Loneliness and the Solo Traveler

by Gray Cargill on January 4, 2010

Hikers in Stowe

Sometimes, I hear someone say that they tried solo travel once and hated it.  It’s usually not because of something horrific like getting mugged and beaten and left in an alley.  No, the reason is usually that they found that it just wasn’t as much fun without anyone to share experiences with.  In other words, they were lonely.  So after that one lonely trip, they decided never to travel alone again–Ever.  Even if that means never traveling again.

I’m usually flabbergasted by such an extreme reaction. You wouldn’t let one sunburn keep you from ever going out in the sun again, would you?  So why would you let one lonely experience keep you from trying solo travel again? Look, even those of us who extol the virtues of solo travel get lonely sometimes.  We just don’t let it stop us from traveling alone.

South Beach

Maybe solo travel is easier for me because I’m an introvert.  I need some alone time every day to recharge my batteries and be happy. But there are times when I wish I had a travel companion with me.  Like that time in Vegas when I got longhauled and then dumped outside the tour lobby of the Flamingo late at night by my taxi driver, or the time in New Orleans when I was driven out of a bar I was enjoying because this creepy drunk guy kept hitting on me.  What I wouldn’t give for a travel companion–any travel companion–at times like those.  But sometimes, it’s that simple emotional response that what I’m doing just isn’t as much fun alone.

On my last trip to Vegas, I was really looking forward to visiting the Voodoo Lounge at the Rio to grab a drink, enjoy the view of the Strip at sunset, and take some photos.  I’d read so much online about how much fun other people have had there.  The Lounge wasn’t open when I arrived.  I was told I could wait at the bar inside the Voodoo Steakhouse until the Lounge was open at 7pm.  Since that was only about 10 minutes away, I did that. Unfortunately, it was date night at the Voodoo Steakhouse; the bar had only a few seats and was packed with couples. The bartender was bustling around filling drink orders for waitresses and never so much as glanced in my direction, let alone asked me if I wanted a drink.  Everyone at the bar was engaged in private conversations, so I stood there for the longest 10 minutes of my life feeling very awkward with no one to talk to and no drink in my hand.

When the Lounge finally opened, I went upstairs. No one else came upstairs, so it was just me and the staff.  It was too  windy to go outside, and I couldn’t get a clear photo of the view through the windows.  So I couldn’t focus on my photography until more people showed up.  Had I been traveling with a companion, we’d have ordered drinks and stayed in the lounge chatting with each other until other people started trickling in.  As it was, I felt really uncomfortable as the only customer in the place.  I could have gotten a drink, grabbed a table and waited for more people to show up, but how long would that be?  What would I do while I waited? Instead, I left.  Did I get discouraged by this experience, give up for the night, and go back to my hotel room?  No, I just went to another hotel and listened to a great live blues band all night and enjoyed it very much.

A couple of months ago, I wrote a blog post on strategies I employ to keep from getting lonely on the road, called The Not-So-Lonely Solo Traveler.  As you can see from the above story, these strategies are not foolproof.  Solo travel is just like everything else in life:  Things don’t always go as planned, and sometimes, being alone sucks.  Occasional disappointment is part of the solo travel experience, and anyone who is considering going it alone needs to get used to being uncomfortable and lonely sometimes.  But the more you do it, the better you get at it.  The more resilient you become to those moments of disappointment.

The good thing about being lonely is that it motivates us to reach out to others.  It pushes us out of our comfort zone.  When we’re in our comfort zone, we tend not to grow at all.  Seen from that perspective, loneliness is a great growth experience.  I’ve become far more extroverted since I started traveling alone.  I try to strike up conversations with strangers instead of waiting for them to talk to me.  If I find myself in an uncomfortable situation, I just move on.  And frankly, since there are way more positives than negatives to solo travel, I’m willing to put up with the occasional pang of loneliness or awkward moment.  If nothing else, it makes me appreciate even more the people in my life back home and the time we spend together.  Even if I don’t want to travel with them.

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.

Jiyeon Juno Kim October 18, 2010 at 1:08 am

My exact point. I’m alone on the road but never lonely. I’m a highly out going person, love to mingle, and meet people. Solo travel makes that easy. Some way, I travel alone to be with others. I know it’s oxymoron, but that’s what it is. 🙂
We are not lonely! 🙂

Anonymous October 18, 2010 at 1:24 am

Yeah, it’s incredibly ironic that we meet more people traveling alone than traveling with others. One of those weird mysteries of life….

SoloFriendly July 31, 2010 at 8:23 pm

Yes! Let's just come out and say it: Sex is probably the best example. Would you never have sex again just because your first experience was bad???? What a shame that would be. Same with solo travel. 😉

SoloFriendly July 31, 2010 at 8:19 pm

Twitter has become such a great travel tool, Hedy–both before your trip and during. Hard to imagine what we did before it.

Lori July 31, 2010 at 8:01 pm

I think you've pointed a real important issue: the time we need to spend with ourselves. Yes, it's easier for the introverts, but anyone needs some time alone. You've also pointed great that sometimes the first experience is not nice. For some the first smoke is not pleasant at all and yet they become smokers. And I can offer a list of examples where the first experience might not be pleasant, but people don't stop there.

