The first time I traveled by myself, I was 25. I'd been living in Rome for more than three years at that point, so I was already pretty intrepid. But I hadn't traveled outside Italy on my own, and I was eager to take the plunge. My first destination: Turkey, where I arrived in Istanbul with two nights booked in a guesthouse and the next 13 completely unplanned. Fast-forward 15 years, and I've taken six more trips alone. I don't always travel by myself—I just returned from eight days in Spain’s Basque Country with a large group of friends. But solo trips offer a totally different experience. Here's what I've learned along the way.
1. You're stronger than you think
When I tell people I'm headed on vacation by myself, I often get an exclamatory response along the lines of, "Wow, you're so brave!" While I wouldn't go so far as to call leisure travel brave, if you've never headed to parts unknown by yourself before, it can seem daunting. I'm here to tell you: It's incredibly empowering. Yes, getting lost in a strange city can be disorienting, and the inevitable setbacks that occur on any trip can be challenging to solve on your own. But you realize there's no one to rely on but yourself—and you wind up bringing a piece of that self-reliant attitude back home with you.
2. Alone time is liberating
Solo travel represents you time, all day, every day. You eat what you want, you sleep when you want, and you do what you want. There’s no one to answer to, and no one else’s quirks and foibles to take into account, like the friend who won’t eat anything green, or the sister who insists on seeing every museum in every city. The only downside? The choices can be overwhelming when there’s no one else to weigh in, so don’t think about them too much!
3. Introverts open up
I have plenty of friends, but at heart I'm an introvert. Although it may sound counterintuitive, I love being forced when traveling alone to reach outside myself. In Cappadocia, a group of adventurous New Zealanders took me on a hike I would have never had the guts to tackle by myself; in Mendoza, I shared a very memorable dinner with an American medical student; and in Marrakech, I bonded with a fascinating French woman whom I'm still in touch with a year later.
4. Extroverts look inward
On the flip side of the coin, although extroverts won't have any problems making friends along the way, solo travel is also a great opportunity for introspection. I was in a small town in Portugal when I began thinking about moving back to the States, and the Belizean jungle provided the backdrop for some serious thinking about a career change that I ended up making two months later.
5. You'll never overpack again
All it takes is one solo trip with a huge suitcase you have to lug around on planes, trains, and automobiles to realize you simply don't need that much stuff. My rule of thumb: If I’m traveling for 10 days or less, I fit everything into a carry-on. Sometimes I have to buy a few toiletries once I get to my destination (sunscreen, body wash, and toothpaste are easy to pick up), but that's worth saving the pain of an aching back, not to mention the potential for lost luggage. One easy tip: Wear as many layers as possible on the plane.
6. You'll appreciate the meaning of home more
Returning home is always the sweetest part of any trip, but spending time alone in a different place brings a whole new perspective. Rest assured you’ll come back with a new appreciation for your friends, family, and daily life.
My solo travel essentials:
1. Lots of reading material loaded up on my iPad
I like to take a break from TV and movies while I'm traveling, so I download a couple of books and catch up on back issues of magazines.
2. A travel journal
As much as I’ve embraced digital media, there’s nothing I love more than jotting down my thoughts during a trip in an old-fashioned notebook.
3. A well-edited wardrobe
I make sure everything mixes and matches—if a top only pairs with one bottom, for example, it's out. And I wear a lot of black, because it's easy. Jersey dresses and walkable wedge heels are among my most trusted travel companions.
4. Multitasking and nonliquid products
Since I fit all my liquids into a quart-sized plastic bag, I have to be choosy about the products I bring on trips. Some favorites: The Laundress Wash and Stain Bar for hand-washing clothes; a lightweight BB cream to even out my complexion, like Dr. Jart+ Water Fuse Beauty Balm SPF 25+; a solid cream blush that doubles as lip color (my go-to is Jouer Tint); and a multipurpose oil I can use on hair, hands, and body, like Caudalie Divine Oil (just pour a TSA-friendly amount into a plastic container).