Why Solo Travel — and Time Alone Even at Home — Can Be So Fulfilling
A New York Times travel writer effuses about the joys of sojourning on your own
Stephanie Rosenbloom writes beautifully and lovingly about the time we spend alone. I’ve been wanting to discuss her work here at Medium for some time, but have put it off, since her focus is on travel, and we haven’t gotten to do much of that during the pandemic.
But now we can almost see a time when it may seem safe again. In a New York Times article in February, Rosenbloom made an interesting prediction about that, after consulting with social scientists. She suggested that, as we begin traveling again, “even modest, less costly vacations will give us extreme pleasure.”
Back in 2013, Rosenbloom made my day twice over when she wrote about the single supplement in the Times, even asking travel companies why they would charge solo travelers more, and she also wrote about people who are single at heart. I talked about that article at the time at my blog at Psych Central (a site that has been discontinued). I’ll share that next, followed by my discussion of Rosenbloom’s wonderful book, Alone Time: Four Seasons, Four Cities, and the Pleasures of Solitude.
Travel Ways of the Single-at-Heart
Perhaps you know of that dreaded penalty on people who travel solo called the “single supplement.” A person traveling on their own is charged about twice as much — sometimes even more than that — for a hotel room or tour or cruise.
It makes some sort of sense for travel companies focusing solely on short-term profits. They want to get as much for a room from one person as they could if two people shared it. But of course, solo travelers are not too happy with it. As the number of single people (and non-single people who sometimes travel on their own) continues to grow, the travel industry is beginning to realize that they had better pay attention and do something to appeal to the solo traveler.
At the New York Times, Stephanie Rosenbloom addressed the issue in her article, “Singled Out (for the Single Supplement).” Rosenbloom asked people from travel companies why they charged a single supplement, and what (if anything) they were doing to appeal to the growing demographic of potential solo travelers.
There is a lot to the article, including a list at the end of tours and cruises making real efforts to reach out to solo travelers and make their experiences better and more affordable (probably outdated by now). Most relevant to single people is the discussion of one of the ways the travel industry uses to try to appeal to us: “they will waive the supplement if solo travelers agree to be matched with a roommate.”
Here’s what comes next:
“It’s nice to have these options, but for many solo travelers, roommates are something they left behind in college — and they want to keep it that way. The reasons for that range from the obvious inconvenience of rooming with a stranger to a more profound idea that Professor DePaulo refers to as “single at heart.” It’s the notion that some people are single not because they can’t find a partner, but because, as she puts it, “single is who they are” and “how they live their most authentic life.” These are people who want “to regulate their own space and time” — all of which is at odds with having a roommate when on vacation, let alone one they don’t know.”
I didn’t know it at the time, because I had not yet analyzed the data from my brief quiz, “Are You Single at Heart?”, but a love of solitude would turn out to be something nearly everyone who is single at heart shares. That doesn’t mean that everyone who is single at heart lives alone, or that they always travel alone, but they probably do so in greater proportions than people who are not single at heart.
The Joys of Traveling Alone
New York Times travel writer Stephanie Rosenbloom has had plenty of enviable assignments, but one of the most revelatory was a five-day trip to Paris, on her own. After she had been back for a while, she said, “I missed who I was in Paris.” That person was “curious, improvisational, open to serendipity.”
She longed to return, again on her own. Her goal, she said, “wasn’t to master Paris. It was to master myself: to learn how a little alone time can change your life — in any city.” She did go back to Paris. She also traveled solo to Istanbul and Florence. Back in her home town of New York City, she decided to explore Manhattan the way she had explored the other cities — as a tourist on her own, walking the city.
The result is Alone Time: Four Seasons, Four Cities, and the Pleasures of Solitude. With beautifully evocative renderings, Rosenbloom takes us along as she visits shops and museums, gardens and a Turkish bath. We experience the sounds of the call to prayers. We relish her solo picnic, and her meals in restaurants and cafes. Most significantly, we witness her splendid solitude and how a little alone time did change her life.
We also learn why solitude can be so nourishing to the soul and beneficial to the body. At a time when Americans have gone off the deep end in their panic over loneliness, Rosenbloom compellingly demonstrates how spending time alone can be blissful and meaningful and fulfilling. To make her case, she draws from her own experiences, as well as the insights of poets, artists, musicians, philosophers, urbanists, writers, and anyone else who has thought deeply about the psychology of solitude. Most importantly to me as a social scientist, she also shares findings from research on solitude, savoring, happiness, intrinsic motivation, emotional engagement, the value of ordinary experiences, and the joys of anticipation. Also included are illuminating overviews of studies that explain why we get it so wrong when we think that other people are judging us when we are out on our own in public.
Alone Time is a book of delights. There are wise and witty quotes about solitude from all sorts of people. (A few of the best are Rosenbloom’s own. For example, about dining solo, she says, “When you’re not sitting across from someone, you are sitting across from the world.”) There are shout-outs to lovers of solitude across time and across walks of life. There are eye-opening statistics on just how commonplace solo dining and solo travel have become. There are great insights on the psychology of going solo. There is some shattering of myths (for example, taking time for ourselves doesn’t make us selfish, but instead “more open and compassionate toward others”). If you come to this book thinking that loving your alone time makes you a freak, you will leave realizing it makes you amazing. Alone Time, Rosenbloom tells us, is her “love letter to loners.”
The book is sprinkled with observations about the rewards of going it alone that all start with the word “alone.” For example: “Alone, there is no need for an itinerary. Walk, and the day arranges itself.” “Alone, I could listen to the rain come down, listen to it in a way you can’t when someone else is around, with bodily stillness.” “Alone, we can develop our aesthetic sense at our own pace…” I became so enamored of these quotes that I went back through the book to try to scoop them all up.
Alone Time is not a self-help book. It is too profound for that. But there is plenty of useful advice along the way, as well as a chapter at the end, “Tips and Tools for Going It Alone.”
I love great literary writing and Rosenbloom’s prose is gorgeous. Her storytelling skills create a vicarious vacation for those of us home alone reading her book on a couch. A few chapters in, I realized that while reading Alone Time, I had been smiling the whole time.
Alone Time: Four Seasons, Four Cities, and the Pleasures of Solitude has many audiences. It is for the joyful solo traveler, who has been waiting for someone to write an unapologetic, unabashed celebration of what it means to be out exploring on your own. It is for the wannabe solo travelers, who have been thinking of striking out on their own but just needed to see that sparkle in someone else’s eyes to motivate them. It is for the proud solo diners, who feel that obsessing about what other people think of you when you dine alone is so last century. It is for the people who cherish their time alone. And, although Alone Time is not about living single or living alone, it elegantly captures what so many single people love about their single lives. This is a book to be celebrated and savored.
[Want to learn more? Take a look at this collection of articles on all sorts of topics relevant to single life. Watch my TEDX talk, “What no one ever told you about people who are single.” Check out my website. Find my other stories on Medium here. Disclosure: Links to books may include affiliate links.]