What Does Solo Travel Actually Mean?


I am currently sitting here in a small village, in a foreign country – in the middle of absolutely nowhere. I have been non-stop solo traveling since June of 2016 and have zero plans of stopping anytime soon.  Someone recently asked me ‘what does it mean to solo travel’, and for some reason I couldn’t give a proper definition. I have since put a lot of time and thought into this answer. Here’s what I came up with…

A Solo Traveler is a person who embarks on a journey, either long or short, in which they are both physically and emotionally away from the people and the culture that they are familiar with.  

3 Basic Categories of Being a Solo Traveler:

  1. Guided Solo Traveler – Someone who explores via organized tour, but doesn’t know anyone in the group prior to arriving. This includes travelers who hire a private 1-on-1 tour guide. 
  2. Extrovert Solo Traveler – Someone who may explore with one or even multiple local people who are not guides. Enjoys interacting with local people and may even focus their entire travel on that interaction.
  3. Introvert Solo Traveler – Someone who explores with no one. Enjoys time alone in peace and quiet – and doesn’t make interacting with local people a goal.

Let’s Get Technical About The Meaning of Solo Travel

I probably already know what you are thinking. You are probably thinking that ‘guided travel’ should not be considered solo travel because the person is not alone. The traveler is with other travelers…therefore it is not a solo experience. To a certain degree you are absolutely correct, but consider this:

  • If solo travel technically meant to travel alone, then the only way a Solo Traveler could be labeled as such, would be if he or she traveled in a forest away from everyone – only to be surrounded by nature. 
  • If a person were to travel to a foreign country, alone, and walk through the streets of an extremely crowded city for days, are they still a Solo Traveler? Technically they are surrounded by thousands of people…
  • Oh, do you mean a travel partner/companion? OK, well then check this out: What if a person travels to a foreign country and meets a local person in a coffee shop, and they start exploring together in a forest? What about exploring together in the city?

Are you starting to get a little confused now? All of these technicalities..

I like to think that solo traveling compares you to your home town/country. Your family and friends would see that you left and started to travel alone. From their point of view, you are a Solo Traveler. You didn’t bring anyone with you that you knew before. You are alone.

I feel that you are in fact Solo Traveling, even if you travel with another person – as long as that other person is from the country that you are traveling in. Local people are the only exception. Usually the entire purpose of traveling to another country is to experience the food, the culture, and also the people of that country. Hanging out and exploring with local people is part of solo traveling. It makes the journey incredibly authentic. 

If you are traveling with anyone else from outside of the country you are currently traveling in, or with a local tour guide, then you are not solo traveling (assuming you are traveling in a foreign country).

Exploring a fort in Jodhpur, India

Solo Traveling Technicalities 

You don’t always have to be alone to be a solo traveler. For example;

Local People

When traveling to a foreign country and joining a tour group with a bunch of local people. To me, this is still solo traveling (I label it as Guided Solo Traveling). You do not know anybody in the group and they are all from the country that you are currently traveling in. 

Other Tourists

What about if I travel to a foreign country and join a tour group full of other tourists from my native country? This is still Guided Solo Traveling, as long as you did not know any of the people prior to joining the group. You entered the group as a solo individual who did not know anybody before joining. 

Imagine for a moment that throughout this tour, nobody else talked to you. Not even once. Would you feel alone? Yep, most likely. If, however, you knew the people before joining the group, then this would be considered a travel partner and I would not consider it as solo traveling. 

Even Deeper in to the Meaning of Solo Travel

To be ‘solo’ is like saying ‘alone’ or ‘away’. But to be away from who/what, exactly? Well, I think it is ‘to be away from our norms – which must include the people that we know and the location that we are from. 

Guided Solo Traveler

Let’s take a look at this one (mainly because it is the most controversial of the 3 types). Tina flew to a foreign country alone, Took a taxi to her hotel alone, and slept at the hotel alone. The next day, She woke up and took a taxi, alone, to the meeting location of her tour group. She met all of these people for the very first time and did not know anyone before arriving.  She went on a guided tour with a group of people that she didn’t not know prior.

