Travel Tips for the Introvert: Go it Alone … Without Being Lonely

solo travel
When’s the last time you had a solo adventure? It might just be what the doctor ordered.

Every March, I get a bad case of spring fever. Winter has been dragging on, I haven’t felt the sun on my face in months, and everything about my crappy little apartment and my stagnant little life is suddenly unbearably depressing. I suspect that if I had a million-dollar mansion and a honey-drenched, palpably meaningful existence, I would still feel the same way come the dreaded Ides of March. Sometimes you need a change of scenery. It’s medically necessary.

When the time is nigh to get out of town, I crave adventure! Glorious hikes with mountain vistas. Cold beers on an ocean-view veranda. I’d pay almost anything for a sunburn.

So this March I drove to Texas, one of the few states I hadn’t yet crossed off my bucket list. The bluebonnet blossoms were bursting open in the ditches as I cruised down Interstate 35, a reminder of what’s possible when I decide to splurge a little and open myself up to something completely different than what I’m used to. Just. Because.

If you’re an introvert like me, and somewhat of an empath (meaning you tend to absorb other people’s emotions like a sponge), a heavenly vacation often sounds like one you take by yourself. Not only is a solo excursion a coveted chance to recharge your battery, but decisions are blissfully uncomplicated. You can fly by the seat of your pants, cuz you da boss! It’s peaceful, relaxing. I feel a Seinfeld quote coming on: “People. They’re the worst.” (I don’t actually feel that way. Except in March.)

That said, it’s true that too much solitude can start to feel bittersweet. Don’t get me wrong, road-tripping alone can be terrific, but every single time I’ve experienced something spectacular in my travels—like that morning I was filled with divine awe looking at the thunderous, snowcapped peaks in Glacier National Park, or that moment I was caught off guard by the full moon in Joshua Tree, California—the first thought that popped into my head was, “Why didn’t I bring someone with me? It’s a cryin’ shame that no one else is seeing this right now!”

Sooooo, my first travel tip for a fellow introvert is to go for the happy medium. If you’re gonna swing it by yourself, just leave a little room to meet people along the way. In the end, the stories you remember, and the ones you will share with your grandnieces one day, will likely be the ones involving people, not places.

Take a Chance and Dance

I arrived a few minutes late to the two-step lesson at the Broken Spoke, one of Austin’s classic honky-tonk dives. After a quick scan of the room, it was apparent that everyone else had brought a date. Except that short old-timer in the cowboy hat standing bashfully in the corner. Out of sheer desperation, I swooped in and introduced myself.

“Do you have a partner?” I shouted over the music.

“No!” he replied, the look of slight panic in his eyes turning to relief.

“You do now!” I said, grabbing his hand.

Par for the course, I ended up leading him around the dance floor, which he was very happy about, having two terrifically left feet. We laughed and laughed as I swung myself in and out of his extremely polite embrace.

I warned him each time, “Okay, I’m going to twirl out now, are you ready?”

“Okay, ready,” he’d say, tensing up his body.

I hit my forehead on the brim of his hat every time I spun back in, but I never asked him to take it off. If a dude is wearing his hat indoors, there just might be a good reason.

After the lesson, Howie bought me a Coke and told me his life story. Despite his two left feet, he was a remarkable guy. A widower, Howie became bored and lonely running his goldmine (!) in Northern California and drove to Texas to lend a helping hand after the devastating hurricanes last summer. He traveled south in an RV, which—I kid you not—he had built into the shape of a whale. On his way back home to Cali, he stopped in Austin to admire a nighttime view of the Texas State Capitol building, decided on a whim to hang out for a while, and six months later was managing one of Austin’s public makerspaces. Sixty-eight years old, taking two-step lessons, and living happily in the belly of a whale.

Try Something New

My favorite evening in Austin ironically had nothing to do with its world-famous music scene. I took a chance and booked an “Experience” through Airbnb, something I hadn’t tried before. I couldn’t resist the “Nighttime Paddleboarding Excursion on the River” that caught my eye while I was securing my accommodations.

Nighttime paddleboarding in Austin. The next best thing.

A friendly young guide, Ryan, led our modest crew of eight adventurers, and together we faced our fears of losing equilibrium and plunging into the calm but murky waters of the river. Each paddleboard was lit underneath by an LED light, which cast a technicolor glowing orb into the water beneath us. The sight was very surreal yet strangely comforting. After all, if you’re going to fall into the water, it’s better to know which fish you’ll be swimming with. Luckily, despite being a newbie, I found my balance quickly and was able to relax and completely enjoy the journey.

As we floated down the placid waters of the Colorado River with the sparkling Austin skyline in the distance, we chatted in hushed voices about spelunking, river creatures, and Australia, making connections and swapping stories with each other as the sounds of our words and the ripples created by our paddles were absorbed into the water. We paddled into the quiet, riding our pink and turquoise clouds of light—with the famous bats of Austin very likely winging silently through the darkness around us. In the space of that magical hour, gratitude for my humble little life returned. And to think I had almost chickened out.

