Five reasons to take a solo trip this year

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In the not-too-distant past, there seemed to be a stigma against solo travelers, especially nomads of the female variety. But then came The Blonde Abroad, Alex in Wanderland, Anna Everywhere, Globetrotter Girls and a whole host of other brave, blogging trailblazers…and suddenly, to a new generation of travelers, striking out on one’s own didn’t seem so scary after all.

If you thought solo traveling was only for lone wolves, photographers or teens taking a gap year, think again—it’s for anyone who wants to see the world and isn’t afraid of a little self-discovery along the way.

Here are 5 reasons why you don’t need a companion to take that dream trip.

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It’s your party; you can lounge by that Vegas pool if you want to.

Reason #1: Your schedule is totally up to you.

If you’ve ever traveled with a companion, you know what it feels like to get frustrated when the two of you fall out of sync. Maybe, on a previous trip, you’d have preferred to check out the 6 a.m. cafe scene in a new city had your spouse not been more amenable to sleeping in. Or perhaps you’d have liked to take your time exploring that museum over the course of a whole day, but your friend insisted on sprinting through two more museums before noon.

When you travel alone, you’ll never have to run on any schedule but your own. Celebrate freedom of choice by taking that mid-afternoon nap you wish you could have taken on your last trip. Or, once your feet start to hurt, don’t hesitate to loiter on a park bench and people watch rather than bravely soldiering on for the sake of your companion. Where you go and what you do is completely and totally up to you…no more compromises!

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Perks of traveling alone: no one’s there to complain about the Friday night museum line.

Reason #2: You can follow your heart.

When you travel alone, not only is your schedule yours alone, but it’s also free from any outside social pressure. When I visited New York for the first time on a solo trip, I had no desire to see the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building or Times Square, and I wanted to keep things as simple and cheap as possible. Had I traveled with someone else, I may have felt obligated to visit these NYC hallmarks and splurge on a nice hotel room. But because I was alone, I didn’t hesitate to reserve a bunk at a centrally-located hostel or to follow my heart to funkier, lesser-known locales like the Cloisters in Inwood, a gritty, greasy diner on the Lower East Side and a used designer clothing shop in NoLiTa.

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Backpacking with new friends in Trieste.

Reason #3: You’ll meet cool new people.

While part of the allure of solo travel is the alone time it affords you, sometimes it’s nice to get out of your own head and strike up a conversation with someone new. Traveling solo is the perfect way to meet interesting new people, especially other solo travelers your age.

Think of the world like a high school cafeteria: When you’re a new student, you’re more likely to walk up to a friendly-looking table of one instead of the boisterous group of popular kids. In the same vein, when you travel with someone else, strangers are less likely to approach you (and sometimes that can be a good thing…see: creepers). But when you’re alone, other travelers will find you less intimidating and more approachable.

If you want to make friends but have concerns about aforementioned creepers, your best bet will be to stay in casual environments where you’ll be surrounded by lots of people, like pubs, museums, low-key concerts and popular parks. Open your mind, take off your sunglasses and flash your pearly whites.

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Reflecting from a canoe on the 4th of July.

Reason #4: You’ll learn to depend on yourself.

When you’re alone and you get a splitting headache, you can’t stay under the covers at the hotel while your companion runs to the drug store. When you lose your passport, no one else is there to help you find the nearest embassy and navigate the complicated waters of international bureaucracy. While that may sound somewhere between daunting and downright terrifying—and to be honest, it is, at least in the moment—it’s also hugely educational. Those mini (and maxi) crises you face alone become defining moments in your life, moments you can point to and say, “That’s when I really became an adult,” or, “That’s when I overcame my biggest fear.”

When you weather storms by yourself, you feel like a total confident badass…like you literally CAN take on the world. And—bonus!—you usually get a great story out of it.

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Exploring my own backyard.

Reason #5: You’ll get to know yourself better than ever before.

Comments from friends with whom I’d traveled in the past made me think my travel preferences skewed heavily toward arts, culture and snobbery. While I won’t deny that I love a night at the symphony, traveling alone made me realize some of my preferences were less upper-crust and more serflike. Now, when I explore a new destination, I know to create loose itineraries that combine the high-class with the lowbrow. If I were in Paris, I might don a sundress and spend the morning at the D’Orsay, spend lunch on the Seine with a grocery store baguette and a juice box of wine, and change into ripped jeans for a night at a hole-in-the-wall hangout in the Latin Quarter.

Finding your unique style as a traveler is great, but even better are the discoveries you make about yourself as a person when you’re on the road. Traveling alone allows you to discover your limits, physically and emotionally, and sometimes put them to the test. It illuminates your strengths and establishes your weaknesses. I’ve never felt more self aware than at the end of a solo trip.

Have you traveled alone? What tips would you give to aspiring solo wanderers?

