Trial by fire – that’s how you learn right? Travel is nothing if not educational, and here YA regular contributor Monet shares some insights and epic travel truths from a decade of solo travel.
Confession time: I hate museums.
Call me an unsophisticated neanderthal, I don’t care. I have come to peace with this part of myself. The majority of museums have too much content and not enough context. Who’s with me?
For example, on my first trip to Rome, I went to so many museums because a guidebook or so-and-so said they were NOT TO BE MISSED. At the end of the day, I was bored, tired, and disgruntled. Was this really what everyone else was raving about?
The next time I was in Rome, I ditched the guidebook and plotted a course of wandering. That day I learned that walking through a city is one of my favorite things to do. Being in museums? Not so much.
If you’re like me, you learn by doing. Travel is exceptionally educational. Only after you’ve made plenty of travel mistakes do you finally hit on those bits of truth and wisdom you have heard about. So after a decade of solo travel, here are my top five solo travel tips I wish I could tell my younger self.
1. Give yourself permission to do what you want to do – that’s enough
These travel truths took me a while to soak in. There’s a strange pressure built into traveling, at least coming from the U.S. where our limited vacation time means you must pack a year’s worth of relaxation into two weeks.
Every vacation needs to be THE BEST VACATION EVER. That’s stressful!!
One of my biggest pet peeves is people telling me that I didn’t go to the “right” places during a trip. “Oh you didn’t see [enter tourist site name here]! You totally missed out!” I can’t imagine many people enjoy experiencing FOMO, but this also taps into a deeper issue of how we define travel.
Can travel really be boiled down into one site? Is travel experiencing the history of a place or living “like a local”? Is your travel goal to challenge yourself or to relax so hard you forget your own home address? These questions don’t have answers, because each traveler needs to decide for herself what the experience means to her.
One thing I know for sure: you’ll make yourself crazy by trying to fit a whole guidebook worth of activities into one trip. When I was younger, I often found myself doing things just because I felt like I should, not because I genuinely wanted to.
You can spend all day watching the world go by in a Parisian cafe or crossing off all the museums on your list or drinking mojitos under a palm tree––and you’ll still be traveling.
Learning to slow down and allow yourself to do whatever you want is one of the greatest travel truths I’ve learned.
2. Talk to strangers
Solo travel can be intimidating and isolating.
Nothing makes me feel more alone than being on my own near large groups of people hanging out. But this isolation is often a self-fulfilling prophecy. I feel isolated and uncomfortable, so I shirk away from crowds and then am even more alone.
The antidote to that? Talk to strangers! I genuinely believe that most people are good. Many chance encounters in foreign countries have provided me with genuine conversation, a fleeting moment of friendship, and, sometimes, even a lifelong connection.
This applies to home too. I first met one of my best friends on a park bench in Brooklyn because we both love to chat with strangers––which in this case was each other!
3. Insight is more satisfying than numbers.
On the gap year that I took after college, I raced through 15 countries in 5 months. It was A LOT. In the end, I was so sick of traveling that I couldn’t wait for it to be over. I also only had the most superficial memories of most places.
Quantity over quality had left me exhausted and depleted.
So while it may be impressive to say you’ve been to 30 countries, it’s a fleeting satisfaction that can’t beat having experienced a much smaller number of places. The benefits of travel may mostly escape you if you aim just to cross each country off your list. Take your time! Soak it in!
Slow down with travel. You won’t regret it.
4. You can’t travel with just anyone.
Boy, did I learn one of these travel truths the hard way. About two months into that same gap year, I was hankering for some travel companions. My mistake was not being discerning enough in my tastes.
The first two travelers I met in Budapest asked if they could come along with me to my next stop. And then my next stop. And the one after that. With each city, they contributed less and less to the trip, just following me along wherever I went. I soon realized that they weren’t looking for a travel buddy, they were looking for a travel mom. Someone to plan out their trip, tell them where to go, and make all the arrangements. That got old REAL fast.
I should have kicked them to the curb immediately. But little me didn’t want to be rude! Instead of speaking up for myself, I eventually made up an excuse that forced us to go separate ways. Mature, I know.
This travel truth has served me well ever since: you can’t travel with just anyone! Be discerning. And if things aren’t going well, speak up and say what you need.
5. Soak it in, because you’ll never go on the same trip twice
Traveling is just as much about who you are at that moment in time as it is about the country you are visiting. Time will change both of you, and no trip will give you the same experience twice.
Last December, I celebrated my 30th birthday in Rome. It was the same city I’d been in a decade before, but a very different me. I’d been through heart aches and disappointments and tremendous joys over the intervening 12 years. I stayed in Trastevere and wandered the streets until dark, making pitstops for gelato and carciofi along route. My phone was stolen at a night club in the Villa Borghese; I went to the same cafe every morning for cappuccino––and I did not go to one single museum. It was perfect.
It’s pretty amazing to return to certain places after growing, don’t you think?
What are some travel truths you’ve learned over your lifetime? Share!