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What Solo Travel Has Taught Me

Solo Travel 15

Travelling solo on Koh Lanta, Thailand

I’m surprised I haven’t written this post before. Years and years ago (five years ago!) I wrote a post detailing tips on travelling solo, and last year I wrote a post on the biggest lessons I’ve learned in my lifetime. I’ve also written other posts like this one – what travelling has taught me, and why travelling makes us happy – but nothing specifically on solo travel.

So why now? Why, after nearly ten years of solo travel, do I feel the need to reflect on what exactly I’ve learned from all of it?

Well, to start, I finished the rough draft of that book I said I was writing. At nearly 80,000 words, it’s something I’ve been working on for the last year, although in reality, I’ve been working on it for years. The book hinges on the travelling I’ve done over the past decade, and if you ever want to reflect on what you’ve done in your life, or analyse it in great detail – or even better, have other people analyse it in great detail – oh my God, write a book. It’s terrifying and embarrassing and humbling, and, above all else, it’s fascinating and, dare I say it, fun.

Solo Travel 20

In the Okavango Delta, Botswana

In writing this book, I had to go way back (shit, it really is way back) to when I was twenty-one years old, still an anxious and very sensitive young woman. Though I was living on my own, in a different city from my parents, I’d never really taken a huge leap of faith. Deciding to travel on my own through Europe was what I needed, and what I wanted. It unlocked a new side of me, showed me who I really was. Over the next ten years, I’d visit nearly ninety countries, fifty-two of them on my own (for at least a portion of the trip).

I have to admit that I’ve shied away from the solo female traveller label that so many travel bloggers represent, mostly because I didn’t want any label. I’ve written about feeling lonely on the road (written after a particularly self-pitying spell in Guatemala) and also about when I don’t feel like travelling solo (written after I realised I was going to break up with someone, and was feeling sad he wouldn’t be my future travelling partner in crime). After completing this book, though, and realising what has really defined me in my life, I kept returning to this idea of solo travel. Like, oh right, holy shit, I really did travel around the world on my own. Sometimes I feel like it was someone else who did all of that, someone else who backpacked around Central America or scuba dived with sharks in Indonesia or spent nights sleeping on sacks of lentils in the Himalayas. And as much as I hate labels, there’s no denying that solo travel has made me who I am today. There’s no denying that solo travel has taught me a hell of a lot about life.

Solo Travel 14

Agra, India

Travelling solo has taught me to trust myself. When you first set out on a solo trip, it’s only you and the open road. Sure, you will most likely meet a lot of people along the way, but you quickly learn to listen to your intuition. After years of solo travel, I trust that I will make the right decisions in life, both when faced with an emergency or when faced with a decision that requires more reflection. Ok, maybe not the right decision 100% of the time, but at least the best one for me in that moment. Travelling solo has taught me to be more quick-minded and to take better note of my surroundings, which in turn has made me a more resourceful and aware person.

Solo Travel 13

Cape Town, South Africa 

Travelling solo has taught me how to be confident. This ties into the point above. I wouldn’t say that I’ve ever been timid in my life – let’s just put it this way, I once dressed up as Sonny Bono and sang “I’ve Got You Babe” in front of my entire school – but travelling on my own taught me how to be confident, really confident, as in, I’m not faking this. It’s taught me to be brave, and to do things I may have been too scared to do if I had just stayed on my couch in Canada. It taught me how to take that leap of faith, again and again, and that even if I didn’t quite know what I was doing, I’d have the confidence to figure it out on my own.

Solo Travel 18

Paragliding over Pokhara, Nepal

Travelling solo has taught me how to interact with others and make new friends. As I mentioned above, and as I’ve mentioned multiple times on this blog before, even if you set out on a solo trip, it’s rare to actually stay on your own (unless you’ve planned it that way, or prefer it that way). You meet so many people on the road that I personally struggle to remember most people’s names. I’ve met most of my closest friends and almost all of my previous boyfriends when travelling – there’s something about the shared desire to see the world that brings people together. I love it when I walk into a hostel and see people of all nationalities connecting and laughing (and not on their phones… but don’t get me started on that). And forget about the other travellers, what about the local people I’ve met? I’ve shared such joyous moments with people from around the globe, and always been blown away by the amount of compassion and generosity most strangers have offered me. Every single person you meet knows something you don’t know. I love that.

