About a week ago, I left London and embarked on a solo backpacking trip to continental Europe.
It was originally out of necessity – as everyone who initially agreed to join me on the trip bailed out for one reason or another. I decided to go on a trip anyways because unlike most of my friends, I don’t normally live in Europe, and I don’t actually get that many opportunities to travel in Europe.
And that was quite possibly the best decision I’ve ever made in my life!
Like everyone else before they went backpacking for the first time, I had my worries and doubts and all that, but as it turned out, it was much easier than I had imagined. I don’t know why some backpackers make it sound like such a big deal, but it really isn’t! It does require some different skills than traveling as part of a group, but I wouldn’t say it’s more difficult really. Just different. Maybe it would be more difficult if you are travelling to less well-known places, but if you are just doing capital-city-hopping like I am, it’s pretty easy.
The first obvious problem is companionship. We all like to have people to talk to while travelling, and most people imagine solo travelling to be lonely, because well, we don’t have (a) fixed travel partner(s)! But that’s not the case!
Just because we have no fixed travel partner, it doesn’t mean we will always be by ourselves. It just means we have to make new friends all the time (as we sadly lose them at about the same rate). I have made quite possibly more friends in the past week than I have in the past months.
When travelling as a group we rarely make an effort to get to know strangers. When travelling solo, that becomes a necessity unless you really want no human contact at all. Hostels are usually the best place to meet people, since if you pick your hostels right, there would be a fair number of other solo travellers as well, and they would also be open to meeting strangers. Also, everyone speaks English in hostels, no matter where you are (at least in Europe). In countries where the majority of the population doesn’t speak English, people in hostels could be your only verbal human contact all day, and that’s very important for preserving sanity. I try to avoid larger groups usually, since they tend to form cliques, and not to talk to outsiders. Other solo travellers are the best, but couples or groups of 2 close friends are usually okay as well, presumably because they talk to each other all the time already, and would rather spend their travelling time talking to strangers.
Talking to strangers has never been easy for me, and that’s partly why I decided to go on this trip. I want to practice talking to strangers and making friends, and what’s a better way to do that than going on a solo trip where you have to make friends with complete strangers constantly, and have forced friendship resets every few days?
It was a bit awkward initially, but even after just one week, I have gotten much better at it. Now I almost don’t hesitate at all saying hi to strangers, and that’s something I have never done before. And it’s pretty awesome. All the cool stories of travelling and life in general, from people of all personalities and experiences who grew up in totally different environments, and have totally different priorities in life than yours. It’s amazing.
It’s surprising how deep connections can be formed in just a few days.
Saying goodbye can be difficult. Sometimes very difficult. But that’s part of the reality of backpacking. Sure, we exchange Facebook and all that, but technology can only do so much, and we all know we will probably fade out of each other’s lives very quickly.
Some people will like each other so much that they decide to travel together afterwards (and even get married apparently), but that’s relatively rare. Most of the time people plan to do things together in the city, but not beyond.
I think solo (or maybe 2-people) travelling is now my preferred way to travel. So much freedom. It’s feels good to not have to worry about other people when making travel plans.
For this trip, I’ve decided to go super-spontaneous, and never plan more than 2 days ahead. This is not recommended if you are travelling during peak seasons, or in a large group. But for a solo traveller in mid-September, it works quite well. I can still get all the very best hostels, and still have a lot of flexibility in extending or shortening stays in cities, depending on how they turn out. It’s fun to have absolutely no idea where you will be in 3 days. There is a certain amount of risk in doing things this way obviously, but if you are flexible with what cities you want to visit, this works really well. All the seats on the train to Budapest sold out already? Just go to Vienna instead!
No two stories are the same, because our stories are in large determined by the people we meet, and we never meet the same people.
This is my story.