When you break a bone, there’s this incredible rush of adrenaline that goes shooting through your bloodstream. I felt it after tripping over a rock in the Dolomites and falling hard on my left wrist. As I lay there writhing on the ground shouting expletives down the valley, I thought, “This is one of those times when solo travel just sucks.”
Travel bloggers, self included, tend to romanticize solo travel. We tell people it’s the key to freedom, that their fears about it are overblown, and that they should just stop being so codependent and go for it.
But all that hype has led to some pretty unrealistic expectations — even in our own minds. Now when I’m doing the solo travel thing, I feel a certain sense of failure if I don’t love every minute of it. And I feel positively mortified when I catch myself thinking, “This would be so much more fun with a boyfriend.”
I don’t mean to discourage anyone from giving solo travel a try, because it can be awesome and totally freeing. But for the sake of sanity, give yourself permission to hate it sometimes, too. Here are 15 moments when I think hatred is entirely justified.
1. You feel like shit
After x-raying my arm and slapping on a cast, the Italian emergency room doctor said to me, “You come back tomorrow for CT scan, yes?” (Apparently in Italy, they don’t do CT scans on the Sabbath.)
“But I’m staying an hour away,” I said. “I came in by ambulance.”
So with my cast not quite dry, I walked a mile to the bus station. I was sort of impressed with myself for figuring all that out with a brain full of adrenaline and opiates. But the hour-and-a-half ride back to my tent was so lonely that I cried for the first time in a year.
In that moment, I was no badass solo traveler. I just wanted my mom.
2. There’s romance in the air
Speaking of Italy, it’s totally true what Michael Moore says. Everyone there looks like they just had sex. Which is actually kind of miserable to be around when you’re traveling alone and your relationship back home is in free fall.
During my three weeks in Italy, I couldn’t stop messaging my hopelessly incompatible boyfriend things like, “Someday we’ll come here together and drink coffee on St. Mark’s Square.” I half convinced myself I was being too hard on him.
Then when my flight got canceled, he came THIS CLOSE to standing me up at the airport. With a broken arm and luggage. Hear that noise? That’s the sound of reality crashing down.
3. Someone wants your goddamn seat
It happens on buses. It happens on planes. Some stupid couple that didn’t plan ahead wants the seat you carefully selected months ago so they can stave off separation anxiety for a few hours.
People are ridiculously entitled in this respect. When I went to Tanzania to climb Kilimanjaro, I specifically booked a window seat on the left side of the plane so that I could see the mountain when we flew by. But when I boarded, there was 4-year-old child in my spot.
“He wants to see the mountain,” his dad said. Yeah, like a preschooler even knows what Kilimanjaro IS.
Situations like this suck. Your options are pretty much capitulation or sitting next to someone who now hates you with the rage of a burning sun.
In the case of Kilimanjaro, I took the burning rage option. And I must say, that mountain looked pretty badass.
4. Freakin’ Christmas
I’m not a big holiday person. I blame my extended family. At out last Thanksgiving dinner, the conversation drifted from “our kids shouldn’t be forced to learn Spanish” to “black people are getting all uppity with those hyphenated names.” (We’d been watching football, so I think it was Haha Clinton-Dix who set them off.)
But there’s something about solo travel around Christmas that makes me feel like I should have a family around. Even if it’s not my family.
5. You’d like to sleep in a decent hotel room for once
Sleeping gets expensive when you’re on an extended solo travel trip with no one along to share the cost. In the pricier countries, I usually stay in hostel dorms. Which can feel a little ridiculous when I’m 41 and everyone else is on gap year.
I should note that my advanced age did NOT stop the hostel clerk in Istanbul from propositioning me within five minutes of checking in. Speaking of which …
6. Players wanna play
I’m an American who never lies about being Canadian. But in some places, I lie my ass off about being married. It just makes life infinitely easier.
A few years ago, I flew to Istanbul, took the subway to Sultanahmet, and walked a mile with my luggage to a hostel. It was about 90 out, and by the time I got there I was looking pretty bedraggled.
The kid behind the desk asked for my credit card. Then he asked for my phone number. I was in a trance of sleep deprivation, so I just rattled it off.
He gave me a meaningful look and whispered, “Call you tonight, OK?”
Oh for the love of god.
7. You lose your cell phone
The fall that broke my arm also broke my iPhone. They say unplugging is good for your soul. But let me tell you, solo travel without Facebook, Kindle, or iTunes is pretty bleak. Especially when you’re laying in a tent stoned most of the day.
