Friday, October 11, 2013

Five Reasons Why You Should Solo Travel

Lately, I have been travelling a lot. The first question that people always ask me about my trips is "Where to?". Following closely behind is "With whom?", to which I mostly reply: "Alone".

This gets me a lot of flabbergasted looks. They struggle to wrap their heads around the concept of solo travelling, especially my Asian homies. Maybe it's a cultural thing. Aside from Ibn Battuta and Cheng Ho (or Zheng He), there aren't many notable explorers from the East Side. Unlike our Western counterparts, #YOLO isn't our battle-cry.

Sorry Cheng Ho, you may have beaten Columbus, but this bloke's ancestors beat you to America by five centuries.

But I love solo travelling. If you haven't tried it already, I highly recommend that you do. Here are FIVE reasons why.

1.  You Are Free To Go Wherever And Whenever

Look back at your past trips. How may times did you badly wanted to go Destination X, only to be outvoted by your travel companions and go to Destination Y instead? Or when the group's all excited about going to Destination X during spring - that's when the cherry blossoms blossom - only for someone to raise a protesting hand and say: "But that's my peak period, and it's expensive - can we go during winter instead?"

Annoying, isn't it? It's difficult to plan your dream trip if everyone doesn't really share the same dream.

No such problem, if you're travelling on your own. You get to plan the entire itinerary, start to finish. No unnecessary delays, detours and debates. Go where you want to go, when you want to go. You're the captain of the ship. Sail away to deep waters, step foot on exotic islands, seek your own treasures.

Good morning, Frankfurt. The layover was 12 hours and I was alone, but I still ventured out to the great outdoors .

2.  You Have More Time To Explore, Experience And Enjoy

Time is short, when travelling. Every second counts.

Aren't there times when you have to follow the rest to Disneyland, though you rather be somewhere else, like visiting historical sites and museums? When you travel in a group, you have to stick together as a team - otherwise, if everyone is free to do their own thing, why bother travelling in a group in the first place?

Let's face it. We love our family and friends to bits. But sometimes, they can really crimp our style, slow our swagger. No matter how close and dear they are to us, they don't necessarily make the best travel companions.

When I travel, whilst I do keep a loose daily itinerary of places to visit and things to do, I enjoy letting my mind and feet wander off - and they often take me off the beaten track, cover great distances and end up in unexpected but exciting places. Not many can keep up with my pace. If I have to wait for people to catch their breaths, I can't journey as much as I want to. If I leave them behind, that's violating the spirit of Ohana. Solution? Leave the pack, be a lone wolf.

My own London half-day walking tour: Tower Bridge - St. Paul's Cathedral - Chinatown - King's Cross - Emirates Stadium (10+ km). Yes, only walking. No bus, no train, no cab.

I am not always a restless soul stricken with wanderlust. Sometimes, I linger at a sweet spot - like lying on the beach, and not be harassed and hurried into hopping islands after islands and endangering coral reefs. Sometimes, all I want is peace and quiet. And solo travelling gives me plenty of that.

The point is, solo travelling gives you full control of your time and space. You don't need to make compromises and divide your time into what you want to do, and what others want to doOn your own, you get to see more, eat and drink more, experience more, and enjoy more.

3.  You Spend Less, And Travel More

If you're someone who flies to Tokyo each time you have a sudden craving for sushi, then skip this part. But if travelling is a huge financial investment to you - as it is to regular folks like me - then budgeting is important.

When you travel in a group, you are resigned to the fact that you will incur substantial expenses that you, on your own, would not otherwise incur. Like paying a ticket to Disneyland. You might think I'm being over-calculative and kiasu here. But I'm not.

Think about it. It's not only about money wasted. It's also about the opportunity cost. Money spent unproductively could have been spent on something that brings greater utility. If you spent 100 bucks on a meal you did not like, you have 100 bucks less to spend on meals you do like.

Think about it on a bigger scale. You agreed to go on a group trip to a destination you are not too overly excited about (see Point 1). During the trip, you did not get to do most of the things you would like to do (see Point 2). In the end, not only did you have a bad trip, but you have also poorly invested money that could have been spent on a good trip.

My tiny but cozy room in Ikebukuro, Tokyo (20 to 35 minutes away from Shinjuku and Shibuya by foot and rail). It even has a microwave, stove and refrigerator. It costs about USD70 or RM250 per night. Good enough for a Simple Jack like me.

