On solo travel – and why you don’t need to be brave to do it!

“I wish I was as brave as you”.
“You’re so brave travelling alone to all these places!”
“Solo travel? I could never do that!”

I’ve heard a hundred permutations of this phrase over the years.

It always baffles me that people see me as being brave when that’s never been one of my defining qualities. I’m never going to be the person who goes bungee jumping (likelihood = less than zero), or jumps out of an aeroplane (sky diving looks like it would be amazing, but the voice in my head telling me the parachute won’t open is probably always going to win. Never say never, but I don’t see it happening). I’m not even particularly great at going up and introducing myself to strangers.

But I have never seen anything inherently scary or brave about travelling. Let’s face it: I have both feet safely on the ground (or at least inside an aeroplane), a map/mobile phone/guidebook in my hand, and a good brain combined with a reasonable amount of common sense to keep me as far out of trouble as is humanly possible. I grew up in the London suburbs and was taught from an early age to avoid situations where I might not be safe. And the same rules I applied back then have – as far as I can tell – applied in pretty much every situation I’ve been in since, anywhere in the world.

solo travel
Bedouin camp, Oman, February 2015. Hairstyle courtesy of 3 nights’ rough camping!

That’s not to say I haven’t ended up in a few situations that were slightly ill-advised. I remember, the summer I spent in Russia in 1995, routinely walking my friend back to her apartment and then walking home with my (female) flatmate, usually late at night, in the darkness of the Yaroslavl suburbs. Our landlady was never completely happy with it, and we saw our fair share of drunk Russian men, but what were we supposed to do – let our friend walk home on her own?

Then there was the time, in Argentina, when I decided to get the tram and bus out to a gaucho market in the Buenos Aires suburbs. I did all the research; I had my bus routes and timings researched to perfection and knew exactly how I was going to get there. However, what I didn’t know (and probably couldn’t have known) was the area the tram would go through. I had a few misgivings when I got on, at the last stop on the metro line, but I was in a busy train station and they are never the most salubrious places at the best of times, so I assumed things would improve. Wrong: the further along the line we went, the more deprived the area became and the greater the percentage of indigenous Indian faces there were around me – sadly an indication that we were in an increasingly rough neighbourhood. Sitting on that tram, clutching my bag ever tighter, berating myself for my stupidity and expecting to be mugged at knifepoint at any moment, imagine my relief as we pulled into a tram stop at the same time as another tram going the other way. Quick as a flash, I leapt out of my carriage, over the tracks and onto the other tram and headed back to where I knew I was safe. I never did get to the gaucho market, but hey.

My point with these stories is that I learn from experience, and know to trust my judgment most of the time. If something feels wrong, I get out of the situation (or ideally don’t get into it in the first place). But the flip side of this is that I simply haven’t ever been in many dodgy situations. The few occasions when I have even been worried have been more about me being out of my comfort zone than anything really happening. (Even on that tram in Argentina nobody actually gave me a second glance).

And the reality is that the overwhelming number of experiences I have had over the years have been wonderful, filled with lovely people who have only tried to help and look after me. I’ve been in many poor areas, for example, and never once felt threatened. Of course, much of that may be because I have gone into these areas with a local guide and kept my valuables out of sight and obvious displays of affluence to a minimum. But I have wandered through Indian markets where fathers and sons posed for photos with their arms round each other’s shoulders, and flower sellers gave me blossoms to put in my hair, free of charge. I’ve visited a slum in Nairobi and met some of the most lovely, motivated and passionate people I could hope to meet (and the only person yet, anywhere I have been, who had actually heard of Stoke-on-Trent – “Stoke City!”!!). I’ve been at a historic site in the Indian Punjab where I was mobbed by enthusiastic local students who took more photos of me than I took of them.

solo travel
Visiting the slums of Kibera, Nairobi, 2015. Making an art form out of not looking affluent.

