During my last year of high school, I spent too many hours neglecting my studies to plan my gap year travel. At the time, my high school boyfriend was supposed to join me for a few months around Southeast Asia. We even bought our first flight from Adelaide to Bali together. However, even before we broke up, I became more enamoured with the idea of travelling alone at 18. So when I broke up with him, to my parents’ alarm, I refunded his ticket and kept mine.
I had no semblance of street smarts at 18. I struggled with crippling social anxiety and was terrified of talking to strangers. My relationship had been highly emotionally codependent and so I had forgotten how to look after myself in basic ways. I had never travelled anywhere alone before, let alone overseas for several months, and I had no real idea of how to fend for myself. The idea of solo travel terrified and excited me, but ultimately the excitement won. So why did I choose travelling alone at 18?
I wanted to avoid dependency on other people.
Between the age of 15 and 18, I was in a highly codependent relationship. I used to call my ex every night for hours because I feared being alone with my thoughts. My depression and beginnings of BPD were taking over my life and I wasn’t seeking professional help. I felt trapped in a relationship where I wanted and needed space, but was too terrified of being alone to actually take it.
It took me months of deliberating to break up with my boyfriend. I knew that I didn’t want the relationship anymore, but I was terrified of being alone and crippled with guilt at the emotional pain that I would inflict on him. When I finally followed through, I felt a tremendous sense of relief at the freedom and opportunity to rediscover my personality.
I could have tried to convince friends to travel with me, but it never felt like a viable option. I still believe that there are very few people who I would be comfortable travelling with long-term, simply because I enjoy my space and freedom too much. When you travel with someone else, you have to take their needs into account with every decision, and there is a lot of compromise.
Travelling alone is the greatest exercise in learning how to look after yourself. You have to manage all your travel logistics as well as reaching out to other people for friendship and company. Before I left, I didn’t know how much of a challenge it would be, but I knew that I needed to learn these skills.
I was inspired by women who travel alone.
I have been an avid reader of Adventurous Kate since the age of 17. She was the first blogger I discovered who was travelling alone as a woman, and who had the bravery and writing skills to describe her experiences candidly. As fate would have it, around the time I was considering whether I should break up with my boyfriend, she published this advice post.
In the post, a reader writes to Kate and asks if she should break up with her boyfriend to travel, because he doesn’t have a strong interest in travelling. Kate urges the reader to follow her gut instinct and break up with him to travel alone. This resonated with me strongly at the time and it played on my mind for months. It wasn’t the main reason that I chose travelling alone at 18, but it felt like a push towards my inevitable decision.
I thought it would be an impressive thing to do.
I’m embarrassed to admit this, but I thought that travelling alone at 18 would give me substantial street cred. At a time when my peers were either going straight to university or joining group tours in Europe, I thought it would make me stand out to do something truly daring.
I think that at 18 a lot of young people are trying to figure out their path in the world and define their personalities separate from other people. I was a lost soul trying to learn who I was, and setting myself apart from others was a big part of that. It makes me embarrassed to think about now, because it seems like an ego trip to want to seem more interesting than other people, but it’s reflective of my mindset at the time.
Travelling around Southeast Asia, I was definitely on the younger side of backpackers, particularly women who were travelling alone. Most travellers that I met were in their 20’s and older. However, it did show me that a great variety of people were into solo travel, and it sparked a great love in me that has never died.
Would I recommend travelling alone at 18?
Looking back, I’m really glad that I chose travelling alone at 18, but I’m also very glad that I chose the relative ease of Southeast Asia. The region is very set up for travel, many people speak basic English, and life is cheap and fun. Originally I had planned to travel to South America, but I am so thankful that I delayed that until I was much older. Some young travellers might be capable of navigating a more difficult region, but I definitely wasn’t.
My trip taught me various skills, from overcoming social anxiety, to the importance of cherishing alone time. I felt pure terror for days on end because I had no idea what I was doing and homesickness took over my entire body. I struggled almost every day, and came home vastly more confident and comfortable with myself as a person. It was a really trying time, and one of the most important periods of my life.
If you have a great thirst for travel, I would definitely recommend travelling alone at 18, but you need to know your limits. If you have a high level of street smarts and social skills, then you could likely tackle any part of the world. However, most young people straight out of high school are going to struggle with culture shock and be pushed to their limits navigating the challenging world of solo travel.
You should definitely follow your dreams of travelling alone at 18, but do plenty of research beforehand and have an escape plan in place in case things go awry. It will be steep learning curve, but it will also be a liberating and amazing life experience.
How old were you when you first travelled alone? What struggles did you face?