As a major advocate for solo travel, I’m often asked what’s the number one benefit of traveling alone. You would think that after nearly 18 months on the road, I would finally have it figured out. By now I should have a broiler plate answer, a quippy retort that can fit on a bumper sticker. However, when put on the spot, there is no easy way to have this conversation. The question is complicated and the answer is unexpected.
Having moved around a lot as a kid, I’ve always been kind of a lone wolf. But it wasn’t until I set foot on an epic, 1+ year road trip that I really understood what it meant to be “new to the area”.
At first, it’s stressful. Humans are pack animals, and being outside of the herd can create a sense of panic. However, after a certain amount of time as an “outsider,” we start to disconnect from the drive to conform. This is when the magic happens.
Dropping the mask
My entire life I had worn a mask. Despite my rebel attitude and lone wolf tendencies, I continued to conform to the herd. My mask was hidden in the small tendencies in how I lived my life. The phrases I used, the food I cooked, the shows I watched, and so forth. Each day I was sure that I was making independent decisions, but in truth, I was not. Once I disconnected completely from everything I knew, the mask started to fall. Amidst the struggle of being alone, I started to understand my attachment to the judgments of others. Once there was no one left to judge, I finally learned to make my own decisions.
Living in the moment
As I was exploring what it meant to live day-to-day life as a solo traveler, I also received a crash course on what it meant to be alone in a crowd. Some of my earliest trips were to the most crowded areas in the US. I immediately noticed my need to have conversations about everything that was happening.
I wanted to tell someone what I thought of the view, I wanted validation on the amazing photo I just took, I wanted to complain about the weather. Generally speaking, I had a deep-seated need to hear my thoughts spoken aloud. But what I didn’t know was that by speaking my thoughts aloud, I wasn’t only shaping my experience, I was also relying on others’ feedback to create my reality.
After a few days, my brain started to accept that those conversations were simply not going to happen. Instead something even more amazing happened. I started to experience each moment as though it would disappear if wasn’t paying close enough attention. And the truth of the matter is that it would. After all, what is an experience without a memory? And when there is only one person to remember, you have to start working overtime.
Being truly selfish for the first time ever
Being raised as a woman in the south, I was always taught to have good manners. Considering others was so ingrained into my identity that at some point it had become a measure of self-worth. I would constantly beat myself up if I felt that I had not considered others’ thoughts and feelings in every decision I made. Up until I experienced traveling alone, I had no idea what a burden I was carrying.
As a solo traveler, you really have no one to consult but yourself. At first, it feels scary. It feels selfish and wrong. But once I got the hang of optimizing every decision for my own happiness, I couldn’t get enough! As with all things in life, there is a balance. But when you have aired on the side of selflessness for as long as I had, you have to experience selfishness to truly find that balance.
Making new friends
This was the number one benefit of traveling alone that I had anticipated. While I certainly experienced this benefit, it did not happen as I imagined. Initially, I felt too scared to approach anyone new. I wasn’t sure how to explain my lifestyle and I was afraid that being so far out of my comfort zone I would not find anything in common with the people around me. And my fear turned out to be true; I actually did not have anything in common with those around me.
However, as time passed, the need for human connection became strong enough that I found myself naturally engaging with people that I would have never engaged with in the past. I connected with people of all ages, lifestyles, and beliefs. I had inadvertently forced my comfort zone to expand. The new friends I made as a solo traveler not only satisfied my need for connection, they also broadened my worldview.
Learning your boundaries
Another benefit of traveling alone is the amazing opportunity to learn your own, personal boundaries. In my previous, stationary life, I had always defined my boundaries by the group. If I felt others were too conservative I would set slightly more ambitious boundaries or the opposite. But deep down inside I was always deciding how far I would go in relation to my peers. In the true absence of others’ input, I’ve learned just how far I can push myself.
The virtue of loneliness is something that I have reflected on deeply over the course of my solo travels. Loneliness is a fear that is often expressed in arguments against this lifestyle. However, if something presents itself as fear, shouldn’t it be addressed head-on?
Early in my travels, I spent many nights in a state of deep loneliness. Something about traveling solo allowed me to stop feeling shame in my solitude and start really exploring what it meant to be alone. I dealt with some difficult feelings of self-worth, an unmet desire for connection, and had to confront the tendency to cover up my boredom with alcohol and television. However, during that time I also gained a deep appreciation for my past experience and a love for my unique journey in life.
But the real benefit of traveling alone is something entirely different…
The benefit that I never saw coming was that I fell in love with myself. I started the experience dreaming of the heaps of external validation I would undoubtedly receive – likes on my blog, new eccentric friends, pictures to show off during the holidays, etc. But all of these things ceased to matter once I was truly alone. The only thing that mattered, the only thing I had was me. It took a lot of time to discover, appreciate, and eventually love what really matters.
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