Flying Solo

Why travelling alone is good for the psyche.

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When I told people I’d be embarking on a solo journey to Australia back in the 1990s, their reactions ranged from “All by yourself? Aren’t you scared?” to “Wow, you’re so brave!” Truth is, I didn’t feel brave – more like I needed a break from my everyday reality. I was a twentysomething single blessed with close family and friends – not to mention a thriving career in journalism – yet something in my gut told me to hop on that plane alone.

And so I did. The result? A life-changing experience that forced me out of my comfort zone (suddenly I was surfing, scuba diving, skydiving) and boosted my confidence tenfold (initiating a conversation with strangers is no easy feat when you’re shy). Turns out I was onto something: Research shows that travelling solo leads to self-discovery, creativity and a greater sense of control.

A recent study by the Queensland University of Technology Business School found that a growing number of people prefer to travel alone, despite having family and friends. “According to them, it [is] a chance to indulge fully,” says professor Connie Bianchi, listing freedom, uncompromised fun and meeting new people as the top motivators. There are some downsides to solo travel, including extra costs and safety concerns, but the good far outweighs the bad.

“Travelling alone is almost like [practising] mindfulness on a larger scale. It involves listening to your head and heart and body in terms of what you want, and it forces us to really get to know ourselves.”

“Travelling alone is almost like [practising] mindfulness on a larger scale,” says Amy Deacon, a clinical social worker with a private practice in Toronto. “It involves listening to your head and heart and body in terms of what you want, and it forces us to really get to know ourselves.”

For many people, the thought of embarking on a trip sans family or friends is daunting. There’s the guilt factor, for starters: Leaving behind your everyday roles and responsibilities can not only provoke anxiety, it can also feel self-indulgent. But Deacon views it as a necessary form of self-care. “It is so nourishing. There’s a lot of anticipation, a lot of ‘I can’t afford the time,’ but what you get back in terms of refuelling your tank is so worth it. When we are better fuelled, we’re bettering our relationships and our energy at work,” she says. (At eight months pregnant, Deacon was preparing for a solo weekend up north when we spoke.)

Adam Galinsky, a professor at Columbia Business School in New York who has studied the connection between travel and creativity, adds that there can be a creative benefit from doing something outside of the normal routine. “I get a lot of my best writing done when I’m travelling on a plane, or in a hotel that triggers new ideas or insight,” he says. “There’s a powerful benefit to being separated from your everyday experiences.”

Despite the advantages of spending time alone, many would-be travellers fear they’ll be perceived as lonely or desperate. Ironically, that couldn’t be further from the truth: New research shows that people who engage in leisure activities alone – visiting a museum, for example, dining at a restaurant or, yes, travelling – are perceived by others as being more open-minded and approachable than those who are paired off or part of a larger group.

Perhaps the best reason to travel solo is that it gives you a chance to talk to the most important person in your life: yourself. As Deacon puts it, “It’s almost like getting together with an old friend from whom you might have been disconnected for months or even years. It’s an opportunity to check in with yourself and reconnect.”

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