I recently reposted a photo from Paris on my Instagram.
My new caption said: 4 years ago, I was in Paris by myself romanticizing life.
This prompted a reader to reach out asking about tips on traveling alone, “specifically in Paris” if I had them.
Your wish is my command (as long as you’re okay with making this us as I go and not having a clear outline in mind and an overall long story with often seemingly unrelated tangents).
Traveling alone in Paris
The first and only time I traveled to Paris was 4 years ago. My trip may not meet some people’s criteria for travel. It was a layover, I only stayed a few hours, and most importantly, I didn’t have a croissant or visit the Eiffel tower.
Recognizing that probably everyone says this, my Paris experience was different from other people’s.
I had been in the Netherlands for a week or so. A serendipitous encounter in the city where I live (Tirana) set things in motion and the next thing I knew, I was on a plane because a Dutch province had invited me as a speaker for International Women’s Day.
At that time, I was a novice activist, involved in organizations working to fight gender inequality in politics, I had interned at a psychiatric clinic in Tirana and volunteered as a psychologist in Sri Lanka, and I was a writer.
On March 8, I would come on stage to talk to hundreds of people about what it was like to be at the intersection of those things, but mostly, what it was like to be an Albanian woman.
All you need to know for now is that I fucked that up, but I said this to provide some helpful context about where my mind was. I was given the biggest opportunity of my life and I bombed it.
My Maastricht horror story
After the conference, I went to Maastricht to stay with a friend for a few days. I hadn’t seen her in years and we weren’t even that close, but from our conversations and respective posts on Instagram, it seemed like we shared the same values and would really enjoy each other’s company.
But not so fast, let me tell you about what happened to me when I was on my way to Maastricht.
After IWD, our Dutch hosts showed us (the other speakers and I) around. From intimate gatherings in government officials’ homes to visiting some of the Netherland’s biggest facilities that were run by women, we really saw the full spectrum of Dutch hospitality and emotion.
I digress, back to solo traveling.
On the train to Maastricht, I was still processing everything that had happened. I was overcome by feelings of inadequacy, not being enough and not having done enough. I felt like a fraud. Everyone back home was so proud of me and wanted to know how it went (even though they “were sure it went fantastic”). I focused on the good parts (“got a standing ovation”) and skipped the messy parts, of which there were plenty. Then, the lights went off and the train stopped.
I looked around. No one was on the train.
I looked outside and saw something like the classic Windows wallpaper, but it was almost nighttime, so it looked more like this.
Was I tripping? Were my glasses foggy? I did a double-take.
Yeah, there were no people on the train. Yeah, the lights were out and I was in the middle of nowhere.
That’s when I started screaming at the top of my lungs.
Since I was in another country, I could only call people if I had WiFi. I didn’t have WiFi.
I tried unlocking the door to no avail.
Still, even if I could get out, where the fuck would I go? There was no sign of humanity nearby. Even if there was, I’m not sure I’d feel safe knocking on random people’s doors so late at night.
A combination of these things had made me miss my stop and then the last stop:
- focusing my energy on avoiding the belligerently drunk guy on the train (there weren’t many people around to protect me if something happened, so I changed my wagon)
- overthinking about the conference to the point where it consumed my entire being
- not realizing that on this train, conductors didn’t say the stops out loud in English (they only do that on tourist-y routes, but I didn’t know back then)
What if the drunk guy was so drunk he missed his stop too and now he’s here?
I went back to screaming, but added banging on the door as loud as I could to the mix.
Not too long after that, because I’m an extremely lucky person (I seriously believe that), a train approached the parallel railroad.
The train didn’t have any passengers and was going very slow, so the conductor was able to see me (hear me?). Actually, maybe not the conductor, but a technician or something. Anyway. He stopped. I explained the situation, though I’m sure my traumatized face was credible proof I hadn’t stolen the train or whatever. This never happened, so at least there’s that. They helped me get out and hop on the other train. They couldn’t take me to the specific stop I wanted to get to since it was their last trip for the day too, but I was just ecstatic to be there. I could walk, I could get a fucking cab, I could spend the night out celebrating my newfound (lost and found?) freedom with booze, it was fine.
That’s my Maastricht horror story.
Rule 1 of solo traveling: Pay attention.