Solo Travel 7

Yangon, Myanmar

Travelling solo has taught me how to be better at relationships. I’ve been very open about my failed romantic relationships on this blog – *cough* and even my failed flings *cough* – but the truth is I’ve had extraordinary connections with all sorts of people, romantic or otherwise. I believe that I’ve changed for the better over the years, becoming a lot calmer, less sensitive, and more open-minded (though I can just picture my first ex-boyfriend and my most recent ex-boyfriend getting together and being like, “Dude! She did that to me, too!”). I’ve created stronger friendships, gotten closer to my family, and had a lot more success while dating. You may be giving me major side-eye right now – yes, I’m single – but the truth is I’ve had much better relationships recently than I did years ago, even though the recent ones haven’t lasted nearly as long. Why? Because I’ve learned when to walk away before we dragged each other down too far. I didn’t have the confidence or the independence to do that in the past. While I can also credit maturity for this, I have to give props to years of solo travel, too. And oh yeah, all that time being on my own while travelling? It’s taught me how to love being single even when I’m settled in a place for a while.

Solo Travel 16

 Phonsavan, Laos

Travelling solo has taught me to accept my emotions, even the bad ones. I think it’s a bit false to only talk about the good sides of travelling – life isn’t all never-ending adventure and cocktails on the beach (just ignore my Instagram feed). Travelling also brings sadness, anger, homesickness, and just about every other unfavourable emotion you can think of. I’ve written about how sometimes travelling sucks before, and it’s true – sometimes it does suck. What I’ve learned over the years is that that’s ok. Sometimes life, whether you’re travelling or not, really does suck. Accept that sadness and let it push you to be stronger. Accept that grief and turn it into something more powerful. We all have down days, but travelling solo has taught me not to run away from them, but to embrace them and learn from them.

Solo Travel 11

 Hiking in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile

Travelling solo has taught me to never take life for granted. After leaving my relatively sheltered life in Canada, I very quickly learned how lucky I am. I’ve met travellers who hate being called lucky – “I worked hard to get where I am today!” – but me? Yeah, I’m really fucking lucky. I’m lucky to have been born in a country that fosters education, provides health care, encourages creativity, and keeps me safe (and ditto for my current home in the UK). I’m lucky to even be able to hold the whisper of wanderlust on my tongue, to even imagine that I could travel the world on my own. Ok, perhaps fortunate is a slightly better word, but I vow to never, ever take the life that has been given to me for granted.

Solo Travel 10

Tayrona National Park, Colombia

Travelling solo has taught me to trust in other people. One of the greatest things I’ve learned from travelling is that most people want the same things in life. They want to be happy and healthy, and they want their families and friends to be happy and healthy, too. We all work and laugh and love. We all bleed the same blood. And the truth is, despite the endless barrage of bad news in the media, most people around the world are good. Most people will help you out if you’re in a bind, and most will go out of their way to do so. I’ve met people from all walks of life who have opened up their doors to me (or their arms, or their bottles of whiskey, or whatever it is that I needed at that moment in time). While not every single experience I’ve had has been peaches and cream, for the most part the human race helps itself out, and I love that about us.

Solo Travel 9

The Himalayas, Nepal

Travelling solo has taught me to experiment and try new things. I’ve done things I could have never even dreamed I’d do: learn languages, scuba dive, surf, take cooking lessons, paraglide, hike mountains, ride horses, and so on. It’s almost as if travelling solo has given me permission to test out these sides of myself, allowed me to play.

