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The Introvert's Guide to Solo Traveling

I am an introvert. That means I prefer calm, minimally stimulating environments and need a lot of time on my own. Being around people makes my energy level deplete faster.

Not all introverts are social-phobic. But I am. That means I get awfully nervous and sometimes have trouble socializing with others, especially if it’s a large group of people (anything more than 2).

So, how do I fare as a solo traveler?

Traveling Solo as an Introvert

For some reason, traveling with someone always makes me feel as though it’s my responsibility to entertain them. If they start yawning or showing signs of boredom, I’d feel like it’s my fault for not being exciting enough, for not engaging them in interesting conversations.

Then, I’d start to think that they regretted choosing me as their travel companion. Which would make me feel down. Which would then make me withdraw even further into my shell. In the end, it wouldn’t be a pleasant experience for either of us.

me and a friend on a road trip in New Zealand
Road trips are especially stressful for me — being confined in a small space with someone and being expected to keep the conversation going the whole ride are a lot of pressure!

So, when I first discovered that traveling abroad on my own was perfectly doable, I was elated. To be honest, I don’t really get it when people think solo traveling is more difficult if you’re an introvert. I think solo traveling was made for introverts.

It’s a no-brainer, really. When I travel solo, I get to be on my own most of the time. I don’t have to talk to anyone if I don’t want to. I don’t have to disappoint anyone for wanting to go somewhere without them. Basically, I can do whatever I want to do, whenever I want to do it, without the pressure to please anyone.

What’s there not to love?

So, if you’re an introvert who’s having doubts about traveling solo because of your personality, my advice is:

Own it!

Yes! Embrace your introverted nature, your love for peace and quiet, and your need for solitude.

In the past, extroverts were seen as an ideal that everyone must aspire to be. Teachers constantly told kids to speak up more in class, to participate more in group activities, and to ask more questions. But now, with eye-opening books like “Quiet” by Susan Cain, and “Introvert Power” by Laurie Helgoe, people are beginning to see that introversion is not a flaw.

There are simply two types of people in this world: those who feel energized by social interaction and those who feel drained by it. And both come with their own strengths and weaknesses.

Introvert extrovert meme
Credit: Medium

When it comes to solo traveling, I think we’re at an advantage. Most people are concerned about getting bored or lonely when traveling alone for so long. They’re also probably worried about going on long flights or bus/train rides where they don’t have anyone to talk to.

Being an introvert, I know that none of these will be a problem to me. I have always loved my own company. In fact, I feel lonelier when I’m in a group of people than when I’m on my own.

That being said, it doesn’t mean that I avoid all kinds of social interaction when I’m traveling. I do make an effort to connect with the locals and other travelers. They actually make my trips more meaningful. But the beauty of solo traveling is that I get to do it on my own terms.

Venture Out of Your Comfort Zone

The fact that you’re willing to travel alone signifies that you’re open to pushing your boundaries. While I’m all for embracing your true nature and doing what’s right for you, I would also encourage people to get out of their comfort zones from time to time.

And I would say this to everyone, regardless of their personality types. Why? Because when you stay in your comfort zone, your brain doesn’t get to rewire itself to become stronger and more adaptable to changes. When you stay in your comfort zone, you miss out on the chance to grow as a person.

Traveling is a character-building experience. Treat it as an opportunity to learn a new skill and try out something that you are not used to doing at home. For introverts, this may mean making friends with the people you meet.

With billions of people in the world, the chances of meeting someone who’s on the same frequency as you are actually pretty high. When you meet people from various cultures and backgrounds, you’ll find that there are so many things you can learn. You might even make lifelong friendships or meet someone who will change your life for the better.

Start Slow

If you have social anxieties like I do, it’s important to not overwhelm yourself, especially in the beginning. Remember that you don’t have to dive in straight away. You don’t have to stay in a party hostel on your first day of solo travel. You don’t have to approach a group of strangers and ask to be friends with all of them.

If you have a hard time communicating or making eye contact with strangers, try it with those who you find less intimidating. Smile and make eye contact with kids. Or babies.

