9 Things I Wish I Knew Before Traveling Alone
by Maria Del Russo
I never thought of myself as someone who would ever want to travel alone. I like being around people while on vacation. I love making memories with people who are close to me. I also love having people around to take my photo whenever I want them to. (Hey, Instagram is important, ok?) But after getting laid off from my job and going through a series of failed relationships, I decided to book a two-week trip to Paris. If Julia Roberts could Eat, Pray, Love her way out of unhappiness, I could too, right?
Well, not exactly. I didn’t have a spiritual reawakening that was perfect for a Hollywood movie, but the trip was definitely regenerating in its own ways. I can’t recommend traveling alone enough. That said, there are things I wish people had told me before I packed up and went to a foreign country by myself. So I’m sharing those things with you, ahead. If you get the chance to book a ticket somewhere by yourself, do it. But read this first.
You need less than half of the clothing that you packed.
When you’re traveling with friends or family, it’s likely that you plan different occasions that require different types of dressing. If you’re traveling alone, and you’re anything like me, the main priority with your clothing is this: Comfort. I packed heels I never wore because I was walking everywhere and was too exhausted to go to a fancy dinner at the end of the day. I packed way too many dresses when I wound up just wearing the same pair of jeans most days. Pack the bare minimum you think you need, and then remove some of that, too. You simply won’t need it. Bonus: It will free up more room in your suitcase for all the loot you buy.
You’re going to have moments of panic.
When I first touched down in Paris, it was cold and it was rainy. My Airbnb was older than it looked in the photos and smelled like must. I tried to wander out to find flowers to mask the smell, and in the middle of the street, I broke down sobbing. What am I doing here? I thought to myself. In that moment, I decided that it was the biggest mistake to come to Paris alone, and started making plans to come home early.
Luckily, my mother talked me out of it. And I’m so glad she did. I pulled myself together and told myself that if I still felt this way in a few days, I could book an earlier flight home. I then spent that day doing everything I could to cheer myself up and orient myself in my new surroundings. I bought flowers and candles for my apartment. I ate cheese and a baguette and nothing else for dinner. I wrote all of my feelings down in a notebook.
After the first day and a half, I started settling in and enjoying myself. I still did have moments of panic where I thought about how I was in a foreign country by myself, but they became less and less obvious as the trip went on. And in the end, I found myself content.
It’s normal to feel lonely at strange times.
I knew that I’d feel lonely on this trip because I’m someone who tends to get lonely. But I don’t think I realized when I’d feel lonely. In New York, where I live, I feel constantly surrounded by people. Even if I’m sitting by myself at a restaurant, I’m comfortable because I can hear other people’s conversations around me. I know that my friends are a phone call away. But when traveling alone in a foreign country, I felt lonely walking down the street, because I didn’t understand the language that well. It could be alienating.
That said, I tried to remember that the feeling of loneliness was temporary and that I should try to enjoy this time alone. Instead of wallowing in it, I allowed myself to feel it, and then found a way to move on. A glass of wine usually helped.
Don’t feel beholden to the plans that you made.
If I woke up tired, I decided to sleep in. If I didn’t feel like staying all that long at the top of Notre Dame, I walked down. I’d sometimes feel like there were things that I should be doing, and that would create pockets of stress. But when I allowed myself to just do whatever the hell I wanted, my days became much more fun. So I quickly got over my set timetable and did what I wanted to.
If you don’t feel comfortable eating alone, you don’t have to.
As much as I love eating alone in New York, there was something hard about having to eat alone day after day. I did enjoy it sometimes. But other times, I didn’t want to do it. So if I didn’t have dinner plans with the friends I’d made, and I didn’t want to sit alone at a bistro, I grabbed myself some wine, cheese, and saucisson and went back to my apartment to watch Netflix on my computer. And you know what? Those were some of the best meals I had on my trip.
Always carry your book and your journal.
If you’re like me, you’re going to be standing on lines to get into museums alone a lot. Or your feet will be killing you, and you’ll want to sit in a park, or at a cafe with a glass of wine. It helps to have a book with you to pass the time. I also bought a journal, which wound up being the greatest idea ever. I wrote whenever I had a second to sit down, which made it easier to remember what I’d done that day. And at the end of the trip, I taped all of my ticket stubs, candy wrappers, and other little trinkets into the pages. It became a living journal of my trip, and I’ve read it multiple times since then.
Be open to meeting new people.
Through a friend I knew in Paris, I was able to meet some other American expats who were living there full-time. The three of us wound up spending a ton of time together during my trip — which, in turn, wound up enriching my experience. I was initially skeptical since I had come to Paris to be alone. But I’m so glad I kept myself open. Meeting new friends is an amazing part of traveling alone. And now I have a reason to go back.
If you don’t know anyone in the country you’re visiting, remember this: Sit at the bar. Whether you’re at a place for drinks or a great dinner spot, it’s always easiest to talk to people if you sit at the bar — even if that person is just the bartender. (They tend to know the best things to do in the city, so you’ll want to bend their ear a bit.)
Do the cheesy tourist things if you want.
Since you’re by yourself, there’s no one to negotiate plans with. So I was able to do some of the touristy things I’d be embarrassed to do with another person. I climbed to the top of Notre Dame. I did a boat tour on the Seine. I spent a full hour in Shakespeare & Co. I saw a side of the city I wouldn’t have seen otherwise, and I’m happier for it.
Don’t feel funny about calling home.
I initially felt lame if I decided to call home because I was feeling lonely. I thought that I should be having such a good time that I shouldn’t even be thinking about my life back in the States. But if I wanted to call home, I allowed myself to. It helped cure my loneliness and reminded me that nothing was changing back there. In fact, calling back home inadvertently helped keep me in the moment, because it allowed me to stop wondering if I was missing anything back in New York. (Turns out, I wasn’t.)
Splurge on the international phone plan.
While getting lost is one of the things I enjoyed doing most while I was in Paris (I found the best little corners and shops that way) there were times when I wasn’t romantically lost. I was flat-out lost. In those times, I was very happy to have spent the money on an international phone plan — and it’s a splurge I tell people to always make. Having a map at your disposal is key, especially if you don’t really speak the language. And like I said above, having the ability to call home at any time of day helped me feel less lonely.
Google Maps are also clutch for navigating public transportation on your own, which is especially helpful if you don’t speak the language. It gives detailed directions and alerts you to the direction you need to be traveling in. I definitely would have gotten lost had I not had that phone plan.
It’s ok to indulge yourself.
You’re by yourself. So if you want to have a second glass of wine with lunch, go for it. If you want to buy yourself flowers for your apartment, do it. I had some kind of sweet every day at 4 PM when I was in Paris, and it was fantastic. Be selfish. Indulge yourself. Do what you want to do. Because the truth is, you never know if you’re going to have the chance to travel alone again.