Solo Travel 17

Scuba diving in The Gili Islands, Indonesia

Travelling solo has taught me to have fun. It’s not that I didn’t have fun when I was younger, but… oh who am I kidding, I’ve had way more fun in the past decade than I did as a teenager. Because I’ve had to throw myself into strange situations, I’ve experienced ridiculous rushes of adrenaline, laughed my head off with people I just met, and hey, let’s face it, I’ve gone to some of the best damn parties in the world (Burning Man, Songkran, Full Moon Parties, etc). It’s not even the big events that have provided me with the most fun, however; solo travel has taught me how to find fun in almost any situation, and taught me how to quickly form bonds with other people, so that even a couple of beers around a picnic table can be both entertaining and stimulating. Before I went away on my own, I didn’t enjoy parties very much, nor did I consider myself to be very social, but travelling solo taught me how to loosen up and go with the flow. It also taught me how to love tequila, so… there’s that.

Solo Travel 5

Sand boarding in León, Nicaragua

Travelling solo has taught me to be independent. This one’s a give-in, I know. When you’re a solo traveller, you can only rely on yourself. There’s nobody else to check to make sure that there’s a bus from A to B when I need it, nobody else to set an alarm to guarantee I get up in time for my flight, nobody else to depend on when times get tough. Growing up as a kid in Winnipeg I was a real homebody, and I hated the idea of being away from my parents for very long. Solo travel gave me the courage and freedom to be completely self-reliant, and now I know there are few day-to-day situations I couldn’t handle on my own.

Solo Travel 4

Buenos Aires, Argentina

Travelling solo has taught me about the world. Before I went travelling on my own, I never really knew how the rest of the world lived. I’ve seen amazing, beautiful things, but I’ve also seen things that have shocked me and saddened me: poverty, illness, and prostitution, to name a few. I’ve learned about different religions, cultures, and histories. I’ve learned different languages, foods, customs, and manners. Mostly, though, I’ve learned just how little I really know, and it has been an eye-opening, humbling experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything. I believe that you can learn this even if you travel with another person or in a group, but there’s something about seeing this on your own that really brings it home (no pun intended).

Solo Travel 2

Machu Picchu, Peru

Travelling solo has taught me who I am. Please don’t roll your eyes right now. I know, I know, I make fun of those “you need to get lost to get found” people, too. But the truth is that solo travel has made me the person I am today. I am no angel – I’m stubborn, I can be combative when under pressure, and I am a terrible procrastinator – but at least I recognise these things now, and can actively try to become a better person. While on the road I discovered that I actually quite like who I am, flaws and all. Travelling solo has made me all of the things I listed above: confident, independent, and more resourceful. I think I’ve also become friendlier, more open-minded, and more curious. Being on my own taught me to have faith in myself, and, most importantly, to like my own company. There have been many, many days and nights spent completely on my own, and while I’ve been lonely at times, I’ve never given up. Solo travel gave me that strength.

You can stop retching now. Sorry.

Solo Travel 3

Havana, Cuba

Travelling solo has taught me that, in the end, everything will be all right. I’ve always liked that saying: “Everything will be all right in the end. If it’s not all right, it’s not the end.” Shitty things have happened to me. I’ve been heartbroken and sick and lonely and unbearably sad. I’m not going to pretend that these things compare to tragedies on a larger scale, but these are the things that have clouded my personal experiences. Travelling on my own, however, has taught me that life goes on. Sometimes you get your heart broken. Sometimes you get fired, or you feel frustrated or afraid. But tomorrow is a new day. Even if you’re at the depths of your misery, know that there is a world out there waiting to be explored. Even if it feels scary and tough, sometimes putting on your backpack and walking out the front door is the best thing you can possibly do, even if you’re just going to the corner store for milk. Get out there and see what happens. It might just change your life.

Solo Travel 1

Just about to cycle down Death Road, Bolivia (pre-accident)

What I wrote in 2010, on the cusp of my solo travels around Southeast Asia, the Subcontinent, Central America, and South America: 

Travelling alone can be very difficult, lonely, and frustrating, there’s no doubt about it. But if you are even considering it, it probably means that you are willing to accept those facts and realize that the pros will definitely outweigh the cons. For me, travelling solo is exciting and challenging, and an amazing way to meet people and to see and do things you might not do if you were with someone else or a group. The trip you take will be exactly the trip you want to take; you can do whatever you want, whenever you want. It is, in a way, completely self-indulgent, but it is also a way to learn so much about yourself and about the countries you’re travelling in.