Maybe the timing is bad or, maybe people simply expect too much on a solo travel and of course they are disappointed…

Hedy July 31, 2010 at 4:05 pm

I've found Twitter to be great at easing loneliness. Want to tell a funny story? Want to assert that you don't care, Magnolia pwns Crumbs? Pop it into 140 characters and tweet it.

SoloFriendly January 26, 2010 at 11:54 pm

You and me both, Christine!

GRRRL TRAVELER January 26, 2010 at 11:20 pm

Well said, Gray. There's nothing more grueling than those solo minutes in a bar or disco when you're either trying to stretch out the sips of your drink but hitting only ice, dancing by yourself in a not-so-crowded dance floor or playing with you PC phone as if you're not feeling an ounce of “lame”… I was raised as an only child (nearly). I'd always seek a creative means to dealing with my lonely humps. For some reason my first big solo trip abroad really jet-propelled me out of my shell; it was like having the best of both worlds! You hit those moments of wishing you had a companion so much – you make it a “must” to go out and find some! I wish I found that personality in high school.

Anonymous January 23, 2010 at 6:28 pm

Did I get discouraged by this experience, give up for the night, and go back to my hotel room? No, I just went to another hotel and listened to a great live blues band all night and enjoyed it very much.

Ted January 6, 2010 at 8:42 pm

I look forward to the day when solo travel is neither rare nor “brave,” but just one of many ordinary and accepted ways to travel.

SoloFriendly January 6, 2010 at 3:18 am

Okay, I'd probably be a little nervous with Asia and Eastern Europe, too (different languages), but WOW! Australia and New Zealand?!? That is SO going to rock! You're right, it is going to be a long trip. But what a great itinerary!

SoloFriendly January 6, 2010 at 3:15 am

Do take the “brave” comment as a compliment. In fact, wear it as a badge of honor. Seriously, it's not everyone who will actually travel alone, especially if it's not something you necessarily enjoy. You are rare, Ted. I wasn't actually suggesting the kind of tour group where your whole vacation is spent with others (thus incurring the single supplement due to lodging); I was actually thinking of the kind of guided tours that last a couple of hours to a day. I took a cemetery tour in New Orleans last winter and met a man who was traveling by himself; we not only had lunch and dinner together that day, we have remained friends and stay in regular contact. So you never know, Ted! There is hope.

Stephanie January 6, 2010 at 12:54 am

Australia and NZ, SE Asia, Japan, possibly some of the middle east and capping it off with some Eastern Europe. At least that's the tentative plan…

SoloFriendly January 5, 2010 at 9:22 pm

LOL. Gotcha. Where are you going for your long trip? You've probably mentioned it and it's slipped my mind. It's all relative, isn't it? I'm planning a trip to Europe in the fall, and because it's in countries where I don't speak the language, it's a bit more nerve-wracking for me. 🙂

Stephanie January 5, 2010 at 6:07 pm

I'm an introvert who ACTS like an extrovert. Subtle distinction there :).

I've done some solo travel but nothing on the scale of the trip I'm planning for later this year. I think it's traveling for so long, and outside of Europe where I feel mostly comfortable that makes it a bit scarier.

SoloFriendly January 5, 2010 at 6:05 pm

You surprise me, Steph. I would have guessed you were an extrovert. I also thought you had done quite a bit of solo travel. No? On eating out…I like to sit at counters and bars to eat when I'm feeling social, and if I'm not feeling social, I journal while I wait for my food to arrive. As long as I have something to keep my mind busy, I'm okay. But it takes awhile. Practice makes perfect.

SoloFriendly January 5, 2010 at 6:00 pm

Yes, you raise a good point, Ted. Male solo travelers are sometimes eyed with suspicion. I guess it depends on who you approach–men or women. You might have good luck going to a pub or sports bar and sitting at the bar and chatting up other men at the bar about their favorite sports teams, while you might have less luck trying to chat up a woman. Try what I suggested to Keith, too–taking guided tours. You'll then have an opportunity to chat with others in the group and perhaps make some new friends. I've also had good luck setting up meets ahead of time via Twitter and online forums (generally for a particular destination). Do you have any hobbies or interests (other than travel)? Sometimes you can get in with a group of other enthusiasts for a hobby and they will have conferences or meetings around the world. I have a friend who is into line-dancing who goes to events around New England that way. Also, if you really don't like to travel solo, you might try to find a travel buddy at a site like Travbuddy.com. Hang in there, Ted.

Ted January 5, 2010 at 6:29 pm

It’s not that I don’t like solo travel, but that I don’t like it as much as going with a good companion. This seems to be one of those cases that you can’t always get what you want, so you have to make the best of what you’ve got. Solo travel usually beats staying home, so I keep going on my own. Once I finally get out the door I usually do have a pretty good time.

I have taken guided tours, an especially photography tours. They’re valuable for their stated purpose, but you can’t count on meeting people. Especially when you’re the only soloist in the group (and paying an extra “supplement” for the privilege).

