Solo Travel: Alone vs. Lonely

Posted in Travel
ALONE is sitting by myself in my hotel room while planning the next leg of my journey.  LONELY is realizing I am the only person sitting by myself in a youth hostel common area full of laughing and partying friends.

ALONE is having dinner by myself and enjoying it because I can eat what I want, when I want without having to consult another person. LONELY is having a bag of chips and juice for dinner as I watch others around me planning a big night out.

My last meal in Barcelona – ALONE but not LONELY

I’m an only child so I do ALONE pretty damn well. But LONELY…Nah – not so good at that one.  It doesn’t help that I’m shy and fairly introverted and the the thought of joining an already formed group ranks up there with the thought of dental surgery. Of course no one enjoys being LONELY, but some people are just better at getting out of that situation than others.

Countless times, people have told me how “brave” I am for traveling the world by myself and that they didn’t think there was anyway they could do it. Something tells me their version of brave has to do with facing crime or injury without having anyone to help you.  Strangely those things don’t worry me too much.

For me, brave is the simple, yet daunting action of making friends when you don’t feel like you fit in at all. If I’m traveling for a weekend, I may have no desire to meet anyone. Short trips like that often have no purpose other than to get away and be alone. But when I’m on the road for weeks or months at a a time, I do want to and need to meet new people – both locals and travelers alike.

For me it is mostly a numbers game. If I’m alone and I see another travler alone, I can usually get the courage to strike up a conversation. Or if I’m traveling with at least one other friend, jumping into a group isn’t quite so intimidating. Maybe that is because I know that even if I am totally rejected by the group, I still won’t be totally alone. But when its me vs. a group of laughing, smiling, partying people, well, I will usually end up watching from a distance rather than jump in with both feet.

Alone vs. Lonely

The one good thing about LONELY is that it’s fairly temporary and the benefits of being able to travel the world at your own pace, often outweighs those uncomfortable moments.  As you can probably tell, I had to deal with LONELY while here in Barcelona. I realize with 6 weeks left on this trip and a lot of city hopping in front of me, I’m going to be put in this situation again and again.  It would help to know that I’m not the only one out there with these feelings, so please chime in with a comment if you’ve dealt with this. And please share any suggestions for being brave and getting past LONELY. 

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22 Comments... Read them below or add one of your own
  • Anonymous July 20, 2012, 7:27 am

    Hello Nailah, we don’t know each other very well but I saw your posting on facebook and find this journaling pretty cool. I travel a lot (am currently ling in Paris) and can relate to your many of your experiences. As for tips to meeting strange people, its important to create a setting to meeting people. I think this is the only time someone will suggest this to you (and maybe really bad advice), but smoking can spontaneously provide this. I am not a smoker, but when in hostels I do it to create the space to chat. I ask for a cigarette (or a light) and then we sit and chill. Just don’t inhale 😉

    • Nailah July 20, 2012, 3:15 pm

      HI and thank you so much for taking the time to comment! Haha – the cigarette thing is something I actually tried on my last RTW trip. (Hope my mom isn’t reading this!) (Un)fortunately I realized I’m just not good at the smoking thing so the pack I bought lasted about a months before I threw it out. 🙂 But I get what you’re saying for sure – finding an opener that works is key. Thank you!!

  • Akila @ The Road Forks July 20, 2012, 8:27 am

    This is a great post, Nailah, and something that I think many travelers deal with. Though we travel as a couple, there are definitely times when we feel lonely because we’re ONLY with each other — couples need friends, too!

    I am not that introverted so it’s easy for me to strike up a conversation and become part of a group, but I know that for introverts — like Patrick — it can be really hard. I don’t have any suggestions for you other than to keep working at it. One thing that we often do is we take free tours or free walks in cities. Most European cities offer these free walks with volunteers and it’s a great way to meet other solo travelers out there.

    • Nailah July 20, 2012, 3:18 pm

      Akila!! So great to hear from you. I was wondering how you and Patrick were doing since our meet up in Istanbul. Actually, that’s a great idea about free tours (that’s how I met you and the other bloggers). I was actually going to try that strategy in Barcelona because I found one that looked promising…but then I ended up running late and didn’t make it in time. I think I’ll try that here in Lisbon. Thanks so much!!

