Lessons I learnt on my first post-pandemic solo travel trip in Colombia
The pandemic did away with the joy of many things – including, for many of us, solo travel. Full disclosure: I did travel alone a couple of times when lockdown restrictions were first lifted during the summer of 2020. In a way, during those uncertain months, the inability to plan ahead made independent travel easier to facilitate than en-masse, as there was no need to forward-plan and coordinate with others’ annual leave timetables (as a freelancer I have more leeway). I spent a week working from coffee shops in Berlin; another finishing the edits for my book at a cottage in Buckinghamshire.
My whole life was solo during the pandemic
However, it wasn’t the same as the solo adventures I’d been on in pre-pandemic years. Because, honestly, my whole life was solo at that point: living alone and single throughout lockdown, and working from home, with a still very limited social life. Typically, solo travel is a once-in-a-while treat; a stepping-away from a busy calendar; an opting-out from the pace of London life; a time to reacquaint myself with, well, myself.
And without a sense of this contrast – because there wasn’t much going on on home turf – I didn’t appreciate solo trips the way I wanted to. Alone time is a fluctuating commodity – that’s something I’ve realised through writing about it for the past three years. And in the confusion of the pandemic, the long stretches of alone time I craved as part of my adventures for one had temporarily lost their appeal. So I decided to pause my solo traveller aspirations until the world had shifted back towards normal – and, in turn, I’d had a chance to recalibrate.
Read more: why mid-life friendships will rock your world
Fast forward to March 2022. A few months into the return of office working, events and forward-planned holidays, things finally looked back to normal, and I began to dream of a trip away. Life had become hectic again. Joyful – but hectic. Looking ahead at the summer, it was punctuated with hen parties and weddings – all lovely occasions, but none planned on my own terms. Put bluntly, I wanted something for myself.
Having turned 30 last year, I had also qualified to go on a Flash Pack trip (which are specifically for travellers in their 30s and 40s) – which had long been on my bucket list. I realised that booking on to a group trip for solos could be the perfect hybrid experience to build my confidence around travelling alone again. And so that’s what I did, joining a nine-day Colombia adventure beginning at the start of April with a three-day solo stay added to the end. Here’s what I learnt (or remembered) about going on solo adventures:
You need to make things happen
Courage and momentum can be harder to generate, when you’re by yourself. For me, it didn’t end with booking a flight and getting myself to a foreign country – and there were times, especially early on, when I found myself lingering in the hotel room a little longer than I would have liked for fear of the unknown (and no-one to wrench me through jet lag, for instance). This was something I soon overcame, and the fear of missing even a second of my holiday soon eclipsed that initial feeling of trepidation. The trick was to remind myself, again and again, that magic awaited on the other side of that hotel door – and to take that first step.
It’s all about following your curiosities
Travelling alone means trusting your instincts; honing in on the small details that interest you, and making them the focus of your trip. There’s no need to visit the maritime museum, or yet another church, if you don’t want to. I spent the best part of an afternoon photographing the gorgeous door knobs and door fixtures in Cartagena, brass ornaments in the shape of everything from octopuses to lizards, which (it transpires) are a secret coded insight into the city’s cultural history.
Travelling alone means trusting your instincts
I also spent a lot of time wandering around the vibrant markets, which sell custom-made jewellery and swimwear; sitting in the cobbled squares reading while drinking a bottle of the local beer, Club Colombia; making a playlist, via Shazam, of every song I loved when I was out, so that I had a way to remember the best moments. The way I reason it, solo travel isn’t the time for following the law of ‘shoulds’, or through working through someone else’s list of recommendations. After all, I decided to come on holiday with myself – not to go on someone else’s.
Balance is key
As a champion of spending time alone, I’m often met with the strange assumption that more is more. But, as I mentioned earlier, it’s all about balance. That’s true for me, as an extrovert energised by time alone; but I think most of us feel the need for a balanced diet of social time and solitude. When I plan solo trips, my focus is around balancing these two kinds of experience.
