Is long-term solo travel… lonely?

Is long-term solo travel… lonely?

Benny

Photo taken using my camera's auto-timer of course...

Whether or not I feel lonely in travelling by myself for such a long time is one of the biggest questions I get asked when people hear about my lifestyle of over eight years of solo travel, and something I’ll tell you all about today. What you read may surprise you!

“Isn’t travelling alone… lonely?I get this question several times a week, both in person and via email.

I find it very interesting and curious, because the question itself is loaded with presumptions and bias.

To show you what I mean, picture this:

The non-travel lonely lifestyle

For four years I studied Electronic Engineering in UCD (Dublin) – one of the country’s most demanding courses, with full time classes (9am-6pm, Mon-Fri), some evening courses, labs, homework, incredible amounts of studying for very complex course material (including quantum physics and very advanced applied Mathematics) and a looming sixteen examinations at the end of the year, where if you fail just one of those many examinations, you have to repeat the entire year!

Because of this it had the highest failure rate of any course at the university, and many people would simply not make it through to the next year. With my drive though, I didn’t just want to pass, but to get a first class honours to ensure better opportunities later in life.

The pressures of this course meant that I poured my whole life into it, and barely had any social life in college, and definitely no girlfriend or even time to “play around”. I got up, went to class, came home, studied and did assignments, watched TV by myself to relax and then all weekend long gave private Mathematics lessons to schoolkids to help me fund the expenses of living in Dublin.

I went out to parties about six times a year. Not quite the fun college lifestyle I was seeing on my TV shows.

It doesn’t take a big stretch of the imagination to realize that this was a very lonely lifestyle. And yet how many times over the four years do you think people asked me “Are you lonely as an electronic engineering student?”

Zero.

The thing is, many lifestyles are lonely. A single mother who has to work two jobs, people who are settled away from their home town for work purposes who find it hard to make new friends, unhappy introverts, and thousands of other types of people stuck in situations and routines they see no way out of. And yet nobody ever asks them how lonely they are. I am very sure that so many people reading this post feel the same way.

It has always struck me as unfair that travellers (who do this by choice) are the privileged few to be asked this question, when so many other people who have no choice on the matter would need to share their frustrations much more than us.

And the ironic thing about it all? I’m way less lonely now and way happier about my life than I ever was as a “settled” student in Dublin.

What is lonely?

The thing about the question is that it has really leaves a lot to be defined. Lonely compared to what? Compared to before I started travelling? Compared to you? Compared to locals where I am? Compared to a “typical” single guy my age? Compared to a a married guy with children and an active social life?

The thing is, there are many aspects of loneliness. You can be lonely even if surrounded by people who know you because you feel they don’t “get” you, you can be lonely in a long-term relationship because you realise it isn’t going great, you can be lonely because you are stuck in a routine and not having deep conversations with people etc.

It just seems so obvious to many people that I must feel lonely as a solo traveller, since I don’t have the same person physically constantly there with me. But to me loneliness depends way more on the person’s mindset than on their situation.

By getting over the shy delusion, and maintaining some personality when I meet new people, I can make new friends very quickly, generally no matter where I am. Some places have been tougher to do this, but with persistence I always make one or several true friends.

“But you can’t make a true friend in just a few months!!” Of course, I disagree. Like learning a language, you can either take many many years to piece together aspects of a relationship, or you can do it intensively and get to know someone quicker and open yourself up to them at a much deeper level, even in a short time.

In Ireland we say “A stranger is just a friend you haven’t met yet”. I keep this philosophy on the road, and don’t restrict my definition of friend to the sadly restrictive one of someone who I have known since childhood. No matter where you are on the road, if you are open to making a new friend – either with other travellers like yourself, or (more ideally) with those from the location you are visiting – you will never feel alone.

The need to have someone there

As well as this, there are certain people who definitely need company more than others. Despite many crazy posts on this blog implying that I’m a 24-hour party animal, I actually spend most of my time on my computer by myself.

And I’m quite happy with this. Some people may desperately need people there all the time (so-called “extroverts”) and some are quite happy by themselves, reading a book, surfing the net, or working on some interesting project.

Even when I’m on my computer, I’m not actually alone. I video Skype my parents every week and feel like I’m back home with the camera in the living room and the fact that I can show them around my place. I chat to great friends of mine from all around the world to see how they are doing via Facebook. To some this “virtual” connection may seem meaningless or superficial, but to me it’s the next best thing to actually being there with someone.

