Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Traveling Alone: Tips for the anxious and socially awkward

Here it is at last!  My epic post about traveling alone, with tips from my experience.  These tips are directed towards people similar to myself, admittedly--folks who've had no experience traveling alone, who worry they might be lonely, bored, or anxious, and for whom meeting new people isn't really their "thing".  There are a million blog posts about traveling solo.  A lot of them include good safety tips that are relevant for everyone, so I'm not going to delve deeply into safety here.  And while there are traveling-alone tips out there for introverts, what I found wasn't very useful for me.  Yes, I'm introverted, but I'm not neurotypical.  There certainly aren't many travel tips written by us, so that's why I wanted to add my voice to the topic.  You know I love a numbered list, so let's get into it!

Yes.  I know.  It's long.
  1. Expect to feel self-conscious, especially as a newbie.  In relation to trips with others, alone I felt like I stood out much more--like I was wearing the wrong clothes, and everyone was noticing my accent.  In general, I was more attuned to the environment, which can be both positive (wow, a fox!) and negative (no one else is wearing a t-shirt!).  So, expect some level of discomfort.  I had moments of terror (like, uh, being locked inside the building where I was staying...Hellllp?!) and thinking "I can't do this!"  But don't expect this discomfort to make you have a terrible time or regret going.  
  2. Have a project (real or fake).  You can bring a creative project on your trip, or start an entirely new one.  Having that extra sense of purpose can be helpful.  Examples include photography, painting, sketching, reading a book you haven't had time for, or even a volunteer project.  While in the UK, one of my projects was writing this post.  It can be fun to get into character a little (no need to have acting experience).  Like, if you're new to eating in restaurants by yourself, you can become a restaurant critic taking notes, writing reviews, and posting them online.  Sometimes when I've been at shows alone, I pretend I'm a music journalist, even though I never actually write anything.  For some reason, it makes me feel less awkward.
  3. Keep a record.  Sort of related to the first one, but specifically, keep a journal, either on paper or online.  Traveling alone is a great opportunity to learn new things about yourself and the world, and so it can be valuable to record these observations.  It also gives you something to do while sitting in parks, cafes, trains, etc.  Oscar Wilde thought reading his own diary on the train was entertaining; maybe the same will hold true for you.
  4. Check in with those you left behind.  Not all day, every day, but set aside a little time to write some missives to your homies.  They'll want to know you're safe and having a good time.  And it's nice to hear from someone who loves you.
  5. Abandon perfection.  This applies to life in general, but when you're alone and far from home, it can be easier to get stuck inside your head.  What's in my head?  Extreme perfectionism, which is why I try to heed this advice.  Of course you want to have the perfect trip--you have limited time and you want every moment to count.  But you can still have an awesome, memorable trip even if there are some bad moments.  In addition, you won't become a different person just because you're traveling.  I sometimes get tired very easily, and I while I want to "go go go" and see everything, at times I need to give myself a break.  In short, don't put too much pressure on yourself.  If this is your first time traveling alone, try to view it as a learning, skill-building experience.
  6. Be a little consistent.  Travel is the time to try new things, but don't abandon all your usual habits (especially the self-care ones!).  For instance, I tended to feel more anxious when I was alone in my hotel room at the end of the day, and so I would read some of the blogs that I was used to reading back home.  There was comfort in those familiar voices.  Find a cafe/restaurant/pub/etc near your lodgings at which to be a "regular" and go there often.  (Cafes usually have bulletin boards with lots of local events as well.)
  7. Stay in one place.  Why did I decide to come to Manchester for only two days, again?  I don't regret it (I even met one of my Livejournal friends!), but such a short stay made it impossible to ever get my bearings.  If you avoid city-hopping, it's also easier to get involved with local social activities, and to actually attend the upcoming events that you hear about.
  8. Meet people in advance.  If you, like me, are not very outgoing, meet people (or join a group) from your destination online, before you get there.  Think about it:  Locals, especially urban people, won't have any real reason to befriend you unless you have shared interests (or are incredibly charming).  In London, I learned that while in theory, striking up conversations with strangers was a great idea, in practice it was less so.  A couple of strangers tried conversing with me, but I had too much trouble quickly transitioning into random conversation.  I need a few moments to mentally prepare myself and decide if I even want to talk.  By that time, though, the stranger is usually saying, "Sorry, I won't disturb you".  When I say, "No, really, you're not," they have probably already assumed that I'm quietly plotting their murder.  So yeah, I like meeting people in advance.  Just be honest with yourself about your level of social comfort, and start from there.
  9. Respect your body.  Don't be like me:  Hungry, dehydrated, sunburned, and extremely sore of foot.  If you think carrying a reusable water bottle is too unwieldy, Vapur.  Although the carabiner broke after a day (so you know they're not paying me to write this), the bottle itself is durable, and becomes very light and small when empty.  Carry snacks with you, and bring the most comfortable shoes possible (as long as they blend in with your locale).  I find that on trips, I do a ton of walking, and it wasn't until the last two days of my trip that I felt used to it.
  10. Master auto-timer on your camera.  I hate asking random people to take my picture, because not only am I paranoid that they'll steal my camera, I just feel goofy.  So if I'm in a place that's not too busy, I'll prop my camera on a wall and take a picture on auto-timer.  See, I can prove I was here!  (Okay, someone could also steal my camera this way, but paranoia isn't always logical.)
  11. Hey, you might enjoy being alone.  If you travel alone, and yet meet up with others at points along your journey, it really is the best of both worlds.  You get some social interaction, and yet you can still do what you want, on your own time.  If I wanted to do some odd or esoteric activities, I didn't need to "sell" them to a travel companion, I just went and did them.  Nor did I have to adhere to the schedule of another person.  It's totally different from the day-to-day life that most of us live, and it can be a really nice change.