Read more: fun truths no-one tells you about life in your 30s
With my recent Colombia trip, this came effortlessly; having booked a group ‘solo’ trip with plenty of free time in the itinerary, and a few days tacked on to the end to spend by myself. It was heaven; think group bachata nights, or rooftop cocktails, or shared suppers followed by lazy mornings reading a novel in bed. Or else mornings spent discovering a new city alone on foot before meeting with the group for a gorgeous lunch where we’d discuss our individual experiences, and offer recommendations to one another. It was a welcome reminder that my solo travels in future should be planned with some in-built socialising in mind; for instance, group walking tours or cookery classes at a local home. Solo travel doesn’t mean eschewing all social contact – but it does mean choosing to opt in on your terms. On that note…
Travelling alone, you’re never alone
“I feel less alone when I’m travelling alone,” I overheard a backpacker say on the plane back. I understand what he meant. Travelling solo opens up a world of possibility: chance encounters, new experiences. It might sound unbelievable to those who’ve never travelled solo, but you’re far more likely to meet others when you do so, compared to when you’re in a group. This can be down to something as a simple as where you’re sat at a restaurant; for instance, I befriended a fellow solo traveller (who was also from London) while sitting at the countertop seating in a ceviche restaurant in Cartagena, and I’ve heard of friends doing the same at bar-style configurations.
You’re far more likely to meet other people travelling solo
Equally, it reminded me of a time when I went on a walking tour in Paris – and ended up staying on for cocktails in an old haunt of Hemingway’s, with the other two solo travellers in the group. You’re also simply more open and observant to what others’ situations are, so you’ll be more likely to notice fellow solos. Of course, you don’t have to meet new people – and some nights you won’t want to, and that’s perfectly OK (a well-placed book can send the right message, in my experience). But if you’re looking for company, it’s easier to find than you think.
Remember to pack the basics
What is worth remembering is that solo travel, just like living alone, takes self-sufficiency. That means always double checking that you have your phone, wallet, keys – plus sunscreen and – as, sadly, the pandemic isn’t quite over yet – a mask. Take it from a single-person household who has only once locked herself out of her flat in four years (although maybe I just jinxed it…), spending the day trying to find or replace someone you’ve lost, or forgotten, is not the most triumphant experience.
I did this when I walked out without both SPF (I was lobster-red by this point, given I had got into a bad habit of relying on friends’ sunscreen on past holidays) and a mask, which I needed for shops. Thankfully, I was staying in the centre, so I was able to pop back to the hotel – but in general, a sturdy bag packed full of those essential items is a wise way to start the day as a solo traveller.
You’ll learn from the hard moments
There’s a tendency when we’re travelling – particularly as a solo – to beat ourselves up whenever things go wrong. A perfectly normal obstacle arises – a mixed-up reservation, hopping on the wrong train, a confusion with the order – and in the moment we’ll lose confidence, I should never have come, I should have stayed at home. But I’ve learnt that these setbacks are actually part and parcel of the travel experience.
Read more: why 2022 is the year of milestone travel
For instance, when my case went missing on my flight to Colombia – meaning I was left with one white T-shirt and a two-piece blue tracksuit (known affectionately as my ‘Smurf suit’) for the first 48 hours of the trip. Not ideal, of course – but also an exercise in minimalism, and making do with what you have. And I had no less fun in those first 48 hours, than I had on the rest of the trip (perhaps more so in some respects, because I didn’t have to go through the rigmarole of unpacking).
Solo travel is an act of self-love
It’s been a bumpy, chaotic couple of years of just getting through, navigating an ever-changing lockdown landscape. Living alone, that’s where I was up to with myself. I was in survival mode, still – and I’d stopped paying attention to those little things that make life worth living: fun, laughter, new facts, new experiences. Booking this trip, and giving myself that experience on my own terms – pushing myself gently out of the lockdown rut – was an act of self-love.
I’m still brave enough to explore the world alone
Booking it was a power move, an affirmation that after two years of being stuck in with me, myself and I, I was still brave enough to explore the world alone. It took physically doing the trip, and coming out on the other side, to prove myself to myself again. So, for anyone whose solo travel muscles – whose confidence – feels weakened after the past couple of years, I urge you to get back out there again, because sometimes it does just take that first step to remind you: you’ve got this.
Francesca Specter is host of the podcast Alonement – all about the positive side of spending time alone. To celebrate this community – and the joys of solo travel – Flash Pack is giving listeners of Alonement £100 off their next Flash Pack adventure.
To claim this offer, simply quote the code “ALONEMENT” when booking your next Flash Pack escape.