“To travel is to take a journey into yourself,” said actor Danny Kaye. But as I say: to travel by yourself is to take two journeys in one. It might seem counterintuitive to willingly shrug off company in favor of going solo, but there is freedom stepping away for some rest and relaxation on your own. As Eric Klinenberg, Sociologist at NYU and author of the book Going Solo, says, “There’s so much cultural anxiety about isolation in our country that we often fail to appreciate the benefits of solitude.”
I am the first one to surround myself with a bevy of friends and pack the social calendar. So when I bid au revoir to it all for the chance to live in France alone and write for a month, I learned a few critical takeaways to pack in my next carry on. Whether exploring a nearby city, or flying to a far away island for your last summer fling, remember these nine tips to ensure your experience is an unforgettable one.
1. Go off the grid.
In this hyper-connected world, it can be exhilarating to purposefully carve out time just for you. I usually tell my family and friends I am “going off the grid” to unplug from social media, phones, email, and any apparatus that buzzes, beeps, rings, or needs charging. Absorb the moment by taking in new sights, smells, bells and whistles, textures, and tastes of another environment. It can be another city, country, or neighborhood. Become “fully present” to the new details around you to expand your consciousness to different ways of living. Ask yourself, What can I learn from this experience? Your loved ones will be ready to welcome you back when you reemerge with a new lease on life!
2. Write everything down.
When I lived in France for a month, I made a personal promise to myself: I will write something in my journal every day. Starting out, I had no idea how I could think of anything to write at all, much less every day. But 30 days later, I had written over 200 pages, drawn illustrations, written poetry, painted fashion designs, and felt more in touch with my own “voice” than ever before. Putting my experience to paper etched the memories in my mind, at the ready to bring up at a cocktail party months or years later. Snag a journal, create that blog, or even grab a stack of postcards—just get writing!
3. Tap into your creativity.
Art has a way of helping your experience journey from head to heart. Capture your surroundings through artistic mediums—whether it’s photography (iPhone cameras count, too!), drawing, writing, or painting, your creative expression during this time will help impress the experience upon you, for keeps.
4. Meet the locals.
Don’t be afraid to strike up a conversation with a stranger along the way. Perhaps you’ll stumble upon a fellow traveler wearing an interesting piece of jewelry, sporting a familiar backpack sticker, or passport from Papua New Guinea. Part of the adventure of traveling comes from stepping into different shoes to experience other cultures, atmospheres, and trade stories. (One afternoon, I spent four fascinating hours at a coffee shop talking about the local politics, architecture, and music with a new friend after a tour of a Parisian neighborhood and explanation of the Russian embassy.) Your suburban or urban life might be utterly mesmerizing to that country’s native, while their tales might strike you as the stuff of legends. Who knows, they might invite you over for dinner or let you stay with them… for free!
5. Stay with a local family or “friends of friends.”
You won’t feel alone when you’re surrounded by natives who are always eager to show you the sights or give you a recommendation for the best spot for delicious food. When I was in France, I didn’t know a soul. But as I tried practicing my language skills, they took pity on me, would invite me over for dinner, teach me to cook a new dish, or even offer to let me stay. I was so interested in keeping up with their customs to appreciate their immense hospitality that I never considered myself lonely!
6. Take the path less traveled.
Go out of your comfort zone to see the sights in new ways. See the world from a new vantage point beyond that air conditioned compact car. You usually take taxis? Strap on some running shoes and hit the cobblestone streets of that historic village. Usually fly to the next country? Take the train! Canoe down the river, rent a bike for a day, check out car shares, rent a rickshaw, or step into the horse and carriage ride for the evening. When I was in France, I started training for my first 5K. As someone who believes it is a workout to carry groceries up my Manhattan apartment stairs, those historic sights were the perfect motivation I needed to get me out of the house and start racking up the miles.
7. Err on the side of caution.
Of course it’s fun to take a trip on the wild side, but traveling alone can pose a few additional risks that warrant calculated precaution. Maybe consider Airbnb over couch surfing, or staying in a hostel over camping in the isolated wilderness. Use your best judgment before staying with a random stranger, or booking the overnight in a campsite only accessible by helicopter. Although the morning sunrise over the wooded valley may sound enchanting, sleeping in the bleak outback with wild animals all night would (in reality) be more of a nightmare than dream come true.
8. Call your mom.
If you’re really lonely, call your mom or reconnect with someone who knows you best. After three weeks alone in a foreign country, I couldn’t wait to speak English again with people who had known me my whole life! It’s okay to “give in,” and reconnect with old friends. Go at your own pace, and give yourself a break if you have to use that long distance calling plan.
9. Embrace the moment.
While it can be scary, the road less traveled holds endless opportunities to grow. Let go of the expectation that you need to be with someone at every moment, and just let yourself take in the experience of being your own best friend—picnick alone on the beach at sunset, or drink coffee at a table for one with a good book. For me, what began as a solo adventure also became the start of new friendships, new skills, fun stories, and untold discoveries.
After all, strangers are just friends you haven’t met yet. But in the end, perhaps the most important stranger you will befriend will be yourself.