The joys of solo travelling: ‘You’re exploring a new place and exploring yourself as well’

Travelling on your own can be scary but fulfilling if you plan properly. Here are tips from seasoned solo travellers

Many years ago, I found myself in a hotel in Bantry. The conversation with the man in charge of breakfast went something like this:

“Table for two?”

“No, it’s just me.”

“Oh, I see. Here ... [gestures dismissively towards a table marooned in open space near the middle of room].”

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“Can I have that nice one in the window?”

“That is for two people, Madam.”

I didn’t know whether to punch him or weep.

Time has moved on. Figures for those discovering the delights of going solo have rocketed in the last two years. Depending on who is collating the statistics, the rise ranges from 80 per cent to a whopping 200 per cent. Irish travel operator Sunway reports that its solo bookings for 2023 have risen by a third year on year, and that more than half of those intrepid loners are women.

Perhaps the pandemic has something to do with it. Depending on your living situation, Covid either enforced isolation, or an overwhelm of intimacy. It also made many of us decide that time is short, and wonder why we may be waiting to fulfil our various dreams. For some, travelling alone isn’t simply something you do because you have no one to go with. Others, finding themselves bereft of a lifetime companion, are wondering how to safely go it alone. This can be particularly difficult if someone else tended to take on the travel arrangements in the past.

Whatever your reasons, solo travel can be incredibly fulfilling. It can be more relaxing, more adventurous, more intense. That intensity has an evolutionary origin: when we are on our own, we are more alert to our surroundings. Back in the mists of time, it helped us not to get eaten by wolves. It can be less useful on a sunny seafront, and so if you do choose to see it negatively, a holiday on your own is fraught with anxiety. View it as a positive, and you’ll find you have been gifted with a heightened awareness of the world.

“My job is about managing people and being in charge, so I find when I travel with family and friends, I end up planning as well,” says orchestra conductor Karen Ní Bhroin. “If I’m by myself, I can take a nap in the afternoon, or keep going all day, depending on my mood.” Other people, she continues, can be tiring. “You know – when no one is ready at the same time, or everyone wants to eat something different. By yourself, there’s no pressure to keep anybody happy.”

Ní Bhroin will often add a few days on to a work trip, exploring new cities at her own speed. “I absolutely go out for dinner and have a couple of glasses of wine. That was the hardest thing initially, but now I realise, because I’m around people all the time, I want that silence.” She enjoys finding studios and apartments for one on booking.com, not least because then she can indulge in her joy of shopping in local supermarkets and grocery stories. “I make up stories, pretend I’m living there.”

The story thing is interesting. Anxiety about being on your own in a cafe or restaurant is often to do with the idea of “what will other people think?” The recognised wisdom is that they’re not thinking about you at all; but it could be a little different. When I am by myself, or even bored in company, I amuse myself by making up stuff. This person has been stood up, that person is a spy ... I’m almost invariably wrong. This means that if you are on your own, people may well be thinking something about you, but they are unlikely to be right. More importantly, it doesn’t actually matter as you never have to see them again. It is a very liberating thought.

Ní Bhroin’s advice for anyone dipping a toe into the waters of solo travel is to add a night alone to a more social trip, which can be as near to home or as far-flung as you like. “It is scary when you start, you think everyone is looking at you, but they’re not. And once you get over that, it’s blissful.”

Travelling solo helps you to discover what you truly enjoy, but there is a flip side. Women tend to express fears about safety, to which men are not immune. Some men are also concerned that they may be seen as predatory if out alone. Carrying a book or a newspaper helps, as does an awareness of, and respect for, social cues. Most people find being on their own in daylight less daunting, so lean into the schedule that suits you best.

“I’d rather not talk at all in the morning,” says writer and journalist Alannah Hopkin. “And very little in the afternoon. But I do enjoy eavesdropping on other people’s conversations, which you can’t do in company.” She is an advocate of lunch over dinner, which is often better value. “I usually carry a newspaper so that people don’t feel they have to talk to me because I’m on my own. I might have a glass or two of wine in the pub early evening, but I avoid later sessions, unless there’s really good music.”

Solo travel means she is able to make up plans as she goes along. “I enjoy my own company. Also the things I like are not to everyone’s taste: horse fairs, boat trips, islands, garden visits, off-grid walks, outsider art, quiet, old-fashioned pubs, and sometimes just doing nothing. That,” she says, wryly, “drives some people mad.”

A stint updating an American travel guide led her to explore Ireland in depth. Solo travel in your home country also means you can plan to meet up with friends for a day or two along the way. Outside Ireland, Hopkin travels to places she knows and loves, and uses companies such as Travel Department for more complicated itineraries. “I’d been to Venice half a dozen times, but hardly knew the rest of Italy, so I decided to catch up by taking an organised tour. It was such good fun I ended up doing more. Travelling alone it would have been a nightmare to schedule all the places we saw in a week.” She also reminds that even on an organised trip you can always opt out, or branch out on your own.

Aodhán Benson (26) from Belfast started travelling on his own at 18 years old when he and his partner broke up. Having a holiday to Iceland booked, Benson decided he still wanted to go.

“I ended up going, had a great time, and have just carried on doing it ever since,” he says. He has travelled alone to Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Finland, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia and Malta, among other places. He also lived abroad in the UAE for two years and is fluent in both French and Spanish, having done Erasmus placements in those countries as a student.

