The Solo Travel Question I Can’t Figure Out How to Answer

When reader Shannon wrote me two months ago about solo travel, my first instinct was that her hesitation to travel alone was a mix of concern on safety, practicality and loneliness. These are all legitimate and frequently covered by travel writers.

I asked for more on what precisely is her main concern and she said the fear of eating alone. She shared How to Eat Alone and Enjoy It from Twenty-Something Travel:

For me, I realized one of my fears is that random people are going to come over and start talking to me because I’m alone. Being bothered by people I don’t know gives me a lot of anxiety (true introvert here).

This is so far from my nature that I have struggled for these two months in how to say anything of value.

On my solo travels, I love the solitude of my thoughts during quiet stretches. At mealtime I enjoy a book or podcast. Thinking about it, though, I realized I am hardly alone. When traveling solo you must have interactions with people all day to move forward on the trip.

To be really alone, join a tour group. Sitting in the back of a tour bus you can choose to be removed from all that is happening.

A different kind of alone is when traveling with others. The focus is on your internal group relations, with the outside world at a distance. The people with you create a bubble that outsiders hesitate to penetrate.

When alone on a trip there is no bubble and people will approach. You are pulled into local’s lives.

My one practical suggestion that I don’t see elsewhere will seem counter-intuitive: go to places without much tourism.

Locals in places with heavy tourist numbers block out the crowds as they get on with their lives. Tourists in Manhattan are sidewalk obstacles to dodge. In Aruba you may never meet a local not engaged in the tourist industry. Mass tourism leads to superficiality and alienation.

When you instead visit a place without tourism you almost assuredly attract friendly attention. People take you under their wing.

This week I entered a country with one of the worst reputations in the world, from corruption to violence. When the customs officer heard I am a tourist he broke into a big smile and shook my hand. That was Nigeria.

Here are a few countries and regions that come to mind as especially outgoing to visitors:

  • Small town US and Canada, in the summer when events are on
  • Central America, particularly Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua
  • Dominica, Nevis, Saba, Montserrat and Haiti in the Caribbean
  • Middle East for women (you get dotted on by local women), not so for men except for the outgoing Iranians
  • Much of Eastern Europe into the Caucasus (Georgia is a personal favorite)
  • North Africa
  • Bangladesh and Pakistan

Just by being out and about in these places and more you will quickly feel part of a community.

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  • Adam K

    Thanks for putting into words a sentiment that I’ve been trying to figure out how to explain. I think eating alone tends to be one of the most difficult things, but by and large, I find that I enjoy traveling alone seems to lead to far more authentic and meaningful interactions with both locals and fellow travelers alike. Whether asking a guy from Mozambique to watch my seat at the Moscow airport, meeting a few medical students in Vladivostok, wandering around Tokyo with a local businessman talking about miles+points, or being invited to the home of an Uzbek family, I’ve found it to be much easier and less threatening to be exploring alone.

    I would add Uzbekistan to the list of extremely friendly and outgoing countries — Many younger Uzbeks speak excellent English and are amazingly friendly, and even the older Uzbek babushkas showed a level of caring and kindness that rivaled my grandmother.

  • Good topic, Stefan.

    The reason why this topic is so difficult to explain is because it varies by person; as well as by the dining experience itself and — as you point out — the part of the world in which you are located at the time.

    I attempted to address this topic in an article I wrote almost 18 months ago…

    http://thegate.boardingarea.com/table-one-dining-solo/

    …but I can assure you of one thing: I have not returned to Maru Sushi in Smyrna to dine alone for lunch ever since you moved…

  • DaveS

    Interesting topic, since I do quite a bit of my traveling solo and I’m not very outgoing. You may be on to something here. In some places where people expect tourists, you might as well be wearing a shirt with a huge dollar sign on it – people see you not as a person but as a potential source of money. That can really get old. Off the beaten track, there’s a more natural flow to the interaction.

  • Shai

    After I have done my first solo trip just a days ago, I know that it is not going to be my last. Friends and acquaintances who are not accustomed to travelling alone on leisurely trips have found it hard to believe that I did it and one of the questions was: “Was eating alone awkward?” This article shares my exact sentiments. I guess it was easier for me coz i am used to dining alone even at my hometown, add watching movies too. In my trip, I met several folks I have stayed in touch with and might even recruit in my current company. ☺️

  • Rapid Travel Chai

    @Brian Cohen – I need to fly down to ATL for that! Interesting DL pricing out of NYC almost always favors non-ATL connections unless heading to Central/South America, which I am not these days.

  • I travelled around the US (from Australia) for seven weeks by myself when I was in my early 20s.

    I have never had a problem with eating alone. I always find it easier to have a book handy to keep me occupied while waiting to be served etc. I don’t ever recall anyone approaching me to talk.

  • jj

    I always make sure to go to the local casino. card table is a great place to make friends. and they may just change the trajectory of your entire trip.

  • Jana

    I enjoy traveling by myself. While I am a retired female and I am married, I am by by myself about 80 percent of the time on my travels (flew 210,000 miles in 2015) and have not had any issues. In addition to spending time in non-tourist areas to avoid unwanted attention, I suggest you dress and act like a local. While I am Asian, I have been mistaken for a local in Dublin and in Paris by people seeking directions, which I found funny as I have the world’s worst sense of direction. Otherwise, people do not typically interact with you unless you initiate it Think about your hometown, do you walk up to people randomly to talk to them? Probably not and nor would people in other countries.

  • Rapid Travel Chai

    @jj – I probably can’t imagine the extent of those trajectories, first thought I had is those casinos in small town South Africa.

  • Rapid Travel Chai

    @Jana – I am not sure if you are Asian American, my wife (non-American) refers to ‘innocent American eyes’ for why I get asked directions a lot and that phenomenon seems to extend across ethnicity in America. Compare to the opaque, cloudy European eyes that are less welcoming. Or in Russia maybe it is because I am the only guy not in a track suit.

  • Let me know when you are in town, Stefan.

    Hopefully it will be on a weekday when we can enjoy that sushi buffet once again…

  • Shannon

    Thank you for answering my question in such a good way! I really enjoy your affectionate writing style.

  • jj

    @rtc you can’t. last time I started solo in Melbourne and by the time I was in Sydney I was a group of 4. you never know where things will go especially when you have the space to offer in hotel suites and cheap flights