At the end of summer in 2003, I finally achieved my teenage travel dreams. Although I was technically no longer a teen — having turned a ripe 20-years-old just a few months prior — I was still excited to find myself alone in the United Kingdom with a backpack, a UK Rail pass, and two weeks to explore. I had just spent a hectic summer semester studying Victorian literature and creative writing in London and was ready to hit the road, on my own.
It was a point in my life where there was nothing that I wanted to do more than travel solo. Blame it on a wannabe bohemian youth, skimming Kerouac, and dreaming of adventures in the wide world that was just beyond boring suburbia. And there I was, embarking on my very first BIG solo trip. A week and half later, I was hiking in the rain along a two-lane road in the Scottish Highlands and I was miserable. I’d had enough and was starting the return journey back to London see if I could exchange my British Airways ticket out of Heathrow for a flight one or two days early. And as I waited, drenched and freezing in the ramshackle booth on a train station platform in the middle of nowhere in Scotland, I started to think that maybe solo travel wasn’t for me.
It would take a few more years and a few more stabs at solo travel to figure out, but I eventually discovered that, for me, traveling with others — whether it’s as part of a duo (like with my defacto travel partner/wife) or in a group — is the BEST way to see the world. I never want to travel solo again. Here’s why:
I have nothing against wanting to go it alone. In fact, that’s kind of my default setting. I’m the first to admit that I have a bit of a loner streak in me and prefer to spend my free time — reading, going for a run, and even watching a movie — solo. So when I was making my way through the UK on my own and found myself in Edinburgh during the Fringe Fest, I ended up not going to some cool interactive stage production or to a performance by crazy band I’d never heard of. Instead I bought a couple tickets to screenings for the film festival, which is great for a movie buff like me, but not all that unique an experience since the films I saw (an independent Irish feature starring Colin Farrell and Cillian Murphy and a documentary on Charlie Chaplin) were eventually released stateside just a few months later.
I’ve found that having at least just one other person with me, wanting to do something different from my own agenda, gives me the tiny push to try something new and reminds me that travel is all about new experiences. When I visited Stockholm in 2014, my wife suggested we check out Fotografiska (the Swedish museum of Photography), which I wouldn’t have gone to on my own. It turns out that Fotografiska is one of the top contemporary art museums in Europe and we were able to see some fantastic and moving exhibits that I still think about to this day.
If I go somewhere on my own, I’m guaranteed to see and do only the things that interest me, but if I’m with other people I’m much more likely to experience something new.
I’ll never forget standing in Paddington station on the first day of my first international solo trip. I had a guidebook in one hand and rail map opened up in the other.
“Where do you think I should I go first?” I remember asking a friendly conductor I’d chatted up.
“Where do you want to go?” He said.
“Kind of all over,” I said with a laugh.
“You can’t go everywhere, Mate,” he said and then advised me to pick a direction, either north or south, adding a personal opinion of those living in the south (the Welsh) that’s too crude to repeat. I decided to go north and made my way to Euston station to catch a sleeper train to Glasgow. But that desperate feeling to do it all but not knowing where to start still haunts me.
In my experience, having too much freedom in my schedule with infinite possibilities of what to do next can be overwhelming. I’ll want to do everything and get bogged down or freeze up and only realize later that I missed out on what mattered most to me. Having one or more people alongside when I explore a city, like an upcoming trip I’m planning to take to Berlin with three others, forces me to edit my choices down to the most important so that we can fit in what other members of the group want to do.
It seems that having limited options requires me to prioritize my choices and figure out what I really want to do.
Unless you can afford to travel in total luxury, every trip is going to have some woe or its own unique mishap. When I was in Edinburgh, because I’d arrived during the Fringe season, it was almost impossible to find somewhere to stay. Even campsites outside the city were booked up! I lucked out the first night and was able score a bed at a hostel thanks to a canceled reservation. My second night was not as fortuitous. After I was done seeing the sights for the day, I spent a futile hour or two trying to find somewhere to spend the night (this was in the dark ages before Airbnb) and came up with nothing. I wound up finding refuge in a pub until closing time and then spent a few fitful hours taking panicky micro-naps on a park bench, with my pack tied to it and me, waiting for Waverly Train Station to open around 4 a.m. so I could sleep inside while I pretened to wait for a train. It was kind of terrifying.
But when I had a similar experience while traveling with a big group of friends in southern France — the manager of our hostel in Nice had forgotten to mention that they lock the front doors after midnight and guests need a code for the keypad lock to get in (which he also forgot to tell us) — it was fun. Sure, we were annoyed at having to sleep rough, but we couldn’t help laughing at having to curl up together in the hostel doorway. And we felt safe, sleeping in shifts so one person was able to watch out for the group at all times, in such risky situation.
Maybe it’s the comfort of not having to face whatever travel catastrophe (major or minor) alone, but I feel braver and more adventurous when I travel with someone else.
I admit it: I suck at meeting new people. I am usually not comfortable striking up a conversation with a complete stranger. Even at so-called “networking events,” where the whole point is to meet people, I spend my time hanging back in the corner. So it’s always bothered me when solo travel has been touted as great opportunity to “meet new people.” Um, if I have trouble meeting new people at home, why would I suddenly be able to do it abroad? And that’s not to say that when I’ve traveled solo I didn’t interact or talk with anyone. I’ve struck up conversations and made connections on trains and in pubs, but they felt superficial and temporary.
So instead of making new friends elsewhere in the world, I like to use travel to spend time with my already existing friends. Some of the deepest bonds I’ve have with the people closest to me were forged while wandering the streets of a foreign city. I’ve never felt happier than exploring Copenhagen with my wife or bar hopping in New Orleans with my best friend. And instead of being the only one with a fantastic memory from a trip — when I travel with others, it’s shared and something that will connect us to each other for life.
Oh, and the other great thing about traveling non-solo? Notice that there are no pictures of me in this post from my grand UK adventure from when I was 20. Part of that’s because it was from the era before selfies and smartphone cameras, but a big part of it is because there was no one else around to take a picture of me or with me.
Look, in no way am I arguing that people shouldn’t travel on their own. If that’s how you enjoy seeing the world, go for it! But if you’ve tried it and like me didn’t enjoy it — maybe you should try bringing a friend or two along next time.
Have an opinion on group versus solo travel? Maybe you have an extra reason why traveling with others is better than solo? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below!