Pay attention, not in the mindfulness “if you don’t, you’ll miss so much beauty” sense of the word, but in the “you’ll suffer emotionally, physically, financially if you don’t” sense. Pay attention to signs, maps, closing hours, bills. Make sure your phone’s charged and you can reach people if you need to. Is the place you’re going to cash only? Do they have a No Cash Policy? Is a stranger asking you a surprising number of questions about where you’re from, what you do, and where you’re staying? Maybe they’re flirting, maybe they want to rob you. Unfortunately, you’re an easier target when you’re alone, so having your guard up is a prerequisite for (safe) solo travel.
I took a trip to a nearby beach before starting my first writing job. I look back fondly on that weekend because I have a specific trip to remind me of such a shift in my career and consciousness (“I really found a job as a Writer in Albania, I can literally do anything“). MOM IF YOU’RE READING, YOU CAN STOP READING NOW OKAY, THANKS, LOVE YOU. Back then, I wasn’t paying attention. I had booked a bed in a 12-bed dormitory room. The hostel’s receptionist said that while they didn’t have any reservations for that room, they had to leave the door open just in case someone arrived late at night. If you’ve ever stayed at a hostel, you know that sharing a room with one person is infinitely worse than sharing it with 10 people. (The math ain’t mathing? Just trust me, okay.) Especially if the person hasn’t even made a reservation, but is crashing there at 2am, likely drunk…
Safe to say, I did not sleep well. I had the worst dreams. I woke up 80 times during the night and I’m not even exaggerating. Thankfully, nothing happened. If I had been paying attention, though, I would’ve kindly suggested to the receptionist that I kept the room key. If someone showed up late at night, all she had to was call my phone and I’d open the door for them. I’d even gladly pay for another single room. Trying to save money when there’s so much at stake is dumb. Pay attention. Also, don’t assume others have your best interest at heart.
After Maastricht (in case you’re wondering, that friend was that amazing IRL too, but in retrospect, I was a hot mess at the time and there was nothing she could do to “save” me), I went to visit my best friend in Barcelona.
I purposefully chose a trip that included the long Paris layover so that I could visit the city.
Rule 2 & 3 of solo traveling: Take advantage of having full ownership and train your flexibility muscles
There are few instances in your personal life where you can get to stretch your flexibility as much as you do when you’re traveling alone.
You also get full creative ownership over every single decision. There is no one to blame or ask for permission.
Take advantage of this. Make mistakes. Make ugly, dumb mistakes like you never have before. You get to live with your mistakes and remember, there’s no one to blame, but you.
This really kicks conditional self-love in the butt.
You fucked up, yes, but it’s just you, so you don’t have to apologize to anyone for hurting them or putting them at risk. You’re in a wonderful spot, see? All your time and mental energy can go within.
If your friend and you missed a reservation to a lovely spot you had to book 3 months in advance because she was late, you’d possibly feel some anger toward her. You told her when she had to start getting ready in order to catch the train and be there on time, but…
If the roles were reversed, your friend would be sad and you’d feel bad for messing up.
When you only have to explain wrong decisions to yourself, soon enough, you find yourself joyously realizing that mistakes aren’t that much of a big deal after all.
Traveling alone also helps you become more flexible.
I decided to go to Barcelona on a whim. I could stay at my friend’s place so I wouldn’t have to spend any money on accommodation. There was a small problem, though. There were no flights (that didn’t cost a bazillion dollars).
I got a bus (FlixBus). Sure, it would be uncomfortable and take a long time, and I realized that if I had told a friend to join me, they’d just say “You know that we can get a normally priced ticket if we postpone our plans by just a couple of weeks, right? What’s the rush?”, but I did it.
I wanted to do it, so I found an alternative way. Plus, I could finally visit Paris, how cool is that? Someone else might have thought that an extra stop in an already long trip was tortuous. Not me, ~flexible~.
A few days before my trip to Barcelona, my friend said that because of some issues with her landlord, I wouldn’t be able to stay at her place.
I could cancel my long bus trip and just decide to visit her another time, but no. I found a relatively inexpensive hostel in a good location (Art City Hostel) and called it a day. Well, called it a trip.
Rule 4 of solo traveling: It all works out (as it always does).
Story #1: I slept through most of the Netherlands-Spain bus trip. That’s a little fun fact about me: I can fall asleep (almost) anywhere and anytime. When I woke up, I was missing my phone. Normally, I freaked out and started looking everywhere. A very kind woman approached me. Apparently, my phone had fallen from my lap through the cracks between the seats and went all the way back to the end of the bus. She found it and kept it safe for me until I woke up. I love people.
