What If Your Solo Trip Isn't Life-Changing?
Updated: Oct 16, 2019
I make a lot of decisions, big and small, based on how other people experienced something. We all do it.
I ask around when I'm looking for a new restaurant to try. I check reviews before I buy something online. The top few books on my to-read pile are suggestions from friends.
Travel, of course, is no exception. TripAdvisor has 390 million monthly visitors to its site. Travel-advice groups have tens of thousands of members asking for advice on where to stay, what to eat, and what to do when visiting X or Y destination.
It's super helpful to hear someone's firsthand experience before you go and do that thing or visit that place, too. It can help you decide if it's for you, and know what to expect if you go through with it.
I've noticed that usually, when you're hearing about someone's experience (or even multiple people's experiences) doing something or going somewhere, they completely loved it.
They're gushing, full of positivity. They have nothing but good things to say—and they might even say something like, "It was life-changing" or "You'll love it/you HAVE to go. 😍" And I think we've all done this before.
What if you, then, do the thing or go to the place, and you don't feel quite as enthusiastic as they did?
What if you liked it, but it didn't change your entire universe? Or what if you just had an okay time? Or what if you downright struggled to enjoy yourself?
Finding that your experience didn't meet the expectations that person got in your mind can be rough. Maybe some people are able to let it roll off their backs and not care, but in case you're not that way (like me), I have a few tips.
This topic applies to solo travel really well, because a lot of women (myself included) love to talk about how traveling alone changed their lives.
But that can be frustrating to hear for someone who tried it and didn't enjoy it, or who thought it was fun, but not cosmically affecting. 🔮
Because it can make your experience feel invalid, or make you feel like you're not cut out for this, or that you did something wrong. If you don't feel like that—awesome! But I recently did after trying something new that I didn't instantly fall head-over-heels for, so I want to give some advice I've come up with on the topic.
But first, here's my quick story for some background:
I went through this when I went to Burning Man this year. It was my first time going, but I went to high school in Reno (the closest town to where BM takes place). So I grew up hearing all about it, which means I had a pretty clear picture of what it's "supposed" to be like.
(And in case you've never talked to someone who's been to Burning Man, pretty much everyone comes back gushing about how life-changing it is. Watch this to get an idea.)
So when I got there, and I struggled to adjust and let go, and didn't instantly feel like it was my one true-home and like I'd emerged from this transformative chrysalis to become a completely new human being with a revolutionary outlook on life...I felt awful about myself. Out of place. Like I wasn't doing it "right," like I didn't belong. Everyone else's life has changed at Burning Man (based on what you hear)—so why not me? 😭
I'm truly thankful for every person who has shared their story of Burning Man with me, or of a solo trip or some other kind of experience. And I'll keep asking for them, and listening to them. But this taught me not to internalize them quite so deeply. To not absorb someone else's experience as law. To be patient with myself and let things happen organically, instead of worrying so much about doing things "right" or having an experience that matches someone else's or even most peoples'.
It's exactly the same with solo travel.
We solo travelers love to talk about how going it alone can be life-changing. How it'll challenge everything you ever knew about yourself and the world, how you'll fall in love with it instantly and you'll never be the same.
That can happen, for sure. But it rarely happens instantly, and it often doesn't even happen the first time. And, sometimes you won't even recognize that it happened until later.
You can read about my first solo trip and how poorly it went. But even my second solo trip—a seven-month backpacking adventure in Asia–wasn't all 🌈 and 🦋.
The first two weeks were downright HARD. I toyed with the idea of calling it off and coming home. Then I got my footing and started to enjoy—but there were still always ups and downs. (It's just not possible to have only ups, only positive, happy, fun times 100% for seven whole months.). I still had low days, and I still had tough/challenging times.
But now, I say that the trip was incredible and life-changing and I wouldn't be who I am today if I hadn't taken it. That's 1/2 because of the cool, fun, carefree times I had, and 1/2 because of the tricky, challenging, frustrating times I got through.
Any big undertaking is usually split into these two parts in some percentage. ⚖️
It's something I'm personally going to make a point of talking about more—ALL SIDES of a travel experience, not just the amazing ones. Otherwise, it can make others question their real, valid, wonderful experiences and wonder if they're "enough." If they're enjoying this enough, if it's transforming them enough.
Thinking that way can turn a great experience into a negative one, all because we had mismanaged expectations due to an incomplete picture of reality, or expected differences between complex human beings.
So here are a few things to bear in mind to avoid this trap for yourself (and others) before, during, and after a big experience like a solo trip (or Burning Man 🙃):
Don't stop asking to hear people's stories or recommendations. Just consider adjusting the way you take in what they say. We're such complex amalgamations of a zillion different influences and characteristics—it's crazy for us to imagine that our experience of something would or should be the same as someone else's.
