Solo Travel Is Overrated and You're Not Missing Anything
There’s a lot of literature about the benefits of traveling alone. As you’ve likely noticed, the Why You Should Travel Alone story is its own distinct genre of internet content these days, including here at Thrillist. What all of that fails to account for, though, are the many, many reasons -- financial, logistical, emotional -- why it’s often better to travel with a friend.
The benefits of a travel buddy are extensive. Even if you’re someone who enjoys seeing a movie alone, or going to dinner alone, those are isolated experiences where you have some reasonable idea of what to expect before you walk in. You went to focus on a brief, single thing. This does not describe the many variables you’ll encounter out in the world on a big trip -- which is a lot more like going to a party than a movie. Do you have more fun at a party when you show up alone than when you show up with a friend? C’mon.
And there’s the money. When a buddy and I pooled resources to backpack together for almost a year and a half, one of our biggest takeaways was that everything is cheaper -- like, a lot cheaper -- when you’re traveling with at least one other person. This means you can probably have more experiences than you would otherwise. I am happy that you Found Yourself hiking across Germany, Brenda, but I got to travel for twice as long and lowered my skin cancer risk because I had a friend to put sunscreen on my back.
The gist of the argument for extended solo travel is how you’ll have many challenging but rewarding experiences and, ultimately, Find Yourself. Classic stories like On The Road, plus the newer generation of first-person accounts like Eat Pray Love or Wild that have helped open up the space to women, are certainly beloved for a reason. They show transformative experiences, and that’s what most of us probably want, in the end. Traveling alone is cool, but it’s silly that everyone evangelizes it as a separate, superior category of travel, as if it’s the only way to obtain the kind of spiritual return you’re looking for. It's limiting.
The right travel buddy pushes you out of your comfort zone more than you’d push yourselfThe most common argument for traveling solo is that it pushes you -- that its value comes in not having anyone else there to distract you from your own instincts and the important work of Finding Yourself. But if the point is to push yourself outside your comfort zone, the easiest way in the world to get a false positive is to spend your trip factoring in no one’s taste but your own. Stuff isn’t automatically located outside your comfort zone just because it’s new. Being alone in an unfamiliar place is discomfort enough -- you’ll likely seek comfort in the types of places or activities you already know you enjoy, which isn’t exactly growth.
If you’re traveling with someone, you’re factoring in a whole external set of beliefs, needs, perspectives, and interests that might actually be outside your comfort zone. Your travel companion may very well have a totally different itinerary planned, activities you may not think you want to do or, quite simply, would never have occurred to you. If he was alone, my backpacking buddy never would have gotten scuba certified and joined me on a dive in New Zealand and Indonesia, or done any of the adrenaline-filled stuff, or tried mango juice. Likewise, aside from never remembering to add the frequent flyer number to ticket purchases, I’d have stupidly skipped over most of the domestic leg of our trips, like all the national parks and flyover country, plus Canada. I’d never have never gone fishing in Zambia. I’d have missed so much.
Everything’s so much cheaper when you split itA lot of the online rhapsodizing about solo travel makes the condescending assumption that the solo traveler in question has literally never spent any time alone before. But, more problematically, it implies that the only people who get to truly understand themselves, and the world at large, are people with a lot of money -- something you need in order to travel no matter what, and in vastly greater amounts in order to travel alone.
Backpacking, and traveling recreationally in general, is a colossal privilege. But you know what? It’s also pretty uncomfortable, physically. As with most things, the amount of money you can save on hostels and hotels is inversely proportional to the level of comfort you achieve. If you’re at a hostel where a bunk bed costs, say $30-$40/night, a private room probably costs like $50-$60/night. If you’re anything like me and are inclined toward cost-cutting measures like sleeping in your car, the bunk is already a splurge. But when you’re traveling with one other person? All things split equally, you’re spending less money to be more comfortable, and this can still apply even if you’re at a nice hotel or some whimsical Airbnb.