The opposite is also true. When I do wish to splurge on something I really like, I don't have to bypass any travel committee to justify and approve my expense request. In New York, I managed to catch 'The Phantom of the Opera' - my favourite Broadway musical - at the Majestic Theater. Almost all the tickets were sold, and the only affordable available slot was a standing position close to the back. I bought it without hesitation. There was no one around complaining about weak knees and persuading me to watch some other musical.

By solo travelling, you have full control over your travel budget. That way, you make the most of out every dollar spent on your flight, accommodation, transportation, food and tours. And with the extra money saved, you can travel more, and spend more on the things you like on your future travels!

4.  You Become A Citizen Of The World

A lot of us think solo travelling means travelling devoid of company. Not true. It simply means the default position is that you're on your own. You can still arrange to meet friends for meals or short tours, and make new friends along the way.

On business trips, I usually extend my stay for a few days, turning them into pleasure. In New Delhi, I had the good fortune of meeting up with a good friend who was coincidentally solo travelling there at the same time. In Bangkok, a colleague based there graciously housed me and showed me around. No contacts? Never mind. I am used to striking conversations with random strangers in restaurants and bars, and ending up having drinks, laughs and good fun for the rest of the night. 

It's the fun part of travelling - meeting locals and fellow travelers. When you are alone and long for company, your tongue naturally loosens up. By mixing your company during your travels, you open yourself to diverse personalities and cultures.

Jacket by Tommy Hilfiger. Jeans by Topman. Shoes by Onitsuka Tiger. Photograph by a nameless stranger on Brooklyn Bridge, NYC. Travel tip: Need  a photo taken, just look out for the tourist with the big-ass digital camera. 

At this juncture, it's poignant to clarify that 'travelling' and 'holidaying with loved ones' are two different concepts. The former means going somewhere with the primary purpose of visiting a specific place. The latter means what it says - and you can even do this without going anywhere far, such as taking a short hour's drive down to the nearby beach. Obviously, if you are doing the latter, solo travelling is out of the equation.

But if you are travelling to 'visit a place', you should mingle with the populace. It enriches the experience. And solo travelling is a good way to force you out of the comfort zone of familiarity, and step into uncharted social frontiers.

5.  You Become A Wiser Traveller, And Stronger Person

Lastly, solo travelling is good for your personal development.

You're on your own. You have to plan everything, and plan ahead - booking flights and accommodations, arranging for transportation, tours and meetings, and keeping track of your budget, belongings and bearing as you journey onward.

It's not easy, I know. In a group, you get to divide and delegate tasks to different people, lessening each person's burden. On your own, there's no one looking over your shoulder. Sometimes, you suffer for it. Few times, during my solo travels, I have hopelessly lost my way, and carelessly lost my things.

It's a painful, but precious process. You learn from your mistakes. You become more astute and street-smart. It refines your internal compass, sharpens your instincts. You build resilience and confidence. You start walking with a swagger.

Being a frequent traveler doesn't make you a better traveler, if you are always reliant on others. Instead, it tends to make you an even more cautious and conservative traveler, only traveling if you have the 'right company' and under the 'right conditions'. You become less of a traveller, more of follower. That kills half the fun of travelling.

Many of you must be thinking: "Solo travelling can only be done when we're young and free of commitments". Wrong. You can solo travel at any age, at any phase in your life. There is perhaps more work to be done making contingency plans to take care of people and things when you are away - but otherwise, it's the same thing. Solo traveling is just like any other hobby. Just because none of your friends or family is into spelunking, doesn't mean you can't go spelunking alone or with a group of strangers who are.

Of course, when alone, always mind your surroundings and stay safe. Don't go off wandering into the Kashmir mountains or Amazon jungles without a guide. Solo travelling isn't a license to abandon common sense.

Downtown Delhi - male to female ratio of 7:1. Watch your step, ladies.

Closing Remarks - Solo Travelling Is A Journey, Not A Destination

Solo travelling isn't the best and only way to travel, but simply a refreshing alternative way. It'll take a great deal of courage, at first. But after once or twice, you'll get used to it. Chances are, you'll grow to enjoy it, as much as I do.

I still do travel with family and friends. There are places and moments that travelling with more company, makes for a merrier trip. I don't plan a trip thinking "I want to solo travel!" as the starting point. 

Instead, the starting point, whenever we feel like travelling, is to ask ourselves "Where to?". And that's all that matters. Sure, if you feel like having some close company, go ahead and look for companions. But if you don't feel like you need any or if no one takes up your offer, go ahead travelling anyway.

Solo travelling is not a destination, but a journey. And an epic journey it is.

Good night, world.

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