I remember someone telling me, “It’s better to be alone than to want to be alone.” If you are considering travelling solo, all I can say is go, go, go. You won’t regret it.

Solo Travel 12

On my last solo trip, where I attended the Valentia Island Festival in Ireland on my own. It was pelting with rain, I was freezing, my shoes were full of mud, but goddamn it, I met a bunch of people and I had a great time. 

Have you ever travelled solo? What did it teach you? If you haven’t travelled on your own, would you like to?

30 Responses to What Solo Travel Has Taught Me

  1. Shelby September 1, 2015 at 6:26 am #

    Hi Brenna,

    I stumbled across your blog a few weeks ago while researching for my upcoming (and first) solo traveling trip through Thailand and India for 4 months. I just wanted to say that your blog is by far my favorite that I’ve happened upon; it’s so raw and personal, and you are clearly a very talented writer. I think I’ve already read through half of your posts (haha). It has made me even more excited and confident about my own journey, so I thank you for that. Keep doing you lady! You are inspirational.

    Cheers,
    Shelby

    • Brenna Holeman September 2, 2015 at 12:11 pm #

      Oh wow, thank you so much, Shelby, that is so nice of you to say! I’m so excited for you – you’re going to have an amazing time, I just know it. Happy travels and thanks again!

  2. Amanda | Chasing My Sunshine September 1, 2015 at 12:54 pm #

    Brenna, I LOVE this post. I have never travelled solo, but I absolutely dream about those lessons that you have learned. I know I just need to pick up and go. I have to do some reflection to see what’s actually holding me back, but ultimately I know I just have to GO! Posts like these just add fuel to my fire. You are such a fantastic writer, and I do hope I get to read that book someday. 🙂

    • Brenna Holeman September 2, 2015 at 12:15 pm #

      Thank you so much, Amanda! I hope you get to travel solo soon, too – it sounds like you are just about ready for it. Keep me posted! 😀

  3. LC September 1, 2015 at 7:08 pm #

    Great post but also equally as importantly – congrats on finishing the first draft of your book!

    • Brenna Holeman September 2, 2015 at 12:12 pm #

      Thank you very much!

  4. Maria September 1, 2015 at 9:04 pm #

    Amazing post, Brenna, just like all of your posts! I have never travelled on my own and had never thought of doing it before I started reading your blog. Needless to say, I have already started making plans for future solo travels! Your writing style is truly impressive and I agree with Shelby, you are inspirational. I can’t wait to read your book!!! 🙂

    • Brenna Holeman September 2, 2015 at 12:14 pm #

      Thank you so much, Maria! That is absolutely amazing to hear – I’m sure that you will have a fantastic time on your solo travels.

      Thanks again – you are too kind! 😀

  5. Erin September 2, 2015 at 4:22 am #

    Love your blog, and even more, I love that you’re Canadian 🙂

    • Brenna Holeman September 2, 2015 at 12:12 pm #

      Thanks, Erin! 😀

  6. Kylie September 2, 2015 at 9:12 am #

    Hi,

    I’ve just stumbled across your blog am fully expecting to lose hours browsing the archives. Your writing is great and the photos! Oh the photos.

    Just thought I’d drop in and express my appreciation. Also to answer your question – I travelled around Italy alone when I was nineteen. I’ve always wanted to do it again but alas, have never quite got round to it. I identify with everything you’ve written in this post (albeit on a much smaller scale). I loved travelling solo and I think it was good for me to experience it that way, rather than travelling with a companion.

    Kylie

    • Brenna Holeman September 2, 2015 at 12:13 pm #

      Aw, thank you very much, Kylie! That’s very kind of you. And thank you for your input on solo travelling, I’m glad that you could relate!

