It’s sometime just before midnight in Athens, and I’m in a bar in the streets under the Acropolis, preparing to do something really crazy.
The Greeks call it “un-nighting” - a fun-loving experiment in self-inflicted suffering, with a dollop of machismo thrown in (as with most things in Greece). The principle is simple: the night doesn’t exist and neither does your need to sleep, so you stay up, grabbing dinner at midnight, then moving from bar to bar, alternating between beer and strong, gritty Greek coffee - and you keep going until sunrise.
Then you go home, leap in the shower and go to work - and in the evening you crawl home again and sleep for 14 hours straight.
It’s completely absurd, and probably medically inadvisable. I’m going to be exhausted. But that’s ok - I have an uneventful 8-hour ferry ride the next day, and plenty of time to nap off the worst of my tiredness.
But more than anything else, I can do it because I’m travelling solo.
I’d never put anyone else through this. Good grief, no. But myself, always hunting for a story to write about, and in love with the serendipitous power of chasing a foolish whim? A hundred percent yes.
There’s a lot of pressure stacked against solo travellers in today’s world, and a lot of it comes from the commercial pressures of the travel industry. As Gordon notes here, most accommodation is built and priced on a double occupancy basis, leading to the dreaded “single supplement” charge.
But there’s the other side of the equation - the one that isn’t a simple solve with a logistic hack. There’s the emotional pressure, when you’re by yourself and surrounded by groups of people. There’s the need for one of the great joys of travel, one of the reasons life is worth living: human connection. There’s the weirdness of it.
Imagine sitting in a busy restaurant. Every table is full - and you’re the only person sitting alone. What does that feel like? Why would you even do that to yourself?
In fact, there are many excellent reasons for it, and they will change the way you travel. Not into something better or worse. Just to something different. And if you want to learn what they are, you should ask a professional travel writer.
You’ll see them eating alone in restaurants all the time. They’ll be standing alone on the decks of cruise ships, or sitting by themselves in bars - always seeking pockets of solitude so they can catch up with their notes or unfold a map or leaf through a book.
To the uninformed observer, this solitude can look lonely. But they’re not lonely. They’re way too busy for that.
The truth becomes clear if you watch them a bit longer, until they’ve finished writing or reading. They look around and start conversations with anyone and everyone. They ask questions. They pay attention to everything - and if you watch them long enough, they’ll spot you looking, and probably flash you a friendly grin, which means, “Hey! Fancy a beer and a chat?”
Whenever I travel with my partner, it’s a wholly different experience. We already have someone to talk to - each other - so that’s the first thing we do when we need some conversation in our lives. It makes us a little less sociable, a little less likely to seek out talk, and therefore a bit less likely to break the ice with complete strangers.
After a while, that can add up. You’ll probably make less new friends if you bring company with you. When I’m travelling on my own (my partner is a hard-working doctor in Barcelona so her travel-time is limited), I’m a lot more aware of other people - mentally mapping out connections when I go into a room, to see who would be interesting and enlightening to chat to. I know I don’t have personal connections, so I have to make them..
I’m also a lot more aware of everything else. Your attention is always focused outside your own social circle, because that circle doesn’t exist - there’s just you right now. Naturally, this can feel a little strange, even marginalizing. You feel on the edge of things, looking in or looking out.
But oh - what a view it is.
This is the sweet spot for travel writers who want to see the world in all its impossibly detailed glory. It’s also a really great place to be if you’re going to a new place for the first time, and don’t want to miss a single thing. In theory, it’s like attending a world-class theatre performance - and you’ve been given the royal box to sit in.
(That’s the theory, though. In practice, you’ll be talking to a lot of new friends. Travelling solo, and being willing to be the one to open a conversation, is a guaranteed way to have a throat hoarse from talking by the end of the day.)
So it’s about sociability, and about awareness. But it’s also about the freedom to indulge whatever foolish notion occurs to you at the time.
It’s not that loved ones are unadventurous. My gym-loving, travel-loving other half makes me look like the bookish, risk-averse nerd I probably am. So, no. It’s not about others. It’s really about yourself, and what you feel capable of doing because you’re answerable to nobody but yourself..
Would I subject anyone else to a night of circling the Acropolis in an increasingly fuzzy-headed and hyper-caffeinated state? Or how about sitting in the British Museum in London for 8 hours, writing something about the people who visit it? Or what about camping in the snow, shivering in marrow-freezing temperatures that froze my water bottle into ice, up an English mountain in January?
(I had a travelling companion for that one, an experienced hiker much accustomed to putting himself through such things. He says he still feels guilty about bringing me along. I can’t convince him I had great fun. In retrospect, my presence was the last thing he needed for his long-term peace of mind.)
In Greece that time, it was just me, so I had total freedom to do what I wanted. I knew I’d feel somewhat terrible the next day - and I knew it was worth it, for the perspective on modern Athenian life that I wanted to see. I could take full responsibility for my actions. I could do this.
So I did. And it was unforgettably terrific.
(And yes, the next day was as awful as expected.)
So don’t be afraid of going solo. It’s not a poorer alternative to group travel. It’s just a different experience, with its own set of unique benefits (some of which are entirely counter-intuitive, like how sociable it can be). It’s a different way of seeing the world - and even if it never becomes your preferred method of travel, I’d say it’s worth doing at least once, so you understand what it’s really like.