Traveling is often a group activity. It’s a great opportunity to make special memories with friends and family and has other benefits such as cheaper Uber rides, and not having to plan everything yourself. I also found that there are some substantial negatives that lead me to advocate traveling by myself on occasion.
My own solo traveling experience comes from late January, where I had a few weeks free between my flight into Madrid and the time in which classes at my University started in February. The first week was spent sleeping and getting over jetlag. I went to Zaragoza for my friend’s birthday and enjoyed the cool weather, Moorish architecture, and the rich history of the Aragon family. The next day I spent hours planning eleven days of travel, probably my best chance to get far away from Spain this semester.
While traveling alone may not seem as enjoyable as being with friends, I was excited. The freedom I would have for the next eleven days, to do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted, in whatever city or nation that I picked, was enormous. When we’re in the states, we don’t live up to the freedom we have. We are constantly bombarded by classes, exams, professional obligations, family meetings, social media, and the need to communicate with others constantly. Being abroad is like a breath of fresh air, and I had been looking forward to this opportunity immensely.
The first place I decided to go with my newfound freedom was Budapest, and the first intentional choice I made on the trip was staying at a party hostel in Budapest. At this point, I’d never stayed in a hostel before, so a normal one would’ve been a safe bet, but a party hostel is a great (cheap!) way to meet people. I met some cool people on the first night there, but the rest of my time in Budapest was spent in a flurry seeing monuments and art museums. By the second day, I was too exhausted to party.
I then flew to Italy where I had planned to spend five days in Rome and two in Florence. Here I learned another important thing in favor of traveling alone versus in a group. I went up St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, something I highly recommend. The trek up is enjoyable because of the cramped corridors, the angle at which you ascend, and ultimately the inspiring view at the top. I had a similar experience in Florence, climbing the tower right next to the Duomo. The tower is 84.7 meters high, and you can climb to almost the very top. The pathway up is for people going both up and down, and it’s hardly more than a shoulder’s width, making it a squeeze. On top of that, after each climb of about 100 stairs, there’s another level, and then another and another. It’s reminiscent of climbing a mountain with false peaks; the tower grows in height right in front of your eyes.
For me, there is a singular joy in this kind of exploratory venture, whether it be navigating the tight catacombs of Paris or entering the cavernous Cathedral of Zaragoza. These activities are not something we do every day, and the journey is the meaningful part, although the pleasing destination helps. By knowing what activities are inherently fun for you, you can make trips enjoyable. This doesn’t only apply to individual travel, and inspiring others to have fun simply can lead to better memories made.
What I learned in my eleven days of travel and the succeeding weekends of group travel with roommates and friends can be summed up in a few short guidelines. I believe that we all know these sub-consciously, but by being more intentional about applying them to travel plans, we can improve our experience and be happier.
1. Don’t feel the need to do more than you can enjoy
It is easy to get caught up in trying to see every monument and art museum in a city. Often, I find myself checking the TripAdvisor ‘top 10 things to do in…’ a few times in a day, trying to fill any extra time before nightfall. I learned in Budapest that this is not always the best. Being exhausted at the end of a day is not necessarily a mark of good traveling. I find that anywhere I go when I am more tired will be enjoyed less, and sometimes it’s better to chill out on a plaza. The amount of chilling required is different for everyone, but being conscious of your energy levels can improve a stay in a foreign city.
2. Follow local etiquette – but still have fun
Since many European countries have an extremely long history, they often have specific rules and etiquette. This is obviously something to be wary of, as a lot of the etiquette is in place for a reason, and you can get into trouble by breaking the rules. It is also usually best to not perpetuate the stereotype of the “loud tourist”. All I’m suggesting is to follow the rules but still enjoy yourself. In a park in Porto, for example, my friends and I engaged in a quiet game of hide and seek. We were quiet and respectful of the other guests and rules of the park, but a little power walking and sneaking around made our visit memorable. It sounds kind of lame writing it here, but I did have fun.
3. It’s okay to split up
When traveling with friends, the simple fact is not everyone enjoys the same activities. By splitting up for a day or half-day, everyone in the group can find something closer to their interests. Also, when traveling for extended periods in groups, it can be fun to hang out with a smaller group of people because the dynamic, conversation, and humor will change. Being alone for a few hours can also be a good refresher, and make company more enjoyable when you meet up again.