New situations and cultures can be intimidating, but that’s a huge part of the adventure. If I can be credited with any special quality, I suppose it is this spirit of adventure, this desire to throw myself into unfamiliar environments and explore them. But I wouldn’t consider it brave, not in the slightest. Bravery implies danger, and I take great care not to put myself in any danger. I sometimes travel completely solo, but only to culturally and socio-economically familiar environments (normally within Europe/North America, or the more affluent Asian countries). In most other situations I join a group, or occasionally travel alone but book a private guide to show me around (in Nairobi, for example, I didn’t leave the hotel on my own as I knew the risks). On most third world trips I do try to explore on my own a little bit, once I have become somewhat familiar with the country and always staying close to my hotel, and I think this is important as a way of learning the street smarts that will keep me safe. But I’m careful.

Memorably, on my first trip to India, I went there expecting crime, hassle and to feel threatened. But I encountered the most friendly and helpful people, and was never once made to feel like a target with my blonde hair and western affluence. However, a few days before the end of my trip I had a call from home: my house in the UK had been broken into. Which just goes to show how skewed our perception can sometimes be.

solo travel
Southern India, 2011. One of my all-time favourite travel selfies, wearing the flowers given to me by a stallholder…

The other reason people seem to see me as brave for travelling on my own is just that, the sheer fact of being alone. I don’t have anyone else looking out for me, and I don’t have people to hide behind in airports, hotels or restaurants. But I love that. I’ve travelled with friends, of course I have, and it can be wonderful. But you don’t see the destination in the same way. I wouldn’t say I’m the most sociable person when I’m travelling, and I’m not the type to strike up conversations with strangers (although I hope I’m polite and friendly). But I experience the place in a much more vivid way when I’m not distracted by being with another person. And as for looking after myself and enjoying my own company, well, if I can do it at home then why wouldn’t I be able to do it when I’m travelling?

Maybe I’m unusual. In the world of the adventure traveller, probably not – most people I’ve met on my travels thrive on the unknown and on exploring unfamiliar places. Then again, I can look at my non-traveller friends and colleagues and appreciate that they don’t enjoy getting out of their comfort zone in the same way I do, and there’s nothing at all wrong with that. But no, I’m definitely not brave for doing what I do. I don’t think so, anyway.


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23 Comments

  1. I definitely find that trusting your judgement is a huge part in traveling alone. Funny you should say that you would never bungee jump or skydive because I love all of those things too! I remember when I decided to backpack Europe solo, everyone came at me like I was a mad woman! I even opted out of having access to wifi so I had to learn the road, train, and bus systems. To me, its all about what makes you happy and what feels right. I love seeing women like you take charge of their life, travel on their own and really put themselves out there (even if you can’t always introduce yourself to strangers.) Go girl!! Love your outlook.

    1. Thank you! 😊 I think, for me, my limit is physical danger – I’ll happily cross the world on my own, but I could die jumping out of an aeroplane, haha!! No, I just don’t get enjoyment out of that sort of fear… but maybe I’ll get there one day?!

  2. This is so lovely! I couldn’t agree with more with learning to trust your intuition, it’s amazing what we feel isn’t it? Of course sometimes we get it wrong, but I’ve been working on it the last few years and I’m really noticing a difference! I had the same, same thing in India – without a doubt some of the friendliest, most generous people I’ve ever met 🙂
    I think you’re right people see travelling or any new experience as this crazy, scary thing, but the moment you do it you’re like – why did I hang around so long?! Perhaps brave isn’t the right word, but strong and independent certainly! It’s amazing where curiosity takes us, thanks I really enjoyed reading this post.
    I’ve just written a post on feeling like an outsider at home if you’re interested: https://lulaaventura.wordpress.com/2017/04/12/home-is-where-i-feel-a-little-strange-2017/

    1. My attitude is always that I trust my intuition. If I was wrong and missed out on an experience by being over-cautious, it’s better than the other way round. But the more trips I take, the more my “intuition” is educated by what I’ve experienced – if you know what I mean!

  3. thank you for this. I get told I’m brave for traveling alone all the time. I don’t consider myself brave at all. I just have that spirit, just like you, who wants to see something new and learn something that you can’t learn unless you put into their real world.

  4. Sometimes when people tell me I’m so brave or ask me, wide-eyed, “but how do you travel?” all I can do is encourage them to get on a plane themselves and see that there’s nothing inherently crazy about exploring a new part of the world, even alone. I love that you break down lots of realities of traveling alone and with others, and that you are so honest about what you choose not to do alone. It’s an incredible experience to be in a new place all alone, at least once in your life!

