There’s a huge learning curve when traveling by yourself for the first time.
Last October I got on a plane from New York City to San Fransisco after a month of unemployment. A road trip out West had been on my bucket list for a few years. After a lot of decision paralysis over whether or not I should pause my frantic job search, I said, “f*ck it.”
In one afternoon I booked flights and Air BnBs along my route.
This was my trip:
It would be impossible to travel alone and not learn new things.
Here are the top 10 things I learned during my 11-day solo road trip.
1.Get gas when you see a gas station
Don’t fool yourself. You’re driving. You have places to be. Service is spotty, and your phone is being a d*ck, so you can’t look up the nearest station. The pressure to find gas before running out gets worse when you also have to pee.
Being low on gas stresses me out. When driving from Moab, UT to Denver, CO, I over-confidently skipped the last gas station in Utah. I assumed there’d be one near the border on the Colorado side. I was wrong. I took a chance and got off an exit with no indication of a gas station, but there ended up being one nearby. I got lucky.
2. Eating alone isn’t that weird
I always ate while looking at my phone. I felt like I was on a date with a touchscreen, but I didn’t mind. Sometimes I ate at a bar and got to socialize, but I mostly kept to myself. Eating alone is pretty peaceful.
I ate alone at restaurants, diners, fast food places and food trucks. The best part about eating alone is not having to worry about anyone’s dietary restrictions but your own. So yeah, I ate Mexican food every day. It was perfect.
3. Ask people to take pictures of you
Unless you’re paranoid about your camera being stolen, ask strangers to take your photo. Personally, I trust other tourists to take my picture. During my trip, I asked a few people to take my photo, but I wish I did it more frequently. As you can see in the shot below of yours truly at Yosemite, I’m much more comfortable behind the camera.
4. Be aware of your pace
You probably noticed by looking at my itinerary that I didn’t stay at my destinations for a long time. Next time around, I’ll spread the driving out more so I can spend more time seeing the sights. As much as I love driving, some of my destinations felt rushed.
When I arrived at Bryce National Park, I barely had enough time to make a quick loop inside the canyon. Of course, on my brief hike, I managed to bust my knee open because I was rushing through. It was pretty embarrassing.
5. Not everything you planned is going to be perfect
I planned most of my trip with the help of TripAdvisor. I kept seeing El Dorado State Park coming up as a recommendation, so I decided to try it out. It ended up being my least favorite park. The park was pretty confusing and didn’t offer the type of hike I hoped. You can’t win them all, and that’s okay.
6. Embrace the fact that you’re a tourist
Being a tourist helped me in several situations. On my way into Moab, UT, my tire light came on. I went to an auto shop to get it looked at, and apparently I needed a patch. The mechanics didn’t make me wait long, and so I didn’t end up losing much of the time I planned on spending in Arches National Park.
When I went to pay for the patch, the lady at the counter said the patch was on them. I like to think her generosity was inspired by a combination of me obviously traveling alone and my dorky Maine sweatshirt.
7. You’ll always be missing out on something
Instead of hitting Sequoia National Park, I went to Yosemite. Instead of spending more time in Moab, I took a detour to see Monument Valley on the way there. Make whatever you choose the right decision and don’t look back. Either way, you’ll know where you want to go when you return. I’m not missing Sequoia next time.
8. Don’t force things you don’t want to do
Before I left, visiting LA to see some college friends was part of the plan. After a few days on the road enjoying the abundant me time, I realized this trip wasn’t about socializing. I canceled my plans and drove straight past LA to San Diego.
Solo travel means spending your time however you want. If something in your plan isn’t a priority or you’re not looking forward to it, don’t force it.
9. Be spontaneous even if it means spending a little extra
When you travel alone, you bring back memories instead of objects. My first real solo day was spent in Monterey, CA. I got there early with no real plan in mind. Several whale-watching tours were advertised on the pier. Whale watching wasn’t necessarily on my list, but it seemed fun. The cost was $40, and I didn’t want to start using my cash so early on my trip, but I went for it. I had an excellent time. I also got sunburned.
10. Solo travel is the best kind of travel
Before my road trip, I had never experienced this type of freedom. I could change my plan on a whim. I had total control over my money, when I ate, when I slept and most importantly, my time. Crossing off something on my bucket list gave me confidence during my brief period of unemployment. It allowed me to return home with a clear mind and a new sense of self.