I saw Queen Elizabeth on her 90th birthday at Windsor Castle. I saw the Pope from the doorstep of St Paul’s Cathedral. I navigated through ice caves in the highest mountaintop in Europe. I had whiskey with the owner of a Swiss inn, who also happened to be an Olympic medalist. I saw a real Banksy on the streets of Paris. I heard a world-renowned Austrian pipe organist play at Notre-Dame. I rode an incline up a mountain to a medieval walled city in Tuscany, and enjoyed a glass of the finest wine I have ever tasted with local Italian villagers. I strolled through Gaudi’s Park in Barcelona while a Spanish guitar echoed from the mosaic-filled walls.
I did all of this alone.
Something magical happens when you travel alone. When there is no one else influencing your decisions, no day-to-day life to discuss and no time table to be shared, the destination is your only focus. You and your senses are 100% available to every moment in the world around you. You will be fully immersed in the place in a completely different way than when shared. You will be on an amazing choose-your-own-adventure!
Here are some tips to make the most of your experiences as a solo traveler:
Tip 1: Be spontaneous!
True, you may want to have some sort of informal schedule or idea of the things that you want to see and do, but leave the opportunity to explore and be open to change should something intriguing come your way. Don’t plan every restaurant you’re going to eat at based on your research on TripAdvisor prior to your journey. If you follow the tips below, you will likely meet a local who will share the BEST local spot in town with you!
Here are a few examples from my own personal experiences of being spontaneous:
While in Paris I had hoped to do the bucket-list items of touring Notre-Dame and saying hello to Mona Lisa at the Louvre. I started my journey strolling the cafes for a morning coffee and macaroons for breakfast. (Because I was solo, no one could tell me not to have macaroons for breakfast.) It was at the cafe that I learned of a special exhibit happening that day, which included the most well-known street artists from around the world. This was a once-in-a-lifetime, first-ever exhibit and my favorite artist, Banksy, was rumored to be there. I got to meet and visit with artists from around the world that I had been following for years.
When I left, I saw a Banksy on a wall adjacent to the exhibit – confirmation that he really was there! I missed the touring hours at Notre-Dame and the Louvre, but the Mona Lisa will be on the display for decades and the Banksy was only up one day.
I walked by Notre-Dame, which was closed for tours, only to discover that a performance by a world-renowned pipe organ player from Austria was starting. I learned that there are only a few people that can play the organ in Notre-Dame and it was a very rare event. I was brought to tears by the intensity of the organ as it piped through the cathedral, vibrating the floor below my feet and the pew I sat in awe. The magic of spontaneity!
While in London, I decided to book a sightseeing tour for one for Stonehenge. When I got there, I was asked if I would like to add some time at Windsor Castle on the way. Sure, I said. It’s just me, so why not? I soon discovered it was the 90th birthday of Queen Elizabeth, making her the oldest living monarch ever to rule. How cool! I booked one of the last sightseeing tours of Windsor Castle but I only had a short window before meeting the bus bound for Stonehenge. I buzzed up the side of the mountain to the castle and began my walkabout through the grounds. While outside viewing the gardens, I noticed a bunch of those guards with the funny, tall, black furry hats gathering with instruments. I lingered to watch them for a while, a little nervous about timing because I had to get back to my bus and tours of the castle had closed. I saw a priest come out of the chapel area and walk to the area where the soldiers were. I knew surely something was happening so I walked over to where they were. It was then that I was told that the castle ground gates were now locked and no one could leave or re-enter. Uh oh – that meant I’d missed my bus. Instead of freaking out, I decided that I would just take catch the next bus or a cab back into London and do Stonehenge the next day, no big deal. Then, all of a sudden the guards began marching and playing music, and Queen Elizabeth came out! There I was, standing in a row with her servants, chefs, priests and a group of schoolchildren waving British flags. She went right by me with her yellow coat and yellow hat, smiling and waving majestically. When I got back to my hotel that night, I told the guy at the front desk and he was shocked. He said British citizens strive for decades to see the Queen, and it just didn’t seem fair that I could be there one day and see her on her 90th birthday. Lucky me. Thanks, Spontaneity!
Tip 2: Be safe. Be smart.
