Six Pros and Cons of Backpacking Alone

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When I was in college, I had dreams of backpacking alone around the world. A friend of mine had given me a book called, World Stompers: A Global Travel Manifesto by Brad Olsen. Reading it, I was instantly hooked on the idea of traveling solo around the world. In true planner fashion, as soon as I finished the book, I sat down and made a list of all the countries I wanted to visit. Then I set about trying to figure out a plan for how to make that Round-the-World travel dream a reality.

Sadly, as my college years went by, the idea of backpacking alone around the world was pushed aside. It was quickly replaced by thoughts of my pending graduation and what I would be doing post-college. The pragmatic side of me over-powered my dreamy idealistic side. I focused instead on finding something that would “help my career,” rather than simply indulge my wanderlust.

So I chose to go into the Peace Corps rather than do a Round-the-World trip. I convinced myself that spending an extended amount of time in one country would be far better than spending a few days in many countries. As a compromise to myself, I allowed a month of backping alone through Indonesia before I headed off to Togo for the Peace Corps.

A month of backpacking alone in Indonesia

That month turned out to be quite different from what I had expected. While there were many aspects of backpacking alone that I loved (the flexibility and spontaneity), there were other aspects that turned out to be quite difficult (the constant attention from being a woman traveling solo in Indonesia). As in every part of travel, there are positive and negative aspects. But I wished that someone would have briefed me on the pros and cons of backpacking alone (and as a woman) in Indonesia before I embarked on my trip.

The view from the villa in Ubud (July 2004)

If I could travel back in time and talk to my younger self, here’s what I would say about traveling solo.

Pro: Flexibility and spontaneity

Solo travel means that you’re not tied to the whims of someone else. Your travel itinerary is whatever you make it. You can spend as little or as long a time in a particular place as you want.

During my trip to Indonesia, I ended up spending four days in Yogyakarta. During that time, I took dance lessons at a local dance studio. Also while there, I met some travelers who were renting a villa in Ubud. I eventually stayed with them for a few days later on during the trip.

Since my travel plans were open, I didn’t really have to answer to anyone (although I did meet up with my family a few times during my trip).  It was relatively easy for me to extend or shorten my visits in each city that I was visiting.

Pro: Meeting new people

On a related note, backpacking alone really opened me up to meeting new people. Aside from the travelers that I stayed with in Ubud, I also met two young girls at the train station in Yogyakarta who were returning home from a trip to Bali. And while I was studying dance in Yogyakarta, I had a chance to hang out with the dancers who were part of the dance studio.

Part of being on your own means that you have to actively seek out interactions with other people. This opens you up to meeting so many more new people than you otherwise would have met traveling with a someone else.

Backstage at a dance performance (July 2004)

Con: Boredom and loneliness

A negative aspect of backpacking alone, however, is having to deal with boredom and loneliness. I did not expect this at all. When you travel with someone, it’s amazing how much time gets filled up by simply conversing with that other person. When you’re traveling solo, there is no one to talk to. You have to find ways to entertain yourself.

At the time, I was dating someone back in Seattle. And that month away from him was hard to deal with. That was partially why I actively sought out new people. Meeting new people helped keep me from being bored and lonely.

Con: Unwanted attention

Another downside to traveling solo is the unwanted attention you draw. This is especially true as a woman traveling on her own in Indonesia. People in Indonesia are not used to seeing women traveling alone. For me, since I am ethnically Indonesian, it would catch certain people (especially men) off guard.

In Solo, the person staying in the hotel room next to mine was a man. Sitting outside my room, I struck up a conversation with him out of politeness. But the conversation lingered far longer than I was comfortable with. I had to make up a getaway excuse fast. I have no doubt that any woman who has traveled solo has had to deal with this kind of situation at one point or another during her travels.

The Borobudur Temple (July 2004)

Con: Safety concerns

On a more serious level, as a woman backpacking alone, there are always concerns about my safety lingering in the back of my mind. Fortunately, during my trip to Indonesia, nothing really happened to me that caused me to fear for my safety. There was really only one incident that made me feel nervous.

One night in Solo, I asked a becak (pedicab) driver to take me to a dance performance at one of the local cultural centers. He insisted on staying with me throughout the show, and on the way back, he started mentioning to me that he’s great at massages if I ever wanted one. My skin instantly shuddered. All I wanted at that moment was to get to my hotel, get in my room and lock the door. Luckily, I pretended not to understand what he was saying, and he didn’t press the issue further.

