Why You Should Travel Alone
Three weeks, six countries and countless mishaps later, Chelsea Bengier explains why you should ditch the group tour and go solo.
I’m 6,700 feet up in the snowcapped Swiss Alps, and I’m at a crossroads. My slip-on shoes are clinging to my soles by a string, and I’ve just licked the last drop of water from my metal canteen. It’s hour six of trekking down the steep, winding path around Kleine Schediegg’s craggy pass, and the only sounds I hear are the wind whipping the alpine meadows and my own labored breathing. Collapsed at the base of a wanderweg trail marker pointing in opposite directions, I take a moment to assess the situation. I have no map, no cell service and miles of terrain in front of me. Oh, and I’m alone.
"You’re going to be taken," was the first response I got when I told friends that I was planning a three-week solo trip through Europe, starting in Italy and traveling to Switzerland, Belgium, England, Scotland and Germany.
Though a small part of me was scared sh-tless of the journey, I reveled in the idea of complete autonomy — the freedom to spend a morning lingering over a cappuccino, or a day wandering Lake Como’s charming alleys. After the monotonous routine of a 9 to 5, there was nothing more liberating than being the master of my daily itinerary.
Of course, I couldn’t exactly go gallivanting about the continent without taking some precautions. I gave my family members a rundown of where I would be and when, stayed aware of my surroundings (for the most part) and lugged my laptop as back-up communication. My big nights on the town typically consisted of early dinners with a glass of wine and in bed by 10 p.m. (no clubbing, here). But despite all this, I let go of my safety net and embraced how it felt to be fully immersed in an unfamiliar culture. Alone, there were quiet moments of reflection, and days of personal perseverance, whether it was learning to speak (er, mime) the language or daring myself to do something wild.
In hindsight, there were also moments I seriously wonder how the hell I got home in one piece. Sometimes, I accidentally let my guard down, like in Brussels, I was followed into the metro by two men and had my phone snatched right out of my hand (ironically, I was messaging my BF how I was headed home safe), and at other points I made risky decisions that could’ve gone horribly wrong. I was in a cab once headed to this eco-hostel in the Italian countryside, and the driver ended up kicking me out of the car when he got lost. I tried to find my way for an hour in the pouring rain, my soaked clothes plastered to my goosebumped skin, my sneakers squishing with each step as I hauled my heavy luggage up a steep street. Here I was in the middle of the road, ankle deep in a puddle and shouting an impressive collection of swear words to the sky, when a rusty 4X4 rolled up beside me, and a bearded man opened the door. "Hotel?" he asked. I was so desperate that against my better judgment, I climbed in.
Call me what you want — ballsy or downright crazy — but one thing’s for certain, I was not unadventurous, especially when it came to food. At the beginning of my trip, I met a fellow American backpacker who had a friend from home ship boxes of Kraft Mac & Cheese to her… in Italy. (I’m cringing just thinking about it.) From then on, I vowed to never stick my nose up at local delicacies. German speck? Sure, I can handle pure pig fat. Scottish haggis? Who doesn’t love sheep organ pudding! But to try all these dishes, I had to face my insecurity of eating alone. The first time I went stag to a restaurant in the quaint English town of York, the hostess looked me over, raised her eyebrows and sniffed, "Oh, table for one?" Yes, b-ch. Just me, myself and I. While I squirmed in my seat, convinced that everyone was staring at me as if I were some kind of strange zoo animal, my anxiety eventually disappeared.
Which is what happened at the top of that solitary peak in Switzerland. Though I had serious doubts considering my lack of hiking experience, I went up the mountain confident that I could find my way down. And I did. Just barely.