It’s a Thursday afternoon in December and I'm rattling down the M1 on the back of a National Express coach. Dark is already befalling us now we’re into the winter months, but the illumination provided by various laptop, tablet and mobile screens is at least providing some form of 21st century allure in place of today’s diminishing, now virtually non-existent sunlight.
Reading this, you’re probably wondering why I’m heading down south, although being a travel blogger I am sure it’s not too difficult to piece together.
It is because tonight I’ll be jetting off to Serbia to sample what surely is one of the lesser-visited areas of the European continent – Belgrade.
If only Manchester and Liverpool, my local airports, had direct flights there, I would be able to get a train lasting no longer than an hour. Instead I find myself careering down a stretch of motorway heading to Luton on a five-and-a-half-hour excursion where I’ll take a Wizz Air service, for the first time, to eastern Europe.
One might expect I’d have a companion with me, maybe a friend or a group of friends, or perhaps my girlfriend, brother or other acquaintance, especially going somewhere as unfamiliar as Belgrade.
Yet that isn’t the case at all. I am, indeed, flying solo, which is probably why I have enough time to compose this piece, rather than being nagged at for not paying attention to my travel buddy.
Some people may see this as an odd or, at least, an unconventional thing to do and, yes, I’ve heard the counter arguments.
“What if you get ill or hurt and you are on your own in a foreign country?” and “But travelling alone can’t be as fun when you don’t have another person to make memories with!”
To an extent, I subscribe to these views, but there must be times at home when people are alone, or in a secluded area and need help, or suddenly fall ill somehow and need medical care. Sure, there’s a language barrier in a foreign country, but a broken collarbone is a broken collarbone – there’s really no confusing that.
Being alone equating to lack of shareable memories is also another popular theory – the belief that because you don’t have a partner as accompaniment that any memories you create will suddenly be of lesser value – in a similar fashion to the saying “a problem shared is a problem halved.”
I can understand that point of view and I can say with the utmost honesty that I would rather have a travel buddy by my side than go it alone any day of the week.
But what I think the consensus fails to realise is that there are people all over the world to meet, to enjoy the company of and to explore with. We live on a planet with over seven BILLION other people which begs the question – is solo travel even possible?
No matter where you are in the world, one can’t be more than a few miles from the nearest person, save for Earth’s remotest areas which are that way for a reason – climate, terrain, or perhaps they just haven’t been fully discovered and explored yet.
But it’s the unknown that it brings with it, a change in culture, a ramping up of responsibility, a shift in experience that all combine to present an unknown, the fear of which leaves solo travel with a stigma attached to it.
In defence of solo travel, some of the best moments on my travels have been on trips where I’ve gone on my own. One such incident was the Copenhagen pillow fight and preceding night out that I went on with a guy who I’d met about 15 minutes previous – a drink and a game of cards later and we were partying in a supermarket. Yes, that really happened.
I just wouldn’t have ever encountered such an odd, unique and, most importantly, enjoyable experience at home. But because I’d decided to give it a go, I have memories like that to cherish, and they are no worse than travel experiences I’ve shared with friends and family.
Maybe I’m just weird and enjoy my own company too much, but what pushed me to head out on my own is my own ambitions.
I’ve long let it be known that one of my ultimate goals is to visit every country in the world and if I waited for other people to come with me, I’d never get everything done that I want to.
It doesn’t hold me back, and it shouldn’t hold you back either. The fact that I can do things on my own only spurs me on.
But like with any big thing, it starts with the first step. And whether that’s booking a hostel in Barcelona or heading down to Luton on a National Express coach, solo travel is a first step worth taking.
Five tips for wannabe solo travellers
1. Be brave – Yes, it’s a big(ish) and unnerving step to take if you’ve never been away on your own, but it can be extremely rewarding. Me and plenty of other travellers are proof.
2. Stay in a hostel – It’s going to be more difficult to meet people if you stay in a hotel, especially a nice one, so why not try a hostel? By and large you’ll all be in the same boat, and communal areas are a hotbed of social activity. If you don’t fancy sharing a bathroom, or room, then check which hostels offer private rooms. Many do, and you can still benefit from the social aspect of hostel life.
3. Trial it – Going it alone can feel like you’re launching yourself into the deep end, but why not try it in an area of familiarity, or somewhere you’d feel more comfortable heading on your own?
4. Be prepared – Things can go wrong no matter how many people you are with, but always have a contingency plan, particularly if you are a vulnerable person and do research in advance of the trip. Always be vigilant and stay in regular contact with someone from home, just in case.
5. Don’t underestimate the power of Couchsurfing – Couchsurfing can be a great way to meet people from a certain area before you head off, and you can make plans to meet up and get a tour of the city from a real local, or maybe even just go for a drink. Couchsurfing generates social activity and you don’t necessarily have to stay at someone’s house to benefit from their company.