Definitely use your intuition, especially if you are a woman traveling alone. I never stay out much past dark when traveling alone, especially in a foreign city. Do not drink too much; two glasses of wine are my max. After all, you have no travel companion to keep an eye on you!
Always have your phone charged up and travel with a battery charger. Even when you’re being spontaneous and open to going off your planned route, make sure you understand where that is and check to make sure it’s a safe area and that there are other people around. If you see a street with no people walking after dark, try to avoid that street. Check in with friends or family and let them know where you plan to be and that you’re back to your room safe in the evenings.
Tip 3: DO talk to strangers.
Follow Tip 2 above first and foremost, but be sure to be open to conversations with strangers. Make eye contact. Smile. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. I’ve found that locals are quite smitten by and sympathetic to single travelers, and will want to chat with you and be sure you have the best experience in their home. Another tip: Make conversation with cab, Uber and bus drivers. They are some of the best tour guides!
Tip 4: Don’t be afraid to dine alone!
Some people hate eating at restaurants alone. I actually enjoy it. When you travel and dine in a restaurant alone, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the things that you wouldn’t notice while dining with a friend. The food will taste so wonderful. The flavors will pop!
Don’t be afraid to sit at a four-person table by yourself in a restaurant. Don’t be afraid to ask them to light the candle. After all, you are on a date with yourself. Order whatever you want, because there is no one to judge. You are only paying for one, AND you don’t even have to share the dessert!
Tip 5: Don’t be afraid to ask strangers to take your picture!
My niece said something funny in a blog that she wrote recently that made me laugh: She said isn’t it funny how you can ask somebody to take a picture of you in front of something really cool, like a monument or a cathedral, and they get everything about you in the picture including your feet, but they totally miss the top of the cathedral behind you that you were trying to get a picture with? That totally happens when traveling alone, but no one is going to believe your awesome solo travel story about Queen Elizabeth or the Pope or Banksy if you don’t get some pictures. So, it’s better to ask than to have none. Also, don’t walk around with a silly selfie stick – you will probably just get made fun of.
Tip 6: Be in the moment.
Don’t get so caught up in taking pictures or asking for your picture or posting your solo travel adventures on Facebook that you can’t appreciate the experiences you are having there and then. When traveling alone, it is easy to want to share your adventures and hear feedback from others. One idea I find that works well is to save your post until the end of the day and write about your adventure when you are at the hotel. That way you can soak it all in, and you aren’t so distracted writing your Facebook post that you don’t notice the interesting woman with a feather hat sitting next to you in the restaurant. Afterall, she might be able to guide you to the best local jazz in town.
Tip 7: Share your solo travel experiences and inspire others.
You don’t know how often I hear, “Wow, you did that by yourself?” or “I would never be able to do that by myself.” It’s important for us to hear stories of other solo travelers (especially solo women travelers). One of my best friends took a solo trip to Eastern Europe last year and said that I was a great inspiration for that. My niece recently got back from her first solo adventure abroad to Rome. Like in some movie, she ended up riding through the streets of Rome on a moped with a beautiful Australian boy. Sharing positive experiences from your trip is a great way to encourage and inspire others to travel.
Tip 8: Embrace a partner that supports you traveling alone sometimes.
You don’t have to be single to travel solo. My partner is the love of my life; there’s no one I’ve ever been with that supports me being alone and enjoying time with myself more than he does. He doesn’t make me feel guilty when I do something by myself or for myself. I am thankful to him for allowing me to love myself and my solo travel experiences without guilt, and I’m always so excited to get back to him and share my stories.
Tip 9: Incorporate solo adventures into group or couple travel.
Consider dedicating a day or an afternoon on a trip that you can each explore alone. There may be different activities or interests that each of you have that you can enjoy on your day apart. You’ll feel refreshed and excited to tell each other about your adventures over dinner!
Tip 10: Don’t procrastinate – just do it!
If you’ve always dreamt of going to that special place but you’re just waiting for someone to go with you and they just can’t seem to find the time, maybe right now is the right moment for YOU. Book the trip. Take yourself on your dream vacation. You won’t regret it!
Traveling with loved ones, friends and family is something that I always treasure and enjoy, but a solo journey is quite therapeutic. You will discover so much more about the destination, and yourself, when you are open to the magic of being alone!
Enjoy the magic of your journey!
Paris Collage of Photos
Windsor Castle, England the day I got to see the Queen