A couple of weeks ago, I took a weekend trip to Prague – alone. I had set a goal for myself to take a solo weekend trip, inspired by lists like 10 Things You Have to Experience By the Time You’re 25. I’d read plenty of articles and blogs proclaiming the benefits of solo travel. You meet people! You face challenges! You grow as a person!
Unfortunately, my weekend in Prague felt fun but unremarkable. I don’t think I grew much as a person, and while I loved the city, experiencing it alone didn’t feel at all formative. The whole thing left me wondering whether the benefits of solo travel are overrated.
Self-improvement aside, the bloggers and list-makers certainly aren’t exaggerating the pleasure and convenience of traveling alone. Traveling alone comes with a unique set of pros and cons, regardless of whether personal development can be counted among them.
The Pros of Traveling Alone
Other people won’t hold you back from traveling
I wanted to see Prague, but I didn’t have any friends who also wanted to see Prague. Choosing to go alone kept me from missing out on one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. A lack of travel companions motivates a lot of people to travel alone for the first time, and it’s a good reason to do so. Just because you don’t have anyone to go with doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go.
You can make logistical mistakes without upsetting anyone
I had chosen a cheap flight to Prague that arrived late at night. I stepped out of the airport into the cold, windy, rainy darkness. The first bus that drove by didn’t match the number I was looking for, so I watched it pass. After it drove away, I realized that it would have taken me to the same place as the bus I was waiting for, and I would now be forced to wait an extra 10 or 15 minutes in the cold thanks to my mistake. If I had been with a companion, they probably would have been frustrated with me, and I would have felt embarrassed and guilty. But with no one there to witness or suffer for my mistake, it didn’t faze me.
You have complete control over the agenda
I met a friendly group on my morning walking tour of the city, and the five of us went out for lunch together at a traditional Czech restaurant. I enjoyed their company over the meal, listening to their travel stories and laughing over mugs of beer. When we finished eating, I wanted to head to the Klementinum, which houses a baroque library said to be the most beautiful in the world. The library was one of the main reasons I wanted to visit Prague in the first place. But none of my new friends were interested in the library, so we said goodbye and I went on by myself.
If I had been traveling with that group, I would have had to take their wishes into account and might have missed seeing my library altogether. Because I was alone, I got to choose which sights were most important to me, and no one else’s opinion mattered. This point was further illustrated by a couple behind me in line for the Klementinum, arguing because the man thought the 50-minute tour was a waste of time while his frustrated partner complained that she’d told him she wanted to see the library. I bought my ticket for one with a smile.
You get to choose where and when you want to eat
Similar to the point above, when you are traveling by yourself, you get to decide when you’re hungry and where you want to eat, which means you always get exactly what you want. In Prague, I had a lovely meal by myself at Café Louvre, a supposed old favorite of Frans Kafka, where I was served by an extremely friendly waiter who, after I revealed I was from New Jersey, wanted to talk to me about How I Met Your Mother. The food was delicious, I didn’t spend too long there because I wasn’t having a conversation, and in the words of Hemingway, “A bottle of wine was good company.”
You meet new people
This might be the most-named benefit of traveling alone, and I won’t argue its truth. As pleasant as time spent alone can be, most people can only spend so many hours alone before they crave companionship and conversation. Traveling alone pushes you to start conversations you might otherwise be uncomfortable starting, or to introduce yourself when you otherwise wouldn’t. Moreover, I often find that people notice I’m alone and make an effort to be friendly to me, without any effort on my side. In Prague, I met a group to have lunch with and another group to visit bars, both of which I might not have joined if I’d been with my own friends.
The Cons of Traveling Alone
There’s no one to help you navigate
For me, planning the logistics of a trip feels laborious. From researching the city and choosing a hotel to working out a bus route from the airport, those little tasks weigh on me over the course of my travels. Sharing that burden with a companion (or better yet, traveling with a companion who typically handles all of these tasks) can be a huge benefit.
If you get into trouble, you’re sans safety net
On a different recent weekend trip, one of my friends had her purse stolen. The thieves took all of her money and credit cards, her identification, her keys to our hotel room, and her phone charger. Because we were together, we were able to mitigate the disaster. I had another set of keys to the hotel, so we weren’t stranded on the streets. We loaned her a phone charger, paid for her food and expenses, and helped her file a police report. Had she been alone, an already bad situation might have become catastrophic. When you travel alone, you’re more vulnerable than usual.
You can’t share food
This might seem silly, but when I travel, I take great joy in sampling as many different foods as possible. During my solo dinner in Prague, I watched a group of friends at the table next to me split a slice of cake. I felt too stuffed to handle a whole slice on my own, but I didn’t have anyone to share with, so I had to resign myself to a cake-less evening.
You might feel a little lonely
I hesitate to include this con at all because learning to enjoy your own company is practically the whole point of traveling alone. But even when you have developed a sense of independence and learned to feel comfortable as a party of one, you might still find yourself longing for company in certain moments. For me, one weekend felt totally manageable. But when I spent my first week alone in Madrid, before I made friends in my new city, I definitely felt a few low points.
The Life-Changing Magic of Traveling Alone (or Lack Thereof)
Beyond the practical benefits and drawbacks of taking a trip by yourself, is it a challenge worth taking? For me, it wasn’t. Flying solo can be a fun and convenient way to see a new place, but it lacked any transformational effect.
Then again, my experience might have been a little tainted because I’m not sure it technically qualified as my first time traveling alone. When I moved from New Jersey to Madrid, I came by myself, and I spent an eight-hour layover exploring Stockholm on my own. That experience stands out in my memory as much more affecting than my Prague weekend, and I remember feeling a sense of freedom and empowerment as I roamed the streets of Stockholm.
Three times in my life now I’ve moved to a new place where I didn’t know anyone. Those experiences forced me to meet new people, learn to enjoy my own company, and explore my capabilities. Moving to new places helped me foster my independence and improve my self-esteem. If I’d never had those experiences, a solo weekend trip might have seemed more meaningful and might have allowed me to begin learning the same lessons I’ve learned by moving.
If you’re someone whose daily life lacks opportunities for independence, solo travel might be for you. If you already feel comfortable relying on yourself and you already enjoy your own company, you might not learn anything new. Traveling alone can be a practical decision with pros that outweigh the cons, but you probably don’t need to go out of your way experience it in the name of self-improvement.
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