With solo travel on the rise, Stylist’s contributing travel editor Anna Hart reveals her passion – and tips – for going it alone
My first solo travel experience happened by accident. I was 22 and newly graduated when a friend and I decided to blow the remnants of our student loans on a two-week trip to Thailand. But in the flurry of our over-excited texts, we got our dates muddled and managed to book flights for different weeks. My friend sensibly booked herself onto a group trek so she’d have some company while I considered my options, then – partly out of frugality, partly out of curiosity – decided to go it alone.
As I stood at Bangkok Airport at 6am, clutching a battered copy of Lonely Planet, it hit me just how alone I was. This was before the days of smart phones, so I couldn’t tweet about my nerves or crowd-source some courage. Instead, I plugged in my Discman and blared the Kill Bill soundtrack, hoping that some of Uma Thurman’s badassery would rub off on me.
I arrived in Chiang Mai without a plan, but then I had nobody to please but myself. At my hostel I met a Norwegian couple who were doing a Thai massage course and signed up too. Our evenings were spent drinking Chang beer and eating coconutty curries that cost no more than £1.50. Within the week, I had called the travel agent and changed my flights so my two-week trip to Thailand suddenly became a four-month adventure around Borneo (where I learned to scuba-dive and climbed Mount Kinabalu in flip flops); Singapore (experiencing unforgettable smells, sounds and flavours); Malaysia (where I washed dishes at a surf shack hostel in exchange for my tiny, cockroach-infested room) and Laos (where I toured temples and got hooked on yoga).
The more places I visited, the more my personality developed. I was creating amazing memories and, inadvertently, turning into the person I wanted to be, with healthy new habits and hobbies, a varied circle of friends, and properly informed and sophisticated opinions.
Inadvertently, I was ahead of the solo travel curve. Today, more women than ever are waking up to the joys of going it alone. Experts believe that 38% of holiday bookings in 2015 were solo travellers. And women are more likely than men to travel alone, with females constituting 58% of single travellers and figures rising for more intrepid trips such as walking holidays (64%) and safaris (60%).
For me, once I’d started travelling alone, I didn’t want to stop. Back in England, my solo travel adventures took on different guises. I set off alone on day trips to Brighton, Portsmouth and Godalming. I graduated onto solo overnighters, revelling in cheap B&B breaks away from my chaotic flat share in Hackney. I became adept at prescribing myself the trips that would ‘fix’ me; if I felt burnt out, I’d book a yoga weekend in Devon. If I was fed up by a grey, rainy winter, I’d whisk myself off on culture-crammed city breaks. In Paris, I charged around museums at lightspeed, never having to pause because a companion was tired or hungry. In Amsterdam, I found out about the dream university town of Delft, simply by seeing a windmill on a postcard and asking the lady at the souvenir shop where I could find it. In Stockholm, I ate nothing but cured herring and knäckebrot; I can’t imagine any travel companion putting up with this.
Inevitably, solo travelling isn’t always easy. I’ve had miserable nights where I’ve found myself in a grotty hostel eating Frito-Lay crisps in a sagging bed because I’ve been feeling too tired, shy or wary to face the night market alone. There was the time I got ill in Malaysia and spent three days curled around a toilet bowl until I summoned up the courage to ask the couple next door to bring me some Dioralyte. And there was one hostel in Ko Lanta that was so creepy I packed up and left at 4am, preferring to wait at the bus shelter with the streetfood stall holders than in a room that felt unsafe.
But these fleeting lows are massively outweighed by the endless list of highs. When you’re not a ‘closed unit’ – a group or a couple – opportunities for adventure arise more frequently. A wealthy family once gave me a lift on their yacht in Croatia, I climbed a Mauritian mountain with two strapping honeymooning Norwegian men, and I stepped into a female dorm full of strangers in Borneo only for us all to later go swimming in waterfalls together.
Being a lone traveller, you are only ever as lonely as you want to be. If you want solitude, you can order room service every night, keep your face fixed to your iPad on bus journeys, and refuse to smile. But let these efforts slip and you will inevitably wind up with new friends by the time you get off the bus. This is doubly so for female travellers – when I needed advice, help or simply someone to mind my rucksack while I went for a pee, I could always find a friendly Australian happy to oblige. There’s a comforting camaraderie among female travellers, a sense that we’re all looking out for each other. We need to be more alert to potential dangers than those travelling in groups. But an unintended consequence of vulnerability is connection; I always make a point of smiling at every bus driver so they’ll look out for me, chatting to the people I sit next to, and asking for advice from other travellers.
British explorer Freya Stark puts it perfectly: “To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the most pleasant sensations in the world. You are surrounded by adventure.” Much as I love my partner and friends, all of us occasionally need to enjoy the freedom to follow our every whim; sometimes we just need to go solo.
Going it alone
Anna’s tips for travelling solo
Join a gang
Don’t go five-star, even if you can afford to. As a solo traveller you want a relaxed, friendly vibe; fuss and formality get overbearing when you’re on your own.
A city break alone might seem daunting but the anonymity and energy of big cities means you’ll never feel self-conscious.
Check out trip4real.com (the Airbnb of experiences), where locals offer everything from yoga sessions to street-art tours.
Try not to rely on technology for company. A book is all you need. Your trip will be richer for it.
Photography: Getty Images