I’ve been at this solo travel a while now – in fact, last week marked five years since I quit my job as a lawyer and set off on a one-year adventure that still hasn’t come to an end.
And along with the highs of travelling solo, of which there have been many, there are still times when I’m consumed by an overwhelming sense of loneliness.
Yesterday was a perfect example: it was 9 p.m. in Montreal and I was wandering the streets looking for something to eat, yet I couldn’t make a decision because everywhere I looked there were couples, families and groups of friends. And then there was me. At that moment in time, I felt like the only person in the world who was on their own. And then the chatter in my head started: “loser”, “look at you, all alone and all these people out with friends and loved ones – all the things you don’t have that.”
Of course, none of this chatter is true. I’m going out on a limb and saying anyone who’s strummed up the courage to take a solo trip is by definition not a loser. Also, most of us have someone somewhere who loves us. And, were it not for the thousands of miles we’ve taken ourselves away from them, those people would love to join us for a chat or a hug.
But it’s hard to grasp those logical thoughts when we’re feeling lonely. And it can be even harder to admit out loud that we’re going through a bout of loneliness – because isn’t that the most ungrateful thing in the world when we’re on an epic journey, to feel glum? Plus, loneliness is embarrassing, right? It’s a sign of failure?
So, instead of dealing with your loneliness out in the open, you probably turned to the anonymity of Google and found yourself here. The good news is, I have some insights to share. After 5 years of travelling alone, here’s what’s worked for me when I feel lonely travelling alone.
Tend to your basic needs first
First things first, tend to your basic needs and see if that solves things.
When we’re hungry, thirsty, cold, tired or in pain it’s easy for those basic needs to snowball into something bigger. Last night I was a combination of hungry, thirsty and tired and when I look back at my lonely feelings now, I realise I needed nothing more than a huge bite of something to eat and several hours’ worth of bonding with my bed.
Sit for a minute and listen to your body – what is it asking for? Over the chatter of your brain telling you you’re a loser for feeling lonely (or that you’ll never connect with another human being again), it can be hard to hear our physical needs.
If you’re in so much of a funk that you can’t see straight, try to treat your physical needs anyway – grab a bite, drink a pint of water (or beer), have a nice shower and a lie down.
Feel better? Great – write yourself a note: “I don’t feel lonely, I’m [hungry/tired/etc] and pin it to your forehead for next time.
Still feeling lonely, read on.
Your loneliness is a figment of your brain (that, apparently, hates you)
Being alone is a physical thing, but feeling lonely is an emotion that comes from your brain. Think about that for a minute and then revel in the knowledge that you’re able to change both of these states – the physical and the emotional.
Let’s start with the brain first, because that’s something we supposedly have 100% control over (though if you have actually managed to 100% control your brain, click off this article and go write a book – trust me, you’ll sell it for billions and will never had a lonely minute again). It’s time to step back and have a long, hard, objective stare at the situation.
Be rational – look at the bigger picture
If you’re part way through a longer trip, think about your trip so far. The chances are you’ve already met some amazing people and although they’re not with you now and your present state of being alone is taunting you into thinking you’ll never meet anyone else ever again, that’s simply not true. It’s statistics: with over 7 billion people in the world, you’re going to meet someone you connect with eventually… and it most likely going to happen sooner than you think.
If you’re so down in the dumps you can barely remember the good times, get out your photos – they’ll jog your memory and have the benefit of not being able to lie.
Have a chat with your inner chatter
Most of us are our own worse enemy and when our minds get into a cycle of berating ourselves for being alone, it only makes us feel more lonely. If that’s happening to you, it’s time to have a chat with your inner chatter. If you’ve ever walked into a hostel common room or bar or shopping mall and struck up a conversation with a stranger, you’ve already achieved what your brain is telling you that you can’t currently do.
Regardless of what your mean brain says, I’m telling you objectively that you’re an amazing, brave and adventurous soul who is doing what many people want to do but do not have the courage to do – you’re travelling the world alone. Yes, there will be some lonely times, but above all else, you’re awesome. This is a fact. If your brain refuses to agree, sent it to me, I’ll have a chat with it.
