I was sitting in JFK International Airport, propped up on my bags, waiting for my connecting flight to Dublin. I already had a long list of places that I wanted to visit once I got to Europe. One of which, ironically, was Dublin, though on that day, I would only be lingering in their quaint little airport for an hour or two before I was ferried out onto a tiny flight bringing me to my final destination and home for the next five months: Rome, Italy.
This was my first time out of the country and I was extremely apprehensive about studying and living in a foreign place for the first time, let alone backpacking all by myself, but I promised that I would take at least one trip alone, just to prove to myself that I could do it. I managed far more than that. I made a two-week expedition across Europe via train, from Rome to Venice, Milan, Zurich and finally, Prague. I took a plane back to Ireland to see something more of Dublin other than the encroaching, early morning sunset as we flew away.
I won’t lie, traveling solo can be terrifying at times, but there are a few reasons why everyone should do it at least once in their life, even if it’s not outside of one's own country.
1. You are encouraged to be spontaneous
When you’re traveling with a group, everything has to be fairly democratic. If you’re lucky, all of you are at least interested in doing some of the same things. If you’re not so lucky, it means you’re going to have to compromise, and if you’re on a tight schedule, sacrifice some of the activities you were looking forward to. When you’re on the road by yourself, not only can you make your own schedule but you can break it, too! No explanation required. When I arrived in Venice, I knew a couple of the key attractions, but the main island was so small and I had so little time to explore, that I just allowed myself to wander completely randomly. I got lost, don’t get me wrong, but if I hadn’t gotten lost, I never would have found the Museum of Music or the Rialto Market, packed to the brim with vintage trinkets and art.
2. You value your independence
Traveling alone can be a give-or-take type of experience. Because I was by myself, I was less likely to stay out past sunset. I didn’t stay long at pubs and I got antsy on less-traveled streets. Despite all of this, being on my own taught me to value my independence a lot more than dorm-ing in New York City had already. I went to places that I genuinely wanted to go and I didn’t linger if I wasn’t feeling comfortable anymore. To be honest, I often concluded my ventures for the day surprisingly early and wound up spending decent chunks of my evenings just cooking dinner in the hostel and browsing the Internet. Not the most exciting life to be leading abroad in Europe, but being abroad by myself taught me how to pay attention to my own needs and value them. When you have the privilege of adventuring in a strange new place, it’s tempting to feel guilty for enjoying yourself for doing anything but something exciting and new. As an introvert who gets drained pretty quickly, it was important for me to be happy just taking care of myself, even if it wasn’t a grand adventure.
3. You meet new people
In a group, you tend to become very insular. You might meet other groups or chat with other people, but you’re less likely to really make a connection with your fellow travelers or even to start up a conversation in the first place. It’s just so much easier to stick with who you know. I met a lot of interesting people while I was traveling and had a lot of interesting conversations. Granted, not all of them were entirely pleasant and there were times I could have benefited from having a wingman to duck me out of potential jeopardy, but I wouldn’t have heard nearly as many of the stories as I did if I’d been traveling with a friend.
4. You enjoy yourself more
I don’t know about you, but when I’m with a group of people (abroad, or not) I always feel a need to entertain. Even if they are people I’m comfortable with, I don’t want my friends to be unhappy or uncomfortable. I don’t take as long in some places as I might like to and generally, most of the my energy winds up going to conversation. It’s an entirely different type of enjoyable experience, but this is just another reason to take a trip by yourself at some point. When it’s just you sitting in a cafe at breakfast or taking a moment to catch your breath on a park bench, your impulses ultimately change. I spent a lot of time in silence while I was abroad, even if I was in a public place. I had more time to myself to draw, sketch, write or read on my Kindle. The memories you create for yourself in stillness wind up becoming just as unforgettable as the shenanigans you get up to with your friends.
5. You learn to be by yourself
If you’re an extremely social person, chances are you might take off on a trip by yourself and wind up dragging a couple of people along with you that you meet on the way. Ultimately, no matter how extroverted you are, you’re going to wind up with a couple hours by yourself on a train, bus, pub or museum. At first, you may not be sure what to do with yourself, but being stuck in that place time and time again, begins to become comfortable. You start to understand that being uncomfortable, stressed or overwhelmed about the journey ahead of you is just part of traveling and isn’t reflective of you at all. When you release that pressure to feel a part of something, to be conversing with someone or to look like you belong, you start allowing yourself to just drift and to be content with where you are in life.
All in all, traveling alone is an important milestone to reach in your life. You don’t have to travel to Europe to do it. The important thing is that you go somewhere. Somewhere you’ve never been before; somewhere you’re excited to see or even a little nervous to visit. The rest will fall into place. We have a tendency to romanticize travel or foreign places we’ve never been to. A lot of people traveling abroad for the first time expect an "Eat, Pray, Love" experience or a Disney moment to happen to them before they return home. The truth is, places have no magic. We bring the magic to them, along with our own problems. Going on an adventure isn’t going to fix your life, but you can! If that’s an experience you’d like to have, then I’d highly suggest going it on your own and getting in touch with who you truly are.