In college, I stayed in hostels, ate strange foods and slept in trains when I traveled to the Netherlands, Germany and France by myself.
I have traveled to many cities across the United States, but my solo trip to Europe was the most challenging and the most exhilarating journey I've taken.
I flew to Amsterdam the morning my spring break began during my senior year at Mississippi State University and I flew home from Paris a week later.
Jet lagged and disoriented, I was thrust into a foreign airport with no concept of the language and needing to buy a train ticket to the
Flying Pig Hostel in the heart of Amsterdam.
Here are the five reasons why I would do it again and why you should add solo travel to your bucket list:
Lack of a comfort zone creates better experiences
Leaving behind friends and family takes away the protective social bubble that groups travel in when abroad.
Without a common language, you are forced into the environment around you. Ask directions. Order a drink. Visit a museum or coffee shop and talk about your travels with a stranger.
I ordered a Guinness from a bartender with a green beard at the
3 Ducks Hostel bar in Paris and had the most memorable night regaling Parisians with stories and examples of poisonous snakes in Mississippi (I guess they don't get many venomous visitors in France).
Tip: Always try to speak the language, even brokenly. It’s respected that you tried and most people will revert to English for you. Assuming everyone speaks English is considered rude.
The local beer from a local’s perspective
The beer is amazing. After this trip, it was difficult for me to imagine that pale domestic beverage in a blue can is called beer in this country.
I was lucky enough to have a friend living in the Netherlands at the time of my visit, so I traveled south to Maastricht for a couple of days. It was here that I went to the Take 1 bier café
where the owner chooses your beverage based on a series of questions he asks. He does not ask what you want to drink. Instead, he asks, “What do you taste like today?”
In fact, my companion wanted me to try a well-known German beer, as he is German, but the owner refused to serve it to me because it did not apply to my given answers.
The experience was more than memorable. The bartender taught me how to swear in Dutch and which Belgian beers were to my liking, but he was wrong about the German beer. I loved it when I had it while watching a soccer game at an Irish pub the following night.
It sounds like all I did was drink on this trip, doesn’t it? That’s not the case, though a European beer tasting trip does sound enticing.
Traveling with groups too easily allows us to order what’s common in our country because we do not know what our new options are. Traveling alone makes it easier for you to take a local’s advice on what is worth your time because you are more likely to converse with another patron. Listen. Learn. Enjoy.
Hostels and the money you save
Bottom line: hostels are cheap. They are also the best way to meet fellow travelers.
Many of my friends are unwilling to “rough it” by any means and that includes not staying in a nice hotel when traveling. I’m not like that. The dormitory-style sleeping arrangements and shared bathrooms didn't bother me in the least.
As a solo traveler, you have more opportunities to enjoy your host country if you stay somewhere with other people. Hotels offer seclusion and an easy place to hide out if you get nervous about the obstacles faced when navigating a strange place.
At 29 euros a night (approximately $39 USD), my hostel in downtown Amsterdam gave me a bunk, a bathroom, free breakfast, a bar, lounge, pool tables and a pillow stage.
What’s a pillow stage, you ask? Well, it’s a room entirely outfitted with plush pillows all over the floor surrounded by walls of books. The pillow stage is in a separate room meant for the indulgence of a local, smoky treat. It’s Amsterdam, folks. Don’t be too surprised that the local accommodations cater to the activity! It's there if a patron wants to enter; otherwise, you can steer clear.
I had every luxury I needed and made friends with others passing through. You can’t play pool with 8 people from the Ukraine, Spain, Germany and France at a hotel.
Traveling alone means you can make this choice and meet new people without worrying about uncomfortable friends and family.
Your independence will shine.
Whether it is in your nature to do things alone or you’d rather run through a desert of broken glass being chased by a cheetah than eat dinner by yourself, traveling solo affords an independence that will stay with you long after your trip has ended.
You have no one to tell you where to go, which street is correct, what the local culture dictates or if it’s a bad idea to try a questionable, but interesting, local cuisine.
Your choices either take you exactly where you want to end up or get you completely lost, which results in another great journey!
I was lost in Aachen, Germany for over three hours when I went sightseeing on foot in the city. Aachen was beautiful and small and not a soul that I encountered spoke English (I spoke no German except for guten tag and danke). I found myself in a residential neighborhood that was miles away from my bus stop with no clue how to get back. I wandered through the loveliest areas and never encountered a tourist. Parks, schools and gardens were how I spent my afternoon. It was beautiful and leisurely.
Eventually, I found a sweet woman who helped me return to my bus stop. We were unable to communicate with words, but she never gave up on me. Sometimes, the international language of a smile can get you anywhere.
If you miss your train, get lost on foot or lose your backpack, it is up to you to work your way out of the scenario and have fun while doing it. Don’t panic. Just go with the flow and it always works itself out.
Tip: Always walk confidently everywhere you go, even if you are lost. Being smart, responsible and alert is essential when traveling, but especially while alone. Never give anyone a reason to think you are vulnerable.
You NEVER have to compromise!
So, I know that when you’re in Paris, you are “supposed” to go to the Louvre and go to the Eiffel Tower, right? Well, no, not really.
When you travel alone, you can do anything you want.
No one is making you visit the iconic landmarks. You don’t have to agree on your entire day with someone else that has completely different tastes. Would you rather go to the Eiffel Tower or spend the afternoon in a dusty French library? Would you rather visit a local watering hole and get to know the residents versus wading through tourists and fanny packs to get a glimpse of the Arc de Triomphe that you can see from a distance?
I’m not saying you shouldn’t want to see these locations, but maybe it’s not the most important thing on your list while in France. The beautiful thing when you’re alone is that you write that list. You can stay in a cheap hostel and save the extra money for a fancy dinner or a train ticket to Belgium. Or you can splurge on the hotel and order room service.
I chose to spend a day at the beautiful park next to the river Seine, photographing Notre Dame and perusing the Shakespeare and Company bookstore. I spent hours there and loved every minute. No one was rushing me out to stick to an itinerary. In fact, I detest itineraries and much prefer to go where my interests lead me.
Your trip. Your choice.
Once your trip is at an end, you will have a sense of accomplishment. You managed to navigate a foreign country by yourself with only your wits and a camera.
I hope my experiences have allowed you to at least consider the benefits of solo travel in your future. It will change the way you see and experience the world around you.