On a Friday night in June 2017, I set out for Europe with a Kindle full of books, 12 days worth of clothes stuffed into a backpack and absolute certainty that the trip I was about to embark on was going to be life-changing.
After all, I was a 23-year-old woman traveling solo abroad; I’d read Eat, Pray, Love and the like enough times to know that these kinds of trips — ones filled with cafes and hiking and plentiful chances to “find myself” — were practically guaranteed to provide me with important revelations and newfound perspectives. I might be feeling restless and unsure now, I reasoned as I waited at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, but nearly two weeks in Europe, traveling through Denmark, Switzerland, Italy, Spain and Iceland would leave me feeling like a whole new person.
Fast forward 12 days, and, well, that wasn’t quite the case.
While I don’t regret taking the trip, when I came back I felt pretty much the same as I had before I left: antsy and tense but overall content, just now with a sunburn to go with it. I hadn’t had any huge revelations about my life, and I didn’t feel more in touch with who I was as a person. I’d simply gone to Europe alone for a while, had a nice time and came back; the only real change I’d experienced was a drop in my bank account thanks to too many $18 pizzas in Milan. When people asked about my trip, I spoke about it in hyperbole so as to not raise eyebrows — “it was amazing,” “I had the best time,” “I miss it already” — but in reality? Eh.
Part of this was due to the far-too-high expectations I set for the experience. It was hard not to feel like this trip would change my life, considering how essential the solo trip seemed to be for so many 20-something women frustrated with their lives — especially writers like myself who were privileged enough to have the money and time off to do it, and could use the trip as a source of inspiration. Cheryl Strayed, Elizabeth Gilbert, Rachel Friedman: They all did it, and did it right — at least in my mind. They came back from their respective journeys with new outlooks on life, a sense of inner peace and plenty of material for their next books. And even though I knew, rationally, that no single trip could completely change my worldview, I held out hope that mine still would, somehow.
I certainly didn’t hate my life before Europe, but I felt stagnant, in need of a change and out of touch with myself. I put all my hopes in this trip, imagining it as a time when I would truly “find myself,” as cliche as that was.
And perhaps it could’ve been, if I wasn’t so focused on the cliche. If you’re thinking of traveling alone for similar reasons, here are some things I plan to do differently next time.
Don’t assume a change of scenery will be life-changing
While getting out of routine for a few weeks is never a bad thing, it typically takes more than that to actually change your life. I went into my trip expecting that just being in Europe would be result in an immediate refocusing, but in actuality, it’s a process that involves not only exploring new places, but taking more chances, meeting new people and making choice after choice to expand one’s comfort zone. And despite my best intentions, I barely did any of that.
Make an effort to meet new people
Reconnecting with yourself, I’d thought mistakenly while planning my days abroad, required an abundance of alone time: mornings spent reading in quiet coffee shops, nights spent eating for one at spacious cafes. I needed to think — really think — and that meant that the vast majority of time in Europe had to be spent by myself. After all, wouldn’t it defeat the purpose of a solo trip if I tried to make friends or signed up for every tour I saw?
But having that much alone time was, well, lonely. Yes, I got a lot of writing done — I was working on a screenplay, so my laptop was my main companion — but I also went days barely speaking to anyone but a waiter. Which leads into my next mistake.
I stayed at hostels for three legs of my trip: Copenhagen, Denmark, Milan and Reykjavik, Iceland. But while there, I’d head to the common areas only to grab a quick bite or a glass of wine, rather than attempt to socialize with the people also staying there. I felt too awkward alone to actively try to make friends, and besides, I wasn’t staying in any one place more than two or three days — it didn’t seem worth it.
But I wish I had tried, because the hostels had so much to offer for someone traveling alone, like happy hours, trivia nights and group outings I undoubtedly would’ve enjoyed.
When I planned the trip, I figured that having a few nights in semi-private Airbnbs would feel like a relief after days spent sharing rooms and sleeping above noisy bars. But while I did appreciate the privacy, I wish I’d stuck with hostels all trip long. The Airbnbs I stayed at were lovely but isolating, and I found myself missing even the minor small talk I’d made with my fellow travelers at the hostels. And without the various city maps, guides and activity logs that were plastered on the hostel walls, I lost a valuable travel tool, too.
Allow some room for spontaneity
I’m a planner by nature, but traveling alone, with all that excess time, made me even more determined than usual to have my days mapped out to a T. I spent each night intensely researching options for the following day, noting down all the museums, landmarks and restaurants I needed to visit.
By planning my trip down to the hour, I missed a crucial aspect of traveling solo: letting things just happen. I didn’t stumble upon hole-in-the-wall bars or discover little-known bookstores, because I refused to veer from my plan. Only on one day did I do things differently, when I went on a last-minute group tour in Copenhagen. I ended up spending the afternoon exploring the city with a British girl I’d just met and her friends, and it was the best day I had abroad, full of adventure and companionship. But of course, I didn’t realize until long after that the reason why was because I hadn’t expected it to happen.
Recognize your limits
My insistence on getting “the most” out of my solo trip led to some pretty big regrets. In Barcelona, so sure that walking for hours alone up hills and in the 90-degree sun was the only way to truly experience the city, I ended up too overheated and dehydrated to even think, let alone “realize” anything. I could’ve prevented this if I’d stopped awhile to rest, or skipped one of the many landmarks I felt I needed to visit, but instead, I carried on — and ignored my body’s warning signs. I came back to my Airbnb that night with a bad case of heat exhaustion and a fervent desire to never see sunlight again.
Let your itinerary be a guide, not a mandate
In Reykjavik, the constant rain and 50-degree weather (combined with my exhaustion from the previous 10 days of traveling) made the prospect of exploration less than ideal. But I was convinced that any day not spent wandering around some city alone was a waste, and that if I stayed indoors, I’d be missing out on some potentially life-changing, essential experience.
So I made my way outside — and had a miserable time. The weather was so bad I could barely appreciate the places I was seeing, and the trip between my hostel and town required two buses and $30 each way. When I got back that night, soaked and shivering, I found a group of my hostelmates playing cards in the kitchen, having chosen to stay in and hang out with each other rather than briefly explore a city they’d barely even be able to see.
It’s not that I had a terrible time abroad, or even close. I made a friend in Copenhagen, spent a morning in northern Italy sailing through the lake and ate more pizza and gelato than I can count. And yes, I did plenty of thinking about my life and got about halfway through my screenplay. But let’s be real: I probably could’ve done that at home, if I’d taken a day or two to curl up on the couch, ignore the world and shut off my WiFi. It certainly would’ve been cheaper.
I’m going back to Europe in a few weeks, this time for a two-country tour with my boyfriend. We have a few plans set — a train ride to a castle outside Dublin, a visit to a highly rated Munich beer garden — but mostly, we’re going to just take things as they come. And while I hope we have a great time, I’m not going to go in with sky-high expectations or freak out if we don’t hit every single place mentioned in the guidebooks. I might not have found myself on my first trip, but I did learn something invaluable — that the best kinds of vacations require being OK with at least few things not going to plan.