If I’ve had a rough day, I can tell someone about it. Even if I’m in a country where not a single person knows my name, I can always open myself up thanks to the level of connectivity of the 21st century.

So thanks to the Internet and anybody I know being just a phonecall away, I am never truly alone. And that’s forgetting the fantastic local friends I am making that I can open myself up to.

The loneliness and friendships that comes from hurried travel

This year has been a bit different compared to my normal 3-month stays. I decided at the start of the year that I’d have many intensive language and cultural immersion missions, which has ultimately totalled learning six languages. It’s been fun, but next year I will be back to mostly three month stays (starting in January by learning a language I’m not even vaguely familiar with from scratch to fluency, more appropriate to the blog title).

One reason that I’m looking forward to returning to my slower pace is that this year has been more stressful than most because of the lack of deeper relationships due to a quicker pace of travel and other obstacles. I only spent a month in Puerto Galera for example, and adjusted to the local culture slower than usual, so I didn’t make any local life-long friends sadly. I was in Amsterdam and Istanbul for two months each, but I found the Dutch to be very reluctant to make friends with me when I was honest about leaving so soon, and I was ill for most of my stay in Turkey so I wasn’t out much with the very friendly Turks.

Even so, despite these setbacks I made some real friends in these two places that I will stay in touch with for life. It’s harder, but it’s always possible. Even after a measly five days in Cali, I managed to make some incredibly deep friendships and enter into aspects of the locals’ lives that I feel few visitors ever will. Even in short stays you can make friends that count.

As well as this, as the world gets smaller, you start to bump into more and more people as your paths cross again and again. For example, I’ve met Gary Arndt, Matt Kepnes, Rob “Bloggeries”, Scott Young, Jodi Ettenberg, Karol Gajda and actually dozens of others numerous times in various cities, countries, and continents. Not really intentionally, just that our paths happen to cross frequently from common interests. As fellow travellers, I find it very easy to pick up where I left off with each of them, especially since we understand the life of a vagabond (or vagablogger…) and can relate to one another in that way.

Even here in Peru I’ve been hanging out with Dave, my friend from Medellín.

The world is smaller than you think

In Couchsurfing, we have a saying that “The world is smaller than you think”, and I genuinely believe this. You can feel like a little spec alone in the vast lonely universe, or you can accept that we have so many things in common with one another, and that this brings us all closer together.

Perhaps I won’t be meeting someone who I click with perfectly around every corner, but the diversity is what makes this all the more interesting; especially when you see all the things you do actually share with someone despite thousands of kilometres of separation your whole life and a very different culture and upbringing.

Rather than focus on all the reasons why I could feel lonely, I like to look at it with a more “glass is half full” perspective . Loneliness is a state of mind, not a state of latitude and longitude . I simply refuse to think myself into loneliness, the same way I refuse to whine about how hard everything is. Such negative thoughts are self fulfilling prophecies.

The fact that I travel solo encourages me all the more to meet new people, to get outside of my comfort zone, and of course to learn much more about the local language and culture. The “mission” aspect of my travels and the work I do on this site gives me lots to focus on, whereas if I was just a rich kid bouncing around with no purpose, then I’d probably have plenty of time to think myself into loneliness.

I’m very grateful for my current lifestyle. I know I won’t be travelling forever – when I feel like I’ve had enough, I can always decide to settle down and become a long-term part of a community. Until then, such loneliness questions are not something that I ever have on my mind, other than to assure people asking the question that I’m doing quite OK :D

Of course, the aspect of finding love on the road and how that can contribute to feeling a deep connection and avoiding loneliness is a very different kettle of fish, which I’ll come back to in another post to give it the detail it deserves!

Hopefully this post helps put the first two biggest questions in perspective! Thanks as always for reading along and share your thoughts with us in the comments below!

