Solo trek: Would you dare to travel the world by yourself?
Are you ready to go it alone? It may seem daunting, but sometimes you can have the best holiday of your life when you just head off on your tod. Two Belfast Telegraph writers and a businesswoman explain why.
Journalist Kerry McKittrick (38) says:
I was supposed to go to Australia, travel a little on my own and then meet with friends. A little light googling later, I realised I could afford the flight but not much else. So I googled again and thought of China - a country whose culture I've always loved but which I'd never actually thought of visiting. I'll admit I was more than a little wary.
I was at that point in life when I wanted to travel, but was the only single person in my social group so trips would be solo.
But China was different to Australia. I couldn't speak the language and with blonde hair and blue eyes I'd stick out. I could imagine all of the cultural misunderstandings I could find myself in with very little effort.
In the end I opted for an 11-day guided tour, starting in Beijing then Xian, Yangshuo and ending in Hong Kong, where I booked a further three days, thinking it would be a more westernised version of China.
I'll admit to a moment while flying over Beijing - a city the size of Belgium - when I found myself wondering why? I felt a million miles from home and about to spend two weeks with total strangers. But I needn't have worried. Though it was seven years ago, I consider it the best thing I've done.
There were 12 on tour - a handful from the UK, including a Strabane couple and myself, a few Aussies, a Dane and an American. Shepherded by local guide Diana, we introduced ourselves in a boardroom in Beijing and were soon best of friends.
We visited the iconic sites - the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, the Great Wall and Terracotta warriors, went on bike rides, boat rides, took part in calligraphy and cookery classes.
I saw shadow puppet shows, shaolin shows, attended an opera banquet, shopped for pearls in Beijing and jade in Yangshuo.
We occasionally had lunch in people's houses - apparently it's a way for people to earn.
We toured a traditional food market where I saw pools filled with hopping, twitching water creatures I'd never seen before - and sadly, the sight of a skinned dog, hung for butchering.
Diana made the trip. She took all of the stress out of travelling. We didn't need to worry about buses or trains or wondering what things were. She had everything under control.
Absolutely everything was optional so if you wanted to take a wander off by yourself it was okay. That's when I noticed the differences. As tourists we were ignored; when I was alone I got plenty of stares.
I took myself off for dinner one night and ordered by pointing at a menu picture and hoping for the best. Thankfully what I ended up with was beef and baby new potatoes. Delicious, but whole baby potatoes in gravy are impossible to eat with chopsticks. After the third potato skittered off across the floor the waitress gently handled me a fork. Five minutes later I turned around to find her neck craned as she took in the sight of someone eating with the implement. Across the restaurant there was a six-year-old boy chomping away at the meal, using chopsticks.
I loved every minute. I made best friends for life whom I haven't seen or spoken to since as you do on this kind of thing.
My least favourite part of the trip was Hong Kong. It was smelly and dirty and lacked the charm of mainland China and I missed the group I'd been with.
Plus, Diana's time with us was finished. She was missed when it came to planning trips and more so when I lost my mobile phone.
I loved China and would go there again tomorrow. It's such a surprising place. Ancient cultures jostle with McDonald's, Starbucks and Subway.
There is meaning in just about every decoration and building. I also saw poverty on a scale I never have before or since. The heat was crippling with the needle nearing 40C - and the typhoon that hit Hong Kong while we were there didn't help.
But I would advise anyone to go. I felt that once I had been there, I could go anywhere and do anything.
Kerry’s tips for travelling alone
1. Learn some key phrases. Yes, no, please, thank you and, particularly, no thank you can take you a surprisingly long way.
2. A guided tour will have a pretty packed itinerary but you don't have to do everything and it doesn't cover everything. It's still worth doing your research and exploring on your own a little bit.
3. You can do whatever you like - return to one of the places you've already been or stay where the tour ends up. Not only did I stay on in Hong Kong but I upgraded my hotel for the rest of my stay. That was a very good idea as it turned out - the hotel where we finished our initial tour had mattresses like planks of wood.
4. It's a different culture so it's worth preparing yourself. Squat toilets, loud spitting and a total lack of personal space are the norm in China. We were well warned by the lovely Diana, but it's worth doing some research as to what you can expect.
5. It was boiling hot in China, but Chinese women don't tend to bare their shoulders or show much cleavage. There are no rules about dress, but if you're going to show a little more skin you should be prepared to be ogled.
Colleen Hamilton (33) lives in Belfast, where she owns Colleen Hamilton Hairdressing. She says:
I went on holiday to Rome in 2015 and it was my first getaway on own. Previously, I had gone away on my travels with family or my girlfriends.
For the five-day trip, I stayed at a five-star hotel. I had planned everything well in advance, including excursions to historical sites I wanted to see. It was all about keeping everything simple, so when I ventured out for the day a driver would pick me up from the hotel and take me back again. I didn’t want to be waiting on a coach picking me up with lots of other people as there is a chance you could miss it.
My decision to travel on my own was when a group of my girlfriends invited me to go on holiday to Ibiza with them that summer. At that stage of my life, I felt that I had done my partying on holidays to places like the Spanish islands. And I just didn’t want to go away and lie on a beach all day. I wanted to go somewhere different and see interesting places.
I had attended workshops on meditation and mindfulness, which really helped me know my own mind, so I had a good think about what I really wanted to do.
As a single woman, it’s easy to feel that you have to do what everyone else is doing, and you don’t. I live on my own and am very comfortable in my own company.
My sister Leanne is married and with my other friends heading off on a girls’ holiday, it occurred to me that I could travel on my own. I knew that I wanted a really nice holiday where I could do what I wanted to do.
