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Why Travel Alone?

Lessons Learned from 40 Years of Solo Travel

By Russell B. Sunshine

Here’s what I’ve learned about the advantages of solo travel from nearly 40 years of going it alone on five continents:

1. No distractions. Being alone on the road focuses your energies and attention, intensifying the travel experience. Without the distractions of an insulating group or a companion, your antennae are always up.

2. Unobtrusiveness. Traveling alone is ideal for unobtrusively observing. Whether in a forest or a crowd, the single traveler can watch, listen, and learn with a minimum of disruption. There was a period in China in the mid-1980s when foreign visitors were no longer novel but local customs had not yet been strangled by globalization. Alone and silent, I could stroll through provincial towns with a low profile, Marco Polo in jeans.

3. A Spur to Immersion. When interaction is your chief objective, solitude on the road can be a powerful spur, prodding you to reach out to make local contacts and gain insights impossible to extract from guidebooks.

On Huahine, in the Society Islands, a village barber responded warmly to my expression of interest in Polynesian archaeology. He rang up a cousin who turned out to be the most knowledgeable local expert on stones and bones. She walked me up and down hills in an intensive tutorial which could never have been booked through commercial agents.

4. Openness to Others. In addition to encouraging you to open up, your solitary status often encourages others to make first contact. When you are insulated by a traveling companion or group, strangers are likely to keep their distance.

In Tonga, 20 fellow passengers and I were stranded by a plane with a wobbly wing. I was rescued by a local couple who quietly invited me to their private island.

5. A lean profile. Solo benefits can be logistical as well as interpersonal. Being a party of one makes you far easier to fit in—for a restaurant table, theater seat, or any last-minute booking. On more than one occasion I’ve been moved to the front of a queue when a single place opened up and larger parties couldn’t take advantage of the slot. When there are only two flights a week out of Dushanbe or Entebbe, going alone is the fastest way home.

The lean profile literally takes up less room, reducing jostles, frictions, and travel stress. It also simplifies enroute decisions. Every group decision requires consultation and negotiation; often the outcome is a compromise satisfying to no one. Most of us have had personal friendships strained by the tensions of traveling together. Enforced proximity combined with differing priorities, moods, metabolisms, and budgets can soon take their toll.

Solo travel feels good. It’s a rest cure, offering respite and recuperation from routine pressures—time in which to relax, refresh, and recharge. Itineraries can be planned and rooms, transport, meals, and movies picked without hesitation or haggles. This freedom can energize you. Your solo trip need not imply any disloyalty to family or friends. On the contrary, getting away on your own can be a powerful boost for a loving relationship back home. My wife and I often say, only half in jest, that our frequent travel separations are one key to our marriage’s continuing freshness after 30 years. Leaving a partner at home frees her (or him) up to concentrate on personal projects without the hundred interruptions and obligations of daily cohabitation. In our case, my wife is a novelist. For her, my trips create cherished interludes in which to devote herself intensively and exclusively to her writing.

I also love to travel with my wife and with other friends. But if they're not available or interested, that's no good reason to keep me at home.

RUSSELL SUNSHINE, a U.S. citizen who has lived and worked in 25 countries, now lives in Umbria in Italy.