Traveling alone can be intimidating for many people. They may feel uncomfortable visiting an unfamiliar place by themselves. They may worry about bad things happening with no one to help. Meanwhile, there are some who prefer to travel solo. They like having more freedom while on vacation. Dealing with travel-mates can be a challenge since different people inevitably reveal different holiday preferences. As someone with years of travel experience, I have done it both solo and with others. For this post I would like to cover the times I traveled alone. They surely had their ups and downs, but they made me more independent.
New York City – 2014
I was in a long-distance relationship with a guy who lived in the Big Apple. I took the Megabus from Boston to New York. It was my first time traveling without my family. I felt nervous yet excited, and more mature. It went so well, I did it twice more. The third time I stayed with my friend for a week. While he worked, I would take the Staten Island Ferry to Manhattan and spend the day there.
Getting around the city alone was no hardship, though I would sometimes have to navigate by Google Maps. I had been in NYC many times already so I was ‘sorta’ familiar with the area. Fun activities included walking across the Brooklyn Bridge, shopping in SoHo, and hitting the various restaurants in Greenwich Village. It was fun exploring the diverse neighborhoods of Manhattan and Brooklyn.
Riding the subway was not a problem either. It is quite different from Boston’s transit system. There are many more lines and stations. I was extra keen to get on the right train. Once, I got off at the wrong stop in Brooklyn. I planned on going to the famous Juliana’s Pizza near the Brooklyn Bridge. Hoping to arrive at York Street station, I was instead deposited at Borough Hall. I realized that I took the wrong line. Thanks to Google Maps I figured out just where I was and got to the pizza place in time for lunch.
Most importantly, I felt safe being on my own. Like any metropolis, New York has its share of unusual, sketchy characters. But they did not bother me. I never felt like I was in danger. When the trip ended, I would be happy I handled the city by myself. It gave me confidence to travel solo again.
Toronto – 2017
Two summers ago, I went on my first solo trip by air to Toronto. I then had a friend who always traveled alone. He inspired me to do the same, though my family was concerned about me visiting Canada’s metropolis by myself.
I had not been there before. I was neither acquainted with the city nor did I know anyone there. But I was eager to take the chance. I wanted to see Toronto and its many multicultural districts. I wanted to go up in the gigantic CN Tower. I was fascinated by Chinatown, Little India and Greektown.
On Danforth Avenue I happened onto a large Greek festival. There were street vendors serving Greek food, musicians playing Greek music, and many people dancing along. Napkins danced in the air. I frequented similar festivals in Massachusetts but none of them compared to the one in Toronto. It was bigger and funner!
The CN Tower was neat. It is one of the world’s tallest free-standing structures. From the top I could view a forest of skyscrapers with the vastness of Lake Ontario beyond. I found many of the city’s sights to be equally enjoyable. Casa Loma was the perfect place to learn about Toronto’s history. The Zoo was full of exotic animals, some I had never seen before. Pandas and tree kangaroos? Scratch those off the list!
Toronto was great though it did have its rough moments. It was frustrating getting off at the wrong subway/streetcar stop twice. I could have gone back on the subway or the streetcar but I did not want to exhaust my supply of tokens. One cost $3.25 CAD ($2.47 USD), which was pricey for just one ride. I also had trouble getting WiFi access at some of the attractions. It made me feel very anxious. Purchasing a SIM card would have been ideal but I did not want to spend the extra money.
Despite the hardships I still enjoyed my vacation. Using printed directions from Google Maps was a big help. Toronto’s streetcar system is quite extensive. I used it much of the time. Like New York, handling Toronto helped me become a more resourceful, independent traveler.
The Netherlands – 2018
One year after Toronto, I was off again. My first solo trip overseas would be to Amsterdam in the Netherlands.
The Diary of Anne Frank was one of my favorite books as a teenager. So I spent a solemn afternoon at the Anne Frank House. I have always had a passion for 17th century Dutch art. That warranted a visit to the Rijksmuseum and the Mauritshuis, an art museum in the Hague.
I found the Netherlands to be the perfect solo travel destination for me. Most Dutch citizens are fluent in English and the trains are punctual and voluminous. Again, my family worried. I was going to Europe all alone. Their doubts (and fears) did not stop me. Once I arrived in Amsterdam, I was virtually vibrating with joy.