Airbnb: Ask the Locals

In recent years, I’ve become a firm believer in the Airbnb experience. I was nervous the first time I booked a room in Missoula, Montana. After all, unless you opt to rent a (more expensive) private guesthouse, you’re basically just barging into someone’s home. What kinds of weirdos was I going to be sharing a bathroom with?

Well, my Missoula host family was so genuine, so deeply kind, and had served me the best coffee and cantaloupe breakfast I’d ever had, that I sat in my car crying as I forced myself to turn the key in the ignition. How could I be driving away from these wonderful souls? They were my people!!! What an unexpected blessing. Thanks, Airbnb.

Toast, the smushy-faced fluffball who kept me company at my Airbnb

Every other Airbnb booking I’ve made was just as surprising—in totally different ways. One of my cohosts was a fluffy white cat named Toast who immediately welcomed me with violent purring followed by dedicated companionship. I love cats, and had recently lost mine to cancer, so this fuzzy feline was a real bonus.

A brand-new, state-of-the-art cabin I rented near Kalispell afforded me a view of a beautiful, secluded ranch with the greenest mountaintop pasture I’d ever seen. Real cowboys included.

Another room I crashed in for a single night in Oklahoma City featured the most comfortable bed I’d ever slept in. (Why, oh why didn’t I look at the mattress label before I left!?)

Plus, if you’re flying solo in a new place where you don’t know your ass from your elbow, staying with a local yokel through Airbnb is an awesome way to get the inside scoop on the coolest restaurant, the best cappuccino, the greasiest taco stand, the most modern museum, or the prettiest road less traveled by. And with so many accommodation categories—from entire homes to tiny houses (to tree houses!) to private rooms to couch surfing—you get to decide how much socializing you’ll be dealing with.

As an introvert, running an Airbnb sounds like a total nightmare. I chatted with one of my Austin hosts, Nicole, over a glass of wine on my second night in town. “How do you do this? I’m trying to imagine what it would be like to have strangers invade my house several days a week!” Nicole, who also managed a local coffee spot, said, “I think you really have to enjoy hosting people. And meeting people. Which I genuinely do. But it certainly isn’t for everyone!” So just because I can’t imagine playing the role of hostess myself doesn’t mean I need to feel guilty if other people willingly choose to trust me with their cats, their kitchens, and their keys.

Bring a Journal to Dinner

I see nothing wrong with bringing your journal to dinner. I’ve been doing it since 2003. When I’m in a new restaurant dining by myself, unless the view is spectacular, people-watching or staring out the window makes me feel a bit stupid after a while. I find a journal to be very good company. While you sit in anticipation of your piping-hot dish, jot down some highlights or impressions you want to remember later—and who knows what kind of attention you will attract from an exotic stranger who notices you scribbling away across the room. You’d be surprised!

Dinner by yourself? Bring a journal to keep you company.

A one-legged guy with a long, silvery ponytail sent me a drink once from across the lounge of the Taos Hotel while I sat journaling about my New Mexico adventures. (Picture, if you can, a cleaned-up version of Willie Nelson—with a cane.) When I had finished the drink, and finished my sentence, I worked up the courage to walk across the room and thank him. We talked for two hours, and Carl shared with me a story of serendipitous good fortune that has stuck with me to this day.

In 1985, this free-spirited cruiser had been in a nasty motorcycle accident riding out of the mountains north of town. As he lay there bleeding on the highway, a driver spotted him and pulled over to help. She ran over and immediately began to tourniquet Carl’s leg. As luck would have it, she was a nurse; she knew what she was doing. A second car pulled over. The driver happened to be a doctor. A third car pulled over. Another nurse! They couldn’t save his leg, but they did save his life. I guess if you have to ride motorcycles, that’s the kind of entourage you want following you around. The truth is, a medical convention had just let out at the conference center down the road.

I politely declined Carl’s invitation to continue our peaceful, easy feeling and sleep “in the desert tonight, with a billion stars all around.” I prefer to sleep indoors. By myself. Usually. We did exchange a few entertaining letters by post, but what remains is still my fondest memory of that week in Taos—and a great story.

The true beauty of traveling alone is that you’ve left your bubble of safety behind. At the end of the day, the only folks you’re going to be talking to—by choice or by necessity—are new ones. Helpful ones. Funny ones. Well-seasoned ones. Wild ones. Weird ones. Folks who are totally different than you are. Folks who turn out to be kindred spirits.

People. They’re the best.

Meredith Siemsen

Meredith, an Iowa native, was baffled when she earned her high school's writing award in 1993. It wasn't until twenty years later that she discovered she actually enjoyed wordcraft. (Too bad she's still a two-fingered typist.) Thanks for reading, friends!