Pro: Sense of independence

Despite, some of the cons, the one positive part of backpacking alone is the sense of independence that you feel. As an American woman traveler, I realize that I am in a position of privilege compared to many other women out there. Yet I feel that not being able to utilize this privilege would be a disservice to those women who aren’t so lucky.

I have always had an independent streak, and my desire to travel is just a manifestation of that independence. Traveling solo sends a message to the world that women can be just as adventurous as men, and that they shouldn’t be afraid of exploring the world around them.

A woman backpacking alone feeds a monkey a banana at the Monkey Forest in Bali, Indonesia.
Feeding monkeys in Ubud (July 2004)

Learning from my experience traveling solo

In the end, I found that my experience traveling solo was something that helped shape me as a traveler. I’m glad that I only ended up backpacking alone for a month, as it was already tough enough as it is. In a way, it actually helped prepare me for the difficulties of living on my own in the Peace Corps for two years.

These days, I rarely travel alone, except when I have to travel for work, and I actually do prefer to travel with my husband and kids. But now that I have kids of my own, I intend to encourage them to do some solo travels when they become old enough. In my opinion, it is the best way to experience the world, and the best way to really find yourself.

Have you ever done a solo trip? Share your pros and cons of backpacking alone in the comments!

Six Pros and Cons of Backpacking Alone | The Wandering Daughter

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17 Responses

  1. I’ve never really done it. I’ve booked trips on my own, but with groups ( I met my husband on one). I think, honestly, I wouldn’t ever have felt safe or have been able to sleep in a hotel room alone, I’ve never been very good at that. The rest wouldn’t bother me. Did you ever struggle with that? We travel full time now, husband and 2 kids, and there’s no way I’d ever want o go back to being single!

    1. Hi Alyson, the hardest part for me about traveling solo wasn’t the safety part (although there were a few occasions where I definitely was not in the safest of situations!), but it was really the loneliness part. It’s being alone in your thoughts, which can be both good and bad. I still travel solo from time to time for work, and it’s a good chance to do some self-reflection. But mostly, I travel with my husband and 2 kids (like you, though not full time) and I’m never alone with my thoughts. So I guess it’s all about balance.

  2. I’ve travelled solo, as a couple and in groups. There are benefits of all three but I must say my favourite is as a couple and I don’t mind travelling in a small group either.

    1. I prefer traveling as a couple or in a small group too (these days, the small group is my family!) What was the best and hardest part about traveling solo for you?

  3. I was supposed to travel alone to Cape Town last summer but didn’t actually make it out there. So this summer I’ll be doing 10 days around the world pretty much haha alone. I’m a little nervous. Definitely worried about being lonely cause I like traveling with friends

    1. Stay safe, Genie! I’m sure you’ll be fine, and maybe you’ll make new friends on your travels.

  4. I don’t often travel solo – but when I do these days, I find I appreciate the solitude as it’s a chance to take time out for myself. But my solo trips never last for very long! I agree that it’s easier to interact with other people as a solo – when you’re in a couple or group, there’s often no need to seek out others, and they’re far less likely to approach you too! Interesting article!

    1. Thanks Marion! Traveling solo is certainly a good chance to do some “me” time. It’s a great opportunity for self reflection.

  5. I have never traveled solo but the flexibility of doing what I want would be AMAZING! As you said it allows you the freedom to follow your heart! Maybe one day I will 🙂

  6. Really great overview – you’re right, solo travel is as with anything else, and there are pros and cons to everything in life. So glad you experienced it and that it shaped you – me too! Agree with you on the safety concerns – by and large I think it’s very safe and in most countries I’ve never had a problem – though in Dubai I bought a $40 fake wedding ring because the attention was so much that I needed something to mitigate it! Love the pretending not to understand approach too though! I think it’s mostly about common sense and keeping your wits about you, escaping situations as soon as your gut tells you it’s time to get out of there.

  7. I personally like to mix it up. If I go somewhere for a month about one and a half weeks can be solo the rest I’d prefer to be with someone else. To be able to travel solo is huge independence and a confidence builder. It changes you as a person. Traveling with others is about sharing joint memories. Being someplace or seeing something at the same time and talking about it an hour or a year later. Great post.

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