‘Table for one, please.’ Stroll into a bustling restaurant on a Friday night in a foreign city and it’s unlikely these words will be greeted with anything but irritation and disappointment from the waiter on duty. Cue sideways glances from your fellow (partnered) diners, and before long you’ll be seated facing an empty chair. Or, if you’re lucky, on a perch in singles’ corner. Life isn’t easy for the solo traveller. Even after stomaching expensive taxis, painful single supplements and that all-but-guaranteed middle seat on the plane, we’re socially wired to view this sort of travel as outside of the norm. But if you can survive the initial discomfort, the rewards can be plentiful, providing a rare opportunity to engage with the world on your terms – and embrace a good kind of self-indulgence.
After all, solo travel places you in control, and outside of your comfort zone. At the centre of this is the complete authority you can impose. Want to depart a day early or extend your visit, go snorkelling or jump out of a plane? It’s your choice. You’re able to slow or increase the pace to focus on how you feel and what you want to do. This sort of self-care serves as a vitalising antidote to the pressing obligations that hound our everyday lives, allowing a necessary distance to take stock and self-reflect. Oh, and let’s not forget the joy of having a king-size hotel bed all to yourself.
This sort of deliberate aimlessness isn’t easy, it’s a skill. It takes practice to master, but you’ll soon be rewarded with the deep pleasures of distraction and the excitement of getting lost. Even though travelling alone can seem daunting, it can help us learn ‘how to become who we are’, as the psychologist Thomas Dumm suggests. ‘For being alone is not only the worst we can experience; it is also the inevitable moment of some of our greatest experiences.’ Once you accept solitude, the unexpected experiences will follow, as I encountered during a recent solo trip to Japan.
On a cold evening just before Christmas last year, I stumbled across a small music bar in the Shianbashi district of Nagasaki. I paid a cover charge of about 2,500 yen to enter (approximately £20) in exchange for a seat at a long table and a whisky highball. The interior was opaque with smoke, its walls plastered with faded vinyl LP covers and black and white prints. At the front was a stage with a guitarist, a stool and a microphone. Trying to make sense of the scene, I watched as the bar’s half-dozen patrons took it in turns to perform a song.
I left in the early hours with an assortment of new friends and a mosaic of memories, plus a healthy dash of humiliation from my own (awful) performances. These experiences are only possible when we embrace the unexpected. Our lack of familiar companionship facilitates a receptiveness to others, allowing for fleeting encounters with locals or fellow travellers. There’s an electrifying strangeness to these runins, as we venture far from our comfort zone. These experiences are more accessible than ever. Previously the remit of ‘gap-yah’ students and backpackers, solo travel is now creeping into the mainstream. For example, with many hotels now offering rooms that provide the same quality delivered in more compact – and cheaper – form, it’s now easy to travel alone without compromising on style and comfort.
And numbers of solo explorers are growing. According to a recent report by ABTA, 15 per cent of travellers took a trip by themselves last year – up from 12 per cent in 2017 and just six per cent in 2011. It’s no surprise, then, to find that 76 per cent of respondents claimed the main reason for travelling alone is the freedom to do as they please. For all its benefits, travelling with others is always going to be fraught with compromise. Now, I’m not about to suggest that we ditch companions forever; there is, of course, a time and place for all manner of trips. But consider a selfish escape as the opportunity to travel as an uncompromising version of yourself, entirely present in your destination. And who knows? Perhaps you’ll come back ever so slightly altered, as I did.
Four tips for planning a solo trip
Pick your destination carefully: Big, busy cities can seem alienating, but public transport and an inspiring range of things to do can make life easier. Plus, you’re likely to never be far from another solo explorer. Japan’s major cities have a counter-dining culture and accommodation options ideal for those travelling alone.
Make the most of technology:
International roaming and translation apps have made solo travel easier than ever. Break through language barriers with the help of apps like iTranslate (itranslate.com
) and TripLingo (triplingo.com
). Connect and meet with likeminded travellers via platforms such as SoloTraveller (solotravellerapp.com
Stay local: While hotels can be a great way to meet fellow travellers, staying in family-run properties or homesharing allows you to immerse yourself and connect with a local community. You may be surprised at how willing people are to help you and introduce you to new and exciting experiences
Record your experiences: Travelling alone is a really great opportunity to record all your thoughts for posterity. Keep a diary of your exploits – the planned as well as the unexpected – to remember this special time.