Travel Comment

Ponderings on all aspects of travel - both at home and abroad.

Going solo: enlightening or lonely?

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Back in 1888 Rudyard Kipling - who did a lot of travelling in his life - penned the often quoted phrase, "Down to Gehenna, or up to the Throne, He travels fastest who travels alone."

On the whole, I think Kipling was right. Both in life and on the road you probably do travel faster on your own. But that rather begs the bigger question of whether you travel better.

Many of the great travel writers, it seems, insist not just that you travel faster if you go solo but that it's the only way to truly get to know a foreign country. To judge from the views of some, as reported in a recently published book about travel writers - Michael Shapiro's A Sense of Place - you're pretty much wasting your time going on a journey with someone else.

For instance, the wonderful American travel writer Jonathan Raban is quoted as saying, "You've got to go naked into the world and make yourself vulnerable to it, in a way that you're never going to be ... if you're travelling with your nearest and dearest on your arm."

If you travel in company, he reckons, "You're never going to see anything; you're never going to meet anybody; you're never going to hear anything. Nothing is going to happen to you."

Sure, the sort of stories I churn out for the Travel section are not in the same class as the writings of Raban, Paul Theroux or Eric Newby, but it seems to me that the issue is a bit more complicated than such comments suggest.

In the course of my work as the Herald's Travel editor I've often had to travel alone - sometimes because the trip organisers wouldn't allow journalists to bring partners, occasionally because my wife didn't want to go - and mostly I've enjoyed it.

The only time I can recall feeling really lonely was at a resort in Tahiti where all the other guests were romantic couples with no interest in talking to some stranger. The final blow came when I asked the maitre d' for a table for one and he shouted in horror, so the other patrons could hear, "Oh, you are alone!"

But it does seem to me that there are significant disadvantages to going solo.

First, you may have to pay the single supplement or risk rooming with someone who snores and has a vile body odour.

Second, and more seriously, being able to share an experience makes it more enjoyable. Sharon Wingler, who runs a website called Singles Travel International and has written a book called Travel Alone & Love It, sings the praises of going it alone. But even she concedes there is a downside: "If you see something really fantastic, there's no one to nudge and say, 'Wow! Look at that!' "

Third, and more important still, I reckon travelling with someone often means you see more, not less, of a country. When I'm on my own I certainly get to see more of the things that interest me. But when I'm with my wife I also get to see the things and meet the people that interest her. That surely gives me a wider perspective and hopefully results in better stories.

As John Flinn, travel editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, puts it (in an article which provided many of the sources for this column): "To the solo-travel crowd I'll say: Yes, there are some big advantages to going by yourself, but perhaps not as many as you think. Maybe you feel the way you do because you've never found a good travel companion."

- Jim Eagles

Pictured above: Absorbing a travel moment alone can be uplifting but sharing it with someone is pretty special, too. Photo / NTTC

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