How to Mentally Prepare for a Solo Trip
Mentally preparing yourself for a solo trip can be daunting. Especially because it’s rare to have friends and family clap you on the shoulder and say, “I think you traveling all by yourself to that far away place is an excellent idea!”
In the weeks before your trip, you’re nervous. This anxiety usually leads you to look to others for approval, support, and to tell you that you’re not crazy for embarking on this solo journey. You want their confidence in your decision and your ability to bolster your own. Unfortunately, it usually has the exact opposite effect. The most common responses I get when I tell people I’m about to travel alone are:
“To where?! Are you crazy?”
“Umm, is that safe? You need to take a strong man along.”
“Have you seen the news? That place is a nightmare!” (followed by a compelling list of every bad thing that has ever happened there)
“Did you want your body cremated or buried?”
Some people just shake their heads and walk away with a look like, “Well, it was nice knowing you.” The responses may vary but all tend toward the “you’re going to die or worse” theme. Where you thought to add other’s excitement for your trip to your own, you now just have all your original worries and doubts plus all the ones they brought up that you may not have even considered yet.
This isn’t to say our family and friends are jerks that are ruining what should be a pre-trip stoke phase. I think they all contribute what—to them—amounts to loving and caring concern for your wellbeing. They would be both horrified and devastated if something happened to you. I think some of it is even a “well, I did my part to warn her” to ease their conscience if something does go wrong. Like telling your friend, “Don’t marry that guy, he’s a jerk” so that when she inevitably does and he inevitably is, you can say, “I tried to warn you.”
This is what I do to combat all the negativity and to keep from deciding everyone is right, I should stay home:
I remind myself that a caterpillar could stay in its cocoon forever but then it’d never become the beautiful butterfly it was meant to be.
Traveling changes you but I firmly believe that solo travel is the most life-changing experience you can have. I grew more during my month-long Euro trip in 2014 than I did in my entire four years of college. Not only did I learn more about how to take care of myself, manage my bank account, and stick to a budget—I also learned invaluable lessons that only life experiences can teach.
I learned that though cultures may vary widely from place to place, people are generally the same—humans that are trying their best to make the most of their lives, take care of their loved ones, and to laugh, love, and survive. That’s it. Despite all our differences, when you look into the core of anyone’s being, it’s made up of the same base stuff as your own. If you can remember that lesson, it humanizes people and you stop thinking that the world is filled with evil people out to get you. Those people exist, but they are not the majority.
Along those lines, I learned that talking to strangers is not the childhood horror story it’s made out to be. I’ve had some of the most interesting conversations of my life with people of all ages that I’ve met on my journeys. Those chats with people who happened to be in my hostel room, sitting by me on a flight or long train ride, or even people who were just walking the same direction as me on the sidewalk have helped define who I am as a person. When you think you’ll likely never see someone again, it removes all conversational barriers and the result is a beautiful heart-to-heart sharing of one’s life, judgement free.
Both of those lessons helped me overcome so many of the built in prejudices I’d accumulated in my then 24 years of life. I think this quote says it best…
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.” - Mark Twain
The lessons also taught me who “my people” are—travelers who value experiences over material objects and who make their own bucket list and don’t fill obligated to follow the normal path through life. Seeing them fearlessly pursue their dreams made me believe mine could come true and that there could be more to life than working a 9-5, getting married, and having babies. No route through life is any more “right” than others but the important thing to remember is there are choices and just because your friends all seem to be taking the same path, doesn’t mean you can’t diverge and take your own. Be a trailblazer.
Get smart. Learn to combat your friend’s responses with some of your own.
I’ll admit, this step is easier if you’ve already traveled solo before, but if you haven’t, you can repurpose my responses and do your own time-relevant news research.
To people who say, “That country isn’t safe!” and proceed to recite all the bad news about it, I say, “Did you know that there have been 307 mass shootings in the US this year? Well, actually, probably more now, that was the count on November 8th, you know, the 310th day of the year.”
Or I say, “'Do you know what foreigners say when I ask them if they’ve been to the US? They say, ‘no, I’m afraid I’ll get shot.’”
This week, amidst everyone telling me I was going to die if I went to Central and South America, my family members all had to pick up their kids early from school due to a bomb threat and there was an armed bank robbery two blocks from my best friend’s job.
None of this is to say that some of the places you’ll travel aren’t dangerous in their own way, but the context of having outsiders tell you they feel much the same way about your country gives you insight that maybe, just maybe, it’s not an all-out war zone you’re about to enter. After all, despite all those shootings, I’ve almost never felt personally unsafe this year. Why? Because most of the time bad things happen in sketchy places and I tend to avoid those. I don’t press snooze on my survival instincts just because I’m somewhere new. And the things that happen in non-sketchy places? Well, those can happen just as easily in the US as elsewhere. Sometimes you just get unlucky no matter how careful you’re being.
Think outside the box. Instead of asking your friends and family for encouragement, ask your people.
I’ve found that step two only works on a portion of my friends with a success rate of around 50%. It doesn’t necessarily make them think I’ll be safe but it does make them consider that maybe they are in a glass house and hurling rocks. It tends to quiet the negativity but not produce the enthusiastic support you need.