[Image: Ily losing their umbrella at St. Cuthbert's Cemetery, Edinburgh]

Bonus item: Stuff to do at night, solo!  For shy and fatigued people.  My main concern about traveling alone was always "what to do at night".  I don't like going to bars or clubs (the "nightlife" standbys) alone.  So, here are some ideas for stuff to do by night:
    • Film festivals.  Seriously, most people's friends don't want to see strange indie films.  There will be many other people by themselves.
    • Theater.  Same, especially at smaller venues.  
    • Museums.  Many are open late at least one night a week.
    • Read a book and go to bed early.  No shame in that. 
    • Walking tours.  This actually felt like one of the more awkward things I did alone, but it's worth trying out.
    • Chores.  If you have to do laundry or something, doing it at night will free up time to do more things during the day.
I hate to end on "chores", but to paraphrase Belle and Sebastian, a list needs to end somewhere.  While I was quite worried about traveling alone, I'm glad I tried it.  If I don't travel far afield in the future, it will probably be for environmental reasons rather than lack of companionship.  That's definitely progress for me.  Also, it was probably a good idea that I made my maiden voyage to an English-speaking country where I'd already briefly lived.  Three weeks in Mongolia would have been much harder.  Maybe next time...


Janet S. said...

I'll be traveling solo in Europe soon and I found this post really relevant! Especially the bit about nighttime activities. I'll see if I can learn from your advice and avoid some of the nighttime anxiety I usually feel when I'm halfway around the world.

Ily said...

@Janet: Glad to hear it! Hope you have an excellent trip :) I found that my anxiety at night would definitely decrease the longer I stayed in one place, but when I changed hotels it would start up again. Sometimes just knowing those patterns can help diffuse them.

Em said...

Hi, these are great tips:)

When I've travelled alone nights are definitely the thing I've worried about most. Probably because every crime-show I've ever seen competes with my mum's constant warnings about rapists, murderers, etc, lurking behind every bush and rings louder in my ears when I'm in an unfamiliar place and feeling a bit vulnerable.
After a few days in the same place I tend to relax but I have the same problem as you, in that
clubs and bars are really not my cup of tea so I've struggled with finding stuff to do at night even then. But next time I travel to a big city alone I will totally try some of these suggestions.