Give yourself a break!
If you’re feeling bad (mentally) about being alone (physically), you probably fall into that category of people who are too hard on themselves. puts hand up
Being alone doesn’t have to be something to fear. If you can’t change it (see below for tips on that), why not embrace it. Chances are, a couple of weeks down the road you’ll be surrounded by so many cool people that you’ll look back on this period of loneliness and wish, just for five minutes, that you could have some of that lone time back.
Make friends with your loneliness (and yourself)
Introspection isn’t always a fun activity, especially if you brain is already set in criticise mode, but using alone time to think about the bigger things in life (who you are, what your dream are, how you can be a better person) can help you emerge from your loneliness a stronger, better informed and wiser person.
After completing a 10-day Vipasanna retreat in India where I had nothing but silence, vegetarian food and my own thoughts to keep me company for 10 day, I can tell you that this process is unlikely to be fun, but I felt like I’d travelled 10 spiritual light years in just 10 days.
Feeling down in the dumps is the perfect excuse for a bit of indulgence. It doesn’t need to cost a lot – a coffee with a view over a stretch of water; a cupcake and a bit of journaling; a long run or bit of yoga – all those activities you’ve been too busy to indulge in while you’ve been on the road, go indulge in them now. A massage can be a cheap treat in some countries and don’t underestimate the power of a pedicure when you’ve been wearing flip-flops for month (goes for you too, guys).
Whatever your heart desires, go make it happen.
Have a Netflix binge
On the surface, staying in-doors and watching TV is exactly what you shouldn’t be doing when you’re on an amazing trip but, guess what, we can’t be in full-on explore mode all the time. It leads to burn-out – something that might be adding to your sense of loneliness.
When you’re feeling down, finding comfort in favourite tv shows or feel-good movies can be a real mood booster. At least once every couple of months I check myself into a hotel room with no purpose beyond a Netflix binge watching session. Judge away, but sometimes there’s often nothing more restorative.
Read a book
When your brain is in full analyse, criticise and problem-solving mode (must-find-a-friend, must-find-a-friend, must-find-a-friend), it doesn’t realise that it’s probably making things worse. The better solution is distraction and along with a Netflix marathon, there is no better way to tune out of the world and your obsessions than by reading a book.
But it must be a good book or the absorption won’t be complete.
How to be un-lonely
Sometimes it’s more than just our minds telling us how alone we are, sometimes we are just plain lonely. Human contact and connection is something we innately crave, after all. But don’t worry, there are things you can do to fix that, too.
Look at your location
Some places are easier to meet new people than others. Drop me in a small beach town in Mexico and I’ll probably have a handful of new friends within a few hours. Plonk me in London…New York…Paris and I’d probably leave the city a month later with not a single new person known. It’s easier to meet new people in some places compared to others. You’ll know the circumstances and places where you tend to thrive versus wither.
If you can, change location and head to those places where you usually tend to meet friends. If you can’t go just yet (because you don’t want to miss out on seeing the sights in the place where you’re feeling lonely), then put a plan in place for the near future and tell yourself you’ll meet new people very soon. Because you will.
Go somewhere you know (or where you know someone)
There’s no point sticking to a travel plan if it’s making you miserable. If loneliness is consuming you, consider backtracking or sidetracking to a place where you know some people – that might mean going back to a place you know and love and where you left some friends behind or taking a detour to a place where you have existing friends or family.
Just be careful about speeding home. It’s awfully tempting when you’re feeling alone but give it some time. In most cases, the feeling will pass.
Guilt someone into visiting you
It’s not always possible but it’s always worth a try – a message to your Facebook friends or a chat with family, see if any of your loved ones fancy coming out to see you. I’ve been very fortunate to have several people come visit me in various places along the way, though it’s not always about me being fortunate – often those friends and family are looking for an excuse for a trip. It’s doing them a favour, really! Win-Win.
Warning: a fresh bout of loneliness is almost certainly going to set in as soon as your family or friend returns home – make sure you’re in a social place and try hard to make some ‘overlap’ friends (people who will still be around in a few days) while you still have the comfort of your loved ones with you.
