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When I first became a digital nomad in 2018, I expected a life of adventure and ease. “No more commuting!” I thought. “No more parking tickets or forgetting to water my plants!”
Yet far from making my life simpler and better, solo travel was tough at first. For one thing, the way I was doing it was expensive. For another, it was lonely. “No more retirement savings! No more, um, friends?”
Not every traveler is looking to become a full-time digital nomad, but solo travel on the whole has become more popular over the past several years. Single-person flight searches were up 36% in 2023 compared with 2022, according to data from Kayak, a travel search platform. And Google searches for “solo travel” have increased 59% in the first half of 2023 compared with the same period in 2019, according to Google Trends.
Solo travel can certainly be expensive. Booking a $150 hotel room might not be a big deal for families, but it adds up quickly for singletons. It can also be lonely and boring — but it doesn’t have to be.
Here’s how to learn from my early mistakes as a digital nomad and make your foray into solo travel much more fun and affordable.
Spend on what matters, skip what doesn’t
When thinking about how to save money on travel, many vacationers focus on the basics: finding travel deals and using travel rewards. Those are essential skills for solo travelers and my digital nomad motto was “follow the deals.” Yet there’s another way to save that’s particularly important for solo travel: not paying for stuff that doesn’t matter.
Let me explain.
When traveling with friends or family, booking a nice hotel room can offer an oasis of calm and relaxation, right? But it’s different with solo travel. Hanging out at a fancy resort by yourself is not only expensive, but it’s also isolating and downright boring. The point of solo travel — for most — is to get out and see the world, not curl up in bed. So spending a fortune on a room with high thread-count sheets might not be worth it.
Here’s how my priorities change when I’m planning solo travel:
Almond butter sandwiches, all the time. Why pay for expensive restaurant food that you’re just going to eat in screen-scrolling solitude? Buy cheap to-go food and use that time you would have spent waiting for your check to explore your destination.
These are only a few optional expenses for solo travel, and they'll vary from traveler to traveler. Love hiking but don’t want to pay for a rental car? Look into shuttle services. Going to a wedding alone? (Hey, it happens.) Ask if you can crash on a friend’s couch.
Saving money on solo travel isn’t so much about what extra stuff you can do but what old travel habits you’re ready to let go of.
Find your thing
As a bonafide sourpuss, it can be hard for me to make friends while traveling on my own. I’m not into most group tours, nor am I good at striking up conversations with strangers. So my early digital nomad career involved a lot of gazing wistfully into the distance.
That was, until I started joining yoga classes, which are available everywhere and are a great way to meet people and do a group activity that doesn’t feel too "group-y."
Am I telling you that you should do yoga while you travel solo? Well, maybe — it does help with those middle-seat aches. But really the trick to making solo travel fun is finding the thing you enjoy doing that can connect you with strangers in a new place.
Find your favorite kind of tour or class. Whether you love architecture, local food or guinea pig taxidermy, there’s probably an organized group activity in most major cities that focuses on it. These can be a shortcut to finding like-minded folks wherever you land.
Get out of your comfort zone. Never had a psychic reading before? Great, try one out on your next trip. You don’t travel to do the same old things, after all.
Try out wistful gazing. Some of my favorite solo travel memories involve planting myself on a park bench and taking in the local scene. Sometimes “being” beats “doing,” especially when traveling alone.
You might find that some of the activities you usually enjoy when traveling with others aren’t as fun alone. Personally, I love visiting museums with others but find it intolerable solo.
YOLO: Go solo
The best part about traveling solo, for me, is the freedom it affords. I don’t have to work with anyone else’s schedule or travel preferences. I’m free to stay in the simplest (I won’t say “most squalid”) accommodations and do exactly what I want to do with my time.
The hardest part is budgeting and avoiding loneliness. As a pinchpenny introvert, my solo trips can get a real "Into the Wild" vibe. That’s why I spend money on what I care about — activities that push me out of my comfort zone and connect me with like-minded soloists.
Check your solo trip budget and ask yourself, “Do I actually care about this when I’m alone?” If not, save that money for something that gets you excited.
Or just stare wistfully into the distance — it’s always free.
How to maximize your rewards
You want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are our picks for the best travel credit cards of 2023, including those best for:
Flexibility, point transfers and a large bonus: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
No annual fee: Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card
Flat-rate travel rewards: Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
Bonus travel rewards and high-end perks: Chase Sapphire Reserve®
Luxury perks: The Platinum Card® from American Express
Business travelers: Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card