It’s important to choose the right destination and I had always wanted to go to Rome. I had never been there before — in fact, I had never been anywhere in Italy before. I picked a five-star hotel with a spa deliberately, so if I didn’t like it I could simply spend my time away enjoying the facilities there.
But I had a really great time. The highlight was spending half a day at the Vatican. I didn’t see the Pope, even though he was there as it was a Wednesday — but he didn’t come out onto the balcony.
At night, I ate on my own in restaurants, which I know some people would never be able to do, but I don’t think people around me were looking at me, then going home to their families and saying they saw a women tonight eating food on her own. And, even if they did, it doesn’t matter. My attitude was that I would never see them again.
There was a mixed reaction from my family and friends when I told them about my solo trip.
My family didn’t want me to go as they were worried about my safety.
My mum told me, ‘You’re not going’. She has never been anywhere on her own.
A friend actually thought there was something wrong with me when I told her. She knew I was going to meditation and assumed it was for depression. She asked me, ‘Are you all right Colleen?’.
Having travelled on my own, everything is about you, so you are being a bit selfish, which is what makes it different to holidaying with others.
But in my job as the main stylist in my salon I spend all day talking to my clients. I literally talk for up to 12 hours a day and it was so lovely to get away and not have to listen to the sound of my voice. I wouldn’t say it is more relaxing being abroad on your own — it’s very different.
To travel to another country on your own is very liberating, it is empowering, as you know afterwards there is nothing you cannot do.
While I haven’t travelled solo since, I would 100% do it again. The most recent trip I have been on is a cruise with my mum earlier this year and I will be heading away again in a few months with my girlfriends.
Colleen’s tips for travelling alone
1. Choose the right destination for you which fits in with your lifestyle and interests.
2. Plan everything in advance, from what type of accommodation you will be staying in, to the places and activities you want to enjoy
3. Safety is important, so keep your wits about you. Be aware your surroundings and choose night time venues and transport carefully.
4. If you are not confident enough to travel completely independently, consider group travel, where excursions are organised.
5. Know the trip is all about what you want to do, and when you want to do it.
Freelance journalist Brett Campbell (31) says:
Like most students, I racked up a respectful number of air miles in my university days. It was more than easy to find fellow adventure seekers willing to drive the French Riviera, avail of a £7 return flight to Sweden or spend three weeks island hopping in Hawaii.
I choose to believe it’s just a sad fact of life, rather than a damning indictment of my personality, that as you get older it becomes increasingly difficult to find travel buddies.
Differing work schedules, varying financial circumstances and marital status can pose obstacles to the feasibility of a group get-away.
When I found myself in the unusual position of having an abundance of free time and a surplus supply of cash last June, I was forced to make a decision — holiday alone or not at all.
Slightly emboldened by the baby step I had taken the previous year by opting to stay on in Milan for a weekend after being with family in Lake Garda, I reluctantly bit the bullet — but avoided a package holiday to the island of monotony.
I returned to Italy with the aim of exploring as much of the culture and cuisine that three weeks would allow.
This meant short strategic stays in Rome, Naples, Florence, Sorrento, Amalfi, Ischia and Capri. But it wasn’t planned out like that — I did it one step at a time, inspired by my new-found spirit of spontaneity.
Booking accommodation while on the move allowed me to alternate between hotels and hostels, depending on whether I wanted a lazy day or if I was in dire need of social interaction.
The thought of a prolonged spell of solitude actually appeals to me, but I am by no means a recluse, which meant from my first night in Rome I rarely got to experience it.
An initial nosey inside a bar adjacent to where I was staying led to my eager participation in a game of beer pong.
I quickly found myself surrounded by sojourners who recklessly informed me about the club that would soon open downstairs, but I still managed to get up to appreciate the wonders of the ancient city.
I realised this successful approach was repeatable in both Naples and Florence and usually resulted in company.
But intentional retreats into isolation as I hiked the paths that ascend the stunning island of Capri or relaxed in the natural hot springs on the nearby volcanic island of Ischia ensured I did get some time to myself.
Good books and litres of coffee can always help pass a quiet afternoon, but being alone at certain times of the day can be incredibly awkward, most pronounced when eating out in an unsuitable venue. One night, I found myself in Sorrento, the land of the newly-weds, before I smugly ticked the jaw-dropping drive along the rugged Amalfi coastline off my bucket list.
My major faux pas became apparent immediately after I placed my order at the seemingly innocuous restaurant as an Italian musician set up his keyboard and began to serenade me with opera classics.
Squirming as love-birds flocked to the once-quiet eatery, I was forced to finish my sea bass and leave with indigestion.
The only additional bugbear surfaced when I found myself on the busy island beaches in the Gulf of Naples, unable to swim in the tranquil turquoise waters because there was no one to keep a watchful eye on my belongings.
The benefits far outweighed the disadvantages of being alone in another country.
After three weeks of guilt-free selfishness, I realised nothing compares to truly escaping — so I returned in September to conquer Lake Como.
Brett’s tips for travelling alone
1. Ignore the naysayers. Lone travellers are stigmatised, but only by the uninitiated.
2. When it comes to booking accommodation, don’t nail your colours to the mast. Only book accommodation for two or three nights at a time, in order to maximise your freedom.
3. Kill two birds with one stone by prioritising a free walking tour upon arrival. Easily sourced online, this will let you explore parts of the city you might otherwise have missed.
4. Don’t be afraid to venture out alone and enjoy a drink, but keep your phone in your pocket.
5. Don’t pretend you’re too cool for a selfie-stick.