On Traveling Alone



Five years ago in 2011, when I was 43 years old, something really cool happened: my art career started to take off after five years of concerted effort, and I began to have a bit expendable income for the first time in my life. When something like this happens, especially without a long track record, it can be a bit of a conundrum. On the one hand, I feared that my success might be a fluke, that it could all go “poof!!!” at any moment. On the other hand, I wanted to spend my “new” money on the stuff that my 43 year old self had not up-until-then been able to enjoy, especially before it went “poof!!” again (which thankfully never ended up happening, or hasn’t yet, but I had no idea at the time).

It was no secret then — to either my followers or my family and friends — that I had wanderlust. Much of the work that made me that expendable income was incidentally inspired by this wanderlust: portraits and landscapes of an imagined Nordic land, folk inspired Scandinavian drawings and patterns, and the like. So the first thing I did with the expendable income was to begin to scheme, and then pay for, my first trip abroad in nearly seven years. I decided I would go in real life to the places I had been pining after in history and design books and photographs I found on the internet — the places that were on the top of my bucket list: Scandinavia and Iceland. For the record, I do not keep a written bucket list, but I did have one in my mind, and Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Iceland were at the top.

My now wife, then girlfriend, had a full time job managing the marketing for a major art college. She didn’t have the time or the inclination to join me for travels. So I had no choice: I would go all alone. Over the course of weeks, I set a date, booked plane tickets and reserved several accommodations for a 23 day solo adventure.

I realize now that I am in some ways the perfect travel-alone candidate. I am true introvert in that I have always been someone who enjoys time alone. I get my energy from being alone. I love doing things by myself. I find time alone enormously peaceful. On the other hand, I also love people. I am not afraid to strike up a conversation with a stranger. And I am getting braver the older I get about asking strangers for directions or help when I’m confused or lost.

And multiple solo trips to New York City prior to ever traveling abroad alone had taught me one important thing: I like making my own decisions about what to do, where to go and and how long to spend in a place when I travel. I enjoy wandering through cities without negotiating turns without another person. If I walk into a museum or shop and feel bored (which sometimes happens) I don’t spend much time and can move on without having to worry if I’m cutting my travel partner’s experience short.  Conversely, I adore spending ample time in places that do intrigue me — all without worrying whether my travel companion is feeling unineterested. I love eating when I’m hungry and skipping meals when I’m not. I love buying things without feeling like I need approval. I love going bed early without apology after a day of walking.

So I had a feeling that I would enjoy month long trip by myself to a foreign country. I just had no idea how life changing it would be. The following year, in September of 2012, I boarded a plane bound for Reykjavik Iceland, the first leg on my journey.

Just to be clear: I was definitely scared. In the week before I left, I was having such intense butterflies in my stomach that I couldn’t fall asleep at night. What if I got lost? What if no one spoke English? What if, what if what if? As with most things that scare me, I just told myself, you’ve got this, Lisa. Just do it.

And so I did. And it was the most memorable, glorious twenty-three days of my life so far. Nothing — no solo trip since then (and I’ve taken two) —  has matched it. And I doubt anything ever will. For one, I visited some of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been (places I’d been dreaming & reading about and watching videos of for years). And it was a true vacation: I shopped, ate, lurked, wandered, took pictures, hung out with a few locals, slept, and wandered some more . I felt an enormous sense of freedom, one unlike any I’d ever felt. I was so inspired visually. It was hard to contain the overwhelm I felt, the best kind of overwhelm you can imagine. I can’t believe I’m here, seeing this. It’s like a dream.

Sure, a few times I got lost. And I even had two panic attacks, one in Copenhagen at a train station and one trying to find a bus station in Stockholm while dragging about forty pounds of luggage. That trip required ten airplane flights, countless bus rides and a handful of trains. The travel part of travel is always the hardest. But overall, I survived unscathed.

Since then I have traveled to different places in Europe four more times, twice with my wife and twice by myself. All of the trips have been fantastic, but the solo trips are special in their own way. When I travel by myself, I am making the most of my time, because I am seeing the things that are the most important to me. Sure, I don’t get to experience things with other people (aside from a few times when I hang out with people I know who live in those countries), which for me only means that I take in the experience more fully, because I, alone, am responsible for enjoying and remembering it.

People ask me a lot about traveling alone, especially as a woman. How is it for you? Are you scared? Do you get lonely? While I do occasionally get scared, I am getting used to being scared, which, over time, makes me less scared. During my latest solo trip to the South of France last month, I felt the least scared or intimated since my solo adventures began five years ago, and I don’t speak or understand a lick French beyond Bonjour! And Merci! and a few other words and phrases. I chalk that up to experience. Doing scary things over and over makes them less scary. And, no, I never get lonely.

It is not lost on me that traveling is a privilege. Travel costs money, even when you do it on the cheap. I am also very lucky to be married to someone who not only tolerates but encourages me to do the stuff I love and to pursue all of my passions, even if it means being away from home for periods of time. I think for many women, the idea of going off alone to travel is a much more complicated thing because the person they share their life with might not understand or support the idea. I also don’t have kids or a horribly expensive mortgage. Taking time away from work is the hard part for me. I feel so lucky that the travel part is easy.

But if you are someone who wants to travel and can travel by yourself, and you enjoy being alone, I really encourage it. I am not alone in my love for solo travel. Every time I scroll through Instagram, another one of my female friends is traveling alone. Seems like every time I turn around my friend artist Elizabeth Olwen is traveling by herself somewhere in the world (often at the same time as me). My best friend Jen Hewett travels solo almost every year. We joke often that we should “meet up” on our solo travels.

I also imagine solo travel isn’t for everyone. You have to like being alone for long periods of time in very unfamiliar environments. You have to be able to advocate for yourself when you are in a pinch — when you are lost, or unsure which train to get on, or when you’ve lost your ticket or it isn’t working in the machine, or you’re not sure which line to get in, etc etc. You have to learn to navigate cultures where men may talk to you inappropriately or, conversely, ignore you. Dealing with these kinds of situations isn’t rocket science, but you have to be comfortable protecting your personal space, asking strangers for help and being slightly vulnerable. The good news is, most of the time people are very kind.

For me, the freedom that comes with solo travel outweighs all of the stuff that is sometimes uncomfortable. I love seeing new sites: architecture, cathedrals, boutiques, museums, vistas, historical monuments, nature. And so planning and tackling days of sightseeing on my own is one of my greatest pleasures. What do I want to see today? Do I just want to wander? Or go to this museum? Maybe I’ll try this restaurant? I have so much energy, maybe I’ll walk the entire city! And I can do all of this without anyone else’ approval or permission or negotiation. Pure bliss!

“I guess I’m too selfish to travel well with other people,” writes author Alice Steinbach. While I do love to punctuate my solo travels with travels with other people, I feel similarly. Where is my next solo trip? I am not exactly sure, but I’m already scheming. Stay tuned.