#FirstSoloTrip: Gathering the Courage to Solo Travel

In the age-old nature vs. nurture argument, where does a love for travel and adventure come from: is it innate, or learned? 

I’d argue it’s innate. That you were born with it. That no matter which family or community you were born into, you either have it or you don’t. 

I would venture a guess that this love for travel is innate in a lot of us. I wouldn’t argue with that. But doing it alone, or doing it far away, or doing it for an extended period of time, or doing it in a place that is very culturally different… is another story. Say the idea excites you and you long for it, but you’re met with this pesky thing called fear.

Being able to conquer your fear of the unknown— to tamp it down, to shut it up, to rise above — that’s what must be learned and nurtured. You can teach yourself how to really love travel, not just the good parts, but the inconvenient parts, how to feel comfortable traveling, and how to be really good at it: with practice.

Take me. I’ve been to 50(!) states and 22 countries as of this writing. I’ve been traveling internationally since age 17, first within groups (but never with my family — ahem, nurture) and then primarily solo. My courage around travel escalated and strengthened over a lot of time and a lot of experience. Here are my conclusions:

My learnings from 2 decades of international travel as a woman

  • I don’t like to travel with guides or tour groups, unless I absolutely need to. I like to set my own pace, schedule and itinerary, and I like to choose the people with whom I spend my time and energy. I also care about my budget, and have discovered that there are a lot of costs unnecessarily built into tours that I’d rather go towards other experiences. I’m not afraid to be alone, to manage the ins and outs of where to go and how to get there.
  • I don’t like to plan or book much in advance, because that leaves little room for spontaneity and change, which I learned the hard way in Europe on my 2017 10-country travel spree. On subsequent international trips, I book accommodations either last minute or when I get there, allowing for ultimate flexibility and movement. For example, in Ecuador, I changed directions due to weather, and had a wonderful time. In Colombia, I hopped a plane instead of a bus going south to Medellin instead of east, and I fell in love with the city. Wherever I go, I’m confident that I’ll figure things out when I get there.
  • I like to eat alone. I people watch. I talk to servers and bartenders, and get advice about great spots. If I feel like being receptive to others, being alone makes me more approachable than being involved in conversation with another person or persons. If I don’t feel like being receptive to others (rare, but it happens), I bring a book or my laptop. The truth is, I meet more people when I’m alone, and I’ve made some lifelong friends.
  • I’m not overly concerned for my personal safety. I’m not distrustful; I believe most people are good. Still, I keep my wits about me, I take precautions, and I stay aware of my personal safety. I think the most important thing is to project confidence and to not act like a victim. 

Here’s a story I’ll share with you. A few months ago, Mom and I were having cocktails at a happy hour in Overland Park, KS. I was fresh off a trip to Belize, my 22nd country, and I was urging her to take that international trip now that she’s fully vaccinated.

“Why do you keep pushing this international travel on me, Julie?” she admonished. “I’m not like you. I don’t have an urge to go gallivanting around the world.”

“Mom, you’ve never tried it. It’s easy to think you don’t like something you’ve never tried. It’s easy to think something is hard or scary as an observer. But I promise you, as an experiencer, it feels different. Go with your friends, go with me, go with another family member, or go alone, but I think you should give it a chance,” I insisted.

“Ok, but I think the only reason you’re pushing this on me is because you’re alone — you’re single. Your [married] brothers are not trying to convince me to do this. They’re focused on their own lives. Maybe you should focus on your own life too.”

I was quiet for a second.

“Mom, I’m not encouraging you to travel because I’m alone. I’m encouraging you to travel because you’re alone.”

Dad died, but you’re still living,” I continued. “He would not want you to stay home in your bubble. I know it’s not fair, I know you wanted him to be with you, but he would want you to keep living. To see things for the both of you.”

Now she was quiet. 

“You have a point,” she acknowledged.

My mom is 73. In a few months, she’ll take her first-ever international trip. She won’t be solo (she’s accompanying my brother and his wife on their semi-annual family vacation to the Bahamas) but it will be her first time outside the country ever. I’m proud of her. 

My mom told me she made a snap decision to accept their invitation “before she lost the guts” to do so. For her, it wasn’t a disinterest in travel, it was fear. 

For anyone who’s contemplating a dream trip, a dream destination, a dream activity, or just something you’ve never done before — identify what’s holding you back. If it’s fear, how can you address that? Consider research and planning. Consider groupthink, chaperones, and safety in numbers. It’s fine to lean on resources before you become fully resourceful yourself. You’ll grow, you’ll practice, and you’ll graduate over time. The important thing is getting started. The important thing is trying something you’ve never tried. 

It could feel awkward. It could feel like everyone is looking at you. You might feel uncomfortable or lonely. Sit in that. Feel your feelings. And when those negative emotions pass, congratulate yourself. You’ve just got through them, you’ve just strengthened that muscle, and the next time you’re uncomfortable it will be just a little easier to bear and shake off. That’s you growing, my friends

“Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all.”

Helen Keller

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