Join a tour
Spending a day in the company of others is a good way to bond with new people and often pick up a travel friend or dinner invitation. A word of warning: think about the kind of tour you book before you go on it. Try your best to book a tour that is run by a hostel – that way, you’re more likely to spend the day with other solo travellers. Book a tour from a hotel or a big-booth ticket tout and you’ll probably end up spending the day with groups, couples and families – hardly the aim of the find-a-friend plan and more likely to make you feel worse.
Check into a hostel
Sometimes I feel awkward in hostels (it’s an age thing) and they’re not for everyone but they are by far the most social spaces you’ll find in any town, village or city. These days, most of them have private rooms you can book if don’t want the ‘social’ aspect to extend to your sleeping space and many hostels have bars you can visit even if you slink back to your Omni Hotel at the end of the night. But, above all else, head to a hostel and you’re almost guaranteed to find your tribe.
Sure, some visitors might be out of towners on a weekend break with friends, but there will absolutely be a whole swathe of solo travellers who have, at some point, admit it or not, felt the pain of loneliness on the road.
Note: some hostels are more social than others. If the place you’re staying isn’t well set up for meeting others (it’s too big or the communal spaces aren’t often used), find another place to stay.
Have dinner out – but choose wisely
Eating out alone can be one of those activities that makes loneliness feel worse not better but there is still scope for using a solo dinner to your advantage. I’m a big proponent of eating alone – probably because I’m a big foodie and the alternative (packed sandwiches and Pringles scoffed silently in a hotel room) horrifies me more than the idea of being alone. But some restaurants are more intimidating than others.
If you’re looking for the best places to dine solo, here are a few suggestions:
- any place where you can eat at the bar;
- ramen shops – quick, cheap eats like ramen shops tend to attract more solo diners;
- any place within a couple of blocks of a hostel;
- some hostels have a bar that serves food (hey, we’re on a making friends mission here, not a Michelin-star food search);
- any place that has solo diners right there and then – use your eyes!
Connect with friends online
Spending your night online chatting to old friends can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it’s a great reminder that you’re not all alone in this big wide world. Equally, it can make your currently loneliness and distance from your friends feel all the more acute. Use your discretion on this one and you’ll learn very quickly whether this is a good or bad activity for you in the face of loneliness. For me, I find it makes me feel more lonely…and often leads to me looking at flights home.
Make new friends online
The power of the Internet is immense. So immense that you can have a ready-made group of friends in under 5 minutes if you put your mind to it. There are plenty of ways to make friends online. Here are a few suggestions:
- Check out Meet Up – I use this to find writing and language groups around the world but there’s all sorts of activities on there – walking, yoga, bands, artists.
- Facebook groups – there are lots of private Facebook groups for destinations or local interests – join some and see what’s going on.
- Tinder and Internet Dating – this doesn’t have to be about dating (unless you want it to be), just add a note in your profile that you’re new in town and looking to make friends.
- Exhaust your own contacts – I bet that someone you know will know someone who knows someone where you are. I’ve done this a couple of times and the power of connections is mind-blowing.
- Message me! As well as talking you down off the ‘loser ledge’ (a place I’ve stood more than once, so I understand the view), I’ve become that person who knows someone who knows someone who’s probably in the place where you are. I’m always happy to chat online so drop me a line by email or find me on Facebook!
Stop being so damn anti-social
Ok, that doesn’t exactly fall into the supportive category but, go on, admit it, you could try a little harder to meet people, couldn’t you?
Last night, when I was feeling lonely, the truth was I had a Brazilian friend in the city who I’d met a few years ago in Argentina and she’d already asked me if I wanted to join her and her friends for dinner. Equally, I had another travel friend (from Canada who I met in Hawaii) who was going to a party. I could have called on her, too. Yet, I wandered the streets alone, feeling sorry for myself. When I took a proper look at my situation, I was tired, not lonely (thanks, jet lag) and the second I crawled into my PJs and opened my book I felt better. However, I also could have pushed myself into a more social situation instead of wallowing in self-pity.
