots of people I’ve encountered during my travels who have filled that function. Those are the people that remind me the world is full of more good and decent people than jerks.

Estrella May 4, 2012 at 10:54 am

I traveled alone for a few days in Thailand. I’m not the most outgoing person, and making friends is a bit of a challenge, so I pretty much spent most of the time alone. While it was great that I could do what I wanted, when I wanted to do it, I personally feel I enjoy traveling with another person with me. Then again, it might have been because I didn’t know the language which added to feeling isolated.

Christine | Grrrl Traveler May 4, 2012 at 6:33 am

I want to give you a BIG HUG!

Travelers can be asses. I admire that you’re still so positive and it’s awesome you caught that it wasn’t you. I agree, those rough days when you have no support burns and I laughed when you said you fumed & berated yourself. I do that too. No consolation; no outlet.

Hooray for that American man for pushing back for you! In a way, those kinds of people are the solo travelers’ secret guardian angels. Our best friends are always kind-hearted strangers.

Cressida May 4, 2012 at 2:17 am

@Gray I’ll drink to that 🙂

Gray May 3, 2012 at 7:01 pm

Aww, thanks Leyla! I know you’ve experienced the highs and lows of solo travel too. More highs than lows, though, aren’t there?

Gray May 3, 2012 at 4:21 pm

LOL, Cressida. I have a feeling if and when we ever meet in person, we’re going to get along famously. 🙂

Cressida May 3, 2012 at 5:32 am

Yeah, that was probably the benefit of the doubt one step too far lol.
The man was an a***hole 🙂

Gray May 2, 2012 at 5:24 am

@Cressida – I’m claustrophobic myself, so I could understand that too, if that were the case. I don’t think it was, though. Because if you were claustrophobic, wouldn’t you take the stairs or just wait for the next elevator once the crowd had cleared? Instead, he pushed ahead of the 3 of us who had been waiting longer than he had. I don’t think it was claustrophobia that motivated him, I think it was a sense of entitlement.

Gray May 2, 2012 at 5:18 am

@Sabina – The Internet can be a double-edged sword when you’re traveling. You don’t want to use it as a crutch and miss out on the culture you’re in, but at the same time, thank God for it at times like these.

Cressida May 2, 2012 at 4:02 am

Maybe he was rude, maybe he hates foreigners, maybe he is a claustrophobe and couldn’t cope with any more people in the elevator (as a claustrophobe myself that’s what occurred to me first!). But whatever, none of that would be to do with you. It’s so hard not to react like that when someone is rude. I do it too, though a bit less as I get older (46 too). I try to give myself a bit of a talking to and wait until the adrenaline rush of being so insulted has passed. Swearing out loud also helps!

Sabina May 1, 2012 at 11:59 pm

It’s awful that that man behaved the way he did. Definitely the problem is with him and has nothing to do with you. It’s so hard when someone kicks you when you’re already down. I agree that being able to turn to social networking to connect with people at a time like this is a real lifesaver. I’m pretty sick of the internet nowadays but I probably would have gotten on line for reassurance myself if I’d suffered the same insult.

Gray May 1, 2012 at 6:06 pm

@Jarmo – That’s exactly my point. It shouldn’t put anyone off from solo travel. Yes, I journal while I eat too! Or I should say, while I’m waiting for my food to arrive. Mealtime is usually the only time during the day when I slow down long enough to write down everything I’ve seen and experienced that day.

Jarmo May 1, 2012 at 5:57 pm

True, sometimes when you are traveling by yourself, you will have bad days; days when you just can’t connect with people or when you feel alone. I think it’s unavoidable that it happens sometimes, just like in real life, sometimes you just have bad days. But, that shouldn’t put you off from solo travel, you will have a lot more of the good days than the bad ones!

Btw. whenever I go eat by myself, I take my notebook so I can do some writing at the same time, or a book.

Gray May 1, 2012 at 5:11 pm

@Andi – I certainly think so. That IS traumatic, to have an accident while traveling alone. In fact, I think that’s probably one of the big solo traveler fears. What we’d do in a situation like that. Have you blogged about that? That would probably be helpful for people to read.

Gray May 1, 2012 at 5:10 pm

@Jodi – I’m so glad it resonated. I think it’s important that other people know that they haven’t done anything wrong if they have a bad solo travel experience. It’s like everything else in life–you’ve got to take the bad with the good.

Gray May 1, 2012 at 5:09 pm

@Suzanne – You know, I don’t think I’d take that as rudeness, I’d take it more as ignorance. It’s a common response by someone who has never thought about solo travel themselves and cannot fathom anyone else doing it either–let alone on purpose. It does get exasperating after awhile to hear that all the time, though, doesn’t it?