Whether or not I feel lonely in travelling by myself for such a long time is one of the biggest questions I get asked when people hear about my lifestyle of over eight years of solo travel, and something I’ll tell you all about today. What you read may surprise you! “Isn’t travelling alone… lonely?” […]

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  • Juho Juvonen

    My group of friends have changed every year for five years now. So I have been thinking about this question that how long it takes get a true friend. Definitely you can become very good friends in half an year or even in shorter time.  As my location has been changing I have focused on the friends who are living in the same city and not spending too much time in chat speaking with the friends somewhere else. Maybe I am speaking even too little with the friends with who I was closer when we were living in the same city.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      I like to stay in touch with people and maintain friendships. I get to see some of them again and it’s wonderful :)

      • Ajay Jain

        very informative article and comments too…

  • Anonymous

    When I came back home after traveling, I was lonelier than when I was abroad. I live in a very transient spot here in the islands. People come and go. A lot of people won’t make friends until a person has been here for several years. Too bad, it’s their loss! Me, I don’t care if you’ve only been here a day and are leaving next week, if you’re worth getting to know then I want to know you.  I have friends in many places around the world and I am so much the better for it.

    You’re right Benny,  a lot of people  think that travel is very expensive- well, it can be if you let it be or it can be significantly cheaper to travel than where you currently live, especially when you pare down to the essentials. I’ve never felt freer than when I am traveling. 

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    Isso! Tem que falar com pessoas – não pode voltar à desculpa de ser tímida demais cada vez ;)

  • http://www.gapdaemon.com Will – Gap Daemon

    Nice to see a very detailed post on how you feel when travelling long term. Spending time alone in front of a computer has also become routine for me, yet something I also enjoy, during my fluency mission in Spain!

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      Good luck with that!

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    Actually you can go to the beach on Skype :P You can make calls via 3G you know :) And I call my parents on my front-and-back-camera smartphone, not on a computer, so the interactivity is great!

    I miss many things about childhood, like everyone else, but my situation is not unique. People who move to the big city also have to give up childhood friendship. You could have asked me those same questions as an Electronic Engineering student…

    Yes, it’s not the same as meeting face to face, but whining about that doesn’t change much. I have different people I meet face to face, it’s not like I’m living in a cave.

    Of course there are people who know me well! Several who know me better than my family. People seem to think the life of a traveller is extremely superficial. I guess I’ll have to discuss that in the follow up post about finding love on the road.

  • http://midlifesinglemum.blogspot.com Midlife Singlemum

    A very interesting and wise overview of the nature of loneliness. Thank you.

  • http://twitter.com/languageismusic Susanna Zaraysky

    Good points on loneliness. You are right, “Loneliness is a state of mind, not a state of latitude and longitude.” I have had extremely deep conversations with other travelers or locals while on the road. Many times, people open up more to strangers on buses or in guesthouses than to their “close” friends back home. You can sometimes get more objective perspectives on your life from new people than from those who know you well and may see you through certain filters. So keep traveling and making new friends!

  • http://lettersofgreenfinland.blogspot.com/ Ekaterina

    Aren’t you teasing us with the love post again, huh? ;-D 
    Please don’t wait till Valentine, romantic readers are curious! ;-) 

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      What makes you think I’ll be that romantic when I write it? :P

      I think I’ve been teasing people with the love post since I started the blog. Want to make sure you are all on your toes for when it finally arrives!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=515834927 David Yakobovitch

    Benny,
    So true about loneliness and how small the world is.  I find it great to interact with strangers at places when they are eating food by themselves or seem sad waiting in line.  People deserve to have interactions with each other, even if humans are naturally anti-social by birth.

    I had a chance to listen to Karol at Matt’s PajamConf back in October.  He’s a great speaker.  His passion and that of Danielle LaPorte is getting me up to speed to write my first book.  

    On the note of a small world,
    When I went to Israel I saw the rabbi from my city at the Western Wall.  And in Manhattan, I ran into a friend from college.  And in Miami another friend.  All purely coincidental?  I say it was bound to happen — whether by our energies, lifestyles, or randomness.  This life is a journey.  Ride it for all it’s worth.

    David

  • Jeff Winchell

    The kind of realization you are asking for can take decades for the listener to become aware of. But other readers who are further along the path, will welcome it.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    A lot of misadventures mean that I’ve had to grow thick skin, so if someone is mean to me I just brush it off. The last two weeks for example I’ve been getting emails from many many Americans telling me how worthless of a human being I am because of my USA post. I shrug it off as characters on a screen.

    As you may gather from my style, I’m more confrontational than most. My bosses in Italy (two separate jobs) treated me like dirt, but I stood up for myself and told them how crap they are doing at their jobs. Some people like being bosses because the apparent power they have over other human beings. I have so little interest to give them that power – they can fire me first, but usually when push comes to shove and the spotlight gets thrown on them by THEIR boss, they back down and it was all just words.

