I was sitting in a dark little bar in the south of Spain indulging in my favorite things – wine, tapas, a good book and some much needed me-time – when a well-meaning, middle-aged British couple came up to me.
“Are you alright?” they asked, as though dining alone while on holiday was a strange and sad occurrence that they would have to heroically save me from. It took several minutes before I convinced them that no, nothing was the matter, and no, I didn’t need company that evening, and yes, I was perfectly, sublimely happy all on my own.
I love traveling, but more than that, I love traveling solo. I love the freedom only answering to myself brings – no compromises on where to go, or what to eat, or what to do. I love that solo travel forces you to be sociable on the road, allowing you to meet amazing people from all over the world and from all kinds of backgrounds. I love heading off into the unknown, recharging from my hectic life in New York City, where I’m surrounded by people 24/7, from strangers on the crowded subway to the co-workers I see everyday to my two lovely roommates. Sometimes I feel like I simply can’t get away. I need a break from everything, and traveling solo is how I get it. And, travel I have. Cambodia, Nepal, Honduras, Morocco, Greece, Italy, and another dozen or so amazing places – all of which I’ve visited completely on my own.
So, when I met a pretty cool guy, and we decided to travel together, I was shocked – shocked that I agreed to travel with someone else, and shocked that it wasn’t as difficult as I’d imagined it would be. I thought it would be a hard adjustment, but the truth is, traveling with a significant other, or even just with friends, isn’t as big of a deal as I feared. It’s not better, and it’s not worse. It’s just different, and that’s perfectly OK.
The Great Compromise: Travel Planning
The biggest benefit to traveling alone is that my itinerary is all mine – I can go where I want, when I want. Being a solo traveler means absolute freedom and zero compromises. I have a hard time compromising on where to go to dinner with my girlfriends, so taking into account someone else’s preferences on a trip was a massive challenge. It’s quite possibly the most difficult thing a dedicated solo traveler will face when you do decide to travel as a couple.
I lucked out by having a pretty awesome Dude – he’s not into travel planning so he left it to me to make the big decisions on itinerary and accommodation. But we can’t all be that lucky.
The trick to travel planning as a twosome is to really talk it out – where do you want to go, what are your expectations, what are your limits, what are you interested in and what will you absolutely not do. If one of you desperately wants to go on a 5-day trek and the other hates hiking, compromising on a 2-3 day trek is a good way to meet in the middle.
Being vocal about your likes and dislikes is key. Don’t be afraid to say what you do or don’t want, or worry about disappointing your partner if you really don’t have an interest in an activity. It’s much better to find a compromise you both can live with rather than be annoyed that you got stuck doing something you didn’t have the cojones to mention you hated in the first place. By not speaking up about your wishes, you not only risk wasting an entire day being miserable, but your partner will feel like a selfish jerk for making you to do something you obviously don’t want to be doing.
You also shouldn’t feel like you have to do everything together. While planning our trip to Colombia, The Dude mentioned he would be interested in going paragliding. My intense fear of heights means I refuse to stand too close to the edge of a second-story balcony, so there was no way in hell I was going to suspend myself hundreds of feet in the air in a glorified kite. In our case, the compromise was for him to go it alone while I would go shopping. There is nothing wrong with taking time out to do exactly what you want to do on your own, and you may savor that time to reconnect with the solo traveler within.
Hosteling It as a “Frisky” Couple
This was probably the biggest adjustment for me, with both pluses and minuses. As a solo traveler, crashing in a crowded, hot dorm is the first stage in bonding. Conversation starters are built in – “Can you believe we have to share with that crazy Norwegian conspiracy theorist?” – and the usual hostel welcome of “Nice to meet you, we’re going to the bar, you coming?” is what I rely on to meet people when first arriving in a new locale.
However, when traveling as a couple that has very little interest in forgoing a little chaka chaka in favor of saving a few dollars (or making a few new friends), staying in a private room was required, and for me, it was a huge change. We chose to negate some of the isolation you may feel when staying in a hotel by booking the private rooms at hostels, but I still felt a bit of a divide between us and the dorm-dwellers. People didn’t automatically come up and introduce themselves as much as when I traveled alone, perhaps because it seemed that we had our social scene sorted, or because they didn’t want to interrupt.
Traveling as a couple turned out to be a far less spontaneous endeavor than I expected. Booking ahead was a requirement if you wanted to ensure you had a shared room at the hostel, which meant a lot more planning in advance than I usually do. But, I didn’t miss being woken up at all hours by the comings and goings of others, I’m pretty sure I will never be able to go back to sharing a bathroom again, and nothing beats waking up next to your boo. Hosteling as a couple was just so different from my usual travel experiences and took some getting used to, but the pros, in this case, helped outweigh the cons.
