Traveling with friends can be fun. You are guaranteed a certain level of comfort with people you know well and have a built in support system an arm's length away. It's common for people to gravitate first to traveling with another person, but I would argue that traveling solo is just as good, if not better, than traveling with another person.
As I make my way through New Zealand alone, I'm realizing that not only are tons of people traveling alone, but they are also busting some common misconceptions associated with solo travel.
1. You are actually very rarely truly alone.
There’s this mythical image of solo travelers completely consumed by their solitude, sulking along some melancholy scenery, alone with their thoughts and ideas with no one to interrupt them.
Sometimes solo travel is like this. The other 90% of the time, you are actually almost never alone. In fact, one of my favorite things about solo travel is you put yourself in a position to meet strangers a lot quicker than if you were with another person. The first time I was alone in New Zealand came 2.5 weeks after my arrival and was only accomplished with deliberate intention.
It sounds completely backwards but if you want to meet locals, if you want to meet other travelers, if you want to be completely immersed in your travels, ditch your travel buddy and go it alone. I know it’s comforting to have another safety net person there to help with directions and to reassure you when you come to those inevitable metaphorical forks in the road, but I promise you that if you go alone you will find these people anyway.
Traveling alone makes you so much more approachable. If you were going to talk to a stranger, would you go for the duo or group of people who are already talking amongst themselves or would you go for the one person alone? Traveling with another person can be great but you make yourself way less approachable. People are inquisitive of solo travelers. Some of them, for some reason, are even amazed by solo travelers.
Traveling with another person certainly has its perks but so does flying solo. Hitching rides is easier as a single person. Squeezing into another group’s day trip is easier as a single person. Being hosted by acquaintances you just met is easier as a single person. All of these are opportunities to meet new people you might not have met if you were not alone.
2. You catch up on your sleep.
Not being on any sort of schedule has had the unique and unexpected benefit of regulating my sleep. Like most people, I’ve been used to waking up with the alarm clock and going through a series of tasks before I can sleep again. When you travel alone, you have no one to tell you when to wake up, when to go to bed, when you should do things. You are completely uninhibited by the 9-5 schedule and maybe at most you have to abide by the checkout time of the place you are staying.
I’ve found I sleep about 9 hours before my body decides it’s time to wake up. Without anyone to keep me awake at night, I usually fall asleep around 10 pm and wake up a 7 am. This is insane to me since I’ve always been the person who can sleep until the early afternoon if you’d let me. Another contributing factor is the severe lack of distractions I have. The internet here is stuck in the 1990s so there’s no way I can go down any particular internet rabbit hole to keep me awake long after I had planned to sleep. No Buzzfeed articles. No Netflix. No Facebook. This is the perfect recipe to figure out your ideal sleeping habits.
3. You learn to embrace your own opinions and desires.
When you’re solo traveling, you have the unique luxury of doing exactly what you feel like doing. You rely on no one else’s opinion of your plans and your ideal day needs no approval from anyone else. You can spend a whole day sleeping on the couch if you feel like it or go for a ten-hour hike.
Women, in particular, seem to be brought up to be agreeable and accommodating which means we sometimes compromise on what we really want to do, even if we don’t realize it. I find myself falling into this pattern from time to time. A travel buddy will ask what I want to do and even though I have something in mind, I always want to hear and try to accommodate a friend’s plans first.
The more I’m on my own, the more I learn to put my plans at the top of my priority list. If this means parting ways with a temporary travel partner, I do it. It’s selfish in a way, but I don’t feel bad about it at all and I’m learning a lot about what I really like to do and what I really dislike. For instance, I could really care less about any type of water sport. Right now I have almost zero interest investing money in surfing lessons, scuba diving, snorkeling or kayaking. If these activities were free, sure, I’d be all for trying them out but I’m discovering I’m perfectly content to not spend money on them and enjoy the beach and the shore for free. I’ll save my money for mountain activities on the South Island. I have met many people who prefer to pour all of their cash into fishing and diving and surfing which is great for them, but not my thing. It’s a nice feeling to be able to exercise that free will with confidence.
4. You learn how to take your own photograph.
I’m not talking about selfies. In fact, let me take this moment to make a quick disclaimer about selfies. If you are on your own and you want a photo of yourself, please just ask the person walking past you if they will take your photo. It’s so easy and almost everyone will oblige. I’d like to formally request a petition to end the classic selfie where you hold your camera/phone in front of your face and photograph yourself holding said device. Please make it stop.
If you’re not into asking strangers to take a picture of you, get a tripod. Personally, I use my tripod quite a bit when I travel. It’s my personal preference not to set up the camera to get a shot of me beaming in front of a well-known landmark or building. For me, I use the tripod because I need a human body in my photo and I’m the only human body I have.
I’m a very amateur photographer. I have no formal training and just recently bought a semi-nice camera, but I have always appreciated a well-composed photograph. I enjoy photography and am trying to be more conscious of the places I see and how I can capture exactly what I’m seeing accurately in a photograph. Sometimes a photograph needs a human in the photo (or some focal point) to show the scale of the landscape or to just make the photo more interesting. I’ve become quite good at capturing the photos I want with a tripod and a self-timer. Here in New Zealand, I’ve done most of these without any onlookers but even with a few strangers around I’ve become more shameless in getting what I want in a picture. It’s be certainly easier to have a travel partner and ask them to stand in a certain spot in a certain way, but when you're on your own you have to make do.
5. You stop caring about your appearance.
This is my favorite take away from all of the solo travel I’ve done because it’s been the most surprising to me. I think I’m a fairly body-confident person. Though I still have insecurities with my appearance, I’ve never concerned myself with diet fads and could care less about shedding a few pounds. I never really thought it affected my daily life much until I was home in Colorado this year visiting my parents. I was talking to my mom about how great it is to be able to come home and give my eyeballs a good rub. She asked what exactly I meant and I clarified that when I go home, I don’t have to wear makeup and I can rub my eyes without the fear of getting raccoon eyes. It was an odd thing to hear myself say this out loud and the more I thought about it, the angrier I became. How did I get to a point where my own comfort was sacrificed because I was embarrassed by an uneven skin tone and not quite dark enough lashes?
While I decided to leave hair products and appliances at home, I did take my makeup bag with me to New Zealand. I've surprised myself with the infrequency I've felt the need to use makeup. I quickly got used to freedom that came with not wearing makeup and most days I spend bare-faced. I don't have to worry about an orange ring around my shirt collars. I don't have makeup stains on my pillowcase. I can rub my eyes when I want. I could swim without worrying about my makeup running.
I realized people really didn’t notice my makeup-less face or my frizzy, unkempt hair. Sometimes I do get comments on my how sunburned my face looks because I have naturally red, blotchy skin. I’ve found the best answer to shut them up is to simply tell them no, I’m not burned, this is just how I look without makeup than you very much.
I’m coming to terms with the way I naturally look and I’m learning to not apologize for it anymore. I have so many other qualities and traits to offer the people I meet and those that get hung up of my appearance aren’t worth my mental space anyway. I still like to wear makeup occasionally but it's become my routine less and less every day.
"If you can't handle me at my worst, you're a superficial asshole, please get out of my sight" -- Marilyn Monroe (I think)