How solo travel can change your life – for the better

Take a solo holiday and you'll come back with more than just a tan as one woman reveals
Rachell Smith

There was a time when I’d have thought going on holiday on my own was the saddest thing that could happen to me. Would I be safe? Who would I eat dinner with? Would sightseeing even be fun on my own?

That all changed during a work trip to Belfast in May 2011, when a mix-up with my flight home meant an unplanned extra couple of days there. I saw the sights, went on leisurely walks, ate lovely lunches and took long baths. By the last day, something clicked: being alone and away from home was nothing to fear. I packed more into each day and learned so much  about the city because I hadn’t had to compromise on what I wanted to do.

Feeling inspired, I planned my first proper solo walking holiday soon after: I took the sleeper train from London to Glasgow (bonus: I didn’t have to fight anyone for the top bunk!), then picked up a hire car to drive into the mountains. When I reached the top of my biggest climb, the thought that I’d had the confidence to do it alone was incredibly empowering. The solo travel bug had bitten me. Hard.

And I seem to be part of the zeitgeist: one in six of us chose to holiday on our own last year. And it’s not just free-as-a-bird millennials: the biggest increase was among 35-44 year olds. Why are we ditching our mates/partners for solitary sunbathing? More than 76% say it’s so they can do whatever they want, and I couldn’t agree more. With work, social life and family to juggle, when do we get that kind of freedom?

The benefits don’t end there: studies have also found that, unsurprisingly, travelling alone can help boost our confidence and make us more independent, and self-reliant. Plus, a little solitude may help unleash inner creativity, thanks to having the headspace for new ideas. Does that whet your appetite? Here’s how to kill the doubt and get packing that suitcase for one.

The fear shutdown

While Gemma Thompson, the writer and podcaster behind Girls That Travel, thrives on the freedom of travelling alone, she knows that many people might be worried about loneliness. ‘Remember that those feelings tend to be fleeting,’ she says. ‘If you do feel down, there’s no shame in phoning or FaceTiming a friend.’

Then there’s fear of the unknown. ‘I do a lot of research beforehand,’ she explains. ‘I make sure my hotel is in a safe area. I even take a look at the neighbourhood on Google Street View. I check out the best times of the day to visit the sights and the proximity of the best restaurants to where I’m staying, and I learn a few words of the local language.’

Of course, being prepared logistically is one thing, but things can – and probably will – go wrong. Sally Barker, a therapist based in London, advises leaving your fear of failure and perfectionist ways at home. ‘Don’t put pressure on yourself to enjoy every single second of your trip,’ she says. ‘Accept that there will be some days when you struggle, whether it’s with loneliness or an issue with a sightseeing tour you’ve booked. And that’s perfectly OK.’ Gemma adds: ‘I’ve recently accepted that I’ll get anxious before every trip, but that’s part of the experience. Once I arrive, those nerves start to ease off.’

You can also lay some foundations for on-the-road friendships. ‘Arrange to meet up with like-minded people while you’re away: you can put a shout-out on Facebook or Instagram,’ Gemma says. The online travel club Thelma & Louise is great for connecting with fellow solo-cationers and has lots of useful tips, too.


"Travelling alone can help boost our confidence and make us more independent, and self-reliant"

In sickness and in health

Of course, staying healthy is important when travelling, but it takes on more significance if you’re alone. I learned the hard way after a miserable experience with a tummy bug on a solo beach holiday to Malaysia, where I spent a couple of days alone in my hotel, feeling dreadful. I’ve since learned to pop an antibacterial gel in my bag when I’m out and about (and may not have access to hand-washing facilities) to use after touching things.

Clearly, common illnesses like that aren’t always avoidable, but as far-flung holidays can put you at risk of more serious woes, I make sure I get health advice beforehand. ‘As there are potentially hundreds of serious diseases you can pick up, it’s important to ideally seek travel health advice at least six to eight weeks beforehand, to discuss any medication (including antimalarials) or vaccinations you might need, as some require a course,’ says Boots pharmacist Scot Taylor. (To book an appointment with the Boots Travel Vaccinations And Health Advice Service††, go to Boots Travel Health)

Scot also advises packing a first-aid kit containing items such as insect repellent, sunscreen, plasters and antihistamine tablets. I wish I’d followed this advice when I went to a music festival in Holland. I was attacked by mosquitoes, and the bites swelled up to the size of golf balls. Trying to translate the treatment labels in a Dutch chemist wasn’t my idea of fun!

Before setting off, don’t forget travel insurance (try Boots Travel Insurance), and check out Travel Health Pro, which offers travel health and safety advice, listed by destination and condition. In case of a medical emergency abroad, call your insurer (there should be an international number on the policy) or the British Consul.

The world’s your oyster

The odd disaster aside, travelling on my own has been truly liberating and life-changing. I’ve been able to see places and do things that friends and family weren’t interested in trying, such as a road trip to the Outer Hebrides and visiting Florence in midwinter.

Naturally, this has really increased my confidence – and resilience – in all areas of life. Hell, if I can negotiate a tricky parallel-parking manoeuvre on a busy street in Tuscany, with cars beeping and drivers shouting, a minor flare-up in the office is no big deal! ‘And because you’ve tested yourself and found out you can do these things, it’ll influence how you put yourself forward for future opportunities,’ Sally adds.

And she’s right. I was so invigorated by how well I’d coped during my solo walking trip to Scotland that, when I was offered a new job not long after, I negotiated a higher salary – something I’d never have had the courage to do before. Since becoming a ‘solo-cationer’ the world has opened up to me in ways I never thought it would. And I love every minute of being able to explore it my way.

1. It’s your best friend’s birthday party and you’re running late. So you:

2. Your boss wants you to write and lead a big presentation tomorrow. Do you:

3. You’re choosing a paint colour to redecorate your bedroom. Your approach is to:

4. You’re cat-sitting your neighbours’ moggy. You…

5. You’ve got a garden for the first time ever. You decide to:

What’s your travel personality?
Mostly As: Overthinker
The good news? You’re the ‘preparation queen’, so you’ll be a responsible solo traveller. But you can get caught up in worrying about the worst-case scenario. ‘You need to accept that things might go wrong and you can’t control everything,’ says therapist Sally Barker. ‘Be flexible and open to recommendations from staff and fellow travellers while away, and don’t be afraid to try new things.’ Read Calm The F*ck Down by Sarah Knight (Quercus), a great guide on how to let go.
Mostly Bs: Ditherer
You can be indecisive and hesitant, ‘so a trip alone can really help you with confidence and assertiveness, which will, in turn, help you become more decisive,’ says Sally. ‘Just choosing a nice, local café where you feel comfortable eating on your own can be a huge step.’
Mostly Cs: Daredevil
Your devil-may-care attitude can be a positive trait, but travelling alone is not the time to wing it. ‘You can still be adventurous, but a bit of forward planning can help make your experience not just smoother, but more enjoyable,’ explains Sally. ‘You have limited time on holiday, so it won’t hurt to check, for instance, that places will be open; you’ll be able to get there; you can afford it; and you’ll be safe!’
†workingonthebody.com ††Suitable for adults and children over the age of 2 years; eligibility criteria apply; subject to specially trained pharmacist and stock availability; charges apply
Photography Rachell Smith, Styling Emma Bigger, Make-up Lan Nguyen-Grealis, Hair Alex Price, Model Salwa at Zone Models