Also, another potential way to meet people to do stuff with while travelling is to stay in hostels rather than hotels sometimes. I'm more than a little bit awkward, but I found it relatively easy to strike up a conversation with strangers over breakfast or whatever when I knew I had at least one thing in common with them – ie, we're both travellers/tourists – and from there you can sometimes make friends who you can hang out with for dinner or go on outings together.

Anyway, sorry for rambling. I love your blog and have been reading through your posts for a few weeks now. I can't believe it's taken me so long to discover asexuality but, probably for the first time since adolescence, I feel like I'm not a freak - or that if I am, at least I'm in good company;)

Cheers, Em

Sara K. said...

I must know ... did you go to the Globe Theatre?

I have spent 11 days in London, and saw 11 theatre shows there, so finding something to do at night was generally not a problem for me. Another thing to do at night - go to bed early. This makes it possible to wake up early and beat some crowds in the morning.

Ily said...

@Em: Thanks! And I'm glad that you discovered asexuality :)
At times in London, I worried a little about safety, but there were usually a lot of people walking around even late at night, so that made me feel safer. Also there were many signs about mobile-phone theft, but I didn't have a phone!
I didn't stay in hostels, but I did stay mostly in a college dorm and a B&B (although they didn't give me breakfast, so I guess just a B?) I didn't meet anyone there though. The other people staying in the dorms were mostly in huge groups, which didn't help.

@Sara: I didn't make it to the Globe, although I did see the exterior. But I ended up seeing a few good shows at other theaters. They were doing Richard III which I wanted to check out but I didn't get around to it. Hopefully I'll go back soon :)
Agree that beating crowds is very important! Especially if you're traveling in summer.

Fellmama said...

I ~love~ traveling by myself. I decide when and what to eat! I can sleep late or go to bed early! I can go to the lapidary museum and have a fabulous time and NOT HAVE MY FAMILY MOCK ME FOR IT!

Marrakech tours said...

great blog:)

DeAun said...

I traveled with a group to London one year. We were there for a month, and while they were doing a big class thing and seeing big shows (I had already don the class a couple of years before), I went around and saw alternative and fringe theatre shows by myself. It was one of the most interesting and amazing experiences of my life. Since then, I have traveled alone, mainly in Europe and the United States. It is not always perfect, sometimes lonely (I'm such an extrovert though and tend to talk to strangers), but mostly a great time to do things that I like without trying to impress or appease anyone. I am also a woman, which poses it's own issues, but I have never had any problems, even while having a pint in various pubs across Ireland! (though a single woman should really never get drunk...)

I love your list because it really reminded me of my experiences and how amazing they have been!

Aca Judi said...

I like to do what I want to do, so it is best, that I run my own travel show. I do talk to people, whereever I go, and I am very outgoing. I want to take a cruise, but I do not want to share that small space, and i love sleeping alone, and using my own bathroom. I have traveled with husband and daughter. I cannot take 24/7 with anyone, but myself!

Aca Judi said...

I talk to people when I vacation, but I prefer to have my room to myself.

Jane Williams said...

Great post, thanks.
What I do at night, even when travelling with my husband rather than alone, is drop the photos from the camera/phone to the laptop that I WILL have with me, do any required post-processing, and upload them to Flickr. Possibly blog the result.
So, another precaution: do your best to make sure you have internet access wherever you're staying. That lets you research where you and where you're going, book the next place to stay, all sorts of essentials.

Ily said...

@Jane: Thanks! Bringing a laptop was really helpful, although since mine is pretty old, it was heavy to lug around. I didn't have a phone, so I had to communicate with people I was meeting with online. I had to rule out any lodgings without wifi, although at some places you have to pay extra for it.

PleaseStopGropingMe said...

Thank you for this post. I am a very socially isolated (by choice) person, and I intend to spend the rest of my life travelling, specifically so that I can be alone and avoid others' attempts to 'connect' with me. I found your post very inspirational. Also, I love your graveyard pic. Graveyards have always been my favorite places to be, because dead people can't bother anyone.

Unknown said...

Thanks :)