Last month, I flew over to Amsterdam and Oslo for work, and was lucky to be able to tack on some PTO while I was there to visit Stockholm, Barcelona and San Sebastian. (More on that here and here.) Phil couldn’t join me for the trip, so I ended up spending 3 weeks in Europe by myself, and it completely changed the way I look at travel. Keep reading for five things I learned about traveling alone.
1) Tours are not for nerds. I’ve always been skeptical of organized travel tours. I assume they are expensive, cheesy tourist traps that won’t reveal anything I can’t find in a good guide book. Even so, after a couple of days of wandering Amsterdam on my own (and based on multiple recommendations from friends and colleagues), I signed up for a two-hour boat tour of the city’s canals. I enjoyed it so much that I booked myself into group tours in three of the four other cities I visited, and they ended up being some of my favorite experiences of the trip! (The Fat Tire Bike Tour in Barcelona and Pintxos tour in San Sebastian were particularly good.) I met some really fun and interesting people (like a group of 65+ year old Aussie women doing the Camino de Santiago - so impressive!) and learned a lot about the history and present-day culture of the cities. I think the key to finding a good tour is focusing on a certain niche, like the cycling or the food. In Stockholm, I went on the Millennium Tour, which used landmarks from Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series as focal points while showcasing historical and contemporary Stockholm. It felt a lot less educational and a lot more fun.
2) Meals are best enjoyed with a companion. I’m an introvert. I enjoy my alone time. But eating/drinking alone, with nothing and nobody to accompany me but my phone and a book, got really old, really fast. (Plus, I hate to say it, but I felt like a real loser while waiting for a table-for-one in a hip Barcelona tapas restaurant, surrounded by couples and groups of people having a good time.) So as difficult as it was, I forced myself to strike up conversation with complete strangers. And you know what? It was really, really fun. Way more fun than the occasional night I spent with my nose in my Kindle at the hotel restaurant, usually after a long day at work, when I really didn’t feel like talking to anyone. My dining experiences turned into some of the more memorable moments of my trip, like meeting Amelia, a young Rosamund Pike-lookalike, at a bar in San Sebastian and chatting about her recent stay in Berlin, or the 2 hour lunch I spent bantering with Tito and Nestor in incredibly broken Spanish at Bar Nestor.
3) Running is awesome for sightseeing. Since I was traveling for work, I had very little free time in a couple of the cities I visited. In Oslo, for example, I only had a couple of hours between the end of the workday and the start of a dinner function. So in an effort to see as much of the city as possible, I would pull on my running gear, grab my phone, turn on my Nike+ Running app (the maps are essential) and race around the city, taking in the sights along the way. I stopped here and there to snap a photo or read a sign, but I covered a lot of ground and saw way more than I would have if I’d been walking. Plus, it’s never a bad idea to get in a little workout where you can.
4) Travel memories are mine and mine alone. In my opinion, the biggest downside to solo travel isn’t having to dine alone (see #2) or navigate public transportation without a buddy (a huge pain the butt when you don’t speak/read the language). No, the worst part of solo travel comes after the trip is over, when there is no one to reminisce with. As much as my husband loves to hear about all the fun I had on this trip without him, it’s just not the same as “remember when”-ing with someone who experienced it right alongside you. My biggest regret of the trip is not keeping a diary to preserve my travel memories, something I’ll definitely do next time.
5) Everything is on my terms. Solo travel was an incredibly freeing experience in that I didn’t have anyone else’s needs or desires to consider but my own. I just did what I wanted to do all the time, whether it was stopping to take a zillion pictures on my walk through the city, skipping a “must-see” historical landmark that I didn’t really care about, eating gelato for lunch…and again two hours later as an afternoon snack, or going back to the hotel just to change my shoes. Kind of amazing, right?
Don’t get me wrong, I love traveling with other people, but there is something really special about traveling alone. You see things in a completely different way when you’re fully immersed in a foreign city without the distraction of a travel companion. What do you guys think? Would you ever take a trip by yourself? If you already have, what did you think of the experience?