Here’s another thing you learn fast when you lose your phone on vacation: there are no phone booths left in the entire universe. None.
The only way to contact the outside world is borrow someone else’s cell phone. And this can be interesting when a) you don’t speak the same language, and b) are about to make an international call to your travel insurance provider that will cost 2€ a minute.
8. The ATM steals your card
Remember the old school ATMs that sucked in your card and kept it if you didn’t grab it fast enough after a transaction? Well, they’re alive and well in grocery stores and gas stations around the world.
To get your card back, you have to go to some bank somewhere and attempt to explain the situation in a foreign language. Which is about as fun as attacking your own head with a nail gun.
And if your card gets sucked and held hostage on a Sunday? Here’s hoping you’ve got some emergency cash sewed into a pocket somewhere, or you’re gonna couch surf your way through the weekend, Captain Solo.
9. The locals want selfies with the exotic foreigner
In a lot of places (China comes to mind), it’s apparently socially acceptable to run up to someone on the street, throw your arm around them, and snap a selfie. To max your badass score, always go for someone who is:
- Black (bonus for hyphenated last name)
- Tatted out
When choosing a stranger to photobomb, look first for a woman walking alone. They usually won’t punch you in the face, even if you deserve it. (Though I did have a pal who would grab the camera and delete the picture before handing it back while giving the person a blazing stink eye.)
10. You’re lost
Getting lost in a strange city with someone can be adventure. But getting lost by yourself is usually a nightmare.
Sometimes when I’m really, really lost during solo travel, I start thinking about how long it will take before anyone misses me. And who that person will be.
I just hope it’s not that horny toad back at the hostel who I accidentally gave my phone number to.
11. Everyone thinks you need company when you really want some goddamn peace and quiet
To people in collectivist societies, solo travel is about as mysterious and mind-boggling as ritual suicide. So in many parts of Asia, for example, the locals will graciously go out of their way to walk with you, talk with you, practice English with you, and invite you places.
Pro tip: wear headphones on days you don’t feel like socializing. Turn the music up loud.
12. You want to take a risk
It took me about a decade to get comfortable with idea of camping solo. And I’ve still never tried backpacking alone. Part of me thinks it would be incredibly freeing and that my creative spirit would run wild. And part of me is afraid they’d find my bones a year later, licked clean and shiny by wild dingoes.
13. Your flight is canceled
You’ve been in this crappy airport for seventeen hours. Now it’s night, and you just want to lay down on a couch somewhere and sleep. But if you do that, any drug dealer in the place could come up and slip an ounce of cocaine in your backpack.
Yeah, without a wingman, you’re better off cruising over the Starbucks and buying a big coffee at a big American price.
14. You compare yourself
At a hostel in Java, I met a girl who’d just biked solo across China. Which would have been pretty awesome, except she couldn’t shut up about it.
“Did you bike here to Yogya?” I asked, totally joking. Because it’s on a freaking island, for one thing.
“No,” she said. “But in the Tibetan town of Dingdong, I broke a rim and had to ride 400 miles in the back of a semi full of live turkeys.”
So I spent like two days avoiding her. When we were in the dorm together, my headphones were on. At meals, I parked at the far end of the table.
Finally it hit me that as much as she made me bonkers, I was doing the exact same thing. I too was torturing everyone around me with stories about all the awesome places I’d been and things I’d done.
“I think she bugs me because she’s more badass than me,” I finally admitted to my friend Estella.
“No,” Estella said. “She’s just annoying.”
15. The fox steals your pizza
While I was camping in the Dolomites, a red fox kept stealing stuff from my tent. It scattered my dishes and dragged my sandals through a mud puddle.
On the night I broke my arm, I went out for dinner. I got a huge pizza, ate two pieces, and brought the rest back to camp in a box.
I didn’t really want my tent smelling like luscious pepperoni. So I balanced the pizza box on the top of the electrical hook up, which was about six feet tall.
In the middle of the night, there was a tremendous crash. I looked outside, and there was the fox with my pizza dangling from its mouth.
There was nothing to do but laugh my ass off. Here I was with a broken arm and a broken phone and now a fox had just stolen my breakfast. Wasn’t that too freakin’ perfect.
Sometimes the loneliest part of solo travel is when good, hilarious, and wonderous things happen. No one I know has climbed the Tridentina Ferrata or watched the sunset over Marmolada. And there’s no one alive I can call up when I’m in a nostalgic mood and say, “Hey, remember that stupid fox?”