 

Five cities that surprised me

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Travel is a funny thing. You can stare at guidebooks until your contacts dry out and you can consult Google maps for days on end, but try as you might, there’s no way to fully prepare for what’s ahead. No matter what, you’ll get lost, you’ll overestimate your energy level, and you’ll get caught in a surprise downpour without raingear. And at least once in your life, you’ll misread the timetable, find out the next train doesn’t arrive until 1 a.m., and spend the next few hours on an uncomfortable bench nibbling vending machine food and using your backpack as a pillow.

Unexpected moments like these can make or break a vacation, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. Here, I share a few stories of cities that exceeded–or didn’t meet–my expectations.

 

Paris

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Before I visited Paris, I heard a few less-than-flattering anecdotes from friends that convinced me I’d find the French capital dirty, crowded and underwhelming. In a way, I’m glad I flew into Charles de Gaulle Airport one October morning with such low expectations. I’ve never been so pleasantly surprised!

Back in Italy, my study-abroad friends and I felt a little like the fates were already conspiring to make our trip to Paris terrible. The forecast called for constant rain, and there were so few hostel options left in the weeks before our departure that we took a huge security risk and booked a place in the Latin Quarter that didn’t offer storage lockers–something I’d never recommend to anyone. And yet, the moment we emerged from the underground Metro, I felt like I was living out an Edith Piaf song.

Everywhere we went, magical things happened. We made fast friends with our hostel bunkmates and spent a memorable night with them at a perfectly Parisian hole-in-the-wall student hangout down the street. One relentlessly cloudy morning on Ile de la Cité, we rounded a corner just in time to see clouds parting poetically above the majestic Notre Dame. In the suspiciously empty Louvre, I had the Code of Hammurabi and Venus de Milo to myself for minutes on end. We got to Versailles three hours before the inside of the palace opened, and it was the happiest accident we could have made: the royal grounds were so vast and beautiful that we lost track of time exploring them.

I could write rapturously about so much more–every plaza, every sidewalk cafe, all the incredible and affordable prix fixe restaurants–and maybe I will when I return someday.

What I learned: Go to Paris in October. Most of the tourists are gone, and the city is somehow even more beautiful when it rains.

Venice

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For years and years growing up, I dreamed of visiting Venice. The bright colors, majestic palaces, tiny canals and romantic narrow streets looked so unreal in pictures. I’m a little ashamed to admit how major a factor Venice was in my desire to study Italian in college. I spent so long idealizing the place that a letdown was almost inevitable.

I really, really hated my first trip to Venice. I went with two friends on a rainy Sunday in September, and the entire city center was so clogged with tourists and day-tripping Italian families that it was hard to see anything around me. There were long lines everywhere–at major attractions, restaurants, even stores selling Murano glass jewelry. After having spent a month studying in an authentic Italian town, Venice felt less authentically Italian than a Spaghetti Factory…and a heck of a lot more expensive.

The whole experience was so disheartening that I used the next day’s class assignment as an excuse to rant about it.

Unfortunately, the next time I found myself in Venice was the night before my departure from Italy. To prepare for our upcoming flight out of Marco Polo Airport, everyone in my cohort got a hotel room for the night in nearby Mestre and decided to venture into the lagoon for dinner. Without the rain and summertime crowds, wandering through the cobblestoned alleys in a less central part of town was pure magic. I kicked myself for spending so long nursing a grudge against Venice, the city that had been only an hour’s train ride away for a whole semester.

What I learned: If I ever go back to Venice, I’ll do it right. I’ll make sure I spend the night there so I can see its magic without the crowds. I’ll build a ton of wandering time into my trip and get lost on purpose. And I will never, ever visit on a Sunday.

 

New York City

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Last year, I decided to take my very first trip to the East Coast. I’d always wanted to visit New York City, and I figured I’d come away from my five days there with the same opinion a lot of my friends hold: that while New York is a wonderful place to visit, I’d never be able to live somewhere so large and loud.

Boy, was I wrong.

How did I manage to fall in love with a city so expensive that I spent most of my nights bunking with 18-year-old boys in a hostel? So humid that I risked ejection from the U.S. Open stadium hopping between shady seats that weren’t mine? So crowded that I couldn’t find a single free seat to watch the Oregon game at the only Ducks bar in town?

I’m still not sure. The world-class art certainly had something to do with it: At the Metropolitan Museum, I had as many legendary pieces to myself as I did at the Louvre. (Do I just have good museum luck?) The surprising plethora of free activities, from Central Park to window shopping to the High Line to free Fridays at MoMA, played a role too. So did the huge selection of food from all over the world, from Jamaica to Yemen to Cambodia.

