Tips for Solo Travel

Rick Steves: With the right approach, traveling solo can lead to self-discovery and new friends -- even a likeable congressman

06.22.10 | 11:26 AM ET

Prague (iStockPhoto)

After two days in Florence, I had already met some fascinating people. First there was the woman who runs the leather school at the Church of Santa Croce (established by her family and Franciscan monks after World War II to give orphaned boys a trade). Then there was the likeable congressman from Florida whom I met while dodging a horse carriage near a Donatello statue. And while eating alone at one of my favorite restaurants, I chatted up a conductor from Switzerland with Young Frankenstein hair. All night we talked about pianos—a passion we both shared.

The maestro and I had a wonderful chemistry. He was the kind of person I knew I could be great friends with—and someone I probably never would have met had we not been dining alone that night. The nature of my job means that I spend a lot of time in museums, restaurants and bars by myself. But that’s also the way I prefer to experience Europe.

When you’re with a companion, it’s easy to focus on that person and forget about meeting Europeans and other travelers. Without the comfortable crutch of a friend, you’re more likely to know the joys of self-discovery and the pleasures found in the kindness of strangers. You’ll be exploring yourself, as well as a new country and culture.

Solo travel gives you complete freedom and independence. You never have to wait for your partner to pack up. You decide where to go, how far to travel, how much to spend, or when to call it a day. If ad-libbing, it’s easier for one to slip between the cracks than two.

Of course, there are downsides to traveling alone: Accommodations typically cost more because you’re not splitting the bill, and you may be more vulnerable to theft when you’re alone. But the biggest struggle is loneliness.

Fortunately, the continent is full of lonely travelers and natural meeting places. Staying in hostels gives you a built-in family (hostels are open to all ages). Small pensions and B&Bs often have owners who have time to talk with you. City walking tours provide an easy opening to meet other travelers.

The idea of eating alone can be intimidating—until you do it. The key is to keep busy. Use the time to learn more of the language. Practice your verbal skills with the waiter or waitress (when I asked a French waiter if he had kids, he proudly showed me a picture of his twin girls). Read a guidebook, a novel, or the International Herald Tribune. Do trip planning, write in your journal, or scrawl a few postcards to the folks back home.

Consider quick and cheap alternatives to formal dining. Try a self-service café, a local-style fast-food restaurant, or a small ethnic eatery. Visit a supermarket deli and get a picnic to eat in the square or a park. Grab a slice of pizza and munch it as you walk, people-watching and window-shopping.

If you like company, eat in crowded places that force you to share a table, or ask other single travelers if they’d like to join you. Most countries have a type of dish or restaurant that’s fun to experience with a group. When you run into tourists during the day, make plans for dinner. Invite them to join you for, say, a rijsttafel dinner in the Netherlands, a smörgåsbord in Scandinavia, a paella feast in Spain, or a spaghetti feed in an Italian trattoria.

Evenings can be tough if you’re feeling lonely. Use this time to visit an Internet café and send travel news to friends and family. Or go out and experience the magic of European cities at night. Stroll along well-lit streets, enjoying the parade of people, busy shops, and illuminated monuments. See Paris by night on a river cruise. Take advantage of the wealth of evening entertainment: concerts, movies, puppet shows, and folk dancing. If you like to stay in, get a room with a balcony overlooking a square. You’ll have a front-row seat to the best show in town.

If you don’t feel comfortable traveling alone, consider joining a tour. With a tour, all of your hotel rooms are reserved, a guide plans most of your activities, and other tour members keep you company. If you’re willing to give up the option of having a flexible itinerary, a tour may be the right way for you to scratch your travel bug bites.

I’ve talked to too many people who put off their travel dreams because they don’t want to do it alone. Don’t delay. Just think of Europe as one big gelato social. The first step is to show up.

Rick Steves

Rick Steves writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. He is the author of Travel as a Political Act.

9 Comments for Tips for Solo Travel 06.24.10 | 9:02 AM ET

Traveling solo can be liberating.  You get to do what you want to do and not worry about the other person whining or complaining about this or that.  Meeting new people is the fun part.  It forces you to step out of your comfort zone and approach people which is something you may have never done in the past.  Solo travel can be lonely but only if you think it will be.

Grizzly Bear Mom 06.25.10 | 11:26 AM ET

I love solo travel because I get to eat, visit and sleep whenever or whereever I want.  However its about the only time that I slow down enough to realize that it could be just a little nicer if I had a sweetheart to share the experience with.  Go now.  Don’t wait until you have a companion.  Stay in hostels and travel cheaply and you will meet people from all over the world in a way that cocooned at a western hotel won’t faciliate.

Sandra Kennedy 06.25.10 | 5:49 PM ET

Traveling solo expands my experiences.  Five years ago, while traveling in Uruguay, I met a 62-year young woman.  When I asked about her destinations, she said that she was going around the world.
She explained that her husband didn’t enjoy traveling and her friends were unable to accompany her.
At that point, she decided to fulfill her lifelong dream or she would never do it.

She inspired me to travel to Ecuador, Argentina, Maine and New Hampshire on my own.  I have never looked back.  It changed my life.

Essential Travel 06.28.10 | 10:29 AM ET

Just returning from a year long trip through Europe and South America, I do believe that traveling solo has some definite advantages.

Sometimes you only realize halfway through your travels that your companion has slightly different expectations for the trip - whereas you like to sightsee, he might just be along for the party! Such differences go a long way in preventing your from getting the most out of your trip - if you do pick a mate, make sure you both understand before hand what you want from the experience!

Check out for some more tips and advice on traveling solo.

Steve 06.28.10 | 4:06 PM ET

Traveling solo gives you great confidence.  I think everyone should do at least one solo trip a year.

Carol Margolis 06.28.10 | 11:07 PM ET

I love the hop-on, hop-off buses that are in so many cities around the world. They’re great for solo travelers as they generally drive by and stop at the primary spots in a city. These buses are easy to hop off of if you find a great spot to visit further, then hop-on the next arriving bus when you’re ready to see more.  And if you’re uncomfortable going solo at any stop, just ride the bus for its entire course and see everything from the upper desk.  This is also a great way to see a city on the first day of your visit, and then go back to the sites you want to explore further and longer on subsequent days.
Carol Margolis

Stella 07.06.10 | 11:41 AM ET

There is no better time to find yourself than when traveling!  What a great way to explore and have adventures…  my favorite pastime in different cities is shopping!  I always find fabulous treasures when I’m least expecting them.  Check out some of my personal treasures on my blog:
♥ Stella

Road Warrior 07.08.10 | 10:22 AM ET

wow…congratulations to all of you Solo Travellers! I haven’t done this except when I go mountain bike on my own (which is not really a long travel). I hope I can do it also..soon!

Road Warrior of World Travel and Vacation

Ian [EagerExistence] 07.29.10 | 4:14 AM ET

What a great post. I am looking forward to my upcoming solo travels around Europe. So scared, yet so excited at the same time!

I agree that eating alone, and evenings will be some of the toughest times in areas where meeting people may not be too easy. However, I have been building up my independence by living alone for a year before the trip, and I think I can manage it.

Thanks for the great advice.

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