If you’re not sure how to pull yourself out of your anti-social state, here are some tips:
- if you’re in a space where you’re currently alone (hotel room/hiding in a bathroom), get out!
- set yourself a 10-person challenge – strike up a conversation with at least 10 strangers in a day. I bet one of those conversations leads somewhere beyond the weather;
- go and speak to that other person in the hostel/hotel lobby who is on their own – you may not become life-long friends, but how do you know if you don’t try;
- order a beer at a bar and chat to the bar tender;
- get on a tour… go for dinner in a solo-diner place… go to a book store and get some reading tips…go to a Meet Up…go on a date…go to open mic night…my point: the options are endless.
Homework: Make a list – make it now – of at least 10 ways you could meet someone today and work your way thorough it. Come and report back – tell me how you got on and for every failure or time you’re spurned, you gain a story.
And finally, when you’re in the middle of a maelstrom of loneliness, self-consciousness can set in, making it hard to come up with that great conversation starter. So, I’ve got some for you. Some more anodyne than others but the point is to start!
- Where are you from – I HATE this question (it the most asked question in the travel world) but sometimes the words come from my lips for want of any other inspiration. It doesn’t matter – it still breaks the ice.
- Have you been [insert place] long – this is a great prelude to i) can you recommend any places for me to visit (if the person you’re speaking to has been in town for a few days); or ii) do you want to have a look around together (if they’re a new arrival too)?
- Have you eaten anywhere good here – I’ve been known to ask strangers this question all over the world, loneliness or not. Often my motivation is finding good food but finding a dinner partner can be an added side-effect.
- Do you know what the nightlife’s like here – code for: wanna get a drink?
- Are you reading anything good at the moment (I long for someone to one day say the name of my blog).
- What’s the weather been like – this is another much hated question of mine because we Brits spend way too long talking about the weather but again, if nothing else pops to mind, it can break the ice.
- Where have you been/where are you going/how long are you away for – also amongst the most over-asked questions on the road that can feel super tedious if you hear them once a day but, hey, it’s travel and don’t we all love to talk about travel?
- How’s the wi-fi – this isn’t really a question, it’s a way of breaking someone’s gaze from their laptop/phone/tablet and back into the real world where you can maybe…just maybe…connect.
- Would you like some pasta/a glass of wine – feed and water people and you’ll find a friend for life. You might feel a bit desperate ‘buying’ friends but I’d bet it’s a nicer feeling than being lonely.
And, if you’re feeling particularly bold:
- I overheard that you were going out for dinner – I’m new here and on my own, would you mind it I joined you? This can take a bit of bravery but I’ve tried it and I’ve never had anyone refuse me. (Helps if you don’t look crazy/on the edge of despair when you ask).
- Have you ever felt lonely while you were travelling – you’re really putting yourself out there with this one and all but an idiot would recognise this as an admission of loneliness and adopt you as a friend. If they don’t, they’re probably not the kind of person you want to hang around with. Stuff them. Idiots.
- I’m doing a survey – what would your last meal be if you were on Death Row – great conversation starter but can lead people to think you’re a little crazy. Use it wisely.
- On a scale of 1 to 10 (1 being not very, 10 being very), how embarrassed are you by your last sexual encounter – best used on a group of drunk Aussies.
There are people who live their lives surrounded by people – their families, their partners and their friends and still feel lonely. The fact that you feel a bit alone when you’re thousands of miles from all the people and things that are familiar to you is, I would say, inevitable. The important point is to recognise your loneliness and deal with it – whether that’s by waiting for it to pass (and it will) or doing something to make yourself feel less lonely.
I’ve never had a bout of loneliness that lasted more than a few days. In a world where you’re moving and the world is moving (full spin around the sun every day, apparently), chances are you’ll reconnect with life, the world and it’s people within no time and you’ll forget that ever felt the need to read this article.
Happy travels, you brave, lovely, fellow solo travelling people.
Have you ever felt lonely while you were travelling? How did you deal with it? Any other good conversation starters to add? Let me know in the comments below.