But what captivated me most about New York had nothing to do with its most legendary sights. It was the way I felt walking down the street. Even in my stretched-out shorts and sweaty cardigan, wandering around New York made me feel like I could take on the world. Knowing I might be strolling down the same cobbled lanes as legends like Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand and Henry James once did was thrilling. Even though its poetic old alleys and grimy brick facades may now be home to more millionaire movie stars than immigrant tenements, it’s still America’s Melting Pot, and it still pulses with infectious energy.

What I learned: I could totally live in New York…if I won the lottery.

 

Vancouver

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When I moved to Seattle, I discovered that most Pacific Northwesterners know and love Vancouver. But I can attest that people in my home state of California have little interest in British Columbia’s largest city. Its metro area is home to more than 2 million people, yet before I lived in Seattle, I knew it to be nothing more than an affordable filming location.

Those two decades of ignorance were my loss. Vancouver boasts fantastic ethnic food, stunning views, beautiful parks and so much more.

In a handful of weekend trips over the last six years, I’ve discovered that pretty much anyone can enjoy Vancouver–including people who hate cities! Backpacking college students will find fantastic, cheap and authentic ethnic food in almost every neighborhood, and they can party the night away on Granville Street, which turns into an energetic pedestrian mall on the weekends. Couples looking for a quiet weekend escape can the explore wild, forested Stanley Park, take in world-class museums and performances on the UBC campus and discover quaint ethnic bodegas and cafes in Kitsilano. Solo travelers will find anonymous company on Granville Island, a huge farmers’ market with endless gastronomic curiosities and tourists from all over the world. Hikers can take on the Grouse Grunt, one of the steepest schleps out there, and they’ll be rewarded with a jaw-dropping view and a complimentary gondola ride back down. And I’ve only just scratched the surface!

What I learned: It’s never a good idea to write a city off just because you haven’t heard much about it.

 

Budapest

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I traveled to the capital of Hungary in 2008, before the age of Pinterest and career travel bloggers. At that time, the internet yielded curiously little information about the city. My travel buddy and I found a few key sights to check out, but we weren’t sure what to expect. I wasn’t so clueless about lesser-known Eastern Europe to believe the scene from “Eurotrip” was right on the money, but I admit I had vague images of unattractive concrete buildings, crumbling train stations and miserable weather.

Ironically, my travel buddy and I experienced all of the above during our three-day trip. But for every time-worn train station, there was a mind-blowing museum or a magnificent tiled roof. Next door to every midcentury monstrosity, we encountered an awe-inspiring synagogue or an intricate sandcastle come to life. And frankly, we weren’t too upset when temperatures dropped or the rain began to pour, because it meant we could duck our heads into one of the city’s many beautifully ugly ruin bars for some warming stew and beer.

I like to think that Budapest is the new Prague, which used to be Europe’s premier unpolished jewel. Prague is still unbelievably beautiful, but the crowds have descended and much of the city has been sanitized for the visitors’ benefit. But in Hungary’s largest city, charming seediness and urban grit are still as prevalent as old-world grandeur and cute shops selling handmade lace. If you’re the kind of traveler who doesn’t mind visiting a museum that houses world-class art but doesn’t translate its guides to English, or if you’d sooner grab a drink in a not-quite-converted warehouse than in a sleek new lounge, Budapest is the destination for you.

What I learned: Hungarian is one of the coolest and most confusing languages I’ve ever tried to speak.

New York City’s great pretenders

Carrie Bradshaw proudly dines alone.

Carrie Bradshaw proudly dines alone.

Most people have vivid memories of their first moments in New York City. Famous authors remember the feeling of hopping into an airport cab and crossing the Queensboro Bridge, the whole island of Manhattan laid out before their eyes. Broadway actors reminisce about emerging from underground for the first time to encounter an exhilarating crush of people, lights, and billboards.

My first New York moment happened somewhere unlikely.

The day I landed at JFK, it was 90 degrees outside, and my West Coast sensibilities weren’t prepared for the high humidity. The hellish conditions were even worse below ground, and as I waited for a train to Flushing Meadows, the straps of my heavy backpack were slipping from sweat.

But what I remember first and foremost about that inaugural moment in New York was the six-foot man immediately to my left, also drenched in sweat, who suddenly burst out into soulful song:

Oh, yes, I’m the great pretender
Pretending that I’m doing well
My need is such I pretend too much
I’m lonely but no one can tell

Yes, I’m the great pretender
Just laughin’ and gay like a clown
I seem to be what I’m not, you see
I’m wearing my heart like a crown

Look, I’m no idiot. I know people perform for money all the time in the Subway, and I know because I witnessed more than five such performances in as many days. Most of the music was cheesy mariachi or badly-tuned barbershop, and the clear target was some clueless, wide-eyed tourist who didn’t know to avert his eyes and keep a straight face.

