As someone who, historically, has never particularly enjoyed being alone and has always preferred the company of others, the thought of traveling the world completely by myself was intimidating, to say the least. I doubted my competence to navigate the world on my own (how would I book my own flights? Choose my own hostel? Figure out what to do once I got there?) and honestly, I was quite afraid to be alone with myself. I was worried I would be lonely and sad, that I’d want to quit and go home to the familiar world of my friends and family.
However, solo travel isn’t always something that we choose...sometimes it chooses us. For example, my first experience in solo travel was on a two-and-a-half-month trip through Europe after I finished my semester studying abroad in Madrid. I had made plans, mapped out a route, and had already started to plan my Euro-chic travel outfits with a girlfriend of mine from my program, let’s call her Cara.
About two weeks before we were set to leave on our several month trip backpacking through the whole of Europe, Cara texted me that she wanted to meet for lunch. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary when I went to meet her at our usual restaurant in Madrid, The Little Big Cafe (amazing sandwiches, would definitely recommend!). But as soon as I walked in, I knew something was off. Cara would barely meet my eye and we made awkward small talk until she finally brought up the topic of our trip. She said that she had just received word that her mom was very sick and she would have to go home within the next couple of weeks instead of staying on to travel with me after our program ended. Of course I was shocked; I’d had no idea that her mom was sick and going back home was the obvious decision.
I felt awful for Cara, but now had to face my own predicament: I was alone. Frantically I tried sending WhatsApp and Facebook messages to everyone on my program to see if I could get anyone to take Cara’s place and come with me, but the trip was only two weeks out and everyone had already made plans for the end of the semester. So I had to decide: would I give up and go home, or would I put on a brave face, figure it out, and embark on the wildest adventure of my life. I’m guessing you already know the answer.
Finally, it was the night before my trip. My backpack was packed, my first night hostel booked, and my Google Maps directions downloaded onto my phone. My plan was to leave Madrid and fly to Marseille in the South of France for a few days, head north to Paris, and figure the rest out from there. I had a loose idea of my route based on what made sense looking at a map, but I hadn’t booked a thing beyond my first destination, and let me tell you, I was absolutely terrified.
Starting with my stay in Marseilles, I quickly realized that when you’re “solo traveling” you are never truly alone, unless you want to be. The moment I walked into my hostel I was met with friendly young faces from all over the globe, everyone eager to meet fellow travelers, have a drink, explore the city, and have someone to hang out with in their downtime. I realized that traveling solo was actually not so uncommon, and in fact it was about equally as normal as traveling with a partner or in a group. There’s something about travel that creates a sort of camaraderie amongst travelers, perhaps the excitement of being in a new place or the fear of not knowing where to go or how to get there, that bonds you to the people you meet and makes it exceedingly easy to meet them.
However, once I became a bit more acclimated and developed my own rhythm for how I like to travel, I learned how to be comfortable alone and I even grew to cherish those moments (and sometimes entire cities) where I was completely solo. I learned to love the freedom that came with being on my own. I was responsible only for myself, and could leave town on a whim and go anywhere I wanted without consulting anyone else. The second I decided I wanted to stop doing something or being somewhere, I just stopped. I was totally and completely free to live at my own discretion, which gave me an incomparable high that I’ve only ever experienced from traveling alone.
Over the course of that first trip, I met other travelers who I ran into again and again throughout my journey, as they were often following a similar route, and even made plans to meet up with them in other cities throughout the summer. One girl from Australia who I met in Stockholm, I ended up running into again in Berlin, and from there making plans to meet her again in Budapest, and even buying tickets to a music festival together in Croatia where we met up two months later. Through her I met tons of interesting people and had one of the craziest experiences of my life at our week-long Croatian music festival at the end of the summer. I have since seen and traveled with this friend and our subsequent mutual friends several times over the years in various destinations throughout the world.
That was one of the wildest, most liberating, most romantic, fun-filled summers of my life. It was the experience that brought me out of my shell, helped me to realize my own capability, and made me absolutely fall in love with travel.
