Things I Learned About Myself by Traveling Abroad Alone

Me in Howth. Just me.

This past week I’ve discussed my Ireland trip in detail, and I’d like to end the week with a reflection on what I learned from going on this trip solo.

I wanted to stretch myself on this trip, to step outside of my comfort zone. I’m a planner at heart, and thus I didn’t plan anything for this trip so I can be more spontaneous and go with the flow. I’m an introvert, so I wanted to push myself to meet new people when I have no default option. I’m terrible at initiating conversations with strangers, so I wanted to put myself in a foreign place to see how I’d respond in that area.

Here are the results from my little experiment. It’s filled with contradictions.

  1. It’s really nice not having to worry about someone else’s plans or agendas.
  2. It’s nice to have a copilot when traversing foreign soil. There’s certainly something to be said for figuring out things on your own (as I did when taking the bus to Howth), but I was able to enjoy Dublin in a different way when a new friend guided me through the city.
  3. I like company when I eat at a restaurant. Those were the most difficult times in Ireland, and it doesn’t help that I’m a really slow eater. I didn’t feel self conscious about eating alone; moreso I was surrounded by people having a wonderful time at their tables, and it make me really aware that I didn’t have someone there to talk to.
  4. No matter where I am, at this point in my life, I prefer a quiet beer at the bar over a crazy night at a club. On Friday night, I contemplated going down to the club in the hotel. There were tons of young people there. I almost did it to stick with my adventurous theme. But I kept coming back to the fact that I don’t enjoy clubs. Just because I’m abroad doesn’t mean I should force-feed myself things I don’t like in the name of “growing.” That was a good thing to realize on the first night.
  5. I like to write in quiet places, not noisy cafes. It doesn’t have to be a secluded place; just a quiet place.
  6. I really like not having a plan when I travel, but after I make a decision to go somewhere, I should research that decision a little bit before going so I don’t miss out on anything huge. For example, the taxi driver on the way to the airport at the end of the trip asked if I had gone to basically the best old pub ever when I was in Howth. I hadn’t, unfortunately, and it made me want to go back to go to that pub. But it was too late.
  7. Smithwick’s is my favorite Irish beer.
  8. It’s really nice to detach from e-mail. Now, I sent plenty of e-mails when I was at the hotel, but when I left the castle, I no longer had wi-fi. And it was incredibly freeing. The impulse to check e-mail went away because I simply didn’t have that option. I was able to walk and think and breathe without having the exciting prospect of a full inbox prodding at me.
  9. Being in a foreign country doesn’t mean that I’m suddenly free to initiate conversations with total strangers. Even in Ireland, where people are notoriously friendly. If that’s an area in which I want to grow, I’m going to have to work on it myself–a new country isn’t going to do the work for me.
What have you learned about yourself when traveling, whether it’s alone or with others, foreign or domestic?

8 thoughts on “Things I Learned About Myself by Traveling Abroad Alone”

  1. Any chance I get can an entry into the chocolate contest by pointing on that “breath” in point 8 should be “breathe”?

    I’ve learned a many things about myself while traveling alone. Here are a few off the top of my head:
    1) I rediscovered reading. After I finished college (and high school) I was so sick of reading. I had been so overloaded with hifalutin, academic crap for years that I couldn’t remember the last time I read a book for pleasure. While backpacking in New Zealand, I came across a shelf full of free books. I grabbed one and couldn’t put it down. It’d been so long, but it was a wonderful reminder that I do enjoy a good book.
    2) I love the open road. When I’m driving alone, there’s tranquility in cruising along miles of long, straight road with few cars…the windows rolled down and mixes of good music and radio silence.

    • Nice catch! But no. 🙂

      I think there’s a certain freedom when you only have yourself to entertain. There’s no pressure from someone else or on yourself, and it gives you room to explore music, silence, books, movies, etc. I wonder if other people have discovered lost forms of entertainment when they were traveling alone.

