What I Learned From My First Ever [Mini] Solo Trip
My first ever solo trip was entirely unintentional. Let me enlighten you as to Plan A: I would travel up to Cardiff from Plymouth; my pal Susie would travel down to Cardiff from Nottingham; we'd catch up in person for the first time in a year; we'd stay in a nice-looking AirBnB; we'd see the sights; we'd go home having had an all-round delightful time. However, as it has had rather a habit of doing over the last couple of years, Covid threw a spanner in the works and only 3 days before we were due to catch our trains, Susie had to isolate. On her encouragement, I messaged a few people who might be able to join me instead given that the AirBnB and trains were already booked, but as no one was free at such short notice, I decided to go it alone.
If I'm honest, I was expecting to have a fairly mediocre time. I was happy to have an opportunity to go back to Cardiff after about 10 years but assumed that most of the time would be spent feeling both lonely and pretty down that my last chance to see Susie before her year abroad in South Korea had disappeared. Of course, I was still gutted not to have seen her (and still am - miss ya pal), but my first ever experience of travelling solo was unexpectedly delightful.
Now, I realise that going from one part of the UK to another for a weekend alone isn't exactly a 3-month solo trip across South East Asia, but I actually did learn a few valuable lessons from it:
1. Your time is totally your own
Definitely one of the best things about solo travel - you have total control over what you do and when. Although I still would have loved to be there with Susie, being alone meant I could choose to spend the whole weekend nerding out at not just one but two castles, listening to all of the extra information on the audio guides, taking the time to absorb the details, and spending as long as I wanted with my camera - especially fun given that it was new that week! I still love travelling with friends, but not worrying about whether or not I'm walking around somewhere too slowly or keeping someone else waiting by taking photos is rather nice.
2. You have to be able to deal with it when things go wrong
Scary but true - turns out I'm the responsible adult now. Similarly to a lot of situations in life, I found myself in a bit of a dilemma with transport when I first arrived and realised that there was no 'more grown-up grown-up' I could ask to sort out my situation: I had to deal with it by myself. Having booked to go to Castell Coch on the Saturday afternoon, I'd left a good hour between my train's arrival time and the bus departure time but hadn't realised until I arrived in Cardiff that it was a rugby weekend. This meant that almost the entirety of the roads in the city centre had been closed, and the stop that my bus had been due to leave from wasn't in use - I realised this about a minute and a half before the bus should have arrived. Immediately panicked, I googled the bus route and tried to speed-walk to where the next stop would be, but that was also in the closure zone.
Long story short, I ended up ringing a taxi company who didn't know where I was asking to be picked up from, figured I'd have to go for my backup option (the next bus to Castell Coch wasn't for an hour and I didn't want to waste one of my two days), and rushed to the appropriate bus stop almost in tears because of the rubbish, stressful start to my holiday. I was literally just sitting there, praying for a significant improvement to my day, when a taxi pulled up and the passenger got out. The driver caught my eye and asked if I needed a lift anywhere, and it genuinely almost made me weep with joy when he agreed to take me to Castell Coch - all about 1 minute before the bus to my backup option was due to arrive. I didn't care that it cost me £15 one way, I was just delighted that I was actually going!
I think the main thing I took from this experience (aside from the fact that prayer really works!), was that choosing how you deal with these situations is vital when you're solo travelling. It's easy to get stressed when things go wrong, but holding things lightly and having options as backup is really helpful. Even though I actually ended up going where I'd wanted to in the first place and had a great time, I had to choose to take the difficulties in my stride and not allow my day to be tainted by the stress - throwing a tantrum, either internally or externally, may have made me feel better for a minute or two, but it wouldn't have solved the problem. It's easier said than done, but I recommend 'loose planning' - by all means plan what you want to do, but allow for flexible timing, maybe get some backup options just in case, and always choose to see the positives even when things go wrong.
3. Eating by yourself isn't that scary
Ok sure, it was only a jacket potato in the Cardiff Castle café, but eating by yourself can be a daunting thing if you've not really done it before. My advice is just to embrace it - it doesn't have to be awkward and I can guarantee you won't get the weird stares you think you will. Also, top tip: your book is your best friend in this situation. If you're like me and want to read much more than you do, then this is a perfect opportunity to do so, plus it may help you feel a little less conspicuous if you still feel a bit weird about it.
4. Taking the time to absorb your surroundings is important
I find that especially when I have my camera with me, it's easy to get caught up in taking as many pictures as possible and trying to get around quickly to see as much as possible, particularly if I'm somewhere I've not been before. But taking the time to absorb your surroundings, whether travelling alone or with friends, is actually so important. Take it slow, put down the camera for a minute, and just enjoy being where you are. Spend time taking in details, smells, whatever is around you, and I promise you'll get so much more out of the experience. I don't have many regrets from my travels, but not pausing to do this in some places I've been is definitely one of them.
5. Meeting new people whilst travelling alone can be great fun
It's true that there are some weirdos in the world, but I think that most people have an overly cynical view of others. I'm not suggesting we throw caution to the wind, but people are honestly so fun. When I arrived at the rented room, I was greeted by Sheila, the host, who was extremely talkative but so lovely, then after showing me to the room she took me into the kitchen and introduced me to her best friend Kostas. I was pretty exhausted from my day and would definitely much rather have gone straight to bed, but the 3 of us still spent about 45 minutes talking and it was actually quite fun, despite my waning energy levels. It was nice to have people to talk to after a day by myself, and it turns out they're both pretty interesting people. I was definitely ready to crash at the end of it, but I definitely don't regret spending that time with them.
6. The memories don't become devalued just because you don't share them with someone else
This had actually been one of my biggest concerns about travelling alone. I love travelling with pals, you reach new levels of friendship and make new shared memories that last a lifetime, and especially given that I'd expected to be there with Susie, I basically assumed I'd be pretty miserable. Yet in actual fact, I look back on my weekend in Cardiff as a real blessing. I loved exploring a new place, getting to use my camera, having a break from the norm, and discovering the many joys of solo travel in a place that wasn't too different to what I knew in terms of language and how things generally worked, etc. I'd definitely go back and do it all again and since then, I've done more UK-based solo travel and loved it just as much.
If you're considering a solo trip, or even if you end up in a similar situation to me, my advice is to take the leap. You never know what's going to come out of it, and you might just be pleasantly surprised! Plus, I can thoroughly recommend somewhere like Cardiff as a good place to start...happy travelling!
Thank you for reading! If you have any questions or if you'd like to guest-write for The Classicist with an Atlas then I'd love to hear from you - you can get in touch via the form on the Contact page or on Instagram @theclassicistwithanatlas.
Also, shoutout to Susie for being a top pal. Miss ya.
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