  • Arame July 20, 2012, 8:56 am

    Nailah (Amazonas),
    This post really hit close to home. I’ve had so many moments like that, when I am in a hostel especially, and there is a huge group of people drinking and having fun (they are usually about 10 years younger than me, too). It’s a lonely situation, since I am like you when it comes to approaching groups verses other single travelers. One thing I can recommend, at least as far as nightlife, is to look for live music venues. When everyone is focused on the musicians, I feel less self-conscious about being alone and I like that random guys are less likely to approach. I also look for plazas where people congregate. The people-watching makes me feel less alone. As for approaching people, I can be much help. I would keep looking out for those other people traveling alone, since they are probably craving the company just as much as you are. Oh, one more thing. I found it really easy to talk to people when I booked day tours. Nothing like a long van ride to get people talking… Stay strong; Like you said, the reward is totally worth it. I also believe that being alone and working through those feelings really help build character, independence, a strong sense of self, and a lot of peace. Thinking of you! Ariel(aka Arame)

    • Nailah July 20, 2012, 3:25 pm

      Arame, I just laughed out loud b/c I’d written the same thing about hostels to a friend of mine the day before. In theory they are great places for meeting other travelers, but in reality they can sure be a challenge for us introverts…especially when everyone is 10 years younger (you know, 15 years old). I agree with you on the day tour thing – I signed up for one in Capadoccia, Turkey, and met a nice group of people who I hung out with for the remainder of my trip. Thanks for the reminder on that strategy. And I will definitely have to try the live music venue. Social AND cultural – great idea! Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and for keeping in touch with me while I’m on the road. I’m still having a great time for the most part, but it will be wonderful to see some familiar faces again in 6 weeks.

  • Lulu July 20, 2012, 1:21 pm

    OMG! i can totally relate to this post and i am glad to know am not the only one out there who goes through this, as i was beginning to wonder if am just a loser.
    I tend to be very shy and a bit of an introvert depending on what situation am faced with. When traveling alone i get intimidated approaching a group of strangers out of fear of rejection. I usually end up hanging out by myself unless i come across someone am comfortable talking to. The funny thing is usually i end up making friends at the end of my trips………..local friends, who are even much better in terms of showing me around and giving me a totaly different perspective.

    When i travel with one of my good friends, am all over the place in terms of approaching strangers and just striking up a conversation. Having my friend by my side gives me courage to be more open. Actually she doesn’t believe me when i tell her that am really shy when traveling by myself because the times we have traveled together she sees a totally different side of me.

    • Nailah July 20, 2012, 3:30 pm

      Yay! I’m not alone…we sound like we were cut from the same cloth. Its funny how having just one person in your corner can totally give you confidence you don’t have when you’re alone. Haha. Thanks for commenting – I really appreciate it. A good friend is meeting me for a few days for this next part of my trip – lets see how things change. 🙂

  • Rupa July 20, 2012, 1:38 pm

    Hi, sweetie. Your ears must have been burning. Pam and I finally got on the phone yesterday and were literally talking about how brave youa are and we coudln’t do what you’re doing. As for being lonely, maybe it helps to remember that there are people all over the world at any given moment ready to share a drink with you in spirit or over the phone. Perhaps a bike tour over the gently rolling hills of Portugal is in order! I know how much you loved the last one with me and Pam. 🙂 Chin up sweetie and remember that anyone lucky enough to have you approach them for company is about to meet a truly amazing person! Love you and miss you

    • Nailah July 20, 2012, 3:35 pm

      RUPA!!! I miss you girl and I so wish you were going to be here in Portugal with Pam and I. Oh the silliness that ensued when Candy Sandy and Mandy got together. I will certainly keep my eyes peeled for biking opportunities (“We Ride”) though I’m sure it will never live up to that adventure in Florence. (Gently rolling hills, my ass!). thank for the love, my dear. And I will try to conjure my inner Rupa next time I’m feeling shy. Half shirt and all.

  • Akemi July 20, 2012, 9:11 pm

    Nailah! I’m so glad I read this post right now. I’m sort of feeling the same thing right now, as I travel through Vienna. (only two weeks left! yikes, am I really counting down?) And I’ve felt it many times before! I miss you and feel for you! These are times to go within and change the internal dialog. Can you find a positive spin? Maybe there’s someone who needs help that you can offer a hand to or some advice about a place you’ve been. People generally appreciate a positive stranger! Maybe you can place youself strategically where someone might approach you. Or you use the divide and conquer strategy! (sounds sneaky, and I just made it up 😉 If you see someone or a group of people who look interesting, wait until they are standing up to go somewhere, like to get another drink, or to the bathroom, then ask them a casual question and see if conversation flows.
    And above all, know that these are times that are changing you, and facing your fears is like going through fire that molds you and takes away characteristics that just don’t serve you anymore. I love seeing your pics! Can’t wait to see you when you get back!