Of course, challenges presented themselves. There was an incident where I lost my 4-day iAmsterdam pass. Naturally, I was upset. It cost a lot of money ($100.00). I had to buy a 2-day pass instead. Later, I paid for rides or admissions using cash or my plastic.
I used the 2-day pass a lot in the Dutch capital. I had accumulated plentiful directions from Google Maps on exploring Amsterdam. Still, it was hard. Most of the street signs were not visible. Fortunately, some signs pointed in the direction of popular attractions. I also used a map provided by my hotel. It was particularly useful showing pictures of Amsterdam’s sites linked to their locations. Early on, I hesitated using it. Tourists with maps attract pickpockets. Be that as it may, I remained discreet and was not targeted.
Regardless of the challenges, I had a wonderful vacation. I saw every place I wanted to see, stayed at a decent hotel, and ate delectable foods. The trains there were fantastic as well. They all ran on time and were very clean. I took the train to other parts of the country, like the Hague. It was just an hour away from the capital.
Frankly, I was starting to feel lonely during my last night. I began to think it might be nice to travel with a friend or a tour group. I was proud of doing things on my own. But I began to feel like I was missing out on something special. Months later, I decided to go on Intrepid Travel’s ‘Highlights of Spain’ tour in the spring.
Madrid – 2019
Though I toured Spain with a group, there were times I was alone. This was the case in Madrid because I had my own room. I had arrived early in the morning and could not check into my room until 2:00 pm. I killed time by walking around the city, despite getting no sleep on the plane. I had fun exploring a bit. I saw various public squares, the Almudena Cathedral, the Mercado de San Miguel, the Museo del Prado, and Parque del Retiro. Most of them were within walking distance of each other. I also took the convenient Metro to the Prado from Plaza del Sol. You could imagine how tired I was when I finally checked into the hostel. I took a long nap.
The next morning, I resumed solo-sightseeing in the city. After an orientation walk around Madrid, my group and I had our own plans of what we wanted to do there. I saw the Museo Reina Sofia, Parque del Oeste, the Palacio Real, and a flamenco show. Like the day before, it was a triumph.
Of course there were mishaps. A marathon was being run near the Museo Reina Sofia when I visited. So it took me a while to find an uncrowded restaurant nearby. By happy chance, I found one in another part of town.
I used a map to walk around and never got lost. Ordering food in Spanish was pretty easy. I knew basic phrases like “Querría una cerveza por favor” (I would like a beer, please) or “Cuanto cuesta?” (How much?). This aspect of the trip differed from my time in the Netherlands. There, nearly everyone seemed fluent in English. I encountered Madrileños who spoke English but they were few by comparison. Nevertheless, I was able to navigate Madrid with my minimal Spanish. I admit to taking considerable pride in this. Speaking a new language can be a strenuous task.
Traveling alone shows how far I have come as an independent person. Like most people on the Autism Spectrum, I struggled to be self-reliant. At school, I needed extra help with assignments. It was hard for me to organize essays and understand figurative language. I did not learn to drive right away. I had to rely on friends and family for transport.
Today, I have a driver’s license and my own car. I can also set up travel essays with no assistance. I sometimes need help with editing, but I do more than my share of it. Above all, I have become capable of traveling by myself.
I would like to travel more with friends or with a tour group in the future. I was impressed by how amazing the ‘Highlights of Spain’ tour turned out to be. As we saw Cuenca, Valencia, and then Barcelona, I socialized more with the members of my group. We became friends. I keep in touch with them to this day.
This November, I will be going on a tour of Japan. I look forward to making new connections with my new co-travelers. Even so, there will be times when I am by myself. I will arrive in Tokyo a day early, hoping to get used to the time difference. It takes fourteen hours to fly there from Boston!
My plan is to rest a little, then see some sights before meeting with the group. Of course, I am concerned about overcoming the language barrier and navigating Tokyo. I have begun to practice speaking and reading Japanese but it is definitely harder for me than Spanish. Japanese uses three different alphabets and has less cognates. Tokyo is widely known for its train systems, and they are very complicated. There are several transit lines owned by different companies. I will certainly ‘try’ to remember which train to take and to continue practicing my Japanese. No matter what, I know I will be alright on my first day in Japan.