Solo travel vs. travel with friends

I’ve been fortunate to have spent time traveling both solo and with others for extended periods of time.

Most people always travel with others. But I think about it like this: If you’re generally starting life in your early 20s and settling down in your 30s, there’s only a short period in your mid/late 20s when its possible to go alone.

To give an example, when I told a few Indian friends I was spending a month by myself in India, all of them suggested I avoid doing it. It would be dirty, unsafe, chaotic, they told me. In hindsight, I came out better for it. By the time I left I was beginning to feel like a local. (Half-joking!)

Let me offer a comparative. A close friend is building a startup. When he got his first paying customer, he told me “This experience taught me I can make money with my own hands. Not having to survive by working for someone else. When things don’t go well, I know I don’t need to rely on anyone else.” I found that to be a relevant insight. In a worst case scenario, knowing I can adapt to a place where I don’t speak the language, don’t know the culture, can’t relate to the locals, don’t know the geography, etc. helps anchor my life.

Okay, enough with the life meta talk, time to get down to business. I’ve done some reflection between traveling solo and traveling with friends. Here are some differences I’ve noted:

Traveling solo:

  1. More oriented toward learning – In my experience, solo traveling leaves me more engaged with my environment. This is a personal approach. In theory, going with others with a targeted goal of learning could also be highly actionable. Discussing what we saw helps bolster takeaways. But rarely does that happen when traveling in groups because the express goal isn’t to learn, it’s to have fun. So what happens is that I’ll note something and forget afterwards because my attention quickly shifts elsewhere. When I travel alone, I’m more apt to take next steps like reading up online and following-up on things I saw before I forget.
  2. More meaningful conversations with locals – Group travel is for spending time with friends. Hence it becomes difficult to engage with locals when with a group. The only instance I remember finding success was during our hourlong drive to the Kuala Lumpur airport – because the driver could only speak Chinese and our group was in a captured setting. But conversations with locals are the type of memories I remember. Xi Jinping once said when he thinks about Americans, he thinks about the kindness an Iowan family showed him when he stayed with them in his early-30s. It’s a similar vibe when I think about my short time in foreign countries.
  3. More destination optionality – Sometimes the other(s) I’m planning a trip with don’t want to go to the same places as me. This has happened to me multiple times. I had always wanted to go to India, but when I proposed it to a friend, they (probably accurately) assessed it wasn’t the best fit for them. The opposite happens too. I’m down to go anywhere but when a separate friend asked last year if I was interested in going to Kazakhstan, I told them I had other places I prioritized higher. (Kazakhstan is a gorgeous place, by the way. Or so I’ve heard and seen on social media. It would still be nice to go one day.)
  4. More control of itinerary – I suppose this is another personal flavor since some are fine traveling without a plan. That’s challenging to me. I want to be time-maxing whatever time have. Solo travleing gives me the freedom to do what I want, see what I want, eat what I want, etc. For example, the first time I went to Palestine, I got the impression a companion didn’t find the hectic, tense environment enjoyable. So the second time I crossed the checkpoints, by myself, I gave myself more time to look at the separation wall, visit the Banksy hotel, things like that.
  5. More research required – Conversely, itinerary creation requires more time spent on planning. This is the other side of having more itinerary control. Sometimes it’s nice to just show up and tag along. For example, I visited the UAE with a local. Was able to visit both popular and low-key hotspots because the person I was with knew the top things to do. Didn’t need to do any research beforehand since I had a de-facto tour guide.
  6. More personal growth – I took traveling solo as a great opportunity to step outside my day-to-day life. It gave me a chance to think. To get more clarity. To see places where people lived differently from me. Particularly in places like China and Russia where deep societal differences exist from the West. And ultimately that taught me fresh perspective.

Traveling with others:

  1. More fun – This is a personal preference. Human relationships are important to me. A big part of happiness is getting to share experiences with people. That’s only possible when others are there so this type of travel is better suited for pleasure.
  2. (Potentially) more cost-effective – Going with others is cheaper if costs are shared. Lodging is significantly cheaper. Food is cheaper too. Of course, if you’re covering someone else’s expenses, then it won’t be. So this CAN be cheaper, but it’s not a universal truth either.
  3. Ability to have each other's back – There is a stronger sense of teamwork when traveling with others. For a personal story, someone I was with came down with food poisoning in Mexico City. It was convenient for me to run to the nearby pharmacy to grab medication for them. Them having to do that alone while under the weather in a foreign environment would’ve been crappy.
  4. More challenging to navigate personalities – People advise couples to live together before getting married to test if living habits are compatible. That compatibility is relevant with friends when traveling. Sometimes you don’t know how well you get along until you’ve spent weeks traveling with each other. Tempers flare up, people get annoyed, messy living habits grow frustrating even in the short-term. These things happen. Strong friendships survive.
  5. More prone to disruptions – Giving responsibilties to others means a delegated task might go amiss. I once nearly missed a costly, non-refundable meal in London because the individual organizing dinner mixed up our reservation time. Another instance, someone in my group going to Canada forgot THEIR PASSPORT. I’ve made mistakes too: One time I meant to book a flight for a group returning to Tel Aviv from Eilat and accidentally purchased a flight the other way instead. I suppose Murphy’s Law is bound to apply when traveling.

Between the two, there is no better choice. Whether one is better is up to personal preference. Regardless which one you prefer, the only thing I wish you is a safe and happy travels.

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