  2. I totally dig traveling by myself. (And yes, I just said “dig.”) But I also enjoy traveling with one other person. Two other people can be a little too much, and group travel? Forget it. Traveling in a group is slow and stressful to me!

    I’ve done quite a bit of international traveling on my own. I think my favorite solo trip was also my most exhausting one. I moved to Spain by myself for a semester to go to school in Madrid. I did not know a single person in the entire city, so I definitely had to get out of my comfort zone. Before that semester, I was painfully shy and just didn’t know how to talk to people. I didn’t know how to take care of myself or be assertive. It’s an understatement to say that I changed a lot that semester. It made me who I am.

    I’ve also learned that after 43 hours without sleep, you no longer feel tired. I used to date a guy who was from London and I was going to see him at his university in Wales. (This is while living in Spain.) My flight left Madrid at 6am, but the trains stopped running from my little town to the airport at 11:30pm. So I took the last train to the airport, stayed awake all night worrying that someone would mug me, got on a flight to Amsterdam, changed planes and flew to Birmingham, England, where I got on a train to Wales and then proceeded to party it up all night when I got there. And then I didn’t sleep the next day. Because I was insane.

    43 hours. On 43 hours of no sleep, you really, really learn who you are and what your limits are.

    • “On 43 hours of no sleep, you really, really learn who you are and what your limits are.”

      Truer words have never been spoken. And now I’m curious what your limits were around the 40 hour mark…

      Although I did take two short naps, I was essentially awake for two straight days to start the trip to Ireland. It was a bit surreal to walk around a foreign city on so little sleep, but I didn’t feel delirious or anything. I felt alive. 🙂

  3. That picture is of you looking forward and conquering that steep, slippery hill.

    I don’t think I could have done what you did. Not knowing where to go in a foreign land would drive me crazy. I have to at least know where that visitor’s center is and start from there.

  4. Hey Jamey! This is a great post. I have done a lot of traveling in new places – both alone and with friends – and I have my experience to add, and also some comments on yours.

    For me, it showed me that I wasn’t bullshitting when I say I have a good sense of direction. Every time I’m with people, I am nervous as hell for taking over the role of navigator, and always figure it was luck that we got where we were heading. But every time I find my way, driving or biking or whatever, especially on public transit in foreign cities – like Torino, or Atlanta! – I’m always pleasantly surprised to see how well I can rely on myself.

    I’ve also known forever, as most people who know me know, I’m achingly social. hahah. And while I make great new friends EVERYwhere I go, I’ve learned to be more cautious of motives. But take no risks, make few connections.

    In response to your points numbers:
    2/3 – you learn SO much about yourself while traveling, but I’ve always enjoyed myself much more when I have someone with me – even if it’s just to have someone to laugh with at your inability to locate any of the cool parts of the area. I also detest eating alone in a restaurant, unless I have a book or something with me (i’m the polar opposite of your point #5). I prefer to eat AT the bar, and usually meet the bartenders or servers, who congregate there. I usually ask about the music being played. Who, me?! 🙂
    9 – if you want a pointer on how to initiate conversations, think about what YOU would respond to if someone randomly approached you. Usually, a compliment, or a question about something. I’m from out of the country, and looking for a good place to grab a coffee and maybe a newspaper – do you have any suggestions? Oh, great, thanks! That other one you said, I take which tram stop? Thanks! Any places I shouldn’t miss while I’m in town? Oh, I’m a writer. What? Yes, really. What do you do? Sure, I have time to join you at your favorite coffee shop…


    • I should make you my tour guide–I have a terrible sense of direction. Although it makes me feel quite accomplished when I actually get to the intended destination.

      That’s probably the best advice I’ve ever heard about initiating conversations. I’ll have to ask myself that the next time I want to initiate: How would I respond in this situation? What would I respond well to? I often try to think of questions to ask–that’s my default when I get nervous–but I hadn’t thought about the compliment idea (it seems so obvious now that you say it). Brilliant.


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