Delight in their story, but remember that their trip or whatever they're talking about had its challenges too. And even if it didn't, yours might. NO TWO EXPERIENCES WILL BE EXACTLY THE SAME. With anything. Period. Let yourself off the hook. Don't go into an experience with an expectation of how you'll come out of it. Just let it happen and see what YOU think. 🙋🏻♀️
Also, it helps to try not to go into it expecting a major life change. Just like some people like to say you'll find your "true love" right when you stop looking—you'll usually find transformative life/travel experiences the same way, rather than when you set out searching for them. I know it's hard, but try to see your trip as a blank canvas rather than a paint-by-number.
Just let it happen, and don't worry about summing it up or making a judgment call on your trip. Have you ever witnessed something kinda crazy, and your mind immediately starts planning how you're going to tell the story to someone? I do this all the time. It's fun to have an impressive or shocking story to tell somebody—that's a human thing. But in the case of solo travel, don't let 'planning your future story' get in the way of actually experiencing it. Try to stop constantly thinking about how things are going and whether you'll give this experience a 👍 or 👎 at the end. Focus only on what you're doing right now and let yourself process it all later.
Also, don't forget that solo travel is for you only. You booked it, you bought it. Don't do a single thing on your trip just for Instagram, or just so you can say you did, or just because someone recommended it and said it changed their life, etc.
Take every single step of your solo trip solely because you want to. Because this direction or this activity or this destination looks interesting or feels right. Not because "this is how it's supposed to be done."
Finally, even if this trip doesn't turn out to be life-changing, that doesn't make it less valid in any way (of course!). You can still have fun and enjoy—there's plenty of value in that.
And if you don't even get that much out of it, if you don't even enjoy yourself, there's still lessons or takeaways you can gather from it. (I hated my first solo trip, and didn't learn any lessons from it until years later. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯)
I'd argue that some of the most life-changing experiences are only life changing once you've returned home and have processed them. Sometimes they don't even feel that great in the moment, but once you get it all in perspective and realize what you accomplished or what you learned—that's often the moment when we start to think, "Wow, this experience was really something."
When I got back from Burning Man, it took me about a week before I could actually answer the question, How was Burning Man? And although my experience was challenging, and it didn't fit the expectations that I'd formed in my head after talking to so many people and doing so much research, I've come to value it now. In hindsight, I can see how good some of those challenges were for me, and how much I actually did learn.
And lastly: Be thoughtful the next time you share your experience of a destination, activity, or travel style with someone. How in-depth you want to get about your experience is up to you, but if you share your highs, consider being a bit more open about the lows, too, so you're giving a balanced, honest review. Because...👇
Only talking about the positives of solo travel will only make those who struggle or feel challenged at times on a solo trip (everyone, in some way) feel bad about something completely normal.
When people ask me how Burning Man was, I tell them honestly. I learned a lot, but it was challenging for me and I struggled to adjust, and I look forward to going again so I can build on what I learned and give it and myself another chance. And people, so far, love hearing me say this. I've had responses like "I've never heard someone say that before," or "Thank you for being so honest—that's really helpful," or "I've worried about that too!" and then want to know more, or even "YESSS SAME!!". I think this is a helpful attitude to take when you're describing any similar or travel-related experience with someone. Be honest, dude.
So, if you've booked your first solo trip:
Don't set out to have a life-changing experience. Just set out to have fun and see a new place in a new way.
While you're there, don't stress about how your experience measures up to what you've heard. Just do and see whatever floats your boat in the moment—that's literally the only thing you MUST do as a solo traveler. ✅
Whatever your experience turns out to be, it's unique and it's yours. Try not to let the pressure of how other people felt in a situation dictate how you think you should feel. I know it's not easy, especially when you take social media into account.
~~Side note: I also suspect there's some kind of social pressure on us all to say we really enjoyed a trip no matter how it went, because we spent all this time and money to take it, we've gotta have something to show for it. What you want to share with others about your experience is your business—but know that it's ok, no matter how you experience a trip or a place.
Guess what: I'm not a big fan of Bali, and it's taken me years to admit that because it seems like the Instagrammers of the world might want to harm someone who feels that way. Jk. Kinda. 😳
But it's just not the place for me based on my time there, and that's fine. People were lovely and it was beautiful, but there are other places I liked more. And my experience probably had something to do with personal things I was dealing with at the time too, so no one has the right to challenge anyone on that basis, wouldn't you say? As long as you went into your trip with a truly open mind, you never have to feel bad about how you experienced something.~~
And if your life didn't change from your first solo trip:
THAT'S TOTALLY FINE. I hope you had fun anyway. If you didn't have fun, I hope you learned something cool or useful. And if neither of those is true—give it a few years. Lessons from that experience still might surface in your mind, even long after you've stepped off the plane. And even if they never do, you still have the memory of this awesome, independent thing you did that you can be proud of getting through, no matter what anyone says.
Taking your first solo trip can be intimidating. There's lots to prepare for, and your head might be full of other people's expectations.
I created an online course called Solo Travel 101 to equip women for their first trip alone. I'll teach you everything you need to know about packing, planning, and what to expect logistically, so you can focus all your brain power on making the most of your trip—whatever that means to you. Learn more about the course here.