This lone — but never lonely — traveler avoids companions and fellow tourists for the serendipitous and non-judgmental moments of solo travel Paris may be for lovers, but the best days I ever spent there were spent alone.
Without anyone to make me go to the Louvre, or stand by the Seine, or agonize over which patisseries to visit, I did exactly as I pleased: I wandered to the Latin Quarter, ate cheap bouillabaisse for every meal and spent most of the afternoons reading on the floor of second-hand bookstores — which anyone else who I might have traveled with would have deplored.
After a few similar trips, I decided that traveling alone is the only way to travel.
I now avoid companions and fellow tourists the way Belgians avoid closed-toed shoes and adequately sized shorts.
That way, I can change itineraries at any moment — if something looks exciting I don’t need to consult “the group,” I just do it. The less people, the faster decisions can be made. Just the prospect of choosing restaurants in a group every day is enough to make me shudder. Imagine the horror of traveling with a picky eater, or that culinary abomination — a vegan. Not for this omnivore.
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Skip the judgment
Traveling alone makes it perfectly acceptable to not eat from street vendors, not swim in lagoons only the locals know about, and avoid the ruins because it is hot outside and one would rather just get a Coke at the Domino’s Pizza. No one’s judging.
A lone traveler is more likely to approach others, and, by virtue of being alone, is more approachable.
The people you want to meet at the places you travel to vanish if you are in a large group. Nothing is more off-putting and ignore-worthy than a gaggle of foreigners loudly navigating a new place.
Travel has gone through an incredible democratization since the days of the Grand Tour when rich young men hopped between the great European cultural capitals to learn something of the world. Sure, we spend a lot less time showing off our fancy waistcoats, and more time showing off our sunburned midriffs, but something of that Grand Tour enlightenment spirit remains — that need to expand the mind, to find yourself somewhere novel, and to meet and learn from new people.
While living on a hippie bus in Utah and desperately needing a break from my companions, I went hiking by myself in Zion National Park. There I met a woman and her husband who taught me to juggle fire. It was impossible to meet such characters when we were touring as a group.
It was the same in a small town in Ireland, just north of the poet William Butler Yeats’ hometown in Sligo. There, in a pub, I met a woman who possessed not only the famed Irish gift of the gab but also a horse stud. After a few pints and slight exaggeration about my equine knowledge I agreed to assist at her stables. In exchange I had access to the horses to ride the surrounding dunes. In that weekend I learned more about the Irish than I had in months at the university there.
Travel literature revels in tales of the solo traveler.
Patrick Leigh Fermor crossing pre-war Europe in “A Time of Gifts” and “Between the Woods and Water;” Captain Joshua Slocum’s “Sailing Alone Around the World” in which the author becomes the first person to solo-circumnavigate the globe and does it in a boat he built; or even Tom Wolfe’s psychedelic travels through San Francisco in “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.”
These books reveal the heightened drama and excitement in traveling alone. It makes for good stories and even casual travelers are starting to catch on.
By the numbers
In a 2005 survey, the travel guide publisher Fodor’s found that four in 10 Americans had traveled alone for pleasure in the last three years. Around 80 percent did so to have the freedom to travel how they wanted; while 71 percent did so to meet new people. A similar 2009 study from ebookers.com found that one in six British nationals had traveled alone in the past year.
In 2011, of the 18.8 million people who traveled to the United States, 4.5 million (23.6 percent) traveled alone, according to the U.S. International Trade Administration Office of Travel and Tourism’s 2011 Profile of overseas travelers.
Maybe we hate our friends and family and use travel to escape them, or maybe something more interesting is happening?
The 23.6 percent, give or take the occasional hyper-annoying Australian backpacker, are on to something.
No one looks back on a trip and wishes they spent more time listening the their English-/ Chinese-/German-speaking tour bus driver retelling tired jokes en route to the Taj Mahal while their English/Chinese/German tour mates exchange photos of their pet terriers/shih tzus/weird lizard with piercings.
They prefer meeting fire jugglers and horse breeders instead. Or they should, anyway.