I almost never encounter other soloists of either gender on my travels in the US. When I do see someone eating alone in a restaurant, they’re dressed in business attire and (often) tapping furiously away on a laptop. The few times I have encountered solo travelers have been in national parks. They invariably have foreign accents, which explains why they’re alone and why they aren’t afraid of talking to me.

Some couples or families are friendlier than others (again, mostly non-Americans). Seniors seem more interested in talking to me, perhaps because they grew up in a less fearful time. But they tend to be rather taken aback that I’m traveling alone, and even remark on how “brave” I am. I have learned to accept that as a compliment.

Although I’ve never heard of travbuddy.com, I have occasionally looked at other travel companion matching sites. One thing I’ve noticed is that posts about a specific trip are almost always from women seeking a female companion. Men are are also specifically looking for female companions (except for those who generally prefer male companionship). So these services seem most useful for women. Also, having had some unfortunate experiences with friends who turned out not to be good travel companions, I could not imagine taking a trip with a stranger I met through what is in effect a personal ad.

Stephanie January 5, 2010 at 5:41 pm

I like this post because it explores a very real fear people have about traveling solo.I am an introvert as well and I love having alone time to recharge, but I go have a hard time doing social things alone, like eating out. I think its important to push our boundaries though and get out of the comfort zone as you said. I'm looking forward to doing more solo travel in the future and becoming more comfortable with myself, by myself.

Ted January 5, 2010 at 7:02 am

If taking the initiative to approach people and start conversations is the most effective way to deal with the inevitable loneliness of solo travel, that may explain why women are so much more enthusiastic solo travelers than men.

A woman who approaches strangers for conversation has a reasonable chance of being welcomed and accepted. A man who approaches strangers for conversation is likely to be feared and run away from as fast as possible. At least that has been my experience as a male solo traveler in the United States (although I very rarely run into someone who isn't American and apparently isn't aware you're supposed to be afraid). I'm told (by women) that people in other countries are friendlier and more welcoming to solo travelers in general that in the United States. Maybe someday I'll find out for myself if that's the case, but for the foreseeable future my solo travel will be strictly domestic.

It is surely not impossible for a male solo traveler to enjoy meeting new people. But the need to overcome the built-in fear factor makes it more of a challenge. The greater difficulty overcoming loneliness may make solo travel less appealing for men than for women.

For what it's worth, I travel solo by default rather than out of enthusiasm. I find it's usually better to go somewhere interesting alone than to stay home alone waiting for a compatible companion who may never become available. The rare trips with companions are much better than solo trips, but the solo trips are in turn much better than the “non-vacations” I've spent at home. I don't think I'll ever understand the people (invariably women) who are enthusiastic about solo travel and even prefer it when they have a choice. But I'm very glad they're speaking out about it and spreading the good word, that solo travel is a legitimate option for many people rather than an incomprehensible aberration in a world of couples and families.

Keith January 4, 2010 at 10:39 pm

Yes, good advice – thanks! Luckily I have a little over 10 months to prepare 😉

SoloFriendly January 4, 2010 at 9:11 pm

I've been wondering how you were going to leave your wife behind, Keith. It is going to be very tough for you, I imagine. Best put a strategy in place now, before you go, for finding people to do things with at least once in a while. You can do some brief guided tours, meet other travelers at hostels, connect with folks on Twitter ahead of time to see who will be in a place when you are. You're a blogger, so focusing on taking notes and photos to record your journey helps keep the mind busy. And of course, call home whenever you miss the sound of your wife's voice. 🙂 And when you do get lonely, embrace it and see if it teaches you something you can share with others in your blog.

SoloFriendly January 4, 2010 at 9:05 pm

D, thank you for your comments. I keep hearing that about Las Vegas–that it's difficult to meet people for any kind of long-term relationship (even friendship), especially if you live there. I think it's interesting to note that traveling solo successfully obviously has nothing to do with whether you're an introvert or an extrovert (as I am one and you are the other!). You just have to push through the loneliness. I'm glad to hear you've had some fantastic experiences as a solo. So have I.

Keith January 4, 2010 at 7:30 pm

I really enjoyed reading this. My first trip to Europe started with one of buddies for one week in Ireland and Scotland and then I was to complete the remaining two weeks on my own. I managed to get sick the night before we left (I still went) and it ended cutting my trip short. However, I think loneliness played a large in my decision to pack it in. I found it difficult to enjoy what I was seeing without a companion. I haven't been on a solo vacation since, though I'm planning several in the not-too-distant future and I'm anxious about it. I'll likely be gone for a month a time and I can already see missing my wife will be painful.

DTravelsRound January 4, 2010 at 5:53 pm

I agree with you. Traveling solo can sometimes be very lonely. There is nothing like arriving to a new place and wanted to share your excitement, only when you turn around, there is no one there with you. Luckily, I am an extrovert and have always had great fortune in meeting other travelers on the road — some in the same position as me, others with friends. As someone who lived in Las Vegas for a chunk of time, no matter whether you are traveling or live there, it is just tough to meet people. But, in general travel stories, the most fantastic experiences I have had have been because I have been solo. The most amazing people I have met have been because I wanted company. And I think, if people can hack it, going solo is the best way to see the world. It makes you open your eyes that much more.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: