Travel is often uncomfortable, and you know what?
That’s okay. It’s supposed to be.
There are, of course, the vacations you take in order to have fun, unwind, relax and have a drink on the beach. There are family trips and trips with friends that can be relaxing or challenging in their own ways.
But the kind of discomfort I want to discuss today is the kind you encounter when you board a plane, alone, to a completely foreign country.
This discomfort comes in the form of a pendulum’s swing, an emotional roller coaster veering from elation and joy to depression and anxiety, often flinging you from one extreme to the other with no identifiable catalyst.
The challenge this poses to the solo traveler is not to be underestimated. Such drastic mood swings can be frustrating at best and trip-ending at the worst.
So what’s a traveler to do?
1. Know yourself
Be aware of what is valuable to you. What will you miss? What will you be excited about? If you are the kind of person who is very outgoing and social, don’t plan a solo trip where you stay by yourself in a hotel all week. Stay at a hostel, go to local events and meetups (you can use meetup.com or use Airbnb’s experience feature), or just go to a bar and chat with the locals. See if anyone from your hometown has a friend overseas they could connect you with.
If you are more of an introvert, know that. Maybe you’re staying in a hostel or with a friend or family member, and that’s fine, but make sure you give yourself a little time to breathe. If you really can’t give yourself a ton of time, at least take a moment in the shower to enjoy the quiet, to breathe and center yourself. Or get up 20 minutes earlier and go on a short walk- that adds the bonus of being able to check out your new surroundings!
On the flip side, seek out those experiences you enjoy. Don’t do whatever seems cool or popular, do what YOU want to do. I’m going to Paris in a couple months and although on my last trip there, I checked out all the touristy things, my only desire this trip is to spend some time writing in small cafes, walking around to see the city, and reading anywhere with a view. This might seem boring to some but I’ve learned that this is one of my favorite ways to become immersed in a foreign city.
2. Expect to be emotional
Traveling can throw a lot at you. Your senses are heightened because everything is new and your brain is trying to make sense of it all. As a result, a lot of strong emotions can come from out of the blue. You might be exuberant one moment, but then you see something vaguely familiar, or are challenged in some way (losing a train ticket, mispronouncing something, not understanding the grocery store)… and just like that you are miserable and wish you’d never left home.
There are a couple things you can do to offset these moments. First, remember to breathe in the moment. It’s easy to get stressed about little issues when you’re on the road, but a lot harder to solve them if you’re all worked up about it. Remember that you are capable, you are going to be fine, and then get to work solving whatever is going on. If you are lost, ask somebody for help. Miming often works when you don’t speak the language. People are generally kind and willing to help.
If you’re lonely, let yourself feel it, but again- breathe and then work on putting yourself together. Don’t lay around in your Airbnb looking at pictures of your hometown. Get out and explore. Remember why you are traveling. I doubt it was because you wanted to lay low and feel sorry for yourself.
If you really miss something, remember that you can always go back home. Just don’t let your emotions control your experience. Make a plan for what to do when you’re down- use that time to do something quiet and refreshing, like a hike or walk in a beautiful park. Use your energized moments to get out and do the louder things, the ancient structures and city centers.
Remember that however you feel, it will pass, and it doesn’t mean you should give up on your travels. Just be smart.
3. Do it anyway
Once you understand that you will feel down and out of sorts or elated and joyous in turn, you have much more control over your experience. Knowing yourself and how you react so different situations is powerful, and travel will teach you that.
You will be uncomfortable.
But when you return you will have changed.
You will know what you can deal with, from being lost, losing your passport, realizing how much you miss having a home and being around so-and-so, etc. You’ll also have witnessed some of the world’s beauty, seen how other people live their lives and connected yourself to something greater than yourself.
You will have a much harder time learning all these things without the inherent discomfort of traveling solo.
So do it.
Get out of your comfort zone.
Explore the world.