The Solo Traveler’s Guide to Dealing With Loneliness – Susie Armitage
Last December, I embarked on a month-long solo trip to Eastern Europe. I’d been feeling a bit stalled personally and professionally, and I thought a big adventure would help me get unstuck. I booked a flight to Estonia, reserved a few nights in an Airbnb, and planned to figure out the rest when I got there — after all, everything was up to me.
It was a thrilling thought: I was exploring a foreign country entirely on my own, with no one else’s schedule, wants, or needs to consider. I wandered the charming cobbled streets of Tallinn, the capital city. I sipped hot sea buckthorn tea at a Christmas market and bought a pair of reindeer-patterned leg warmers to cope with the single-digit temperatures. But a day or two later, shivering under the weak afternoon sun and surrounded by groups snapping photos, it hit me: I was really, truly alone in a place where I knew no one. And even though I’d chosen to come there, I was lonely.
Almost as soon as I recognized my own loneliness, I was disappointed by it. Feeling this way seemed at odds with the spirit of a solo adventure. What I didn’t know then — but have since come to learn — is that even if you genuinely enjoy traveling by yourself (and I do), you won’t necessarily love every single minute of it. In addition to that burst of quiet joy you feel watching a breathtaking sunset in solitude or the rush of pride you get from successfully navigating a new transit system, you’ll probably have a few moments when you’re tired of having no one but yourself for company.
For most of us, a little loneliness is inevitable, but it doesn’t have to ruin your trip. Here are a few ways to deal with it.
Give yourself permission to feel lonely
My initial reaction to loneliness was to beat myself up. It wasn’t just that it was ruining my trip; feeling this way also clashed with the identity I’d been mentally constructing. I wanted to see myself as an adventurous person, and in my mind, adventurous people didn’t get lonely. There must be a “right” way to travel alone, I concluded, and whatever it was, I wasn’t doing it.
It would have been comforting to remember that even confident, independent people aren’t immune to getting lonely.
I quickly started spiraling: Why wasn’t I making small talk with that barista? Why hadn’t I planned better, so I wouldn’t be walking aimlessly in the cold, wondering where to go next? I was privileged to be able to travel, so why couldn’t I just enjoy it?
In the moment, it would have been comforting to remember that even confident, independent people aren’t immune to getting lonely. “Be comfortable with the idea that it will happen,” says Janice Waugh, the founder of Solo Traveler, an online resource and community for people traveling alone. “But it will pass.”
If you’re taking a trip with the aim of clearing your head, like I was, keep in mind that getting away from your regular routine could exacerbate some of the worries you were already having. “You’re more in touch with your emotions because there’s nothing there to distract you,” says Scott Haas, a clinical psychologist and the author of the travel memoir Are We There Yet?
It took a while, but eventually, I realized I was judging myself too harshly. Once I accepted loneliness as a normal human emotion, it was easier to move through it and appreciate the unique experiences I could have precisely because I was on my own.
Stay somewhere social
Your dream solo getaway might entail a luxurious hotel bed and plenty of privacy, but if you want to meet people, hostels are a great place to do it. “Even if you’re not with people during the day, you’re going to come home, and there’s going to be a very busy common room at night,” Waugh says. If you’re past your days of bunking with snoring strangers, many hostels have private bedrooms and welcome guests of all ages.
I stayed in several shared Airbnbs on my trip, and while the socializing was hit or miss — in one place I chatted with a friendly Iranian grad student, but in another, I ate my dinner in silence while my host watched the History Channel — it still improved my mood to have someone else around. Friends of mine swear by Couchsurfing, a community where members offer travelers a couch or air mattress in their home for free. The site can also connect you with people who can’t offer a place to stay but want to hang out with travelers passing through their area.
Put yourself out there
As Waugh points out, many people drawn to traveling alone are likely on the introverted side, as she is, and may not be naturally prone to chatting up strangers. I fall into that camp, too, and though I’ve learned to approach people as a journalist, I still tend to be more reserved in my personal life.
I told Haas I’d spent one particularly dismal night in Lithuania drinking beer, pretending to watch a soccer game on TV, and feeling dumb for failing to strike up a conversation with the bartender. “Develop a script,” he said, suggesting I come up with a few go-to questions: How long have you been working here? Does this place cater mostly to foreigners or locals?
Group activities provide structure for socializing and can lead to new connections.
If you’re feeling shy, Waugh says, it’s important to remember that as a foreigner traveling solo, a lot of locals are likely interested in your story: “You’re doing it on your own, and people find that fascinating.”
When all else fails, take a creative approach. “I try to pretend I’m in a movie,” Haas says. “It helps me feel like I am playing a part.”
Become a regular
The night after my awkward evening at that pub in Vilnius, I went back to the restaurant where I’d eaten on my first day in town. The owners had been friendly before, but I brought a book to read at the bar in case they were busy. I didn’t need it. When I sat down, they greeted me like an old friend. After they closed up, we went out for drinks at another spot in the neighborhood.
Even a less effusive welcome can be comforting. Haas went to the same cafe two days in a row in Kyoto, and on the second morning, they remembered his order. “I felt like I had a little relationship to the place,” he recalls, “so I was less lonely.”
Schedule some organized activities
I’m not usually much of a planner, but after talking to Waugh, I realized it would have been a good idea to put a walking tour or cooking class on my itinerary. Group activities provide structure for socializing and can lead to new connections. For example, when it started raining during a free walking tour in Paris, Waugh and another woman decided to ditch the group and got lunch together instead.
Sharing about my trip helped me feel more connected to my world back home.
The Global Greeter Network can set you up with a volunteer who’ll show you around their city for free. They’ll try to match you with someone who shares your interests: Waugh wanted to explore the Chicago waterfront by bike, for example, so the group introduced her to a local cyclist and they went on a ride together.
You should plan to request a Greeter a few weeks in advance, but if you’re already in town, you can see if there’s an interesting Meetup nearby.
Share your experiences
I did a lot of Instagramming during my trip, mostly using the “stories” feature, so I wouldn’t stress about how many likes a picture got or if I was flooding my friends’ feeds. This let me share a lot of random observations I wouldn’t have deemed worthy of a regular post. For example, I went to an Estonian grocery store and posted pictures of interesting things I found, like yogurt flavored with rye bread and single servings of vodka packaged like Jell-O pudding cups.
Sharing these little things helped me feel more connected to my world back home; almost every morning, I woke up to messages from friends who said they enjoyed following my travels. It also reminded me of another reason I love exploring alone: I can take all the time I want to do things like document the dairy aisle.
Get away from touristy areas
A few days into my trip, I took the bus to a spa resort outside a small town in southeast Estonia. It was pretty, surrounded by majestic pine trees, but nowhere near the top of the country’s must-see list. (“Võru isn’t very interesting,” my Airbnb host said when I told him my plans.) I’d stumbled on the place while researching Estonian spa treatments and booked a massage.
“How did you find us?” the masseuse, Tiina, asked after rubbing my back thoroughly with a salve made from Estonian bear fat. “We don’t usually get foreigners here.”
Knowing that I’d successfully gotten off the beaten track bolstered my confidence. I spent the rest of the day relaxing on a heated lounge chair, watching snow fall outside, and listening to vacationing families splash in the pool. The spa facilities were fine, not spectacular, but that felt more like a perk than a downside: I didn’t care. I felt lucky to have a window into everyday Estonian life, glad to be away from all the tour groups in the capital and truly happy to be alone.