Because the common language was English, all of the group members could communicate with each other – even though they were all from different countries. Each person had a unique accent and had different personalities. She toured for 5 days all over the city with the same group of people. She eventually flew back home and told her mother about her experience. 

This was definitely a solo traveling experience. She traveled away from her native culture, her native land (her norms), and everybody that she knew. She threw herself into a completely foreign country with completely foreign situations. Yes she was with other people, physically, but she was emotionally ‘alone’ and ‘away’ from everyone and everything she understood in her native country.

Chart Indicating What the Travelers Are Away FromPHYSICALLY away from people they have met beforePHYSICALLY away from people who are non-native*EMOTIONALLY away from native culture*PHYSICALLY away from native location
GUIDED SOLO TRAVELERYESYES/NO**RANGE FROM 1-10YES
EXTROVERT SOLO TRAVELERYESYESYESYES
INTROVERT SOLO TRAVELERYESYESYESYES
NON-SOLO TRAVELER(TRAVELING WITH A FRIEND)NONONOT COMPLETELYYES
What are you away from?

* Compared to the country currently traveling in. Does not apply when traveling domestically. 

** Extreme examples (group tour): American in China with a group of 100% Chinese people  VS American in China with a group of 100% Americans (but doesn’t know anyone)

Indian village kids wanted a selfie with me

Solo Traveling is both Physical and Emotional

I do believe it is a combination of both, though heavily weighted on the physical side of things. When we travel solo, we are physically away from people that we knew prior to visiting, and if we meet a local person in a foreign country, we would still be ‘emotionally away’ from those things as well.

Traveling solo doesn’t strictly mean ‘to be physically alone’. Extrovert Solo Travelers sometimes thrive to be around local people, but they are still solo travelers because they are not hanging around people that are from a country outside of the country they are currently traveling in. Make sense?

Let’s look at these examples. 

  1. John is from the USA but is currently in Mexico, alone. He meets, by chance, another American at a local park. They decide to travel to a few tourist areas together over the next couple of days. They now are not completely ‘alone/away’ from their cultural norms. The culture/interaction from each other is not from the current country they are traveling in. They are not solo travelers.
  2. Instead, if John met a person from Brazil (still while in Mexico) at the park and decided to travel together over the next couple of days, neither of them would be considered solo travelers during their journey together. The culture/interaction from each other is not from the current country they are traveling in.
  3. But if John would have met a local Mexican at the park and they decided to travel together over the next couple of days, John would still be considered a Solo Traveler. He is physically with another person, but that person is a local. John is still ‘away’ from his cultural norms. The culture/interaction with each other is from the current country they are traveling in.

The Meaning of Solo Traveling From a Different Perspective

It also may help to think about this from the perspective of people in your native country. They would look at your current situation as being a Solo Traveler because you have entered a country alone and started to experience whatever the country had to offer, alone. And in this scenario, apparently the country offered a local person to accompany you who is kind enough to show you around their area.  

If you have learned anything from this post, I hope it’s: ‘just because I am traveling with another person, doesn’t necessarily mean that I am not a solo traveler’. That was a big game-changer for me, also. It took me a while to sort this all out in my brain. I think many people believe that we must travel without a companion to be labeled as a solo-traveler – but, I tend to disagree with this. Local people are the only exception.

Note: You can be Solo Traveler even if you are traveling domestically. Rules are a bit grey here. You may have to ‘read between the lines’ a bit. Happy travels!

Thinking about going on your first Solo Trip? Be sure to read a bit more about this topic. Here are some related articles:

15 Absolutely Critical Tips To Know Before You Start Solo Traveling

Does Solo Travel Get Lonely?

THIS is Why Solo Travel is Good for the Soul

What Solo Travel is REALLY Like (PROS & CONS)

Brock

Hey - I'm Brock. I grew up in the USA, and I have been a full-time Solo Traveler since June of 2016. I am also a Travel Vlogger on YouTube where my primary focus is to simply hang out with local people around the world. My full story is here: About Me

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