  7. Elina September 2, 2015 at 4:16 pm #

    Another great post by you and I don’t know where to start commenting, so I guess congratulations first? Looking forward to reading your book 🙂

    I agree with pretty much everything you’ve listed here. Before I started uni, I backpacked Australia alone for almost a year and when I came back I was slightly panicking about doing my laundry, paying rent, handling bills… then I realised I had survived goddamn Australia alone at the age of 18, pat myself in the back and decided living on my own would not be a problem. Funny how you mentioned ‘in the end, everything will be all right’ since that became my motto on that first trip and has stuck with me till today.

    I loved the line ‘Every single person you meet knows something you don’t know’ because it is so true! I feel like so many people don’t even give a chance to a chat with someone totally different than themselves, and it’s not only the so called close-minded people. In my upper secondary school (umm, that must be high school for you I think?) I had a group of friends where one believed in God and a few thought religion was bullshit. At dinner they would openly bash Christianity and say that people who believed in that are mindless and stupid. I myself am not a believer of any sort but I enjoy talking with some religious people because their view of the world is so different, and it really upsets me how some seemingly liberal and open-minded people can be so inconsiderate of other people’s beliefs. And sometimes even if I don’t like the person I’m talking to, the chat can be really rewarding.

    Sorry for bombarding your blog with overly long comments 😀 Just wanted to let you know your article hit home.

    • Brenna Holeman September 3, 2015 at 12:09 am #

      Thank you very much, Elina, I’m glad that you could relate! I think it’s crucial for people to listen to one another, even if we might not all agree. I think it’s so important that we all be open-minded and willing to learn… we might not change our beliefs, but I think that we should at least respect the beliefs of others (with the exception of racism, sexism, or any other forms of discrimination, of course).

      Thanks again for your input, it was really interesting!

  8. Ruth September 2, 2015 at 6:44 pm #

    Your photos are always lovely, and I love the ones where you’re not directly looking at the camera – as a solo traveller how do you get people to take those pictures? Do you tell them you’re not going to ‘pose’ traditionally?

    • Brenna Holeman September 3, 2015 at 12:06 am #

      Thank you, Ruth! Yes, I have no shame telling people how I’m going to pose. Usually I show them how I’d like it framed, and then ask them to press the shutter continuously (I have my camera set up on burst) so I’m usually guaranteed at least ONE photo I like. I tend to suss out who might make a good photographer before I ask… 😉

  9. Rika | Cubicle Throwdown September 4, 2015 at 12:46 am #

    Well, this was just fantastic. Amazing post Brenna! I am really, really looking forward to reading your book.

    • Brenna Holeman September 4, 2015 at 1:20 am #

      Aw, thank you so much! Good to hear from you 🙂

  10. Carl September 4, 2015 at 10:43 pm #

    Hi Brenna.

    Just to say that this post was absolutely beautiful. I think you pretty much summed up everything I’d ever want to say about solo travel, but far more eloquently than I could ever hope to. Really loved it.

    • Brenna Holeman September 4, 2015 at 11:54 pm #

      Hi Carl, thank you so much for your comment! I’m so glad the post resonated with you.

  11. Siobhan September 6, 2015 at 1:45 pm #

    Really lovely post! I haven’t travelled solo at all this year, and I actually really feel different for it – there is something quite specific about the experience (reflective, autonomous, often out-of-comfort zone) that makes solo trips particularly fulfilling.

    • Brenna Holeman September 6, 2015 at 2:46 pm #

      Thanks Siobhan! The only solo trip I’ve taken this year was to Ireland, so I’m hoping to do a lot more of it soon. I agree – they are particularly fulfilling!

  12. Zalie September 18, 2015 at 7:20 pm #

    I loved this post! I really hope that it gives people the courage to go travelling on their own! It’s so true that you learn so much about yourself( the good and the bad), others, and the world by being alone. You also are forced to go out and meet people and not rely as much on your travelling partner!

    • Brenna Holeman September 19, 2015 at 3:39 pm #

      Thank you so much – I agree! It really challenges you (in the very best way).

  13. Andy October 4, 2015 at 2:12 am #

    Great write up! Truly inspiring.

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