Making new friends isn’t gonna happen everywhereTravel is indeed all about new experiences, and when you’re out and about trying new things and loading your itinerary with activities, it’s only natural to want someone to do them with. Sure, you’re gonna meet locals, and sure, some places are more conducive to meeting other solo travelers, and yes, you can use dating apps to find yourself a personal tour guide for the day/night. But if you think each time you hop off a bus in a new city that you’ll be adopted by an exciting new group of temporary friends waiting just inside the nearest bar, then I have upsetting news for you about life not being like movies. And while I very much like meeting strangers, there are certain times -- birthdays, holidays, splashing around with some elephants -- when it’s just nice to be around someone you know.
All the other little things work betterRenting a kayak to paddle out to some hidden sea cave for the afternoon? You get there twice as fast for half the price. Bargaining for souvenirs? Don’t be an asshole about it, but you can knock prices down playing Good Cop/Bad Cop, a tactic that saw our progression across Southeast Asia marked by a steady acquisition of regional soccer jerseys. Working on your Instagram? Any influencer will tell you you want a cooperative fellow human around to take that perfect photo. Driving literally anywhere? You each get a chance to sleep, take pictures, check the map, reserve your next hostel, gaze out the window, dick around on your phone, whatever, instead of being stuck looking responsibly at only the road, as you must do when there’s only one of you. And if one of you gets sick -- which will happen, if you travel long enough -- the other’s there to pick up the slack.
You get to sample twice as much foodHonestly, half the point of traveling is trying all the foods. Do you want to sample as many varieties of Meat On Stick as possible, or spend the rest of your life thinking about the ones you left behind due to limited funds and/or stomach space? Travel with someone else, you can try twice as much for the same price. Alone, you forgo trying ~50% more foods. If you’re somewhere like Malaysia, where you can stuff yourself beyond reason for a dollar or two, trying everything by yourself might mean throwing away precious leftovers or missing the rest of the day because you’re laid low with a food coma. If you’re somewhere like Iceland, where a cup of coffee basically requires you to put down a mortgage, trying everything by yourself might mean having to sacrifice other luxuries down the road.
It’s safer overallAs a woman, there’s no place I traveled to with a friend that I wouldn’t have also traveled to alone, but there were certainly places where it would have been more complicated, dangerous, tense, or just uncomfortable. Even though some data suggests more women travel solo than men, there will probably always be certain circumstances in which it’s easier and safer for women to travel in groups. But regardless of location or gender, travel can be exhausting -- and if it’s just you, then you gotta be “on” all the time.
With a friend, though, you can take turns sleeping if you’re spending the night somewhere you’re not sure about. It’s easier to shake off scam artists when you’re not by yourself. One of you can watch the bags while the other scouts room availability, asks for directions, or stands in lines -- if you’re backpacking and carrying all your shit at all times, that is huge. One of you can babysit whilst the other indulges in some drugs (do make sure you’re someplace where drugs are at least relatively chill, legally). And, you know, if you’re gonna get into a fight at any point, you might ask yourself if it'd be better to have backup or not. Also, on a note that may or not be related, don’t go to Oktoberfest unless you’re very secure in your capacity to turn the other cheek when people get in your face that day.
And when you really want to be alone... you can still be aloneI split off from my buddy for a week to go to a festival in the South African desert; for 10 days to practice silent meditation at a Buddhist temple in Thailand (please don’t look at me like that, I had my reasons, namely A) I was extremely not sold on Buddhism and B) I wanted to make really, really sure of that); and for five weeks to live in a bookstore in Paris. Meanwhile, he stayed behind in Italy, where we’d been staying at his grandmother’s house, to take the GREs. Some nights, he’d pull in cash at poker tournaments while I stayed in the car (or hostel if we had one) to do freelance work. It’s your trip. You get to figure out your own rules.
Ultimately, the experiences of traveling alone -- confronting and reflecting on your hopes, fears, dreams -- can still be experienced with another person you can meaningfully lean on and connect with. You can still Find Yourself, and your trip won’t suffer from companionship. Just gotta pick the right friend.