As people embark on their solo travel journey, I like to believe that most start out the same way I did: plan, plan, plan. I researched everything, from ferry times to train seats, activities available on each day, nearby supermarkets, and cute cafes. In a way, doing this took away some of the magic when I first arrived in a place. I already knew everything around me; the hidden alleys, shortcuts, and what bars had patios with picture-perfect views. Embracing spontaneity can provide flexibility and freedom for solo travellers (and make your trip just that little bit more magical.) Here’s how.
Not everything goes to plan
As I was travelling solo, I knew I needed some structure in my day to day. I knew that if I didn’t have a plan, I’d just sit around and get overwhelmed with all of the things to do. Planning everything out gave me a sense of control. I knew what to expect in my accommodation, I knew what could keep me occupied, and I had an end to when I was staying in a specific destination.
But not everything goes to plan. Some places are closed, expensive, or just not as expected. Despite each trip being meticulously organised in a way where I couldn’t be let down, there were some instances where I did. I had set my hopes so high for specific experiences so that when they didn’t work out, I felt a sense of disappointment. To make it even worse, I didn’t have a backup plan, and I didn’t feel comfortable or confident enough in myself to just go for a stroll.
As I continued to travel, though, I became a little less rigid. I grew more comfortable in my own skin and accustomed to travelling on my own. I didn’t need to look up every aesthetically-pleasing cafe or bar with high reviews at each destination. I knew that being more relaxed in solo travel would come with experience, but for me, there were two specific experiences that made me change my entire outlook on travel.
Spontaneity opens you to new experiences
The first was when I went to Milan. I was only there for two nights before I was scheduled to head to Greece for a few weeks. I didn’t expect anything from Milan, really; I just wanted to check out the sights and enjoy a few good coffees. However, the first night was so far beyond my expectations. During dinner at the hostel, a few other solo travellers, who were absolutely lovely, approached me. After the drinks started flowing and the karaoke started, it quickly became one of the best nights I’d had in a while.
The people I met were staying for a few days longer than me and decided to meet up in Croatia later in the week. When I got the invite, my initial response was, “Yes! Definitely!” Of course, I wanted to go to Croatia with these people. For the first time in a long time, I found people that I genuinely clicked with and would love the opportunity to see more of Europe with them. However, I couldn’t — I had other plans. I quickly followed up with a disappointed “But I can’t, I have a flight to catch.” My trip to Greece was planned and booked, and since I never cancelled anything in the past, my hostel was non-refundable.
I told myself that it was fine; this is what solo travel is all about. Meeting cool people and then moving on to the next destination. I told myself that having FOMO (fear of missing out) was a natural response and that I’d make new friends in Greece. I did meet new people in Greece, and we all shared incredible experiences, but I still think back to Milan. It’s been almost four years at this point, and there’s the lingering thought of “What if I’d gone to Croatia?” Not to be dramatic, but that trip could’ve changed the trajectory of my life. I’ll never know.
No planning = no last minute cancelling
The second experience was the pandemic. I was in Puerto de la Cruz, Tenerife in March 2020. I’d been accepted for a work exchange with a language school in the city. In exchange for free accommodation, I’d do some copywriting for their website and help out with social media. I was in Puerto de la Cruz for exactly eight days before Spain went into their strict COVID-19 lockdown, and the island had halted the majority of flights to mainland Europe.
As I sat in my apartment, working remotely, I remained optimistic. I thought that in a few weeks, it’d blow over, and I’d be able to continue travelling. I had six more weeks of travel plans ahead of me and didn’t want to go off schedule. Eventually, I had to admit to myself that I’d be stuck in my apartment for the foreseeable future.
I was scrambling. I had to cancel everything I’d spent months planning. I’d researched everything extensively and even made spreadsheets about potential hostels to book in Portugal and Spain. I’d picked the perfect seat on the train from Barcelona to Madrid and an idyllic accommodation in Porto. Cancelling everything was such an annoying and deflating task. It was anxiety-inducing, took too much time, and I was unsure if I’d get my money back. I soon realised that I never ever wanted to go through the process of cancelling that many things again.
Once the borders started to open up, I continued my travels, but with a fresh perspective. When I was planning trips, I’d always have an explanation for over-organizing everything. “What if I don’t meet anyone? What if I don’t like the city? What if the hostel isn’t as great as I’d expected?” If my expectations weren’t me, I at least had the sense of knowing that my time was definitive and I could leave soon.
How I’ve grown to be a more spontaneous traveller
Now, I ask myself the same questions, but with a totally different outlook. If I don’t meet anyone, I go out of my way to do so. If I don’t like the city, I leave earlier than anticipated or go on a day trip somewhere else. If the hostel isn’t what I thought it would be, I cancel my stay and book another one. If I like a place, I stay; if I don’t, I leave.
Embracing spontaneity and letting go — just a little bit — helped me create unforgettable memories and experiences. It gave me the freedom to do whatever I wanted. I didn’t see destinations based on scheduled flights, but rather, my mood and who I met. I no longer felt like I was missing out on incredible opportunities, and I no longer felt restricted by my own rigid planning.
While I still do the necessary research, like obtaining a visa, I’ve been far more laissez-faire and adventurous in my travels. I haven’t ended up disappointed, and I haven’t experienced any major FOMO. I feel more free, confident and comfortable with myself. I no longer feel left out when people I met invited me on a last-minute trip. I no longer had to decline.
I learned that hostels will always have a bed, and there will always be a flight to catch or a bus to hop on. Certain cities will be around for years to come, but certain experiences won’t be. I learned to happily say, for one of the few times in my life, “Don’t think, just do.”
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