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Holly Kirtley is a single 30-something living in Knoxville, Tennessee. While she’s been traveling internationally for many years, she just started traveling solo in 2018. I chatted with Holly about how she got started with solo travel, where she’s been, and what her experiences have taught her.
What is your background with travel and how did you transition into solo travel?
I’ve been leading student mission trips, at least once per year, for about ten years as part of my job on a church staff. I have been responsible for between 200 and 300 students in the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica and wherever else we were headed, which was the exact opposite of solo travel, right
Then five years ago, I connected with another Holly (through a Facebook group) who was serving in Chiang Mai, Thailand. That was my first big solo trip — going to Thailand to meet Holly — but it was sort of like pretending to solo travel because once I got there I was staying with her, and she was showing me around everywhere.
After I came home, I changed jobs and moved to a new state where I didn’t know anyone.
I didn’t want to find myself just sitting at home alone all the time, so I committed to saying yes to every invitation for six months. I ended up on a beach trip with these girls I literally did not know. It was great for getting me out of my bubble, but I found that, while I loved them dearly, we just had different travel interests. For example, one of my best friends would be totally okay if we only ever went to Disney World and the beach, while I want to go someplace I’ve never been each year.
And so this past spring you took your first big solo travel trip. How did you decide where to go and how to spend your time?
For years, I talked about how much I wanted to visit Prague. I didn’t know anyone who had ever been to Prague, and I had no idea what was there. But this past spring I was chaperoning a trip to Munich. My boss, who has heard me talk about Prague for years, suggested I stay an extra week and go to Prague.
In the moment, I didn’t hesitate. I just said, “Yes. Absolutely.” It wasn’t really until I got on the plane to Munich with all of those teenagers that I thought, “Wait, they’re leaving after a week and then I have a week by myself in Europe? I haven’t thought this through. What am I doing?” But it ended up being one of the best weeks that I could have ever imagined.
I just explored everything that I wanted to explore. I’m a big fan of the Rick Steve’s travel books, so I read both of his books on Prague and Budapest from cover to cover and had a pretty decent idea of what I wanted to explore while I was there. And when I got home, I could not wait to plan my next trip. I got back and decided to give myself a vacation for my 34th birthday.
I didn’t have anywhere that I definitely wanted to go, but I knew the week I could get off work and about how much I wanted to spend on airfare, so I signed up for Next Vacay. Then I just waited for a deal that was within my price range and around the time I could travel. In late June, I got an email about this $350 round trip ticket to Amsterdam, and even though I’d literally never thought about Amsterdam in my life, I figured, “Sure. Why not?”
People often ask about ways solo travelers can stay extra safe. What are some of your strategies?
My goal is to basically blend in as much as possible and not look like a tourist. You can always spot tourists, right? Because they’re ogling things and staring at guidebooks, generally unaware of how they are impacting the people around them.
There are a lot of tips about wearing money belts and that kind of thing, but my goal is to look like a normal person, not a tourist. I feel like like nothing makes you look more like a tourist than when you have to undo six layers of clothing to get to your money.
I also make a habit of telling people where I am going. My parents have my general itinerary, but then I like to do Instagram Stories. People know if I haven’t updated within a couple hours it might be cause to send me a text, at the very least.
Where do you stay?
My favorite is Airbnb, hands down. If my ultimate goal is to trick other people into thinking I’m a local, then one of my favorite things to do is to live in an apartment. I did, however, try something new in Amsterdam. I stayed in what’s called the City Hub, but it’s basically a pod hotel. It was high tech and really clean. You wore your key like a wristband, and you had to have an active wristband to get back to where all the pods were. Then you had to use your wristband to get into your pod. I felt very safe there, and I thought it was a cool experience.
Women often ask about how and if they will meet people while traveling solo. What has been your experience with this?
That’s not really ever a priority of mine, but it’s a happy circumstance when it does occur. In Budapest, I just happened to meet this girl who had come from Prague, and that’s where I was going next. We ended up spending several hours together, and she took me to this club where there was this Hungarian band playing. We learned traditional Hungarian dances and all kinds of crazy stuff. This experience, that I never would have had otherwise, all occurred because she asked me a question, while we were standing in line to order from a food truck.