Making (And Not Making) Friends
Traveling alone can be exhilarating. You make deep connections with the most random people, you do things you never even considered because you’ve teamed up with some fearless road warriors, and a new friend or lover is always just one bus ride away. I have met the most amazing people travelling. Seriously, the most amazing people who I will always love even if our time together was short. In some cases, the very reason why a trip was memorable or life-changing can be put down to the intense relationships you’ve formed with perfect strangers.
But, I’m not going to lie – solo travel can be lonely too.
You roll up to a new city and all of a sudden the anxiety hits you. What if I don’t meet any cool people here? Will I have to spend the next 4 days all alone in Berlin? Will everyone at this new hostel be a douche-bag looking to score the vice of the day? You hit up your hostel bar, hoping to chat up like-minded travelers, people you can connect with, who will become your new best friend for as long as you are in town. And then, after an amazing day or week or month, you go your separate ways, vow to meet up someplace in the world at some unspecified time in the future, and then you have to go and start all over again.
The cycle is exhausting. And let’s not even talk about the days when you simply aren’t gelling with anyone, or when you absolutely cannot have the same damn conversations about where you’ve been and where you’re from and how long you’ve traveled with yet another stranger. You miss people who know you, and you realize that it can be pretty damn lonely on the road all by yourself.
Traveling with another person who you know and trust and who you don’t feel like you need to try to impress is pretty awesome. If the social scene at your hostel sucks, it won’t matter as much because you have a built in partner-in-crime to drink and dance and celebrate with no matter where you go. If you don’t feel like introducing yourself yet again, your boo is there to chat you up about the stuff you really care about, like the latest episode of The Walking Dead, or to gossip about mutual friends back home. If you run into trouble along the way, it’s nice to have a partner to keep you calm and share your burdens, so lost luggage or a killer case of food poisoning doesn’t seem quite so bad.
While I believe that a bit of solitude and even loneliness are wonderful things that help you grow and expand your horizons, I can’t complain about having a person you care about around to share in some of your most memorable experiences and tackle problems with together. It’s not for everyone, and I certainly didn’t expect it to be for me, but so far, I’m enjoying traveling as a team.
Me-Time is my Favorite Time (aka, Give Me Some Space!)
In my soul, I think I am a fairly solitary person. I travel alone because I enjoy being alone. I need to go to dinner a few times a month to recharge from my social life. I’ve never felt awkward hitting up the bar alone on a Friday night. In fact, that’s usually when I meet the most interesting people, whether I’m home or abroad! So for me, there is nothing more terrifying than the idea of spending 24-7 with one single person for an extended period of time.
Before I went on my first trip with The Dude, I was worried – and not just because our first trip was basically our second date (long – but awesome – story). What if we ran out of things to say? How would we deal with an argument? What if we just simply needed a break from each other?
While we were abroad, I let my worries get the better of me. I felt like we needed to do everything together, that our conversations should always be full of witty banter (and if they weren’t, worried over what it meant), and that wanting to read my book or even just check Facebook was a sign that things weren’t working out. But needing alone time isn’t indicative of some breakdown in your relationship. It’s a natural feeling that you should acknowledge and accept and indulge as needed, especially when you consider how much more time you are spending with your travel companion than you normally do.
If you think about it, when you are at home, even if you live together, you have different workplaces and go out with your own groups of friends and pursue your own hobbies. You have time apart. But when you are traveling, you are in each other’s company constantly, and that can be a challenge.
I’m here to say, there is no shame in needing me-time when you are on the road. It’s healthy and it’s necessary and it can even strengthen your relationship. If you’re having epic battle royales on a daily basis, sure, you may want to reconsider your choice in travel companion. But if all you are after is a little alone time, take it. Go read a book. Take a walk through the city. Do an activity you enjoy that your partner may not be interested in. Take a little me-time whenever you feel you need it. It’s natural, it’s healthy, and there is nothing wrong with it, even if you are traveling with the most awesome and amazing Dude.
I’ve been on two trips with The Dude so far and, full confession, I sometimes miss going out on the road alone. I wonder what those countries would have been like if I’d been totally on my own. But going with another person didn’t make the experience less rich or exciting or interesting. It was just different, with it’s own positives and negatives, and that, in and of itself, is a kind of adventure. And as far as adventures go, it was pretty freaking fantastic, even for a solo-traveler like myself.