Once you have gained some confidence, take it a step further and interact with people in the service line, e.g. your hotel receptionist, your waiter, or the grocery store cashier.  These are people who are specially trained to be nice to you. So, it’s unlikely that they’ll make you feel snubbed or unwelcome. Smile to them, say thank you, and ask about their day. Service people don’t get as much credit as they deserve. A little kindness will go a long way.

Image result for smiling cashier
Credit: Deposit Photos

And lastly, when you’re ready, go ahead and make friends with other travelers.

But what exactly do you say to them? If you’re social-phobic like me, I know it can be tough to think of conversation starters right off the bat. So, I’ve prepared a list of common questions to ask when meeting other travelers.

  • Where are you from?
  • How long have you been here?
  • How long is your trip?
  • Where are you heading off to next?
  • What are your plans for tonight/tomorrow?
  • Have you been to ________ ? / Have you tried ________? What did you think about it?
  • Is there any restaurant here that you recommend?
  • I’m thinking of going to ________. Would you like to join?
Just try not to sound like an immigration officer and have some answers ready in case they ask you the same questions (they will).

How to Meet People When You're Traveling

Stay in Hostels

First of all, you must get over the misconception that hostels are only for loud, rambunctious people who love to party. Hostels now cater to a wide range of travelers. Some are specifically geared for yogis, artists, nature-lovers, and even bookworms. Choose one that suits you best. Click here to get tips on how to survive your first stay in a hostel.

hostel for bookworms
Book & Bed Tokyo. Credit: TripZilla

Stay with a Local

If you still feel that hostels are a little too much for you, don’t worry — there are lots of other options available. You can stay at small, family-owned guesthouses, for example. Or you might want to give one of these a try:

  • AirbnbA booking platform that lets you stay at people’s homes instead of hotels. You can choose to rent a room or an entire apartment. The advantage of Airbnb in comparison to hotels is that it’s usually cheaper. Plus, you get to experience living like a local. The host may rent out more than one room at a time, so you might also have a chance to meet other travelers. Get USD40 off your first stay if you register using this link.
  • WWOOFStands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. It lets you work on organic farms all over the world in return for food and accommodation. You may or may not be paid for your work. 
Woman working with farm animals
Credit: Farmers Weekly
  • CouchsurfingSimilar to Airbnb but completely free, although you may choose to bring gifts or offer to help around the house. Couchsurfing focuses more on cultural exchange, so be prepared to spend some time with your host. They don’t appreciate freeloaders, i.e. people who use the platform only to get free accommodation. Also, it’s called ‘couch’ surfing for a reason. You might quite literally have to sleep on the couch. Or on the floor. 
  • Host A SisterA Facebook group that is similar in concept to Couchsurfing, but only for girls. However, because it’s not a proper website/app, it’s not as systematic. For instance, you can’t filter search results, check hosts’ references, or read their profiles other than what they post on the group.

Join Classes, Group Tours or Meetups

Between a guided tour and going sightseeing on my own, of course, I would choose the latter. It gives me the freedom to spend as much time as I want at places that I like and skip the ones that I don’t. 

However, there are some activities that are not possible/safe without a guide, and there are some that are simply more fun when done in a group — like going to an interactive museum or a theme park or joining a cooking class. 

Joining tour groups is not as socially demanding as you might expect. You will get to meet people with a common interest, so this already gives you something to bond over. Besides, everyone will be so focused on the task at hand that there will be no excessive group interaction required.

The following is a list of apps and online platforms where you can find activities and tours:

  • Get Your Guide – An online listing of tours and activities around the world. So, instead of blindly booking tours at a tour agency, you get to see ratings and read reviews left by previous customers.
  • KlookSimilar to Get Your Guide. You can also collect points as you book activities and write reviews. Get a RM13 (USD3) voucher when you sign up using this promo code: FFKSC.
Cooking class Krabi
Me, in a cooking class in Krabi
  • Couchsurfing Apart from offering free accommodation, Couchsurfing allows its members to organize free activities and meetups. Although meeting people from the internet doesn’t come without risk, I find it less scary to meet up with someone whose profile you’ve read and whose pictures you’ve seen than to meet a total stranger.
  • Airbnb ExperiencesWhile websites like Get Your Guide and Klook mostly feature tours by tour companies, Airbnb allows locals to earn a side income by organizing small-group activities that they are experts in.