Fast forward to a few years later, I had graduated from college and was living in Buenos Aires, Argentina, supporting myself as an adult ESL teacher, trying to improve my Spanish and figure out what to do with my life. I had been there for about six months and was already sick of being stagnant, my appetite for travel gnawing at me with an insatiable hunger. I saved up all the money I could and made plans for a huge, three-month trip throughout all of South America with one of my roommates and dear friends, let’s call him Mateo. Mateo was a bit more laissez-faire about planning than I was; I needed a decently well-defined route put down on paper, where as he was happier to let the wind take him where it may. In the end I think my need for organization on top of our mounting personal issues pushed Mateo over the edge, causing him to back out at the last minute, this time leaving me about three weeks before we had planned to leave. Though I had traveled alone once before, that was Europe. This was South America- a totally different story. I had heard horror stories of solo female travelers getting kidnapped or worse; I was completely terrified and had absolutely no desire to go alone. But in the end, what could I do? I was swayed by my curiosity and thirst for the world, and once again, decided to go it alone.
This trip was quite different from my time spent in Europe, as I faced new and different challenges, including food and water poisoning, altitude sickness, vastly greater travel distances, and more. However, at its core, as an adventure that I took alone, both of my experiences were largely the same. The people I met throughout my journey in South America, both locals and travelers alike, were some of the friendliest, warmest, most interesting people I have ever met. I learned about myself, and was reminded both how physically and mentally strong I am when put to the test. I experienced some of the most impressive natural landscapes known to man and was reminded of my small place in this vast and magnificent world. Though initially my hesitation to travel alone almost caused me not to travel, I’m so glad I decided to go, as looking back I wouldn’t trade my experience for anything.
Finally on my third across-the-world trip, I decided I wasn’t even going to ask anyone to come with me, I would just accept my fate as a solo traveler and take my talents to Thailand and Bali completely alone (this time on purpose!). Ironically, this was the only time in my travel career that I actually met someone who decided to drop all of his own travel plans and travel with me along my route, go figure!
Since then, I have traveled in all sorts of different ways; with a friend, with a group of friends or my family, and on organized tours. But to be honest, after having had all these different experiences, my true favorite way to see the world is through the lens of a solo traveler. You see things you had no idea even existed, meet people with stories beyond your wildest comprehension, and experience people living lifestyles you didn’t even realize were possible.
From what I’ve seen while traveling, I’ve learned that “things” aren’t the things that make people truly happy, and that “my way” isn’t the only way...there isn’t one correct way to live, not a single “right” path that everyone should take. Driving through a tiny mountain town in Ecuador, watching generations of families enjoying a life so simple and so pure that you can’t help but be awestruck by the fact that they are just as happy as you are, maybe even happier, and they have no desire or need for the modern distractions of technology to make them feel complete.
You learn not only about the world, but about yourself through traveling alone. It’s not a vacation, it’s an adventure. You get tested to your absolute limits, physically, mentally and emotionally. You learn how you play the social game, how to shake off your inclination towards shyness in favor of making friends. You learn how brave, how capable, and how strong you are. When you’re having a beer at local bar in Bangkok with friends you made that morning, or when you’re standing at the top of a mountain in Edinburgh overlooking the city you just explored all on your own, you feel like you’ve earned it. You earned it because it was hard. You had to be brave, be bold, be smart, and you did it. You learned what it means to be truly free, uninhibited, and unbounded. You reflected on yourself and learned about who you are; about the world and your place in it. Through my experiences I’ve let the world inspire me, and now I want to share some of that inspiration with you. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there as a solo traveler, the world will amaze you, and you might just amaze yourself.
My name is Sophie Mendel, and I’m an American travel writer and editor currently residing in Chicago, Illinois, USA. I have traveled to 42 countries and lived in 5, am fluent in English and Spanish (and always in the process of learning more languages), and love lugging my guitar around the world with me! Follow my travels on Instagram @theunboundedtraveler!