    In your case I’d tell him that he’s a f*cktard for not realising how nobody knows the street and should have taken that into account, and it serves him right that his reputation is damaged. Sorry you didn’t get to help out, but I still think the story has a happy ending – it’s his reputation, not yours, that’s damaged.

  • Anonymous

    Benny, I just made the connection between your current admirable work ethic and your college years as a studious engineering student. What many people lack when it comes to working on their own, especially while on the go internationally, is discipline. I think what keeps you from getting lonely is that you hold yourself up to a high standard and continually produce blog posts and videos for your audience. Having a work routine and self-made deadlines keeps you focused and confident. When you do go out and meet people in the countries you visit, you can relish your time with those people because you know you have accomplished your self-made goals. This also gives one a sense of self-worth that is attractive to others and therefore helps one make new friends. If one is unhappy with him or herself, he/she will not be pleasant company anywhere in the world. So you make your own happiness.

    For the record, I’m writing this comment from the Silent Room of my local library because I, too, work well on my lonesome.

  • Katie Jurek

    Just purchased the Business Launcher Package, and I’m looking through the stuff now. Seems like a great collection from inspired people from very different backgrounds so far! Thanks for the recommendation. Excited to see your eventual love post, since that’s definitely a topic we’ve been wondering about!

  • Joseph Lemien

    Justin: I’m saddened to hear about this bad experience. As somewhat of a China hand myself, I definitely see the cultural concept of face (miàn zi) present in this situation. It seems that the professor was planning to gain a lot of face for having this connection with you (a rare comodity, as a foreigner) and for bringing you there, and you absense cause him a great loss of face in a VERY public way. However, understanding potential underlying motivations does not excuse a lack of human sympathy. Even if this (selfish) reason is why you were invited, I would still condemn his useless expressions of anger. His angry words won’t change what has already happened, after all. It does seem to be a little bit of incompetency on his part as well, though. Knowing that you are not a local, this professor coordinating the activity probably should have been arranged for someone to meet you and bring you to the location. Regardless, I hope that your life there hasn’t had any other low points like that event!

  • Joseph Lemien

    I enjoyed this post and the past few posts a lot, Benny. Reading some of your thoughts on travel, solitude, lifestyle in general has been very nice, and a lot of it resonated very strongly with me. I am sure that I will meet you on the road someday, and then I’ll be able to tell you this in person, but for now I will just write to you: Keep up the great work, Benny! 

    Although I have often wished that I had someone to share a thought, a meal, or a photo with, I have usually enjoyed travelling alone. The independence and the freedom of it appeals to me, but it also forces me to use the local language more. One cannot discuss with a travel-buddy where the bus station is or how to find a restaurant, and in this way interacting with locals or learning by exploring and experimenting has helped me to grow a lot. Of course, CouchSurfing, hostels, and volunteering are great ways to meet people too!

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    Don’t prepare – buy the ticket and go. ;) The only preparation I’d recommend is to sell everything you own – that stuff is what’s keeping you from breaking free in all likeliness.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    I didn’t coin it – but thanks!

  • http://twitter.com/ImNotHome1 Steve and Maddy

    I feel I know some of my travelling friends (with whom I spent just a few short days) better than many people I’ve known for years… although it is sad to be constantly saying goodbye to such great people! Lovely post.

    • http://twitter.com/ImNotHome1 Steve and Maddy

      ( ~ Maddy)

  • http://www.escapemanila.com/ escapemanila

    Nice one, i’m traveling solo most of the time as well and i totally agree with your point about you can be lonely even if surrounded with people at the same time you can be alone and not lonely :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/aimeemillwood Aimee Millwood

    After reading this post and your other posts on Shyness and Personality, I’ve got to say I couldn’t agree with you more and I’m very inspired by what you have to say. I’m preparing to part from my boyfriend on our travels and travel solo for the first time, and I’m doing it to challenge myself because I’ve always thought of myself as someone who “has” to be with other people and “can’t” do anything alone. But I do believe these are self-limiting beliefs that can easily be melted away if one only gives oneself the chance to grow and change. I’ve been scared to travel solo, but I’m also excited at the same time because I know the challenge will be great. Posts like this give me great hope and inspiration!! Any time I worry about being lonely I’m going to return to this post – thank you Benny!