    1. Thanks Kate! Yes, it’s funny – I don’t see any need to be brave, I don’t put myself in dangerous situations as a general rule, so what’s scary about it?! But then again, I only know that because I’ve done it… I can understand why people who haven’t put themselves out there think I’m brave, I just don’t agree! 😊

  5. I feel the same. We travel to a lot of places with our kids and people are always a little amazed by it. Last year we went to Colombia and people thought we were nuts! It was gorgeous! Don’t regret is one bit!

  6. I LOVE this post and everything you’ve said in it! Whenever I go off travelling again I often get told how brave I am, or how so and so wishes they had as much courage, but I never see it myself.
    And as for safety overseas? Well, I’ve been to Venezuela, Colombia, India, and a heck of a lot more places perceived as “unsafe” but have never felt as unsafe as I have in the middle of London at 3am. Maybe it’s because I’m a small-town Valleys girl from Wales and London is kind of terrifying, but it says a lot really.

  7. I completely agree with you! I have been traveling in over 30 countries alone and I don’t think it takes courage to do it. (I’m on the shy side, so it takes a little courage for me to talk to a stranger, but that’s just as true when I’m at home.) I appreciate the adventures I’ve had when solo traveling and you obviously do the same!

  8. I was nodding along and agreeing with every line in your post. I have heard so many version of this too and I concur, I don’t think we are brave in the literal sense of the word for traveling solo around the world. 🙂

    I love traveling solo for the thrill of discovering a new place, meeting the locals and immersing myself in the culture in a way that only traveling solo will allow. 🙂

    Happy travels!!

  9. I was nodding along and agreeing with every line in your post. I have heard so many version of this too and I concur, I don’t think we are brave in the literal sense of the word for traveling solo around the world. 🙂

    I love traveling solo for the thrill of discovering a new place, meeting the locals and immersing myself in the culture in a way that only traveling solo will allow. 🙂

    Happy travels!!

  10. Thank you so much for writing this. I love travelling but the idea of travelling alone always does make me a little uncomfortable. I love the adventure associated with it but can’t shake off the feeling that if something goes wrong I won’t know what to do. Reading this has given me so much motivation!

  11. I have yet to build up the courage to travel alone, but it is on my list! I’m cautious when I travel and I’m always aware of my surroundings. If something doesn’t seem right, I remove myself from the situation. I guess I just have to follow these same steps when traveling alone.

  12. You have been to some very interesting places, and are rewarded with great memories. I wouldn’t call it brave either, but I would allow ‘adventurous’, because you are undoubtedly that. As someone from London, (for 60 years of my life) I would also agree that I felt far more threatened on a 29 bus in Camden Town, than I ever did travelling alone abroad. I have rarely travelled alone though, as I do like to have company. Someone to eat with in the evenings, or to discuss the things we have seen.

    Thanks for following my blog, which is much appreciated.
    Best wishes from Norfolk. Pete.

  13. Well, we have to stay alone and travel alone and get used to it. I have not traveled alone much , but once I made a solo travel. It was an adventure and I came out safely. I have got over the fear of travelling on night buses to another City on my own, and well mind my own business when alone, don’t invite attention. But in many places in India where I live people don’t view travelling as women alone as safe. It’s particularly hard here at a new place when you have to depend on autos and stuff… I won’t get over that fear…but I intend to travel sometime to a nice place. Good elements and bad elements can be anywhere not just in poor countries, you have to surround yourself with good people and if you sense something is wrong, don’t venture there, take protective action. You are to a extent brave, but not adventure brave to go skydiving and bungee jumping not an adrenaline junkee. Anyway, got good tips on solo travel from your writeup. Also good to know which places to go and how to go before you venture around, talking to locals is a great thing to do, makes the City travel more nice.

  14. This post definitely resonates with me! Lots of people have huge misconceptions of travelling. Every country I’ve ever suggested to visit I always get the same response “oh I heard its dangerous there” yet I honestly feel more unsafe crossing the road in London, or going for a night out in Birmingham than I ever have abroad! Crazy!

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