Story #2: When I arrived in Paris, the first thing I wanted to do was sit in a café and have a coffee (in that order). Wow, I already loved the place so much. The aesthetics, the air itself, their attention to detail. I felt so fresh, so light… Wait, where’s my carry-on luggage?!
I ran as fast as I could back to the place where the bus had dropped us off. We’d travel to Spain on another bus, so I was scared that the one that had my carry-on was already off to another European city.
Fortunately (because I’m an extremely lucky person, remember?), I got there just as they were about to leave. The driver thought it was all very funny, and at one point, I started laughing too. It was funny. I was feeling so light because I didn’t have my luggage, not because of the Parisian je ne sais quoi.
Traveling is supposed to be fun. You’re supposed to chill out. Everyday life is stressful enough. Traveling alone really makes it easier to eliminate that defeatist outlook from your life and approach things with curiosity, thoughtfulness, even humor.
“I wish I could, but I don’t have the time to chill and take it easy right now. Things will slow down next week.” If you’ve ever said a version of that sentence, congratulations, you literally have time to take it easy when traveling.
You can lose your phone and your luggage and miss the last train stop. Do it.
For the most part, everything’s optional when you’re traveling.
Yes, even if you’ve made a reservation and they’ll charge you if you don’t show up. Changing your mind is highly encouraged. Choose experiences over money where possible.
Rule 5 of solo traveling: All rules are made up and no one knows what works best for you better than you do.
Earlier in our journey (rule 2-3), I mentioned that when you’re traveling alone, you get full creative ownership over every single decision.
This can feel hard and uncomfortable at first especially if you’re not used to being alone.
“Instead of increasing our sense of well-being, an abundance of choice is increasing our levels of anxiety, depression, and wasted time. Whether you’re deliberating between breakfast cereals, TV shows, career paths, pension plans, or lifetime partners, the amount of options out there can be overwhelming.“The Paradox of Choice, 10 Years Later, Paul Hieber
Having to decide over every little thing can get overwhelming quickly.
Sometimes, this can look like taking the path of least resistance when traveling. You google “Paris travel guide” and arbitrarily decide you’ll go see/do the first 6 things listed on the second article that shows up. Remember, there’s no “right” way to travel alone.
That’s basically what I did when I was in Frankfurt alone last week after I bawled my eyes out.
Kind reminder: You’ll see yourself at your worst
As the saying goes, you don’t know someone until you’ve traveled with them. Namely, if you want to know for sure if you’re compatible with your significant other, traveling together is one of the best (faster, cheaper, less hurtful, smaller margin of error) ways to find out.
You’ll get to see your partner outside of their comfort zone. Both of you will often feel tired, frustrated, and lost (literally and whatnot). Things won’t go according to plan despite your relentless tries. At the end of a very long day, you may end up resenting each other a bit.
From unexpected detours and unpleasant surprises to simple, “pure” disappointment even when everything goes according to plan, things often go wrong in new creative ways during travel.
So how would you know if your significant other is right for you? Duh, they’d do everything humanely possible to avoid things going wrong, maybe even do some questionable rites that make it seem like they’re sacrificing something to the gods.
Nah, but with the right person next to you, these challenges will bring you closer instead of pulling you apart. You’ll learn more about their personality as a whole rather than parts you see when you’re out for drinks or staying at their place. Your travels will give you a newfound appreciation for the way they handle things (even when it’s not the way you’d handle things).
Problems are unavoidable, it’s what we do with them that matters.
And what I do with them when I’m traveling alone is start crying! Joking. Kind of.
Here’s something I have in my backlog of article ideas.
The importance of sleep Alternative title: The reason I teared up 4 times in 3 airports in less than 24 hours
When I wrote this, I was traveling to the US. I had an overnight layover in Budapest, then I’d fly to Oslo, then I’d fly to Florida and arrive.
A combination of tiredness, lack of sleep, and no one physically close to support me usually leads to me becoming an emotional wreck in airports.
In no particular order, here are some of the times I’ve teared up when traveling alone:
- had to pay not once, but twice for my luggage
- on my way home, they allowed me to bring a telescope (it was a gift to my boyfriend), but on the second flight when I didn’t have anyone I could leave the telescope to, they decided I couldn’t
- couldn’t eat anything for the entire 11-hour flight because I couldn’t use cash to buy food on the flight and I didn’t have a functioning card (and my ticket didn’t include meals, RIP)
- wasn’t allowed to fall asleep in the waiting area at the airport
- was pulled aside by US customs for a routine check that involved having to wait for an unknown period of time and not being allowed to walk or use the phone while you waited
- airline customer service agents treated me like I was the worst, most ignorant person to walk the face of the earth (I knew better than to take it personally, but it’s still frustrating)
Just last week, I was finally flying home after a whole month in the States. The airline changed my connecting flight (Frankfurt-Tirana), making it so I only had a 40-minute layover to catch the connecting flight.
