14 Life-Changing Solo Trips We’ve Taken

AFAR staffers wax poetic about their most significant solo adventures.

14 Life-Changing Solo Trips We've Taken

Solo travel comes in many different varieties: the rite of passage, the ancestral connection, the search for growth and introspection, a completely unintentional journey. There is nothing quite as daunting or exhilarating as setting foot all alone in a place you’ve never been before. For many of us here at AFAR, those first solo trips are cherished memories. Whether they marked the moment we were bitten by the travel bug or came years after the fact, those trips are the ones that changed our perspective on travel.

From the roots connection…

“It can be difficult to connect to your Chinese roots when you live in white suburban St. Louis, Missouri. When I was 21, I decided that the best way to do so was to embark on a whirlwind tour of China. I saved money from a summer job and booked a tour that included Beijing, Chongqing, Three Gorges Dam/Yangtze River, Xi’an, and Shanghai. It wasn’t the first time I’d been to China, but it was the first time I saw so many different sides of the country without the influence of parents or relatives. China was and is a fascinating country full of history, great food, and contradictions—some of which are more stark in relation to the experience of an immigrant. The icing on the cake, however, had to be the discovery that I was most likely not Han Chinese, but rather Manchurian.” — Sherry Jin, Lead Engineer

The first trip that I took by myself was to Israel. As part of the Birthright Initiative, I was able to experience a trip to Israel for free—every 22-year-olds’ favorite word! I chose Mayanot—the “Young Professionals” trip. My parents were very concerned as this was during the Gaza Strip bombings; but I wasn’t. We embarked on December 31st, 2008 and rang in the New Year 30,000 feet in the air. When we got to Israel, I was floored by how much there was packed into such a small space—metropolis, desert, suburbia. It was 10 short days but I experienced so much: “swimming” in the Dead Sea, volunteering on a Kibbut, riding a camel in the desert, having a traditional Bedouin experience, Climbing Mt. Masada, and Shabbat in Jerusalem. However, the most special moment for me was a long-overdue Bat Mitzvah at the Western Wall. The memories of these life-changing experiences are precious to me because not only did I get to travel to a place I had never been to before, but I had a spiritual and emotional connection with everything I did.” — Lauren Sonnenberg, Integrated Sales Director

… to finding a global community:

“My first solo trip took me to four countries in South America. I had been to the continent with friends before, but I wanted this trip to be different, more immersive and meaningful. I sat down in my living room with a map of South America and began to jot down all the locations I wanted to visit. That notepad was the beginning of my adventure to Bolivia, Argentina, Chile and Brazil. I can’t recall a sense of fear, but there was definitely more of an excitement to see the places I had only dreamed of seeing prior. The most significant moment occurred when I departed Buenos Aires for El Calafate in the country’s Patagonia region. I was going to the wilderness, and I was going by myself. Did I realize exactly what I was getting myself into? Probably not, but it was by far my favorite part of the trip. I ended up meeting three other New Yorkers who (in a twist of fate) had my exact same self-made itinerary. We ended up hiking to see Mount Fitz Roy together and enjoyed a Christmas dinner of lamb and Argentinean wine.” — Michaela Trimble, Brand Manager

“My first significant solo trip was to Australia. The lack of a language barrier made me feel comfortable taking that on as my first solo experience to get my feet wet. I made my way from Brisbane to Melbourne over the course of three weeks, making stops in the Gold Coast, Byron Bay, and Sydney. The most surprising part of traveling solo was how much I accomplished each day. I had never realized how much time I spent discussing what to do next, waiting for travel companions to get dressed, and sitting around restaurants eating and drinking coffee when I travel with others. What I love most about solo travel is how much it pushes me out of my shy comfort zone and forces me to talk to locals and fellow travelers. I’ve met the most amazing people sitting in pubs alone—people I probably wouldn’t have met if I was caught up in conversation with travel companions. I’ve met lifelong friends on these solo trips.” — Maggie Gould, Executive Director, Marketing

From complete immersion…

My first solo trip was to Paris, which is the ideal first solo trip in my opinion. It is part of the Parisian culture to observe, and observe I did—from cafés, park benches, and on long strolls (some of which put me right in the middle of the red light district, oops). I relished eating dinner alone with a book and maybe a little too much wine. That feeling of anonymity was intense, no doubt, but after a couple days it almost became a high. Of course, that might have also been all the Gauloises I was chain smoking while idling over coffees and pastries.” — Danielle Walsh, Associate Editor, Social Media and Newsletters

“The first overseas trip was to Japan during Christmas when I was 19. I joined a tour group that went to Osaka, Kyoto, Mt. Fuji and then Tokyo. Christmas in Japan was a strange experience because Japan does not really celebrate the holiday, so it was just a normal week for the locals; but it was my first white Christmas, so to me it was quite special. We stayed in a small town near Mt. Fuji called Lake Kawaguchi which was eerily quiet. The people in Japan were so polite—if you’re lost and ask for directions, people are nice enough to walk you all the way to where you need to go. Traveling alone really allowed me to explore deeper and gave me a chance to make more friends.” — Denise Hoo, Digital Ad Operations Manager

… to terribly off-track:

“I had been in Phuket, Koh Samui, and Ko Phi Phi traveling on my own for several weeks post-college, and had met an amazing group of new friends from around the globe. We rode motorcycles, went scuba diving, and of course, danced most nights away. But en route to Chiang Mai, the jungle, and elephant rides—memories for a lifetime—things got scary for me. It wasn’t just that the bus ride was bumpy, this was something worse. The fever and chills were coming on strong and I couldn’t think straight. As we were passing through Bangkok, I made what turned out to be a wise decision and used the bulk of my money to check into a nice hotel, several classes up from the cheap hostel I had budgeted. I couldn’t afford the house doctor so, after devouring every non-alcoholic beverage in the mini bar, I made my way to a local clinic down the street where I was quickly informed that I had Malaria despite having taken Malaria pills. At this point, I had to make the call: trust the local shaman or scramble to get on a plane to an English-speaking hospital in Hong Kong and hope that I didn’t get quarantined! Luck prevailed and I not only made it to Hong Kong, but ended up reconnecting with a childhood friend, recovering in a lovely home, and ultimately spending a month exploring Hong Kong—a side trip that ended up being absolutely incredible. Traveling solo taught me to rely on my instincts and inner strength, and to perhaps read the instructions on the Malaria pills label correctly next time.” — Onnalee MacDonald, West Coast Sales Director

“One of my first solo travel experiences didn’t pan out as intended. I planned a two-week road trip from Los Angeles to Vancouver, where I was to stay for the summer working with a family and their child with autism. I was going to take the scenic route, over to Arizona to backpack Havasupai, around the Grand Canyon and through Utah and Wyoming before cutting over to a more direct route. Three days into my trip, and after viewing the Grand Canyon, I called the family to check in only to find that they had decided to cancel their summer plans. I was devastated and had a long and disappointing trip back to Los Angeles. It was a solo road trip, but not the trip I had planned on taking.” — Kevin Favro, Senior Manager Mobile Engineering and Product

From momentous moments…

My first big solo trip was actually domestic—but it still ranks as one of my peak travel experiences. I took the Amtrak train from Seattle to L.A. to visit some friends, then rented a car and took a solo road trip up the coast. I camped frequently, survived on milkshakes and tacos, and stumbled upon an amazing hostel right on the beach in Santa Barbara (now gone, sadly). One of my favorite moments was when I was driving up Highway 1 near Big Sur and it was so foggy I couldn’t see more than 15 feet in front of me. I saw a dirt road leading up the hillside to my right and decided to go explore. Turned out it led to the New Camaldoli Hermitage, a Benedictine monastery perched so high above the road that I could see the fog bank and the Pacific below.” — Aislyn Greene, Associate Editor

I quit my first proper job and went traveling around India on my own at the age of 22. I don’t remember if it was my first time abroad alone, but it was certainly my first time visiting a ‘challenging’ country on my own. I was woefully unprepared for, well, everything. I did some of the dumbest things I’ve ever done, but also some of the most incredible; saw some of the most amazing sights I’ve ever seen, and also some of the most disturbing. And these peaks and troughs were often rolled into the same experience—which will come as no surprise to anyone who has ever visited the country. I don’t know if I took any discrete lessons from the trip—in some ways I was too young and it was just too formative to break down—but I did learn to embrace both paradox and chaos. I also totally get, with the benefit of hindsight, where Alabama 3 are coming from in their classic send-up, ‘Ain’t Going to Goa.’” — Nick Rowlands, Guides Editor

My first solo trip was to Guatemala, after my sophomore year of college. I wanted to see if all that Spanish I’d taken in school would work when speaking to actual Spanish speakers. But just in case, I took three weeks of language classes in Quetzaltenango and lived with a family who sent me off with lunches of black beans, hard boiled eggs, and the best tortillas I’ve ever had. I shocked myself on the electric water heater showerhead in my little bathroom, read books about the country’s bloody history, hitched rides in pickup trucks after hikes in the mountains, and wrote a poem about wandering in the town cemetery. Then I spent a week traveling to Antigua and the ruins of Tikal. I spent an afternoon sitting on a temple by myself just watching toucans fly back and forth, and that’s when I realized I might be a birder, an important moment in any young person’s life.” — Jeremy Saum, Executive Editor

… to almost unintentional:

“I was 17 and, after having traveled through Europe with my best friend for two weeks, we both needed a break. A forgotten notebook in a Dublin train station gave us a thinly veiled excuse for some time apart and a few hours later I found myself eating dinner alone at a Chinese restaurant in Cork City. For the first time in my life, I was completely cut off from everyone and everything I’d ever known (except for mediocre Chinese food). It was a thrilling feeling that I’ve chased ever since.” —Maggie Fuller, Digital Intern

“When I was 16 years old, my parents allowed me to board a plane to attend a youth conference in Biloxi, Mississippi. The conference was boring, and the city wasn’t particularly exciting. Still, the feeling of traveling alone in a new place expanded my worldview and bolstered my confidence. I truly believe the experience started me on a path toward becoming a world traveler.” — Lou LaGrange, Business Development Director, Content Licensing

“I was a Tom Waits fan and back in ‘99 he did a limited tour after the release of Mule Variations. Tickets sold out very quickly but I was scouting both Oakland and LA shows. I was able to get one ticket for the June show at the Wiltern Theater in LA, which left me with the realization that I would need to actually travel to LA to attend (something I guess hadn’t crossed my mind). I flew in the afternoon of the show, stayed at a friend’s house (who was out of town), borrowed the same friend’s car to get to the show, and flew out the next morning. The show was amazing, if slightly awkward sitting by myself as seemingly the only person not wearing a pork-pie hat, and built my confidence for future travel and off-the-wall excursions.” — Laura Simkins, COO

>>Next: Why Solo Female Travel Is Important (and Where to Go)

Maggie Fuller is a San Francisco–based but globally oriented writer driven to provoke multicultural worldviews as a multimedia journalist. She covers sustainability, responsible travel, and outdoor adventure.
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