So instead of looking for excitement among those close to me, I reach out to people that I know have gone on a similar journey. I’m fortunate to have a few friends that believe as powerfully in solo travel as I do and they are quick to tell me to go for it and that I’m going to have the most amazing time. They also give first-hand recommendations and advice which is invaluable.
If you don’t have friends like this, the internet is your new bff. There are so many Facebook groups for travelers. One of my favorites is Girls Love Travel. Currently there are around 600,000 women in that group from all over the world who will inspire you to seize the day. You can connect with travel veterans for advice as well as see others that are having the same hesitations as you so that you don’t feel alone.
I’d also recommend searching #SoloTravel or a similar tag on Instagram for trip inspiration from people already traveling. Don’t be afraid to leave a comment or message them with your questions. Maybe offer some encouragement of your own to them or let them know how brave you think they are. Or, you can sit down with a good book about solo travel and let the author inspire you.
Remember that just because you begin your journey alone doesn’t mean it’ll stay that way.
Let me preface this by saying that I am not the most outgoing and friendly person in the world. I’m an introvert if there ever was one. I was too chicken to order my own chicken nuggets at McDonalds until I was nearly grown. My voice is capable of carrying about three feet and I just shut down in large groups because there is no chance anyone will even be able to hear me.
Why the confessional? To prove that if I can make friends while traveling, anyone can. I once walked into my hostel room and hadn’t even put my bag down before two friendly Canadians asked if I wanted to go on a walk with them. I ended up hanging out with them for two days and having the best time ever. We’re still friends four years later.
Those two guys, along with all the others I’ve met over the years, are why I swear by staying at hostels. Hostels are filled with people just like you, traveling for cheap, often traveling solo, and who are looking for adventure.
If you are more of an Airbnb or hotel sort, there are still so many places to make friends along the way. Sign up for a walking tour, sit in a cafe, go dancing—do what you love and you’re bound to meet others who will jive with you.
Fantasize about the many benefits of being a solo traveler.
How many hours of your life have you wasted debating the question, “What do you want to eat tonight?” We all have that friend that “doesn’t care” but then objects to literally every restaurant you name. Well, when you’re traveling solo, you can eat wherever you want, whenever you want. The amount of time saved by not having to discuss it leaves so much time for activities.
Not a museum person? Skip it. Love going to shows? Book it. Maybe this is a selfish mindset, but hey, you’re doing a solo journey for you. Embrace it. Do things you’ve never done before or things you’ve wanted to do but someone has held you back from. It’s so freeing.
Don’t get me wrong, there is something so precious about sharing a moment with a loved one. I often travel with friends and family because of this. However, we are all individuals with unique needs. Watching sunrise or sunset feeds my soul in a way that little else can. When traveling with others, they may not care at all about the sun’s whereabouts. Sure, they might agree to watch it with me if I’ll agree to go shopping with them after, but their lack of enthusiasm about it dampens the mood and makes the experience less valuable for me. Just like I’m sure an hour of shopping with me would make them roll their eyes and move on to the next activity.
So much of the personal growth achieved while traveling is discovering what makes you happy. Sunsets meant very little to me until I sat atop the Fisherman’s Bastion in Budapest for three hours and watched the sun slowly set over the Parliament building. I was all alone but for the first time in my life, I was 100% okay with that. Sunsets have been my favorite ever since.
Rinse and repeat.
I’ve gone on countless solo trips and yet, here I am, three days before departure and all the usual questions are running through my head…
Is this a good idea? Should I actually go? Is it too late to cancel? Am I going to get killed or worse?
Despite being experienced at traveling solo and moving to Seattle on my own and surviving it, I still get nervous before each trip. In fact, I don’t think that traveling solo will ever be a totally comfortable experience for me, and that’s exactly why I think it is so important. Growth is only possible when we leave our comfort zones behind. It is in the uncertain times, the crazy situations, and the challenging moments that we develop our character. We rarely know what we’re capable of until we’re met with a challenge we have to rise to meet.
I live my life by one quote:
“Never let your fear decide your fate.”
It’s not by Gandhi or Einstein. I just happened to hear it in an AWOLNATION song I was listening to in 2014, a week before my first solo trip. It resonated with what I was feeling at the time—extreme fear for traveling solo—and to this day, it resonates just as loudly with me.
If I’d let that initial fear hold me back, I’d never have met all the amazing people or had all the personal growth I experienced on that trip. I may have lived the rest of my life waiting on someone else to agree to go with me to hold my hand. That day may never have come and I could have become one of those people who say, “I’d love to travel, someday.” Instead, I threw myself into the deep and learned that not only could I swim, but I could handle any waves that came my way.
As I prepare for my next adventure, I walk myself through all of these steps. I try to keep my fear in check and to remind myself that there is nothing I cannot handle. I think of all the things I’ve survived in the last year—my dad almost dying three times, one of my best friends having crippling depression, my hometown being destroyed by a hurricane, being laid off from my job—and that makes so many of the fears I have about this trip seem like small potatoes. But the question isn’t whether I am afraid to go on this trip, it is whether I’ll let that fear hold me back from pursuing my dreams.
So whether you’re preparing for you first solo trip or your seventieth, go for it. Take a leap of faith and in years to come, you might realize that one trip changed the course of your life forever. Welcome challenge, have an open mind, and take plenty of photos to cause all the nay sayers to have FOMO and maybe even give solo travel a try themselves.