Rethinking solo travel

By Adele Chiang

THE first time I cried during my student exchange programme to England was after I was pickpocketed in Sheffield. I had been exploring the city alone when I realised that my wallet, which held my credit cards, flat key and cash, was gone.  

It was nearly 8pm there, which meant it was 3am in Singapore. I did not want to disturb anyone back home, so I called up the the bank in tears to cancel my credit cards as I sat on a bench at Weston Park.

Even though I eventually managed the situation on my own — by successfully cancelling my cards and lodging a police report — I wished the entire time that someone was there with me.

Over-romanticising solo travel

Solo travel is often seen by millennials as a means of self discovery. A simple search on Google brings up a multitude of articles touting the benefits of solo travel and how it will change your life forever.

Google Trends shows that from 2015 to 2017, there was a worldwide increase of about 50 per cent for the search term “solo travel”. The Telegraph also reported that searches for the same term on Pinterest rose by nearly seven times in 2018.

According to travel guidebook publisher The Lonely Planet, the number of solo trips taken has increased by almost two and a half times since a decade ago.

But while solo travel is enticing, I believe its drawbacks are often downplayed and its benefits exaggerated.

Drawbacks of solo travel

Travelling solo is expensive. You never realise how much you save by sharing costs with a friend until you bear the full price alone.

Solo travellers can be asked to pay up to two times more to rent a room. This premium charge, called the single supplement by travel industries, is often implemented as most accommodations are priced for at least two people.  

Travelling alone can also be dangerous.

After joining the hiking society in my exchange programme university,  we went on a 26 kilometres hike at the Peak District in England.

Midway through, I stepped into a deep hole covered with overgrown grass and suffered a ligament tear in my left ankle.

As we were in the countryside, there were limited road or public transport networks to take us back to the city. There was also no mobile phone signal.

If I had been alone with my heavy day pack, I probably would not have made it back to the city. But having company meant that I had help — my friends ended up taking turns to carry my day pack as I slowly hobbled back to civilisation.

Being with friends also enabled me to do things I would have never dared to do alone, such as climbing Arthur’s Seat in Scotland during a snowstorm, which turned out to be an amazing adventure.  

I later continued my trip alone, and was surprised to realise that, despite being an introvert who values her me-time, I really missed having someone constantly by my side.

Shared experiences

Nevertheless, I still feel that solo trips are learning experiences.

I learnt how best to manoeuvre myself and my luggage into a minuscule toilet stall, how to strike up conversations with strangers, and most importantly, how to make the best of any situation.

But what was missing was someone to share the experience with. Even though friends might ask about your trip after you return, there is only so much they can glean from living vicariously through the stories you tell.

Attempting to describe the feeling of tucking into a hearty Sunday roast after hiking in the dreary English winter cheapens the experience. It’s just one of those “you had to be there” moments.

In Oct 2014, a study published in the Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience journal showed that having someone by our side makes our memories more vivid and meaningful. This “sharing effect” also minimises the impact of negative experiences and elevates the impact of positive ones.

Don’t travel solo for the sake of it

If you are still keen on packing your bags and leaving for a solo trip, that is great. It is an experience I would definitely recommend trying at least once in your life.

But if you’re simply yearning for a solo trip because you’ve bought into the idea of “discovering yourself”, then think twice.

Remember that when you scroll through your Instagram feed and see solo travellers having the time of their lives, it probably is just a show of their highlight reel.