Imagine: you step off a train in a small French town. The station doesn’t have internet access and you don’t have a place to stay. As the sun begins to set, you’re forced to walk down the cobbled streets, hoping a tattered-looking hotel spotted in the distance will have a bed for you.
For globetrotters like Catherine Sypal, this type of open-ended adventure with no guarantees is the appeal of traveling alone.
Sypal booked her first solo trip to Europe, mainly France, in early January 2016 with her departure set for October. She spent the next 10 months penny-pinching and picking up a part-time job as a bartender to make extra cash, noting that saving enough money for her five-week long adventure was the most challenging and exhausting part of her trip.
For Sypal, the biggest draw of traveling solo was the ability to shape her own destination, both literally and figuratively.
“Traveling alone, you’ve got complete autonomy and can go, do, eat and see whatever and wherever you want to,” she says, adding that “learning to be alone is so important because it means you’ve learned to equip yourself with the skills of being safe in your own headspace,” a feeling that made her more present.
Some people might balk at the thought of a woman traveling to a foreign country without a companion, but Sypal says she rarely felt unsafe. She notes the company of hostel mates for nighttime adventures and more or less being fluent in French as added benefits.
While Sypal did visit a number of breathtaking locations, the most memorable parts of her solo-trip did not come from sightseeing, but from the people she encountered.
“There’s something marvelous about those chance encounters that defy description,” she says. “It wasn’t so much the grandiosity of the things I was doing that made them memorable, but rather the rarity of meeting someone with whom conversation and empathy just seemed to be the most natural extension of ourselves.”
Traveling alone forced Sypal out of her shell while reminding her of how competent and resourceful she is. When asked if she had plans to travel alone again, she said, “Absolutely.”
And the tattered French hotel? She found a room there. It was one of the most unforgettable places she stayed.