Solo Travel As a Business and Lifestyle Phenomenon

“The man who goes alone can start today; but he who travels with another must wait till that other is ready.” – Henry David Thoreau

If the statistics are any indicator, many travelers agree with Thoreau. In increasing numbers, individuals are traveling alone rather than just waiting for others to join them.

Solo travelers in the recent past have totaled 21 million in just the US and UK combined. According to a New York Times article in Nov. 2012, Internet searches for “solo travel packages” were up 60% over the prior year. The US Department of Commerce’s Office of Travel & Tourism Industries (“OTTI”) reported that a staggering 42% of U.S. citizens/residents that went abroad in 2011 traveled alone. Of those individual travelers, 38% traveled for leisure or to visit friends & relatives (“VFR”) and 66% for business. Similarly, inbound solo travelers from abroad totaled 36.2%. Of those, 23.6% were on leisure trips and and 62.2% for work. This business and lifestyle phenomenon has been growing exponentially.

Who are solo travelers?

Solo travelers are a much broader group than just the single population. They may be:

• Two-career couples on business travel or “DINK’S” (Dual Income No Kids).

• Those with relatives or friends abroad.

• Family members pursuing separate sports/hobbies overseas.

Abercrombie & Kent’s Jill Fawcett has described their solo travelers as: “often… married or have partners, but the spouses don’t share the same interest… They want to travel with like-minded people and the small group gives them some interaction. Then they go back to the privacy of their own room… 25% of people who opt for our Extreme Adventure series are (also) solo travelers,” she said. “People feel a little more secure in a group if the destination is intimidating or there’s a language barrier.” Solo Travel Is Growing at a Rapid Rate | Phil Hoffman travel blog, 10/25/11.

According to Grand Circle Corp chairman Alan Lewis, “Women are a growing force in the solo travel market… where the solo market has grown from about 20% to 25% of [Grand Circle’s] overall bookings during the past five years.”

Single travelers do still continue to play an active role in solo travel. Their growth is clear in Europe and North America where people are marrying later and may be divorced, widowed or never married. According to a March 19, 2013 article entitled “The Growing Solo Travel Market”, http://tourismintelligence.ca, average single households total as follows:

• 35% of all households in developed countries

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The Joys (and Sorrows) of Travelling Alone

There is no one “right” way to travel, especially when it comes to the number of partners you choose to travel with as you explore the world. Yes, if you travel with others, you should only travel with those whose presence you enjoy. And yes, I’d argue you’ll have a lot more fun by travelling with some close and adventurous friends rather than travelling through a foreign destination with a group of tourists who barely want to leave the hotel. But, assuming you make a few wise choices regarding the company you keep, there are unique benefits hidden within travelling with one person, with three people, or with a dozen people.

Not that you actually need to travel with anyone else. In fact, the intensity of travelling alone often outclasses anything you’ll experience travelling with others- intense in its highs and its lows. Intense in its connections and its loneliness. Intense in its opportunities for building confidence, and intense in its opportunities for dealing with doubt and fear. And it’s this intensity of often-conflicting experience that makes travelling alone for an extended period of time an absolute necessity for each and every one of us.

Travel is About Growth

A quick aside.

Some people may be put off by the ideal of intensity I’ve used to drum up travelling alone. I understand this. An intense experience can be uncomfortable to think about. But in reality, an intense experience is often more uncomfortable to think about than it is to actually live through. But our discomfort surrounding intensity lies at the heart of every growth opportunity we ever encounter. We grow the most when we feel most alive and when we push through vague anxieties to expand our sphere of comfortable action.

In other words you shouldn’t avoid the intense experiences and the discomfort they temporarily produce- you should run towards them. Sometimes travelling is about just enjoying yourself, but at its heart travelling the world is about running towards intensity, embracing discomfort, and expanding the world you inhabit.

So yes, the thought of travelling alone can sometimes feel scary. That’s sort of the point. Don’t use this fear as an excuse to live in a smaller world than you need to.

Others

When you travel alone your experiences will swing wildly back and forth between being deeply social and deeply lonesome. Often the tone of your experiences changes overnight. One night you meet some new friends you spend hours and hours with as you talk, as you explore, as you bare your souls- as you get drunk together and dance together and as you wander foreign streets late at night together, invincible in the moment. The next day they leave and so does the last person you know in your current location and you’re alone again. In that moment you can be active and reach out and meet others, but you’ll feel shocked how often, in that moment, you’d rather spend your time totally alone.

Through expat bars and hostels and alternative tours, travelling provides you with a never-ending opportunity to meet new people. When you travel by yourself you’ll only ever be as alone as you want to be. You’ll be able to meet others without preconceptions, without strings attached, without checking in to see if everything’s cool with your friends and without worry what others will think about the relationships you build and leave behind. When it comes down to it travelling by yourself provides you with social freedom you could never experience back home or travelling with others.

And that includes the freedom to truly be by yourself. The relief of occasionally spending a day on your own when you’re back home does not, and cannot, compare with the depth of the solitude you will experience when you are alone for hours, days, or weeks at a time in cities, countries and cultures far from your everyday experience. These silent, lonely moments will make you feel so many things, they will give you the time to process and to question and to answer, it’s in those moments of total separation from everything and everyone related to home that you can gain the most perspective on your life and make the hard decisions about who you are, what you want, and how you’re going to get there- decisions you just can’t make when you’re grasping on to even the slightest thread of connection to the life you used to know.

Yourself

I hope I don’t sound like I’m bearing down negatively on others. So many of your opportunities for some semblance of enlightenment will come to you in the company of others. We are intensely, and intrinsically, social creatures. As E.E. Cummings said, “We are for each other,” and every nugget of insight you learn as you travel by yourself exists for the sole purpose of helping you better serve the world and the others who live in it. I’m merely suggesting there are benefits and insights out there in the wild you can only gain when you disconnect completely in the way you only can when you vacate normal life and search for something else on your own.

If you need any greater indication that humans are truly social in nature consider the powerful feelings of doubt and fear you’ll feel when you cut yourself off from others. Even thinking about travelling alone you’re probably thinking that it isn’t something you could ever do. When you leave home on your own you will feel incredibly scared of what you’ll find way out there and whether you’ll be able to handle it. Travelling alone you will repeatedly question pretty much everything about yourself and whether you can even survive, in a basic mental and emotional sense, without continuous close contact with others.

And moving through these cycles of fear and doubt you will learn something- that you can handle it. You cannot only survive but you can thrive. You learn how tough you really are, how little you really need, and with that knowledge of your own inherent indestructibility and with that understanding that life can be great even if you lose everything, you will gain the confidence and courage to actually act on the dangerous insights you accumulate while you travel. Travelling alone not only lets you see what difficult choices you need to make when you return back home, travelling alone lets you know you’re strong enough to risk it all and act on them. Travelling alone makes you both a wiser and a stronger person in a way travelling with others never, ever could.

Yes, travelling alone is more difficult than travelling with others, but at times, especially during those times when you don’t know what to do with yourself or your life, travelling alone becomes absolutely necessary.

Allen Routledge is a travel veteran with extensive backpacking experi

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