    • Nailah July 23, 2012, 4:51 pm

      Akemi – as always, I love your suggestions. and I know you speak from experience…all the solo travelling and hostel-staying that you’ve done around the world. Yes – I will try to remember those lonely times as times for growth, change and molding. 🙂 See you in September (unless you want to get to London a few days earlier!).

  • Rio July 21, 2012, 3:52 am

    It’s OK sweetie. I believe in you and love you. Those tough lonely times prepare you for the great joy and happiness coming and will keep you sensitive and aware of the people who cross your path and need the joy you will be able to offer. You have to believe.

    • Nailah July 23, 2012, 4:52 pm

      Thank you! Luckily these lonely days are short lived and do not take away from the other joys of traveling!

  • Lee Laurino July 22, 2012, 1:54 am

    try http://www.inviteforabite.com
    a new site where you can ask a local to meet for coffee or even a meal…..all over the world
    sign up is free
    an if you think it is hard at your age, wait 20 more years it is worse, but i take classes or go on an adventure with a purpose.

    • Nailah July 23, 2012, 4:54 pm

      Hey Lee! Thanks for the suggestion – I will take a look at that site. Sounds like a great resource.

  • Erin July 22, 2012, 3:52 am

    I can relate. I love traveling, but I hate traveling alone. I’ve made friends with the young hotel staff before- asked them for recommendations for parties, places to go, etc. Talk to the front desk clerk or folks at the hotel restaurant. Depending on where you’re traveling, they might be more than willing to make friends with a lonely American. That’s worked for me in Ghana and Thailand.

    U might also try to find alums in the city ur visiting. Married (with kids) folks may not be able to show u around at night, but might be happy to meet u for lunch. It breaks up the day at least to have some friendly human interaction. Good luck and stay strong.

    • Nailah July 23, 2012, 4:56 pm

      Erin – oh its so good to know I’m not alone. thank you for your comments. In general I do love the freedom of traveling alone, but if I only wish I were a bit more outgoing to get through the “I don’t know anyone and I want someone to talk to” times. 🙂 Great idea on connecting with the hotel/hostel staff. They usually do know the city best and are hired because they are friendly and social. Thanks!

  • Renukaa September 11, 2012, 4:27 am

    Just stumbled on this article, Fantastic. I have tested waters of traveling alone, first by doing it for about 10 days & now pretty recently for almost about 3 weeks. Both times I ended up having loads of fun. Just like you have mentioned being alone is great if handled properly. And something I’ve realized is that when you are traveling alone, all you need to do is smile & say ‘hi’. More than most of the times, that pretty much helps me end up with friends and on some occasions even co-travelers. And I guess when you are alone, you are more accommodating, friendly and open for new experiences too.

    • Nailah September 11, 2012, 5:31 am

      Hi Renukaa – thank you so much for stopping by. You are so right about that “hi and a smile”. Sometimes it can feel a bit intimidating, but truly It takes less than 5 seconds to do and it can make all the difference in the world.

  • themingostein November 7, 2012, 3:03 am

    great post. I am thinking of going to the UK but I’m kind of daunted by the prospect of spending Christmas (and maybe New Year’s) alone… sigh… but I don’t want to let the prospect of having no friends going to the UK with me stop me from exploring a country I have always wanted to explore. Love how you defined the two terms, alone and lonely. I suppose I am most afraid of just eating out alone, in a foreign country. Other than that, I am all up for traveling solo.

    • Nailah November 7, 2012, 8:55 pm

      So glad you liked the post! Thank you for stopping by. If you do have the opportunity to visit the UK, I say go for it! If you’re traveling by yourself there will definitely be some alone time (including time in restaurants), but I try to think “well I’m the one out on an adventure and visiting a new place where I don’t know anyone … its not strange at all that I’m alone”. Try to focus your thoughts more on what you’re getting (travel, adventure, experiences) and less on what you’re missing (friends and conversation). Plus with social media like FB, Twitter, Couchsurfing, Lonely Planet Thorn Tree, etc., there are ways to plan meeting travelers and locals wherever you go in the world. Do hope you decide to make the trip. Let me know!

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