NOTE: I also host an Airbnb Experience in Kuala Lumpur, where I offer my service as a personal guide for solo travelers. If you’re an introvert traveling solo in Kuala Lumpur and feel nervous about joining big tour groups, do hit me up! Click here to book the experience.

Join a Pub Crawl

Going bar-hopping alone in a foreign city can be daunting and possibly unsafe. An organized pub crawl allows you to experience the nightlife minus the worries. Admittedly, it is a much more social activity than the ones mentioned above, as you’re not expected to do anything other than drink and talk. But a glass or two of ‘social lubricant’ will surely loosen you up a little more and make you more receptive toward social interaction. Make sure you choose a reputable organizer.
 
Pub crawl in Sofia Bulgaria
Pub crawl in Sofia, Bulgaria. 2019.

Dining Alone

Working in the service line, my lunch break is usually the only time I get to be alone with my own thoughts. And I don’t appreciate it if anyone tries to take that away from me. So, although I don’t mind the occasional lunch dates and dinner parties, I usually try to find excuses to dine by myself — with a book or my phone for company.

Not until I met other solo travelers did I realize that dining alone was something that people find challenging. They talked about how waiters treated them differently when they asked for a table for one, and how other customers kept staring at them with pity throughout dinner. Wow. This was all news to me!

Image result for eating while reading
Credit: Shutterstock

If you feel self-conscious dining alone for the first time, you might want to choose cafes, fast-food outlets, or casual diners, rather than proper fine-dining restaurants where almost everyone comes with a partner.

Your choice of seat at a restaurant also plays a part. Try to get a seat near the bar or the kitchen. You will have better access to the waitstaff, whom you can talk to if you want. They might even be able to share with you local tips on a particular place you’re visiting.

Alternatively, if you’d like to avoid eating out altogether, try to carry some food in your backpack so that when you need some refueling along the way, you can do so without having to go through the inconvenience of ordering food in a restaurant.

They Don't Know You

If it’s any consolation, just remember that the people you meet on the road don’t know you and will probably never see you again.

In my daily life, although I try as much as I can not to draw attention to myself, there are instances when I do feel like speaking up about something. There are times when I hear a familiar tune in my head and feel like breaking into a song. 

However, I tend to hold myself back when I’m in the presence of my friends or people I know, because I get paranoid about what they might be thinking. Are they secretly laughing at my sudden change of personality? Are they going to make fun of me and keep bringing it up in the future if I make a fool of myself now?

someone being laughed at behind her back
Credit: Tes.com

Just imagine — if a colleague of yours, who’s known to be a serious, quiet, and maybe slightly brooding person, suddenly gets up and dance in front everybody at the company dinner, it would be quite a shock for everyone, wouldn’t it? You’d probably wonder if he’s okay, or if he’s on something. In any case, it would be a hot topic in the office for the next few weeks.

But when you’re traveling alone, if you do something that’s out of character — like start a conversation or tell a joke or anything that you’re not used to doing — nobody is going to bat an eye. They probably think you do it all the time. Heck, you can even reinvent your whole identity if you want! Have some fun with it.

Here’s an idea:

Is there a particular personality trait that you’ve always wished you had? Why not try it for a day? Who would you like to be today? A clown? A storyteller? A leader of the pack? You can do whatever you want and be whoever you want — as long as you don’t break the law or cause inconveniences to others. If it doesn’t work out, take comfort in the fact that you’re not going to see those people again.

This is not to say that you should strive to become someone you’re not. But if you’ve always wanted to experiment, now is the perfect time to do so. The anonymity will give you an extra boost of confidence.

