A dream come true: Why solo-travel should be a priority for young students finding their way through the world

And there it was. Standing before me was a vision that I had only dreamed about seeing my entire life. An intricate, exquisite design of elephant gray iron that cascaded hundreds of feet above me: the Eiffel Tower. 

It’s one thing to have an image in your mind’s eye of a place you’ve always dreamed of visiting — and another thing entirely to find yourself right there next to it. (Photo by Lydia Schultz)

I could hardly believe that my physical body was planted close enough to touch it — everything felt surreal. 

For as long as I can remember, visiting Paris was my dream. Last August, I would have never thought that one year later, I would be about to spend a month in Europe backpacking alone. 

But there I was – a 19-year-old girl in France – living out the trip of her dreams, with once-in-a-lifetime experiences and people awaiting me. 

A little over a month ago, I returned from my trip. Over the course of one month and five days, I visited France, the U.K., Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland and Italy.

Although it was not my first time traveling alone, and it was not my first time abroad, it was the longest I had ever spent away from home – and by far, the most adventurous trip. 

It was the most incredible experience of my life. 

I will never forget the beautiful places and people that I encountered, the lessons that I learned about myself and other cultures, and the newfound confidence that I gained. 

I believe that everyone should travel solo, at least once in their life — even, and especially, young people. 

The saying, “The best time in your life is right now,” undoubtedly applies to travel. Young people are still in a critical phase where they are trying to find themselves and their place in the world — and what better way to discover these things than exploring it? 

Many people dream of traveling. Unfortunately, many postpone such dreams until they are “ready.” 

Travel is often at the bottom of people’s priority lists, as it’s common to wait until they have enough time, money or friends. Young people, in particular, are not expected to travel because of traditional societal expectations to go to college, get a stable career and then start a family. 

By that time, it is too often that people make the excuse that it’s “too late” to travel. But why should travel be treated as such a low priority when it’s a dream for so many people? 

A free lottery ticket to travel the world will not fall into your lap. If it is truly a goal, then it is necessary to make sacrifices to make it a reality. Maybe that means skipping on your morning  coffee purchases or working extra shifts in exchange for time off. 

In my opinion, experiences are the best investments to spend your time and energy on. It is virtually impossible to go out into the world, explore a new place and not return with priceless memories. The stimulation of an unknown environment can bring benefits that most other investments cannot, and I found that my immersion in entirely new countries forced me to become sharply in tune with my surroundings and the present moment.  

Take, for instance, Belgium. Belgium was a country that I knew almost nothing about, except that they invented French fries. But I slowly began to realize just how underrated the country is as I explored the streets of Brussels, Belgium’s capital city. 

The clothing shops that lined the downtown area led me to The Grand Place, Brussels’ main plaza, which was a title that did not do the area’s magnitude enough justice.

My feet stood upon stormy gray cobblestone that expanded into a huge rectangle, encircled by gilded, larger-than-life architecture. The square was bustling with tourists – both individuals and groups, photographers and Instagrammers – and the less noticeable locals hustling past. 

Classic European outdoor restaurant seating lined one side of the Grand Place with relaxed customers who were people-watching and sipping out of small coffee cups. 

I took in these sights along with the sound of unknown and incomprehensible languages, which mingled with the smell of bakeries. 

I breathed it in and smiled at the piquancy of it all. I repeated what I would repeat at least once daily for the next month: “I’m in Europe right now.” 

Belgium was one country that was an amazing surprise of a destination, but even the countries that I thought I was more familiar with increased my intrigue and level of awareness.  

Appreciation for the present moment was only one of the benefits that came with exploring somewhere new. In addition to the new places that travel introduces you to, one could argue that the people are equally as significant. 

From random conversations in foreign languages with strangers, dancing with other travelers in hostels and kind locals offering their guidance, I met some incredible people from all over the world. 

Talking with strangers not only creates connections that would have otherwise never existed but also allows you to step out of your comfort zone and think from new perspectives. 

Furthermore, these interactions can lead to unexpected adventures. 

On a boat ride on a sapphire blue lake in Lucerne, Switzerland, I offered to take a picture for a girl sitting next to me. I learned that she was from the Netherlands and was on her way to Italy. The boy sitting next to us from Spain, it turned out, was on his way there as well. A short conversation with them convinced me that I had to visit Italy too, even though it was not part of my original itinerary. 

Traveling teaches you to be spontaneous, along with other countless lessons. Sometimes, these lessons can be very costly. 

In Amsterdam, I made the mistake of randomly parking my rental bike somewhere and not locking it. I had to pay the rental company 170 euros. 

That experience made me realize that I needed to be more guarded with my belongings and considerate of the potential consequences that my carelessness could have. 

This is one of the life lessons that I could have never learned in a classroom, though I also learned things that could be taught through a lecture, in a much more engaging way. 

In the small medieval town of Dinant, Belgium, I learned about their role in the World Wars by touring a fortified citadel on top of a cliff. Walking through each exhibit to read the history was definitely a more interesting way to learn than sitting at a desk in school. 

Secondly, travel teaches cultural awareness. 

Europeans live different lifestyles than Americans, and it was fascinating to compare them to my own. For example, everything seemed to be dead on Sundays in France because shops and restaurants are generally closed. In the United States, Sunday feels just like any other day of the week. 

Thirdly, as a solo traveler, there was nobody else whom I could depend on, so I had to navigate everything myself. 

This kind of independence made me more comfortable in my own skin, and built trust and confidence in who I am. Although one should not expect to be completely transformed after traveling, it is inevitable that growth will happen in one’s solitude in a foreign environment.

Contrary to the mindset that many Americans have, travel is not such a far-off reality as it appears to be, and the world is a lot more accessible than it seems. 

Take it from me, a broke college student who survived a month in an unfamiliar continent with just a dream and two backpacks. 

The real challenge is believing in yourself, and I urge you to refute the beliefs that are holding you back and just do it. The best time is truly now. 

This doesn’t necessarily mean that you should book an expensive plane ticket immediately to solo travel in a different country. Simply try to become more comfortable doing things without friends or family. At the end of the day, the only person that is guaranteed to always be there is yourself. So why not try to enjoy more experiences alone? 

Start small. Go to the movies, have dinner, or explore a nearby town by yourself. Before you know it, you will be standing before the manifestation of your dreams, breathing in the air of a city that always seemed out of reach, but is exactly where you are meant to be.