Decisions, decisions!! But seriously though. . .
What sort of trip do I want?
Do I want to be taken care of by others or largely be on my own?
How do I want to interact with the place and the people?
What sort of experiences do I want to carve out for myself?
These questions all need consideration, because how you answer them and who you answer them with, will completely determine your course and your experience. And let it be known, I have done all three styles of travel and would again, depending on the circumstances.
Traveling with a Group
Although at this point in time, I am less apt to travel with a group and would need some compelling reason to do so, it’s not out of the question. My few trips abroad when I was a child were all group tours. At that point in time, my family created the experiences and of course, I was excited to be taken on a trip. We went to Israel with other Americans (other Long Islanders to be more specific) and our itinerary was set.
The good part of such trips is that with so much to choose from you don’t have to worry about where you are going to stay, what you are going to eat, and which activities you will do. It’s all taken care of. The downside is that if you want some freedom to be spontaneous, you won’t have it. I recall for my 17th birthday, I was at the Grand Canyon. We took a helicopter ride above it, took the obligatory photo, got in the tour bus, and carried on to arrive in Vegas that night. If I were to go back to the Grand Canyon, as I expect I will, I will do a 19 day rafting trip down the Colorado and/or a hike rim to rim.
Not having grown up with a traveling spirit, my first few ventures abroad as an adult were with groups, although I always had an intention of traveling with purpose. Since I am an herbalist, I took a couple trips with other herbalists. Our groups were a manageable size (10-25). One trip I did, 25 of us met at the San Diego airport and we all loaded on a hippie bus and drove five hours into Guadalupe Canyon in Baja, where we camped out for a week. We all helped cook and ate dinners together. The leaders would loosely present some options for the day like a hike to a certain somewhere, but we were also encouraged to do whatever we wanted. Evenings often ended up around a fire, telling stories and engaging in impromptu informal classes or skits, for example, talentless talent shows.
I recently did a group trip to the Wallowa Mountains in northeastern Oregon. Packing with llamas in the wilderness being surrounded by granite peaks was a compelling reason for me to do a group trip. I am an accomplished car camper, but I have not honed my wilderness camping skills. So it was a pleasure to have the support of a veteran mountain man as a group leader.
Traveling with a Friend
Traveling with a friend is awesome and has a legitimate list of benefits. The tangible ones are practical in nature. Someone is watching your back and you are watching theirs. Not really an issue if you are in Amsterdam, but it could be helpful in Vietnam. Vietnam is not a dangerous place, but almost no English is spoken and there is lots of hustling going.
Then there is the aspect of pooling resources. It does not quite cut your expenses in half, as you still need to eat, pay admission to the sights, etc. But renting a car, and paying for a hotel room suddenly costs half as much. You could stretch your travel dollars further, hopefully for another trip! Or access some experiences you would not have otherwise, some fancier lodging or splurging on a couple of coveted experiences.
Probably the most notable benefit of traveling with a friend is pooling personal strengths. By combining strengths you can create a trip that is beyond whatever either one of you could do on your own. Maybe your friend speaks Spanish/French/Swahili and you are a research fanatic with an ability to mine some real gems out of a mountain of information. Or you are more experienced with travel and your friend is less so but eager to help out in any way possible, either on the trip or back at home. Needless to say, it takes having a compatible traveling partner to make this work. You have to get along, have similar enough dietary habits, have more or less aligned worldviews, and have a common objective with the trip.
Let me digress for a moment to say that a trip need not be all one or other. It is possible to start off a trip alone and then choose to travel for some period with some cool folks you meet along the way. I met Hilda in San Ignacio, Belize, where she lives, and we ended up going to Tikal in Guatemala together. Our two days involved bonding with each other while at the same time we had some poignant and memorable moments climbing Mayan ruins. We still stay in touch. If I went to Tikal alone, I would have focused more on the history of the Mayans, which would have been enriching and educational in a totally different way.
So those are the obvious things, but the most compelling reason to travel with a friend is intangible and hard to describe, but I’ll make an attempt anyway. It mainly has to do with sharing some awesome moments with someone you really like and are on the same plane with. Watching the sun come up atop a mystical mountain. Happening upon a lone guitar player on the plaza of Notre Dame at 1 AM. Bundling up late at night to go outside to witness the Northern Lights. All of these things would have been amazing on their own, but knowing someone I care about is on the same spot on this vast planet, at the same moment, taking in the same incredible sight, is a truly special experience.
I have a few friends I have traveled with and perhaps another one under consideration. And I can joyfully say that we worked together to make sure the outcome was greater than the sum of its parts.
Traveling alone is something everyone should do, at least once. It is so liberating. Especially for those of us who lead very structured lives. It provides the ultimate opportunity for being spontaneous!
Whenever I travel alone, I am often asked why I am doing so. It may be hard for others to comprehend, but I try to convey that sometimes my friends don’t have desire to go where I want to go or don’t have the time or money. And I am not about to give up my own vision of adventuring!
I am more budget conscious when traveling alone. Not always, but sometimes I end up renting a car and camping out. I literally don’t always know where I will be sleeping until the sun is getting ready to set! If I want to get up at 5 AM and hit the road for the day, I do it. Alternatively, if I want to have a lazy morning and read a novel, I do it. If I decide to 86 a chunk of my pre-planned (but flexible) itinerary, I do that too.
Not that I couldn’t do those things when traveling with a friend. It would just take some communication to ensure we were both happy.
Even when I travel alone, I still do quite a bit of research before I go. That is just part of my personality, but I feel less of a responsibility to do so. At times I have been content to do a fraction of the research that I would unquestionably do if I were sharing the trip with a friend.
The real benefit of traveling alone though is undoubtedly the increase in interactions with people. It is only natural that when you are with someone, you interact with them first and foremost. That is part of the beautiful sharing experience. When you are alone, but still in villages or cities, you naturally gravitate toward bonding with locals and other tourists. For instance, the man you meet while sitting in the plaza. Or the woman who is staying at the same hotel as you. Even the couple you sat next to on a bus. As well as the store owner who stopped what he was doing to talk to you for an hour. The possibilities are endless.
The real joy here is getting exposure to a bunch of interesting people. They are full of interesting ideas about the future and stories about the past. Could you meet interesting people walking down your street at home? Sure, especially if you live in an international city like New York or San Francisco. But when you travel solo, you become more open and more willing to reveal less accessed parts of yourself.
In case you are wondering if it is safe for a woman to travel alone, please read an article I wrote on this exact topic.
What Is It for You?
So, where do you go from here?
I don’t know! That is something you will need to answer for yourself.
What I do know is that the complex world needs more people to try to understand it. And one of the ways we will do this is by interacting with it and experiencing it firsthand. Reading about the planet and watching films about the planet are legitimate channels for being connected to it. But in my humble opinion, it’s not enough.
The most important aspect of travel is that we do it with intention and purpose. Whether we do it by ourselves, with a trusted friend, or a group, we can accomplish our goals.
So get out there, and start exploring. . . .