The University of Iowa

Why everyone should travel solo at least once...

May 13th, 2015

By Lauren Bannon*

My solo trip to the Kuekenhof Tulip Gardens outside of Amsterdam - I used my "offer to take their picture and they'll take yours" technique for this photo.

I remember the first time I decided to do something solo abroad… I wanted to see the Lion King Musical when I was in London. No one else in my program was interested, so I went alone. My mom was so proud of how independent I was that she told everyone for weeks after about how I went to The Lion King alone, which actually makes me sound much more lame than independent, but from then on I’ve gotten a thrill out of solo travel and experiences.

Now, before you assume I’m anti-social, I love traveling with others. I spent 12 straight days with a group of awesome girls from my program in Thessaloniki, but there’s something solo travel gives you that you can’t get with anyone else.

1. You’re on your own schedule. For someone like me that doesn’t sleep well while traveling, I was always up early. Some days I would lay in bed for a few hours waiting for everyone to wake up. When I was alone in Dublin and up at 7:30 I could start my day right then and there. This also means if I wanted to spend 4 hours staring at Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, I could. If I wanted to stop for a coffee every twenty minutes I could do that too. You're on your own time and your own schedule.

2. Deeper appreciate for things. When you’re with people they may point out things you didn’t notice yourself, but there’s also a good chance that they distracted you from noticing or feeling particular things about the city or sight you’re admiring. You get a lot more of that awestruck feeling when you’re one little person compared to the sparkling Eiffel Tower or the immense beauty of the Cliffs of Moher.

3. Alone with your own thoughts. This goes along with number two, but the most profound “alone with my own thoughts” moments I have are when I’m sitting in a café alone eating a scone and drinking coffee or on a flight watching the sun sink below the clouds. These quiet, solo moments are often some of the most life changing ones you have on your trip. You can reflect and realize how much you’ve grown as a person during your travels and through your adventures – and that’s a magical feeling. 

4. Confidence building. To be very blunt, you cannot have a meltdown when you’re solo traveling. If you get lost or miss a train all you can do is take a deep breath and problem solve. You took up this solo journey and now you’re going to be the problem solver for your adventure. Traveling alone teaches you to truly believe in yourself and I must say there is no better or more relieving feeling than when you follow your gut and successfully find your way to the train station or back to your hotel after a long day. 

5. Stepping out of your shell. The one downside to solo traveling is just that, the solo aspect of it. The good thing about this is that it truly teaches you to step out of your comfort zone. If you want to have a real conversation with someone past “where’s the toilet?” or “which way is the train station?” you have to put yourself out there and initiate the conversation. Some of my favorite conversations and memories have been with random people I’ve met in hostels or cafes. 

The other thing I learned about solo travel is that you don’t have a friend to take your photo, so you need to master the art of getting a stranger to do it for you. Step one is to look for someone that looks like they too need their photo taken. Normally it’s a couple looking to pose somewhere, you snap their pic, then ask for yours in return. If you don’t see any photo snappers around, then you have to get the courage to ask a random stranger. It’s almost embarrassing how much I have to pep talk myself before asking someone to take my photo... I’m an outgoing and chatty person, but solo photos makes me self-conscious. You too? Tell yourself you’ll regret not taking it later when your mom wants to see photos of you from your adventures. 

6. You get good at directions – because you have to. I am the first person to admit that I was born with absolutely no sense of direction, but did get a healthy dose of stubbornness, which can be a miserable combination when you’re hauling a huge backpack or suitcase around looking for your hostel. Thankfully I have gotten better at map reading and have picked up tricks (City Maps 2Go – it’ll save you, I promise) to getting around, but every solo adventure does involve some sort of random lost wandering on my part. The trick is to stay calm and know when to stop and ask for directions. Pro tip: stop for a coffee or soda at a café with WiFi and Google Map your destination – it’ll stay on your phone and follow your steps as long as you leave your WiFi on!

7. No one has to know if you have desserts for every meal. If you don’t know me you may think I’m kidding, but those that do know me know I have a serious sweet tooth and this is not a drill. Most people search great museums to visit in each city, I Yelp and Pinterest and Google bakeries and cafes. There have been days that I have had just desserts for lunch then proceeded to finish dinner with a sweet treat as well. It’s your adventure, you’re doing lots of walking, and you wouldn’t want to miss out on the best apple croissant of your life (Bakeshop Prague, Prague, Czech Republic. Do it.) Whatever your vice, it's yours to explore when you solo travel.

8. It’s pretty badass to say you’ve solo traveled. No explanation needed, am I right?

*Lauren is a senior from Cedar Falls, IA majoring in marketing and finance with a minor in communication at the University of Iowa. She is currently studying abroad on the American College of Thessaloniki (ACT) Program in Thessaloniki, Greece.