But at this particular Subway platform, in the heart of an immigrant neighborhood in Queens, no one around me wore track shoes or Jansport backpacks or I ♥ NY paraphernalia. I appeared to be the sole luggage-bearer and non-commuter. And that singer? I believed him.

Just an hour into my stay in New York, I’d already bought into a tired cliché, the idea that all the city’s inhabitants were secretly lonely. I imagined they were all great pretenders, happy and thriving from without but isolated islands from within. This was my romantic first impression of New York, and I suspect it stemmed from preconceived notions.

Luckily for me, New York was hell-bent on proving me wrong.

Good morning, Santa Cruz…er, Brooklyn.

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The city dealt its first blow at a cafe in Brooklyn the next morning. The Jamaican barista took my coffee order and then stopped mid-pour. “Wait,” she said. “Are you related to someone who lives near here?” I shook my head and said sorry, no. “It’s weird. I have a friend who works two blocks away and she looks exactly like you. She said her sister was in town, so I thought…”

Even after I correctly identified myself as a visitor and stranger, the conversation continued…for five minutes. I learned about her family and she learned about my life. We chatted about the weather. Then, a regular customer came in and the barista introduced us.

If this had happened in Seattle or Boulder, I’d have found it exceedingly odd. In places where I’ve lived, baristas–sane ones, anyway–do not launch into conversations with perfect strangers. Sometimes, they barely have two words to say to regulars. For such a small-town moment to occur in a city of 8.5 million was baffling to me.

And yet these moments kept repeating themselves.

A live sketch artist at a Panamanian jazz concert. HOW COOL IS THAT

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That night, at a jazz concert near Lincoln Center, a stranger told me his life story and invited me to a friend’s dinner party in Brooklyn the next day. Nearby, a college student and a retired man who had never met were learning the tango together.

On a Saturday morning in Soho, a shopkeeper walked up to me and smoothed out a wrinkle in my shirt without a word of warning or a “May I?”, something even my close friends might never think to do.

I love these cool old streets.

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The clincher was a moment at The Central Bar, an Irish pub near NYU. I’d stopped in to catch the Oregon football game, and I wasn’t surprised to find a small group of men in the neighboring booth rooting loudly for the opposition. When they found out I was an Oregon fan, they tossed a little bit of good-natured heckling my way. But after a tense moment on the field and a bad play on my team’s part, I was stunned when a couple of them made a conciliatory “O” with their hands and offered to buy me a beer.

I’d been in New York for three days, and I had to admit that so far I felt neither lonely nor overwhelmed by crowds. (Granted, I may have felt differently had I ventured into Times Square.) In this place that I always assumed was its own ungovernable living organism, I found that I could completely control my social experience by deciding where, when, and how I traveled. During the day, I chose to visit tourist haunts early in the morning and at lunchtime; I felt as if I had whole sections of Central Park and the Met to myself. Later, I gravitated toward popular nightlife neighborhoods, and the teeming sidewalks insulated me from loneliness and danger.

It's still 80 degrees in Boulder, but I'm SO ready for fall…

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One night, I grabbed dinner with a friend who said she’d long ago abandoned her fear of dining out alone. Now, I could see why: in most restaurants, the unrelenting energy (and yes, friendliness!) will seep into your skin, dissolving your misgivings in a matter of minutes.

Why is it that being alone in New York City feels so right, when elsewhere people seem to run in pairs or not at all? On my last night here, I went out solo to Highlands in the West Village and mulled the question over.

A little bit of Scotland in the Village. I think this is my favorite street in the city.

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I thought of all the people I knew, scattered across the country and the world. For the most part, those who now live in small towns are married, and they moved there because they were offered specific jobs. In contrast, most of those who now live in cities moved there before they’d found work or love.

Most of my city friends arrived in their respective cities as islands, single and without many connections. With time, they all found work and friends. Many of them found partners and got married, too; many more still thrive as singletons, both socially and professionally. While in some places life as an unmarried 30-year-old may be difficult–Utah, Idaho, parts of Colorado–it certainly isn’t in New York City. Statistics show that 42 percent of women and 47 percent of men here have never been married. Furthermore, New Yorkers are among the least likely to get married by age 26.

If you’re single in New York, you’re in good company. If you’re dining alone in a restaurant on a Tuesday night, you are far from the only one. If you’re attending a free jazz concert by yourself, there’s a 99.9 percent chance you’ll find company in someone else who’s doing the same thing.

Had to come down here.

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I’d been tricked into believing the big city was full of isolated islands, but I was only half right. New York is, indeed, full of islands, so many that they form an amicable archipelago too large even for Dubai’s developers to duplicate. New York is a big city that’s really just a giant collection of small towns, each one filled with people who are perfectly content to coexist alone together.

Now, when I return to the memory of that soulful, sweaty man on the Subway platform in Queens, I laugh to myself. If he could convince a cynic like me that he was lonely, I guess he really is The Great Pretender.