The hardest decision that faces most gap year and career break travellers is not choosing between Africa, Asia, Europe or South America. Nor is it, packing the complete world travel guide (just in case) or a lifetime supply of insect repellent. Choosing whether to travel with friends or to go it alone is actually the most important decision youll ever make, and its one that will affect every aspect of your trip.
Whether youre 17 or going on 70, if you havent ever been away by yourself before, it can seem like the most terrifying thing in the world. Though it seems incredibly daunting, boldly going where youve never gone before can be a fantastically liberating experience. Travelling alone gives you the freedom to go wherever you want and do whatever you want; all you need to do is make sure that you make the most of every opportunity and experience along the way!
A little soul searching
Spending time away from everything and everyone youre used to will give you the perfect opportunity to not only do new and exciting things, but to learn a lot of things you never knew about yourself. Relying on your own abilities may seem a little too Bear Grylls but youll be surprised by your newfound sense of capability and independence.
Travelling is a great way to learn about new cultures and challenge yourself, and that doesnt necessarily mean eating unidentified bugs. From climbing Everest to teaching a class of 200 in northern Africa, going it alone will open up a whole world of new experiences that you never thought you could cope with, and give you a whole new set of skills to bring home with you.
A social extravaganza
Travelling with friends can be an amazing experience, but it can also be a limiting one. Setting off with your buddies or your partner might feel comforting, but its all too easy to end up relying on each other so much that you miss out on opportunities to meet new people. Without your trusty friends at your side, youll be far more likely to make an effort to seize each chance to make new friends and youll get to know a lot more people.
Whether youre travelling independently or with a company you will come across people from all walks of life; staying in hostels, interacting with the locals and even as you travel from place to place, its guaranteed that youll meet some like minded people along the way, and almost certain that youll find a few lifelong friends. Dont forget that there are hundreds of travellers out there who have decided to go it alone and they will be just as keen as you are to make new friends.
If you want, a cast-iron guarantee that youll see a few friendly faces when you get out there, the best solution is to go through a company. Travelling as part of a group or volunteer project, you can be certain that there will be other people there and quite a few of them will be solo travellers too. Companies like Real Gap send out a buddy list a few weeks before you go, which gives contact details of all of the travellers going on the same trip as you so you can get in touch before you leave, swap packing tips and maybe even arrange a group flight.
A chance to be selfish
Travelling on your own gives you the chance to be utterly and completely selfish. You can plan to do exactly what you want, where you want, and for however, long you feel like doing it. There will be no need to compromise on which famous sites you want to see and how long or how short your trip up the mountain is; your itinerary will be completely up to you. You might miss your friends for a little while but youll soon appreciate the freedom of choice you have without them.
Youll also be able to make the most of any opportunities that come your way; if you make some new friends and decide that you want to tag along with them for a few weeks or fall in love with a place and want to stay there a little longer, you can. If youre travelling with a company and decide that you want to change your trip or project, there will be no other feelings to consider than your own, so you can always do whats right for you. After all, if you cant make your trip of a lifetime all about you, when can you?
Top solo travel tips
If youre travelling alone, there are a few essential things you need to do to get the most you possibly can out of your gap year or career break trip, here are the top 3.
Life as a traveller is nothing like life at home, while you wouldnt strike up a conversation with the person next to you in Tesco, thats exactly the kind of thing that will win you friends overseas. Now is the time to get yourself down to the hostel bar, take part in the optional activities and try out your phrase book on the locals! Travelling alone is the best possible cure for shyness, and you will definitely get back what you put in!
Be aware of your personal safety
Through travelling is probably the only situation where its good to talk to strangers, you still need to be aware of where you are and what youre doing. Personal safety may not be the most exciting of things but it is important when youre in an unfamiliar country with not altogether familiar people. Making new friends is great but make sure you dont get too intoxicated, and keep any eye on your valuables when youre out and about. Its a good idea to keep your loved ones updated on how youre doing by sending emails or writing an online blog, that way theyll be able to track of where you are and whats going on.
If youre keen on safety issues, companies like Real Gap offer specialised safety courses that will help you to prepare for any eventuality and give you a lot more confidence about setting off on your own.
Manage your expectations
When youre travelling to a new country youre likely to experience a little of whats known as culture shock. The best way to make sure you get the most out of your trip is to be prepared; do some research into your destinations cultures, traditions and history. Its important to respect the culture of the country youre visiting; different countries have different social rules and different standards of life, its your job to fit in and knowing what to expect will make it a lot easier.
If youre travelling with a company youll get a pre-departure pack full of country and trip information, it might seem tedious but its a good idea to read every single page. Youll definitely be wishing youd read up a bit more if youre the only one who turns up in shorts and a t-shirt in monsoon season!