Thinking of travelling alone? Wanna travel without a plan? Here's my personal reflection as a first-timer to it all from May to August 2023.
If you’re curious of the specifics, you can find a trip breakdown on Polarsteps and at the end of this page. This post focusses on the overall trip and my learnings.
Let’s get it on
It’s become something of a cliche amongst young Aussies and Kiwis to hit up a European summer at some point in our twenties. Understandable too. The continent is so vastly different to anything Down Under offers. The history of the countries alone, absolutely smashes us to pieces. As my mum puts it: 'Australasia’s got the geography, Europe’s got the history'.
I’ve always wanted to do an extended Europe trip. I remember being jealous of school friends in Year 12 embarking on a few weeks there as part of a 'classics' excursion (pft yeah, like any actual schoolwork got done then). Ever since then, I kept swearing I’d do one on my own time, to places I wanted to go, but subsequently put it off:
'I’ll get high school out the way, then go. Oh… but I want to do uni and how much of a struggle will that be to get back into studying habits afterwards?'
'I know, I’ll go during a uni holiday instead! Oh… but I want to get work experience in my breaks so I can get a good job post-uni. I’m a poor student too.'
'Okay for real this time, let’s work for a few months to save some $$$ then do a mega trip! Oh… the world has decided to have a literal 2-year plague? Brilliant.'
You get the point. It wasn't difficult to slip into this perpetual cycle of saying I would, and then reverting back to work and my career goals. The prevention of all travel during Covid was the wake-up call I needed to be like 'you never know when the next one of these is gonna hit, you really need to do this.' It’d be so easy to stick on the same path however, trying to use the godawful corporate ladder climb to justify putting it off indefinitely.
In mid-2022, after a year spent settling in Melbourne, I saw a super early-bird ad offer for Sziget Festival in Budapest on my phone. Endless Insta Stories showed friends had been there just a week ago, and it looked like an absolute blast. But… the offer only had 1.5 hours until it ended. I knew it wasn’t enough time to message someone, convince them to join, and commit to it a whole year in advance.
So, in one of the wildest acts of spontaneity in my life, I just… bought the 6-day ticket.
That was the trigger. Europe 2023. Come what may this time. It. Was. On.
Stepping out the comfort zone
Soon after, I bought a one-way flight to Berlin after seeing an $800 deal (as you may be able to tell, I loves a good bargain).
The following few months brought a teensy bit of planning to do some parts with friends but I kept it very minimal. I was determined to do Europe pretty spontaneously, a way of travelling I’d not really done before, and certainly never solo. Doing things on the fly, was what kicked off the whole trip after all.
I knew very early on, that I had to make this trip one where I pushed myself to my absolute limits. That’s not to say I couldn’t bask in Barcelona’s crispy sun, but to me, it was really important to see and do everything I wouldn’t ever normally do. I feel really strongly that this is what our twenties are for, and this opportunity was not coming again anytime soon.
And so I did! It came in a wide variety of forms:
Doing the most intense 40-minute group workout with strangers in London;
Making it to 3 sunrises and surviving the 6 days of Sziget Festival;
Initiating conversation with strangers in hostels;
Going on a slingshot ride, that catapults you over 80m in the air at 100mph;
Eating at restaurants solo;
Pulling through 4 nights in Ibiza;
Trying to engage in a multitude of different languages with locals;
Being comfortable with not knowing where I’d be going next.
The idea of solo travelling was unnerving at first (I’m saying this even as a white male in Europe). You’re on your own. It’s entirely up to you to depend on where you go, what you do, your safety, your budget, and deal with any inevitable last-minute changes or inconveniences that life hurls at you.
And yet, it’s a true freedom unlike any other.
It meant I could walk 30,000+ steps around Rome, without being concerned whether someone else was as drained as I was. I could go to the over-priced (but stunning) Zurich or just decide to have a chill laundry day, and not worry about whether I was breaking a co-traveller’s bank or wasting a day. I could go to any city or country I wanted, at anytime.
This is often forgotten about when travelling. It’s all too easy, to try and pack in as much as possible with the aim of doing and seeing it all. With the trip being almost 100 days however, I knew this wasn’t going to be sustainable in the long-run. Again, being spontaneous, it meant I could just randomly decide when to have a 'potato day' as I called it, usually about one a week. Even then, I still made sure to see more of the location, just less intensely. It often coincided with a dusty hangover.
I was also left to my own devices in terms of organisation. This often meant booking hostels just a day or two before actually going to the next destination. Some would call this reckless (I’m not disagreeing), but it made me able to make a judgement call on the current place I was at. For instance, I experienced Paris for 4 days and then a couple of days in, could choose to extend it (I did not) or move onto another undetermined city (eventually went with Montpellier due to no cheap trains elsewhere south… the joys of just going with it).
Much to the stress of family and friends, I only booked the return flight back to Australia 3 weeks prior to leaving the continent. Gotta keep ‘em on their toes 😉
People make the place
Something I was a little concerned about was feeling quite isolated for the 3 months. But even whilst solo travelling, it didn’t feel like I was ever 'solo' all that much. I’d walk into a new hostel room, set my stuff down, and just start chit-chatting to whoever was in there at the time. They’d nearly always be a solo traveller (or duo) so there was heaps to bond over. We’d usually go out for food, a bar or embrace some new attraction together, all whilst sharing travel stories and how we got there.
The people, to me, are what makes the place. I love hearing about what growing up in Algeria is like, how Canadian school teachers embrace different tactics to teach their kids, why Germans rarely fly their own flag out in public (linked to far-right groups, perhaps unsurprisingly), or the challenges and opportunities faced with being a Brazilian digital nomad.
I thought I was quite the extravert before going away. But it certainly made me realise, I really do need my downtime too. Time to just explore somewhere like Prague alone, or lie in bed booking the next activity can be really calming. Once again, the beauty of solo travelling is you can just choose when you want to socialise or not. People rarely judge you whichever you want to do. Who cares anyway?
It also helped me value the deeper chats that scratch well beneath the dull surface-level starter of 'sooooo… where are you from?' or god forbid talking about work (actively made an effort to never ask this). What I love about hostel travellers, is that they’re implicitly usually very much on the same page here.
Other bits and bobs
I documented my trip as I went. Even after a week, it’s easy to forget what you saw or did 6 days ago. I used an app called Polarsteps so family and friends could keep track of me, but totally rate keeping a personal journal too.
To jazz things up a bit when meeting people and to keep the conversation fresh, I would ask new acquaintances to add ONE song of their choice to a Spotify playlist from the trip. This might be from a concert we’d been to, a tune that was meaningful to them, or just a straight-up banger they’d been loving recently. Either way, it means any one of us can go back and listen to it at anytime, holds memories, and is more personally impactful than collecting souvenirs.
Amongst all the new travellers, I was stoked to be able to visit my UK home city, spend time with the entire immediate and extended family, primary school, high school and university friends, and ex-flatmates all in this trip.
Eurail / Interrail is genius.
Europe, as a continent is absolutely beautiful, and it’s easy to see why everyone flocks there for summer. Whether it’s Amsterdam’s local sport of bike dodging, the alien planet-like science buildings of Valencia, Corfu’s clearest blue seas, or the underrated valley of Luxembourg, it continued to blow my mind just how vastly different each destination in Europe can be. Even in the same country like Italy: Sorrento, Milano, Roma, and Napoli (yeah I’m cultured), felt worlds apart in terms of look and feel.
If you’re ever faced with the age-old dilemma of saving for a house (literally forget it at this point) or hitting up Europe, you already know my answer. To sum it up:
…and a lifetime of memories.