The two main reasons for traveling solo are that your good friend might not be a good travel friend and the energy stays mainly between you two. You will be less likely to meet new people and try to speak another language. I get it that traveling solo sounds lonely, you’ll have no one to immediately share your experiences with, but traveling as a twosome is more isolating and you can more easily talk each other out of doing something rather than putting yourself out there and going for it. Even if you are traveling with a friend, split up for a week and go alone. Loneliness is inevitable, but you learn to entertain yourself, be more comfortable in your own skin.
The exception to traveling alone is if you are getting serious in a relationship with someone or are already engaged. (In other words, take the honeymoon first!) You don’t know someone until you have traveled with them 24/7, and don’t you want to know the other’s true personality before it is too late? The Japanese even have a word for when they honeymoon abroad and then see it isn’t going to work out: “narikon”, which is a mix of “Narita” (Tokyo airport) and “rikon” (divorce). By the time they arrive back in Japan the couple has realized that they are incompatible, or more to the point, the woman has discovered that the man is completely inept and once they have landed at the airport it is decided they will get divorced.
Traveling independently teaches you to stand up for yourself. All too often I hear a variation of: “Well, we didn’t want to make a scene, so we just gave him what he wanted.” When alone you develop a better sense of reading situations. In a Kiev, Ukraine metro station I asked three policemen for directions and was hauled off into an empty apartment building and shaken down for $100 because of some supposed irregularity in my passport, but I stood my ground, stayed positive, and they got bored and gave up. (It was the one and only time and place in the world where I wrote my friend’s cell phone number on the inside of my belt in case I got hauled away because I got hassled every day in Kiev.) Being alone allows you to travel in a serendipitous way at your and only your pace without a rigorous schedule. It is hard to find a travel friend on exactly the same wavelength as you and the endless compromising that ensues can be a drag. Do what you want to do. Be impulsive. I am always in disbelief when I go to Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree section and see people showing their three week itinerary planned out virtually to the hour, every night’s accommodation booked. There are so many things that can occur on a trip. Your moods and desires or things out of your control can change your best laid plans. When you are alone you have maximum flexibility and are more open to what can come up.
A note about female travelers
Look, I know it is a slippery slope for me to talk about the female travel experience since I’ve been a man for most of my life. Plus, you might take my encouragement with some skepticism vis-a-vis your personal safety. Just allow me to say that women who travel solo are impressive, memorable, mentally strong, self-assured, confident, independent, invulnerable, they don’t take crap from anyone and even though they can be magnets for shysters, they don’t live in a shell. I can’t say if these women were preternaturally like that or it developed on the road, but they are almost uniformly heroic.
Japanese women might be the most common nationality that travels alone. They have to deal with so much grief from people trying to take advantage of them as they hit the top of all the meters of desirability: they are perceived to be rich, pushovers, available, and won’t retaliate or make a scene. I don’t know how they manage. If I ever understand the Japanese psyche, it will be a miracle.
I don’t know how convincing I am with this argument, and there is one instance I can think of where it is better to have traveled with someone: when you come home after your trip. Traveling abroad is such an intense experience; so much has happened, so much has challenged the way you think, you are full of impressions and ideas and finally back at home you discover that no one cares about your trip, just the tabloid-worthy highlights and lowlights. It’s jarring. The person you traveled with forms a bond in a way you couldn’t have anticipated beforehand. Even a small, otherwise forgettable moment like passing an Indian restaurant back home, after you two had been in India, will bring back a flood of memories and stories no one else will understand.