We’re going to go out on a bit of a limb here, but let’s begin with a quick question: given that you only get a few weeks per year to go and do something amazing on foreign shores... why do you always go with someone?
Your answers, of course, will be perfectly reasonable: to have a shared experience; because that’s what couples do; to come back with memories that you and your fellow travellers can chat about for decades.
But what if you went on your own? What if, once you’d got over the feeling that everyone was looking at the massive “Loser!” sign that you were convinced was stapled to your head, you found that travelling alone was actually pretty amazing? Indulgent, selfish and totally awesome, with every second guided by whatever it was that you – and you alone – wanted to do?
Solo travel is on the rise. Intrepid Travel, who launched in 1988 and now send more than 100,000 adventure-seekers around the world each year, recorded a 40 per cent rise in bookings by solo travellers in the past five years: More than half of their customers now travel alone. They polled 2,000 people to better understand what was going on and found that 36 per cent of respondents chose solo travel because they wanted to challenge themselves and try new things. Almost a third said they wanted to explore on their own in order to make new friends on distant shores.
And so, back to that initial question: why do you always go on holiday with someone? Especially when travelling with friends or family so often leads to arguments, excursions you don’t really want to go on and maybe even a feeling that you’ve done all this before – dozens of times?
Could it be, in fact, that your ideal holiday is one where you get to do everything you want to do, with no one’s agenda to worry about but your own?
The modern solo travel bible is inarguably Eat, Pray, Love, which tells the true story of a woman’s year-long round-the-world adventure and which was made into a film starring Julia Roberts. But travel books have been rich fodder for one-man/one-woman accounts of globe-trotting adventures for centuries. Journalists, too, often travel alone, and many quickly come to realise that it is actually rather fun.
“I’ve been to New Zealand, Iceland, Austria and Canada on my own,” says travel writer and editor Sarah Baxter, whose latest book Spiritual Places: The Inspired Traveller’s Guide is published by Aurum in March. “It gives you the ultimate freedom. There’s no one else’s preferences to consider, no need to compromise. It also forces you to make your own decisions. When you’re with someone else, it can be easy to relinquish control and just go along with the crowd. Being alone, you have to think: what do I really want? It’s empowering.”
Cut from a similar cloth to travel writers are travel advisors – those plane-hopping individuals who scour the world looking for great restaurants, amazing hotels and interesting things to do so that these can be recommended to their clients. Philippe Brown, founder of bespoke luxury travel consultancy Brown + Hudson, is quite often on a recce with no one but himself for company.
“One of the great advantages,” he says, “is the opportunity to focus on one’s self and to be a little bit selfish. I’ve also found that when I’ve been overseas checking out new places, I literally have nothing else to do but to observe. When out for dinner, people might think that the guy sitting on his own at the restaurant is a bit of a loser, but I actually really enjoy it. I treat the restaurant as a theatre and the people there are my actors – these people who think they are just dining romantically together are part of the spectacle and they add interest to the story.”
Brown says he stopped feeling like people were eyeing him with pity surprisingly quickly, especially when he realised that quite often the “romantic” couples around him weren’t actually speaking to each other because they had nothing to say.
Baxter agrees there’s no shame in being a solo traveller. “What’s wrong with looking like a loner?” she says. “Enjoy it! Own it!” She does admit that sitting down at a table for one can be a bit awkward, but she says that taking a book – or, better still, a magazine or local newspaper, which is easier to read while eating as it sits flatter on the table – is a good way to quietly blend in. “Or sit at the bar or a communal table, where you might strike up a conversation with someone,” she suggests.
Brown says that solo travel attracts all sorts of people, and that even those who spot holes in the general idea could still get something out of it. “In theory, you are taking away that safety net of companionship,” he says, as he scours for reasons why people might be reluctant to give it a go. “But you’ve often got a driver who will get you from A to B, or people at the hotel who can offer support.” Airbnb, he points out, allows people to go to someone’s house on their own and have the comfort of the host’s hospitality if they need it. Or they might seek reassurance in heading to Iceland, he suggests, which is reported to be one of the safest countries in the world. “Or to Vietnam,” he adds, “which is apparently one of the most female-friendly places to travel in south east Asia.”
