One of the biggest myths about solo travel is that it’s something you do when you’ve got no one else to go with, which is rubbish. As we’ve already mentioned, there are plenty of reasons R29 readers go travelling alone – from money issues to different interests to actually, you know, wanting to spend time on your own.
Off the back of a bad break-up, a family loss, a falling out with friends and work troubles, Charlie Elliott, Refinery29's strategy associate director, decided to take herself off on a trip around Asia for four months, all by herself. And fell in love with solo travel.
Since then, she’s made it a tradition she's unwilling to part with, even since entering a new relationship (she's getting married next July).
Charlie's solo adventures have taken her all over the world. She's done Australia twice, Hong Kong twice, Malaysia, Singapore, China, South Korea, New Zealand, South Africa, Belgium twice, Japan, Germany and is off to France next month. All on her own.
We spoke to her about how her solo travel addiction makes her life better.
"My very first flight on my own was from London to Sydney for a work trip and it was the worst flight I’ve ever had. Lightning hit the back of the plane and it literally dropped and things flew in the air. It was horrific. When we landed, the pilot came on the intercom and said 'I’ve been a pilot for 17 years and that was the worst turbulence I’ve ever experienced'. So I was like, 'Cool, guess I live in Sydney now'.
My first big trip after that was on my own for four months: Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, China, South Korea, Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand. It was for all the classic reasons: I hated my job, had just broken up with my boyfriend and was like, 'Screw you all, I’m ditching you and getting a one-way ticket to...somewhere'.
Going on a solo trip can be scary, but it doesn’t have to be far. If you have a weekend trip to Edinburgh or Cambridge or wherever, you’ll probably still be feeling the same feelings as if you were going really far away. You’ve still got to have dinner on your own, you’re still in a place on your own where you don’t know anyone. My previous relationship, I met him at 19 and we were together seven years and it ended really horribly, then when I went and did the Big Trip, I really liked learning that I was actually alright on my own – I like my own company. You don’t have to be surrounded by people or talking to people on social media or whatever. I think that helped me be in a stable relationship [now] because I am absolutely happy on my own.
When I met my fiancé, my opening line to him on Bumble was that I had just booked tickets to Japan. By the time I went, we’d been together nine months and he was like, 'I wish I was coming as well…' And I was like, 'Umm…you can’t'. I think at first he was a bit offended because he was like, 'Why wouldn’t you want to travel with me?' And to be honest I prefer travelling with him but this is that one little thing that is just for me. We’re getting married – my whole life basically revolves around this other person now and will continue to do so, especially when we want a family. So I need to make sure that I sometimes spend that time on me because you go home and this person is there, which is great, but what if you just want to sit on your own and not talk to anyone?
I think that often, people associate travelling on your own with not having anyone to travel with and I do have somebody to travel with. I love to travel with him but I like to have headspace for myself, I like to have experiences on my own and while I truly believe that I will be with him forever, one day he might turn around and leave me and I need to know I’ll be okay. And solo travel really helps me realise that.
Every single experience on your solo trip is valuable and don’t fucking let Instagram tell you how to spend your time. Sometimes, I like to go and see a big site because it makes me feel like I’m in the place – like when I saw the Sydney Opera House I was like, 'I’m in Sydney!' And with the Eiffel Tower, 'I’m in Paris!' But I didn't go up the Eiffel Tower because I felt like I should. The big thing about solo travel is that your itinerary is totally up to you. What would you like to do today? I’m going to do exactly what I want today.
And honestly, some of the happiest moments I’ve had are on my own. In Japan I went to Kobe to have Kobe beef. I booked a table and got a 5pm booking and I was the only one in the restaurant. The waiters didn’t speak English and the chef came up to me, chopping the beef in front of my face, pointing at the different bits he was going to cook. And I had a whisky and this amazing meal and there was no one else around me. No phone signal, no other tourists and I swear it was probably in my top three best moments of my life because I thought, No one else has this. I don’t have to share it with anyone and that makes it really special.
If I’m honest, I don’t think Europe is my favourite place to solo travel – I think some places just aren’t that tourist friendly. I love travelling in China on my own because there’s so many people and they couldn’t care less that you’re there; a billion people, all with stuff to do so if you’re looking at a map or looking lost they just don’t care and it’s great – you don’t feel watched. New Zealand is also great – everyone is so friendly and will point you in the right direction and give you recommendations of where to go.
My best advice is be practical. Don’t put yourself out of your comfort zone. Just do what feels natural for you, whether that’s going to a country that speaks your language or that you've already been to. At night I try and get back at a decent time because I don’t feel safe walking streets in a city that I don’t know. Look up what your Wi-Fi capabilities are going to be – in Japan I bought a SIM card before I went. Think how you’re going to keep in contact with people – unless you’re going because you don’t want to speak to anyone, which is fine. Just maybe the odd text to your mum to say you’re alive; that’s always appreciated. Book yourself into an activity on the first day just to get the ball rolling and force you to get up. Make sure you plan – there’s this idea that you book a one-way ticket somewhere and figure it out when you get there, but you can still do that and book a hotel for that first scary night.
And you know what, you will be alright on your own. It’s one of those big turning points that make you realise you will be okay. You might come back and be like 'Cool, I never want to do that again' but you’ll have proved to yourself that you can."