“It’s not always a case of wanting to go on my own but I am very much of the attitude of like, well, I will ask my friends, and if they don’t want to go then I am still going to go, I like that I have my own sort of schedule, I can do whatever I want,” he explains.

“I know that I am quite fortunate, just being a man, I do not have as much safety concerns that a girl might have.”

Benson gave up drinking a year ago and worried about how this may impact his travels, as before that, he primarily stayed in party hostels and used bars to meet people.

“But since then, I have been to Georgia sober and on my own, I was in Denmark last month, and I went to Israel in July and they were all fine. I went on walking trips instead of bar crawls. I love meeting new people and practicing my languages, and then maybe getting on Tinder and meeting a boyfriend, a potential husband.

“When you are away, no one knows who you are and you can do stuff that you want to do that you probably wouldn’t do at home. In Denmark recently I did a cycling tour; I would never do that in Belfast.”

Novelist and creative writing tutor Denyse Woods started travelling on her own after her father died in 1980. “I was 21, and decided I was going to take off. People said it was too soon, but I knew I needed to.” A local tourist office directed her to a B&B via a bus ride (full of chickens), and she went on to the Lisdoonvarna Folk Festival, and to a lifetime love of venturing out on her own. “You meet people,” she says. “You travel with them and you’re reliant on each other, you bail each other out, you mind the bags, and then you may never see them again.” It is an observation that makes me think of how when I’m travelling alone, I get to present the best version of me to the people I’m briefly meeting. I often think of Fight Club’s “single serving friends”, and I know it may be shallow, but it’s hugely gratifying. Woods agrees to the possibility, but adds that you do also have to “be on your best behaviour in a way, because you’re dealing with strangers, you have to step up, and you don’t want to annoy them.”

Interrailing on her own meant she wasn’t tied to other people’s timetables or preferred pace. Today, travelling alone lets her indulge her passion for train journeys, although these days she says she always tries to book a sleeping compartment as the need for comfort increases. “My husband and I travel differently,” she says. “We travel really well together, but when we got married, we made a deal that I would continue my solo travels. I just can’t cut that part of myself off, it’s too important to me.” Woods grew up journeying with her diplomat parents to their various postings. “But that’s not where I got the bug,” she laughs. “I like to think it comes down the genes from my train driver grandfather from Athlone.”

Whatever the origin, she has handed it on to her daughter, Tamzin Merivale, who currently lives with her partner in Austria. “I have an adventurous spirit,” says artist and mentor Merivale. Her first solo trip was volunteering at 17 in West Africa. Since then, she hasn’t looked back, despite things going wrong, including cancelled flights. “It was exciting, because it felt like I was on such an adventure. Seeing it like that, I saw I had nobody to resolve these problems, except for me. And that’s one thing I love about solo travel, because it brings out a strength that otherwise lays dormant. It was a side of myself I hadn’t seen before.”

While safety concerns and stranger danger hold many back from going solo, Merivale says her own experiences have opened her eyes to how kind people can be. She tends to go out during the day, rather than at night, “unless it feels really safe. But you always have good human beings. There is always going to be someone who can help you. That’s what’s also really affirming, you’re actually never completely alone. You can always ask for help.”

Travelling alone, she says, adds to the experience. “You’re exploring a new place and exploring yourself as well. In every different location, certain parts of ourselves shift. We’re reflecting what we see what’s around us, and that changes wherever we are. It doesn’t happen so much if we’re in company. It is like a gift. The best gift I can give myself is some solo travel.”

Going solo: Tips for a trip that is memorable for all the right reasons

Pack wisely

A downside of solo travel is that there’s often no one to keep an eye on your bags. Depending on your itinerary, this can range from minor pre-check-in inconvenience to a serious hiccup. Pack light enough to be able to squeeze you and your bags into a toilet cubicle, if and when the need arises.

Don’t bring your diamonds

... Or anything else valuable. Given the aforementioned bag-minding moments, you may end up relying on strangers (often all part of the fun). Body wallets, bum bags and waist wallets are the best way to carry passports, phone, cash and cards.

Ask for help

Travel technology, different airport systems and onward connections can all be very daunting, especially if you have been used to someone else taking care of it, and you. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. A friend might help with booking, and airports abound with people in uniform who can direct you.

Timing is everything

Restaurants in the evening can be less crack by yourself. Try feasting at lunchtime, or taking in an early bird supper instead. Food at the bar is more fun than staring into an empty space. Discover the delights of a quiet midafternoon spot to nurse a coffee or a martini, or go out early and be back in bed by nine, well before everyone else’s evening has descended into chaos.

Tune in to headphones

Large and obvious headphones are a great way of signalling “don’t talk to me”. If the opposite is true, and you want to be social, plan ahead by connecting via Meet Up and similarly social Facebook groups at your chosen destination.

Keep a diary

Journeying on your own, you don’t have anyone to share your thoughts, or to nudge and say “oooh, look at that sunset ...” Except you do: keeping a diary can be a surprisingly satisfying outlet, and preserves all your brilliant thoughts.

Say no

Somewhere along the line we can learn to mistrust our instincts. Revive the skill by listening to your inner voice. If you don’t like the look of a place or situation, say no and move on.

Read up

Get inspired for your trip, and have something juicy to read while you’re away with a choice list of books by solo travellers. From Dervla Murphy’s catalogue of amazing adventures, via Cheryl Strayed’s Pacific Crest hike in Wild, to the slightly more saccharine experiences of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love, there are stories galore. If you’re of a more philosophical bent, try Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost, or Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City.