Gray May 1, 2012 at 5:09 pm

@Esther – Yes, agreed. I think I’m used to a certain level of rudeness, but when people are rude off the charts, it just shocks me so much I don’t know what to do with it.

Gray May 1, 2012 at 5:04 pm

@Tracy – LOL, sorry about that. If it makes you feel any better, I’m departing on a solo trip in a few days too. We’ll be in the same boat. (And I’m sure we’ll both be just fine.)

Gray May 1, 2012 at 5:04 pm

@Nancie – Oh for sure, Nancie! I’m sure they would have. But in that moment, I took it very personally, just because I was feeling vulnerable at the time.

Gray May 1, 2012 at 5:03 pm

@Jan – Oh, Jan. I can so relate to that story. Good for you, for turning the situation around! I don’t mind staying in hotels, actually. I rather like the anonymity.

Gray May 1, 2012 at 5:01 pm

@Working Nomad – I don’t know, man. I’m 46 and I’ve been traveling alone a long time. I’m not sure I’ll ever get used to it.

Andi of My Beautiful Adventures May 1, 2012 at 4:28 pm

I agree there are always moments. I went diving once and had an accident and it was super traumatic and I had no one around me to support me. That was so hard. But, you pick yourself and keep going. The positives outweigh the negatives right? 🙂

Jodi May 1, 2012 at 3:04 pm

Thanks for posting this anecdote, a great illustration of how things aren’t always full of ponies and unicorns, regardless of the method you travel. Stories like these remind us that we’re all subject to ups and downs and as you said, it’s hard when there’s no one to be a soundingboard for the down times. Of course technology allows us to get that feedback even when no one around us can provide it! Appreciate you writing about an honest moment that (I’m sure) resonates with many of us.

Suzanne in VA May 1, 2012 at 2:11 pm

i wouldnt have wanted to ride in that elevator either, what a jerk!!! I just finished my solo trip to San Antonio (Sat-Mon) and really had a great time. But how many times did I hear before going “You are going by yourself? I could never do that. I wouldnt know what to do by myself.” And this was from a friend!!! So not just the occassional Italians are rude 🙂

Esther May 1, 2012 at 1:52 pm

Some people are just rude. And it’s not about you. They can be from anywhere, you never know what really motivates them to be so rude.

After Travel Bloggers Unite in Umbria I am now on a solo-slow-travel back home to Amsterdam by car (Pisa, Innsbruck and now in Luxembourg) I am pretty good at being alone, since I am an only child (unspoiled). But for solo travel you have to be a little bit more prepared. Especially with dinner is difficult, sometimes you rather not go eat and start doubting if you should not just go to Burger King or something. And as a woman you always have to be cautious about picking up conversations.
Solo travel, am still not sure, argue with a friend is fun too hmmm 🙂

Rude people? Ignore them anytime. Just focus on the friendly faces.

Tracy Antonioli May 1, 2012 at 9:10 am

Why oh why did you have to post this 24 hours before my next solo trip–about which I am strangely nervous??!!??? Ha!

But really, thanks. It helps to know I’m not alone in my occasional solo-travel-failure. 😉

Nancie May 1, 2012 at 8:06 am

Some people are just rude. Who is to say that they wouldn’t have acted the same way if you were part of a couple. That being said, I can understand your reaction. I probably would have done the same thing.

Jan May 1, 2012 at 7:32 am

On one of my first solo trips (to San Francisco) I booked an evening tour with dinner in China Town – what to do in the evenings was a problem for me then. I waited in the cold outside the hotel for nearly an hour but nobody came to pick me up. The concierge rang the company who said they’d send someone within 20 mins but I felt so cold and abandoned that I rejected the offer and went to my room and wept instead. After half an hour I’d pulled myself together, decided it was make or break time and set forth alone. Caught the cable car down the hill, browsed the shops, had dinner by myself (with a friendly chat to some fellow Australians at another table) and felt pretty pleased with myself!
I’ve learned that this sort of experience is MUCH more likely to happen if I stay in a hotel instead of a hostel so I’ve become a gray nomad backpacker and rarely felt lonely in my travels.

Leyla May 1, 2012 at 6:54 am

You’re so right – it’s not always perfect and it’s easy to forget that. We do get lonely and there are times I’d give anything for someone to share a moment with. That said you reacted amazingly – you reached out for help, you got back your perspective, and you went to bed rather than staying up all night rehashing it all. And guess what? Next day was fine. So you’ve learned how to set yourself up for success during your solo travels and how to deal with bad behavior or sadness when it arises. Well done, Gray!

Working Nomad May 1, 2012 at 6:20 am

I think it is a cultural thing that people push ahead, once you get your head around that then it’s probably easier to brush it off.

I think when you are alone you become quite sensitive to this sort of stuff but the more you travel alone and the older you get, the less it bothers you.

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