I've been on several solo trips over the years, having traveled to The Virgin Islands, Costa Rica, and Prague with only my journal and iTunes library to keep me company.
Traveling by yourself is a real lesson in sorting through all sorts of feelings: excitement, loneliness, happiness, and fear, to name a few. The excitement of traveling to a new place, immersing myself in foreign culture, and expanding my worldly knowledge is what keeps me seeking out new adventures, but the inevitable fear and loneliness can potentially dampen the solo travel experience if I allow it to.
Here are some tips I've learned through trial-and-error that have helped me expand my comfort zone both while traveling and long after I've returned home.
1. Do the things you want to do, even when the nagging voice of fear rears its ugly head.
This is a huge challenge I encounter both traveling and at home. Before I took off for my most recent solo trip to L.A., I did some Google and peer-reviewed research on the best fitness studios in the city and jotted a few of them down. Toward the end of my trip, I still hadn't made it to any of the spots I'd listed due to other plans, but, low and behold, I found myself directly in front of one of the places I'd researched while doing some shopping on my second to last day. And sure enough, there was a class starting in 30 minutes.
My heart immediately began to beat a little faster: "I'm not prepared to take a class right now," said my fear voice. "I shouldn't spend the money," it scolded, quickly citing half a dozen other flimsy excuses. (My fear voice can be very persistent.) I walked past the studio, planning to head back to where I was staying. But that choice didn't sit right with me, and I've learned from experience that when I just cognizantly shut fear down, I can begin to live in the excitement and take a risk. And so I turned around, walked right into the studio, and signed up for the class. And guess what? I had a great workout, met some cool new people, and am excited to take the class again the next time I'm on the West Coast.
2. Allow whatever will be to be.
This tip complements the first one. When I decide to ignore all the excuses in my head, I simultaneously vow to accept whatever accompanies unknown experiences. When I first visited Costa Rica, some locals invited me to a BBQ, and though I initially declined because I didn't know what to expect and I was afraid of feeling uncomfortable, I realized that agreeing to go would give me a deeper understanding of the culture, and maybe, just maybe, I would have a great time. So I decided to go and told myself that I would roll with whatever feelings came up. And, again, though I did initially feel some initial awkwardness being surrounded by new people who didn't speak the same language, I ended up having a beautifully rich experience and created a lovely memory I will have for life.
3. Don't be afraid to change your mind.
I'm learning, with practice, that I don't have to accept my first reactionary response as resolute. My initial anxious response may be a resounding "NO!" but upon further (and more rational) reflection, I can realize that my hesitation is fear-based and I actually want to say yes. And that's totally OK—there's no shame in changing your mind.
4. Realize that being lonely is OK, and the feeling won't last forever.
Nobody likes to feel lonely, but it is an inevitable part of life, both while traveling and in our day-to-day existence. On every single trip I've taken, there have been periods of loneliness. I've come to expect them and have learned to accept them. Feelings are fleeting, and, as we've all heard time and time again: Feelings are not facts.
I've found that changing my environment helps lessen, and sometimes totally obliterate, this sense of loneliness. If I'm lonely in my hotel room, I'll make myself walk to the closest cafe, grab a seat, and strike up a conversation with whoever is around (and, of course, seems to be a safe person to talk to!). When I traveled to The Virgin Islands three years ago, I stayed in a small, quaint hostel, and because it was the off-season, there were very few other guests. But on my second day, another solo traveler checked in, and though I didn't really feel like it at the time, I made myself leave the safety of my room to chat with him on the shared veranda. As it turned out, he was also visiting from NYC, and we became instant friends. Not only did my loneliness evaporate momentarily, but I also had a temporary travel buddy for the next few days. We explored the islands together and have remained friends ever since.
5. Recognize that feeling tired is not usually a good excuse.
Sure, sometimes we really truly are tired and need to take a break to rest. But I've realized that it's often usually fear talking when I want to rely on the ol' "I'm too tired" excuse. Traveling can be exhausting, but I've learned to ask myself one simple question when I want to lean on feeling tired as a reason to not do something when I'm in a place I may never be again: "Will I be satisfied with missing out on what this experience could offer?" Usually, unless I really, truly am so jet-lagged that nothing but sleep will do, the answer is no. I travel to learn about the world, myself, and my place in the world, and so saying "no" to an experience is in direct opposition to what my soul really wants.
All of these tips are things I've come to learn through travel but that I also implement in my daily life. When we travel, feelings and experiences are heightened, thus presenting us with a terrific practice ground for working through them. In order to enjoy the robustness of life, we need to be able to recognize our "fear voice" so that we don't inadvertently miss out on opportunities that could further our understanding of ourselves and deepen our connection to the world. Learning to "say yes" despite fear isn't easy, but like with anything else, it gets easier with practice.
Here's to more safe and open-minded adventures, near and far.