In praise of... travelling on your own: how solo travel opens you up to new experiences and people

While a holiday buddy brings cheer, conspiracy, and closeness, going abroad on your own reveals new aspects of yourself and the world, argues Katrina Conaglen

In praise of... travelling on your ownIn praise of... travelling on your own
In praise of... travelling on your own

In praise of... is a weekly Travel feature in which NationalWorld writers extol the virtues of a particular aspect of adventuring. From the idiosyncratic, divisive, or sometimes just plain quotidian - these are the things we love to do on our holidays.

At 24, I sat at an outdoor taverna in Athens, Greece, on my first visit to the city, by myself. Famished from a day's exploring, and with a thoroughly Anglicised understanding of Greek Cuisine, I put my order in to the terribly patient waiter, whose broken English far excelled my total lack of Greek. Dolmades starter, a Greek Salad, some tzatziki, then a main of moussaka. I requested an ouzo aperitif (out of curiosity, having never tasted the tipple) with the starter, and a small beer, and then, a glass of dry white wine to accompany my main. Through no fault of the waiter, there was a communication breakdown. And so it was that all dishes - each one, it transpired, a meal in itself- were delivered to my table simultaneously, and a bread basket the size of a baby’s cot, along with the ouzo, a stein of lager, and a bottle of wine.

Suddenly, it was apparent the rest of restaurant's diners had their eyes clapped on me: a small woman on her own at a table groaning with a feast that Henry the Eighth wouldn't turn his nose up at. At that instant, I realised, I had two options. Cast my eyes down, look furtive, and plough my way through my meal like the friendless glutton I appeared to be. Or style it out: flash the other diners a conspiratorial grin and gleefully indulge in my faintly ludicrous dinner. I opted for the latter, telling myself a sweet fiction as I did so. "Who is that fabulously decadent young lady?" I decided they were whispering to one another. "She looks like a fun time!" (Reader, may I say: the meal was delicious. And ouzo is vile).

Katrina, climbing the Dolomites on her own in 2022Katrina, climbing the Dolomites on her own in 2022
Katrina, climbing the Dolomites on her own in 2022

I mention this because the fear of social embarrassment - of public judgement - is merely one of the myriad, entirely understandable reasons why many people are wary of travelling alone. Further concerns range from the similarly anxiety-laden - what if I get lonely? Will I need someone to talk to? to the uncomfortably real - will I be safe, travelling alone? Will I get taken advantage of without company to back me up? to the practical - how much more expensive is it to travel without someone to split the costs? (as a note: single supplements are a ludicrous, out-moded notion - a frankly rude tax on people's life choices).

But if you can steel your courage and stretch to it, the rewards of single travel are many and varied.

Be master of your own itinerary

For a start, and forgive the bluntness, you can do whatever the f**k you like, whenever you fancy.

When you're with a travel buddy, partner, your family, there is - unless you are an abject turkey- an obligation to collaborate on an itinerary, on restaurant choices, time you get up, style of travel. And while that collaboration has its own charm, when you're own your own, every moment is your own. Fancy an extra hour in bed when you had previously planned on hitting the Guggenheim? Get in. Hate the hike you're on? Abandon it in favour of an afternoon in a café. Your time is yours. That happens precious fleeting in life, especially as you get older.

And, in my - and many other's experiences - it better places you to interact with other people. Travelling with a companion, the temptation can often be just to talk to and interact with them. I am bolder, more outgoing, and more prone to striking up conversations with strangers when I'm on my own. I'm far from the only one - my colleague Suswati Basu notes that she "made friends with these two lovely elderly travellers who we did a cooking class together in Vietnam - we're all still friends, 15 years later."

Our editor, Nick Mitchell agrees - interrailing for a week during his Uni years, from the Basque Country through France to Amsterdam, he enjoyed "having the complete freedom to do what you want, when you want" but also "trying out some French was fun (the highlight was talking to a brain surgeon on a train and almost understanding him)" - another fine point. Talking to strangers in a foreign tongue is, once again, more likely to happen when you're not having conflabs with your travel buddy but still seeking human contact.

It also, in my experience, makes you more present in the moment. Without a gaggle of friends to banter with, my mind slows down, my eyes open wider, I take in my surroundings more thoroughly, play closer heed to what I'm experiencing. Art galleries become sacred spaces for contemplation. A city square, the ideal spot for internal speculation on the lives of all around you. My thoughts breath more. I take more in.

A test of resilience

An existential cow, in the Austrian countrysideAn existential cow, in the Austrian countryside
An existential cow, in the Austrian countryside

Sometimes it can be existentially tough, being abroad on your own. There’s a David Sylvian line in Japan’s phenomenal song, ‘Ghosts’: “Just when I think I'm winning/ When I've broken every door/ The ghosts of my life/ Blow wilder than before.” I think of those lines sometimes when sleeping in foreign beds on my own.

Travelling on your own can allow anxieties to creep in (I find, particularly at night), recollections of past embarrassments, worries about interpersonal relationships, my future, my purpose. The enormity of loneliness and fear that it could morph into a permanent state takes me.

And that's difficult to wrestle with, but also, I find, temporary. The sun rises, the ghosts dispel. The world seems bright and full of possibility again. Sometimes feeling lonely is a sneaky salve. It reminds you of what you have when you return from the gloaming.

Tell yourself a story of how fabulous you are

If I can offer unsolicited advice, if you are still afraid of going: you can account for being safe, I promise you. Research will make it apparent what and where is ok for the solo sojourner. The lonely nights will teach you a certain resilience and are gorgeous for introspection. 

And as to the notion of social embarrassment, try my tactic. Tell yourself a story about what a fabulous, sophisticated traveller you are. Imagine people think, ooh, hark at them, how intrepid. Reader: tell yourself that story and it comes true.

And, finally, arguably, most importantly, if there is a double bed, travelling on your own means there will always, always be a cool patch to roll into, and four pillows to cuddle.