Then, the flight from Tampa to Frankfurt was delayed. When we were boarding, I asked the lady who scanned my ticket if she thought I’d make it. Her assurance that I would really had me thinking so until the very last minute when I realized it was simply impossible to do so.
The airline booked me another flight. When you’ve been traveling for a long time and you’re super eager to be home, even the smallest delay can cause a breakdown. 10 hours isn’t exactly a small delay so that’s exactly what happened.
I felt crushed even though looking back it’s such a minuscule event in the grand scheme of things. It didn’t feel like it at the time. This is something else that solo traveling—and soul searching—have helped me realize. My emotions are valid and I should honor them every time they surface even if they’re not ideal and don’t even seem to make any sense. I’m glad that I didn’t beat myself up over it. I’m glad that I’m at a point where I can share that I was frantically crying at the airport because of a delay without worrying that people will think of me a certain way.
All the time: Focus on what you can control. When you can: Focus on the bright side
Someone did sincerely ask me if I was okay, which kind of set the wheels in motion for me to become okay. I thanked them for asking and reassured them that I was fine, I was just feeling a lot of emotions.
At that point, my stoic self jumped in. I remembered that I should only focus on what I could control. I couldn’t control missing my flight because of airline changes. There was no way to teleport myself home.
Even when we landed in Frankfurt, I was asking flight attendants if there was anything I could do to speed up the process of getting to the gate. I was focusing on what I had control over. Flight attendants said a combination of “No” and “Run?”. Another passenger, a German lady, chimed in to tell me that not only I was going to miss my flight, but that my luggage would also not arrive the same day because the flight crew wouldn’t have enough time to transport them to the other plane was right. Still, I had no control over this. What I could control is what I said to the German lady. I could tell her that she shouldn’t share bad news with someone who was already stressed out when they didn’t even ask her.
When I calmed down, I started looking at the bright side. I had never visited Frankfurt, but now I was able to explore the city. Free of charge too. First thing I did was look up if my favorite tour company, Free Tour, offered tours in Frankfurt.
They did. Would they have one today, though? Why, yes, they had an English tour after 90 minutes! I had time to exchange currency, get train tickets, go to the meeting place, and have coffee. C’est parfait!
Related: Free Tour offers free walking tours worldwide. A local shows you around and tells you all about how locals experience the city, what tourist traps to avoid, and what you shouldn’t miss. The group is usually anything from 5-12 people, big enough to not feel like you have to answer every question the tour guide poses and small enough that you can actually hear what they’re saying. I’ve done their tours in quite a few countries and have enjoyed every single one. If you’re curious, here’s how they can afford to make the tours free.
After booking the tour, I came across this: Layover in Frankfurt Things To Do (Instead of Sitting In The Airport!). That guide was exactly what I needed and I basically did everything she said. Thanks Kara!
When I bought my metro ticket, the vending machine returned some change, but kept 10 euros to itself. I asked for it back, but then she said she was having trouble processing my request and basically stopped working. Good for her, honestly, I respect that.
I waited for airport staff to walk by so I could ask them, but no one did. Long story short, I was slowly getting late for the tour and I did not want to donate 10 euros against my will. I found a number there, filled out a form, and hoped for the best. I had no proof, so I just wished for the best.
After 10 days, I received a semi-long, seemingly heartfelt email from a customer service rep saying that their technicians were able to rectify the error and “Of course, we will refund you the amount of €10.00. We are doing everything we can to ensure that our machines will function properly in the future.”
Focus on what you can control, get 10 euros. Not too shabby, eh?
These were my tips. Thanks for reading.
Cute sushi spot in Frankfurt
After the crying session at Frankfurt airport
Spring has sprung
One of these days, I’ll also tell you about Sri Lanka. After finishing university, I went to Sri Lanka as a volunteer mental health aide in my gap year. I had never been to Asia before and I think that was my first time traveling alone. That article will probably focus on the good and bad aspects of volunteering, what being immersed in such a different culture was like, and how being there made me realize I wanted to write. Back then, I thought I came to the realization that I wanted to be a writer. I did become a writer not long after Sri Lanka, but looking back, I realize what I wanted was to write, more so than be a writer. Stay tuned.