Just this morning I received the following text:
Kim, I have swine flu. I’m not going to be able to make it to Paris because a) I feel like death and b) I’m not allowed to be around people…so sorry! x
Of course, my first thought is; poor Clare! My second (slightly selfish) thought is; hmm…probably best not to be sharing a hotel room with the dreaded swine flu. And my third is; ok…so does this mean I go to Paris on my own?
I’ve always thought of travelling alone as a necessary rite of passage. Yes, the idea of it can be a bit daunting. After all, it isn’t often in our busy lives that we end up forcing ourselves to spend a few days, or a week, or even months with no friends or family around. Add into the mix an unknown place, an unknown language, and a whole variety of unforeseen challenges that inevitably land at your feet when travelling, and you start to see why for lots of people, going it alone is thought to be completely out of the question.
But ask anyone who has spent any time abroad with only their wits, their credit card and the phone number for the British embassy as backup, and they’ll tell you that they’re a better person for the experience. There is a complete sense of freedom that comes from knowing that wherever you are and whatever is happening, you can rely on yourself and actually have a bloody good time in the process. Plus, if you’re single, you don’t have to rely on ‘finding someone to go one holiday with’ in order to go to the places on your travel hit list.
But that was then. To be honest, having had a bit of a crap year all round – one that’s left me a little bit bruised, I can’t say I feel as confident as I used to about jetting off on my own with only my own thoughts for company. As many a travel writer has pointed out, the problem with travelling alone is that you have to take yourself with you, and if you’re head is not in the best of places then that’s a prospect that might seem pretty terrifying.
However, I also know that if I get myself onto the eurostar, proving to myself that I can rely on myself in a foreign city will probably be one of the most empowering and rejuvenating things I could do. So I’m going to give it a shot. Drawing on my past experience, these are the tips I’m repeating to myself so I actually enjoy it.
1. Remember, you’re never actually alone
Unless you’re on in the middle of a polar ice cap, it is highly unlikely that there won’t be people close by to remind you that you’re never actually on your own. In fact, I’ve often found that the challenge for lone travellers is more likely to be getting some time to yourself than finding someone to hang out with. Something about being on your own makes you way more approachable to other backpackers/hotel guests/cute guys in the same cafe; and I’ve always found I’ve made more new friends on my lone-travel trips than on group efforts.
However, if you do find yourself getting a bit lonely, or just fancy some company, there are some easy ways to scratch the itch. Signing up for organised tours is a pretty safe bet, while group activities are even better – think group treks, cooking workshops, language classes. And if none of that takes your fancy, always remember that if you really need to you can contact friends and family by text, phone or email any time you like.
For me though, the best way of overcoming any pangs for company is simply by talking to everyone. I mean it. People in the place you’re staying, the waiters and shop assistants, people on the street to ask directions, people in same bus queue. Who cares if your French / Thai / Japanese is a bit shaky. You only need to learn a few words and phrases to make a connection with someone, and you get so much more out of the experience as a result. And if you really don’t know any of the language…
People are more likely to warm to you and want to help you if you look friendly, even if you are babbling in broken English making wild hand gestures to try and make yourself understood.
Smiling also comes in useful when things go horribly wrong; it’s an instant reminder to relax and remember that there is never a problem than can’t be solved.
3. Research the cool cafes
One of the first things I do when in a new place is find a few cafes that can become my home from home – where I can eat, drink, read, blog or just hang out and people watch for hours on end. Let’s face it, spending a whole day and night on your own traversing the sights of a new place can be pretty knackering, and it makes me feel much more relaxed in a new city knowing there are a few spots I can just camp out in regardless of where I am or what time it is. For me, this makes me feel like less of an outsider and helps me make the city my own. On a related topic…
4. Embrace dinnertime
Most lone travellers will tell you that dinnertime can be the hardest time to be on your own in a city. You’re usually busy all day in the bustling town enjoying the sites and travelling from A to B, happily sitting in cafes in bars where no one bats an eyelid as you sit on your own and enjoy a good book. But when the sun goes down something switches. Suddenly all the restaurants and cafes are packed with couples and groups. And waiters aren’t quite so welcoming when they realise they’ll be giving you a table for two but getting half the sales (and half the tip). And out of nowhere, you become acutely aware you’re on your own.
The trick here is to embrace the experience. So what if you’re dining alone? This is your holiday and your evening. So indulge yourself. Eat what you like, where you like. Take your favourite book or your journal and save the best bits to enjoy over dinner. Order your favourite wine. Ignore any snotty waiters trying to usher you into a side table by the kitchen and sit where you want to. Take a deep breath. Enjoy every mouthful of your food. Eavesdrop on conversations (this can be even more fun if you don’t know the language). Spend as long as you like – there’s no need to rush if you don’t want to. Do something that will give you a buzz, like making a list of ambitions for yourself, or places you want to visit in the next ten years. Or just do nothing, remembering how brave you are sitting in this restaurant far from home, and soak up the atmosphere. Which leads us onto…
5. Get outside
Do not, under any circumstances, sit in your room pondering the map and worrying the big bad city outside. Yes, be prepared. Yes, make at least a vague plan for how you’re going to spend your day. But if you need to consult your guidebook or your map, do it sitting in a Parisian/Argentinean/Californian cafe, not from the edge of your hotel bed. There is nothing in that room you haven’t seen before and there’s a whole world of experiences outside that you might be telling your grandkids about.