  • Bijaya Ghimire

    Yes, some people give up and surrender but many keep up enjoying solitude

  • Alba

    I admire you.
    I’ll be 21 in 5 months… would I be as brave as you are? I wish I was. In my opinion you have the best lifestyle ever. But you always write about the wonderful things of it, and I’d love to know as well how is the other side, the dark one, the bad aspects about your lifestyle.

  • http://twitter.com/aryehgizbar ariel dapito

    “and thousands of other types of people stuck in situations and routines
    they see no way out of. And yet nobody ever asks them how lonely they
    are. I am very sure that so many people reading this post feel the same
    way.”

    I agree 100%. very nice read. now I don’t feel that lonely anymore :) It’s funny just by reading the first few paragraphs, I actually feel the same way. et vous parlez français aussi eh? actuellement, j’etudie français et thaï. learning languages somehow makes you feel like you’re travelling but you’re not. but your technique is better, faster way to learn :)

  • disqus_njhv8a6iot

    I enjoyed and appreciated your post on Travel and Loneliness. I’m a medical professional who travels as a career. Although I had a stable full-time position, friends, and a boyfriend at my home city of 4 years, I chose to leave it all and travel. Yes, I am lonely at times but little more than before. Most times, I’m simply shocked by how how lonely I’m not! It’s delightful to move hundreds of miles away from family and friends and find I can make a friend, regardless of age or culture. It’s always wonderful to hear another career traveler’s thoughts on the topic. Thank you for sharing!

  • Thomas Kokozis

    I consider my self lucky that i fell to your page, should you ever visit Greece or wanna learn Greek contact me.

  • Brent

    Benny, you make some awesome points regarding a lot of people’s perception of loneliness. I’ve been guilty myself for thinking very narrowly about it. Thanks for expanding my perspective :). It’s pretty amazing how technology has made it possible to literally see and interact with family & friends from across the world.

  • Surajit Pandit

    First of all Good Luck to u Benny!

    I can relate to ur article and ur views on loneliness. Loneliness can also be presumed to be a part of the life of a solo entrepreneur and especially if u wish to postpone marriage for preponing ur business milestones. Loneliness is a mind game – if u love ur work and have a strong mission u would forget all woes.

    And BTW Benny do u wish to travel to India soon? I can share some travel tips and even some language tips.

  • http://thehikehouse.com/ TheHikeHouse

    You can easily slot yourself into existing groups of of 2 or 3 or even
    assemble a team of solo travelers. I definitely think its a state of
    mind. You have to be self starting for the most part. I can see how
    people would be scared of going too fa inward if they got too lonely.
    For my style of travel which is varied for the most part, traveling solo
    suits me best.

  • http://www.lefrois.com/construction-property-management.aspx construction management ny

    It is a one good post that everybody should read…
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  • Elizabeth Wheeler Lessard

    I travel by myself…. for about half of my 55 years. I get lonely at times, other times I prefer being ” alone” so I can indulge in my reflections and idiosyncrasies. And I meet really nice folks when I am alone and tend to be more outward looking. Lol… and no one to blame if I get lost or miss a plane. However, I am finding that I increasingly wish I had a part time travel partner…. sometimes things are so beautiful or difficult or expensive, it’d be nice to share. I have not found people to be consistently open to including ” strangers”.

  • Elyse Tee

    This was such a great post to read- I’ve recently started to travel more, and have found that longer stays are a bit easier than just going around seeing sights before catching a train to the next place (which, of course, is fun too). Although I’m excited to see several places over the next 2 months, I’m really looking to return to a country and area that I spent 5 months in before starting this location hopping! Thanks for the post!

  • Stephanie

    I’ve spent the majority of my adult travel as a solo traveler abroad and completely agree that some of the best and most solid friendships I have made are with people I met along the way. As with anything in life, your attitude and choice of perspective on the situation is what affects the outcome. I love travel and living/studying in new places. I find it pushes you out of your comfort zone and that after each trip, I’ve grown a bit more as a person. The one things I would love to find is a partner who feels the same way as I do about travel and wants to share the experiences with me. :-)

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  • sarah

    Really enjoyed reading this… I’ve been travelling central america for the past 7 weeks and as an outgoing, gregarious 30 year old female I find I have no problem ‘making friends’ however my struggle has definitely been that my inherent need to make deep and meaningful connections with other doesn’t seem to be well fitting to the lifestyle that comes with backpacking. Been having a lot of internal battles about this and reading this post has eased some of the frustration and anxiety I’ve been feeling so thank you for taking the time to share.
    Sarah