In Amsterdam, I intentionally scheduled some tours through Airbnb Experiences. I thought they were amazing because they’re not just trying to cram as many people into a tour group as possible. They’re done by people that live in these cities and are showing you around based on their expertise. So I went on Captain Dave’s Boat Tour in Amsterdam, and there were eight of us — two families and then two other single girls traveling alone. I got to hang out with one of them, and then she ended up helping me get a ticket to the Van Gogh Museum because there was a glitch with my ticket.
My favorite interactions though, especially in Paris, were these little interactions where we didn’t spend all day together but just occurred because I’m open to asking questions and enjoy talking to people. I was watching these old men playing a game, kind of like bocce ball, in the park by the Eiffel Tower. I was just watching while waiting for my time to go up to the top of the Tower. They invited me to come play with them — these old men who hardly speak any English and me who hardly speaks any French. It was a 15 or 20 minute experience that I never would have had if I’d been like, “Oh my gosh! Stranger danger!”
I think to some extent to travel alone and to really have a good trip, you have to let your guard down just a little bit. Not to the point of being unsafe, but to the point of just trusting that there is still good in the world and hoping that you’re going to be the one that gets to come across it today.
Have you had to tackle any insecurities like “What if I don’t like being alone with myself?”
I kind of struggled with that, wondering, “What am I going to think about when I don’t have anybody to talk to you? What is going to happen?” Then I found that I do really like myself, but I’d never really spent the time to discover that. I think a lot of times it’s easy to just fill up your brain with noise all the time. I always have Netflix going while I’m doing other stuff. Or even if I’m sitting in front of Netflix, I’m also scrolling through Instagram. I really don’t take all that much time at home to pause for reflection. But there’s something about being alone and removed from all that. It kind of forces you to just be with yourself, and I can totally get how that can be scary, but I think more than anything that’s a really healthy thing to do. So I’ve even found myself turning off stuff more often at home, so I can regain some of that alone time. Just because, as scary as it seems at first, it really is super valuable to growing as a human, and knowing who you are, and knowing what you want out of life.
Another thing that was really helpful in this last trip is some friends gave me this travel journal that was awesome. It had prompts like, “Spend some time staring out windows and draw or write what you see here” which led to some extra kind of focus, thinking about observing my surroundings and getting into it. Another one was “Write down all of the things that you like about what you’re experiencing right now.”
What have you learned from your solo travel experiences?
I came away from this last trip with a huge reminder to be grateful for what I have and where I am. I’ve had so many conversations with people who are like, “Oh, I’m so jealous of your trip. I wish I could have gone on something like that.” In those conversations, I am just reminded that in this season of my life — where I just turned 34 and I’m not married — that my life is nothing like what I thought it was going to be like. But in this year alone, I’ve spent two weeks alone in Europe, doing whatever I want, sightseeing, and just experiencing things no else I know has ever experienced.
And then that extends to outside of those two weeks: I get to go and get my nails done once a month, if that’s how I want to spend my money, and no one is going to stop me. No one is going to interrupt that time. That is something to really be grateful for. This is my one life, and I’m living it to the best of my ability. I’ve been given some incredible opportunities, and I don’t want to miss any more of those wishing for my life to be different.
My biggest fear was always to be in my thirties and unmarried. One day I woke up and realized, “Okay, I’m literally living my biggest fear.” I spent decades of my life worried that one day I was going to be 30 and not married — and here I am. And, you know what? It’s not that bad. So if this is my biggest fear, and I’m living it every single day while honestly having a pretty awesome life, then that’s pretty great, you know?
What advice would you give other women who are considering solo travel?
If you’re at all considering it, do it. Just buy the ticket.
But if you’re someone who is new to this and the idea of taking off to Europe for a solo trip sounds nearly impossible, but you have an interest in going to the art museum in your city, then I would encourage you to go buy your ticket and go to the art museum. Start small with something you want to do and do it. Stop letting other people or your fear of being alone hold you back from experiencing stuff.