Getting Your "Me" Time

As an introvert, after a full day of socializing and external stimulation, it’s only natural to want to retreat into your shell. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. The key is to keep a balance between interacting with people and spending time by yourself.

Listen to yourself – Remember that it’s in your nature to need some time alone to recharge. You were born with it. So don’t feel bad if you simply can’t get yourself in the mood to go out and do touristy stuff. Listen to yourself. If you can’t stand staying in hostels anymore, move to a private room for a day or two. If you feel like staying in bed or chilling in your favorite hiding spot for the whole day, go ahead and do it. You don’t have to pack your days with activities all the time. Travel is as much about treating yourself as it is about trying new things.

Take your hobbies with you What do you like to do when you’re not traveling? Take them with you on your travels. Bring your Kindle, your sketchpad, or your knitting project. I always bring a paperback with me when I travel so that when I’m done with it, I can leave it at the hostel and take one that another traveler had left behind. As a bonus, when I’m reading a book, people usually get the hint and leave me alone (although not all do).

Woman with sketchpad
Credit: Getty Images

Keep a Journal – When you’re feeling anxious or overwhelmed, a journal can serve as an outlet to express your thoughts. Reading back through it will give you a better understanding about yourself, your emotions, and what triggered them. It’s like going for therapy without having to see a therapist. Not only that — it’s also a great way to document your travels. You can stick ticket stubs, candy wrappers, and other knick-knacks, and turn your journal into a travel scrapbook.

Spend Time in Nature – Whether you’re more of a mountain person or a beach person, take the time to get in touch with nature. Nature has a calming effect on your mind and senses. If you’re traveling in a big city, perhaps you can try to make a short excursion to the countryside or somewhere where you can indulge in some hiking or exploring nature. Be sure to stay safe and inform someone of your whereabouts.

Hang Out in Local Libraries, Parks, and Museum – Find a quiet spot in the local park or pay a visit to libraries, museums, or art galleries. Not only will you get to spend time with yourself somewhere quiet, you’ll also earn extra knowledge.

Bring Dark Sunglasses and Earphones – Sometimes, being in a new place — especially if it’s a busy, hectic place — can easily overstimulate your senses. To create a sense of peace and solitude in a busy space, try to wear dark sunglasses and/or noise-canceling headphones. The sunglasses create a barrier between you and the people around you, while the headphones will block out noise. They also deter strangers from striking up a conversation with you. Just remember to stay alert if you use them in public.

Don't Be Afraid to Speak Up

I can’t even begin to tell you how many wonderful people I’ve met throughout my years as a solo traveler. But then, nothing in this world is perfect. Amidst the beautiful souls I met, it’s impossible not to run into one or two bad apples.

Several times during my travels, I have met people who put me in uncomfortable and unsafe situations. I think my quiet nature had something to do with it. It made me an easy target. The perpetrators assumed — quite rightly — that I would be too timid to make a scene.

I may be wrong, but I think if I had been more talkative, they’d probably have seen me as a human being with feelings, rather than a mute object that they can use to their (sexual) advantage.

Image result for saying no
Credit: Learning Mind

But as I grew older, I learned to be more assertive. I learned to say no — politely but firmly. Always, always put your safety first. Even if you dislike confrontations or displeasing others, trust your gut and say no if you don’t want to do something they ask you to do. You don’t owe anyone an explanation. If the situation calls for a more drastic measure, don’t be afraid to yell or draw attention to yourself. 

In A Nutshell

Contrary to popular beliefs, introverts make for awesome solo travelers — albeit in our own special way. If extroverts enjoy their travels by engaging with the people they meet, we enjoy ours by silently observing and absorbing all the world has to offer.

So, if you’re telling yourself that you shouldn’t travel because you’re shy or socially awkward, you need to stop. Right now. Don’t let your dreams be obscured by the unnecessary barriers that you built for yourself. Remember that courage doesn’t mean that you don’t feel fear — courage means you don’t let that fear stop you.

Posted in Travel tips

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