Baxter lists walking holidays on her list of trips that lend themselves to the first-time solo traveller. “They can be great if you really want to be alone – you can get away from the world on a mountain trail, but you can then enjoy the camaraderie of a communal hostel or mountain hut at the end of the day.” Or, she adds, you could join a group of like-minded walkers. “Many solos do this, so you won’t be surrounded by couples,” she says.
The best way to begin plotting any kind of holiday, says Brown, is to ask yourself exactly what it is that you want to experience – or even, going deeper, what you want to feel. “In travel generally we’ve noticed that everyone wants it their way, and solo travel is taking that to the extreme,” he says. “The silence you get from being alone can allow you to pause and listen and take in things you wouldn’t be able to take in if you had other people travelling with you.”
He concedes that the trickiest part might be trying to convince your other half that they have nothing to fear from your companionless intentions. “You’re proposing something that hasn’t been the norm until now,” he says, “and they may ask why you’re going alone, whether you’ll be OK and if something is wrong.”
He suggests explaining the benefits that you anticipate – perhaps that you want some time to think, that you want a trip to be all about you and your internal dialogue. Adding that this isn’t necessarily the template for all future trips – that it’s maybe just a short, annual occurrence – may help.
So give it a go. Try it once – even if it’s just for one night. Take any necessary precautions to ensure that you’re safe, and see where life takes you. If nothing else, the planning part should be easier than trying to organise a trip with eight college pals. As American essayist Henry David Thoreau once wrote: “The man who goes alone can start today, but he who travels with another must wait till that other is ready.”
Five holidays for the go-it-alone traveller
1. Intrepid Travel
Classic Peru – 9 days (from Dh8,000)
Intrepid’s trips for solo-ers typically pair you up with around nine other people and they’re a great way to make new friends and do something you’ve always wanted to do. Their Classic Peru trip takes you to Lima, Cuzco, Machu Picchu (of course!) and includes a short stay with a local family on the shores of Lake Titicaca. intrepidtravel.com
2. Brown + Hudson
The Journey With No Destination – any duration (and budget!)
This London-based company takes an almost scientific approach to travel and carefully plots out bespoke itineraries according to a client’s wishes. The ultimate in indulgence is to sign up for one of their “surprise” voyages which will take adventurous solo travellers on a voyage of personal discovery, based on their interests. Anything from meeting an emperor penguin to playing a grand piano in a famous concert hall is possible. brownandhudson.com
3. Friendship Travel
Kenya Safari and beach – 8 days (from Dh8,160)
Solo specialists Friendship Travel have a wealth of holidays for people in the market for a single ticket, and they swear they won’t be trying to match you up with other guests if you sign up for this winning blend of wildlife and relaxation. Guests are all ages, and there will be a “Friendship host” on call to hold the reins. friendshiptravel.com
4. One Traveller
Delhi, Royal Rajasthan and Bombay – 16 days (from Dh18,000)
Catering to more mature solo travellers, One Traveller run holidays all over the world and say that you don’t need to be adventurous or outgoing to sign up, you can “just be you.” This particular trip includes all meals, four- and five-star hotels, a train ride on the Kota Jan Shatabdi express and afternoon tea in a Maharajah’s palace. onetraveller.co.uk
5. Jules Verne
Classical Tour of Albania – 7 days (from Dh3,898)
Solo group tours are a new addition to the impressive array of voyages from this 40-year-old company; there were 18 of them at the last count and this one takes in one of Europe’s less-well-travelled destinations for a chance to peek at Ottoman fortresses, prehistoric dwellings, battle sites – and some lovely countryside, too. vjv.com