One evening last spring, I was walking through Madrid with a fellow teaching friend when he asked how travelling with my girlfriend, Lauren, compared to travelling alone.
In my experience, travelling with a partner has been an inspiring and enriching journey, but that’s not to say it doesn’t have its own unique set of difficulties. Here’s what I’ve found are the biggest differences between traveling solo and having a partner along for the ride:
Sharing the views and victories
When I was 21, I studied abroad in Barcelona. When I was 26, I saw a good part of New Zealand by myself, travelling from mountain to mountain and beach to beach, rigging elaborate selfie mechanisms to take the best photos I could. But as introspective and intrapersonal as I am, I still felt bouts of loneliness on those journeys.
It’s true that when I was on my own, I sat on the docks of Barcelona writing and thinking about the kind of life I wanted to lead after university. In New Zealand, I reflected on the successes and failures I’d encountered to date, and my memories from those times glow brilliantly in my mind.
When we have someone with whom we can share experiences, we immerse ourselves in those experiences more deeply.
Yet, now I wish I’d been able to share those staggeringly beautiful views of Milford Sound with someone. All those selfies I took do no justice.
When I get to the top of a mountain by myself, I feel like I conquered it. But when I get to the top of a mountain with Lauren, I feel like I’m a part of it. When we have someone with whom we can share experiences, we immerse ourselves in those experiences more deeply than we can by ourselves, and that is beautifully enriching.
Immersing yourself in the language
Immersion is truly the only way to master another language, but this is much more difficult with a partner. You’ll inevitably end up speaking your native language when you are together, which interrupts the continuity of learning. I’ve found that even if I gather inertia speaking Spanish all day, reverting back to English at home seems to be a barrier to total fluency.
When you’re alone, there’s much more incentive to leave your comfort zone and talk to your neighbour. Or, perhaps you need to resolve something with roommates, and the local language is the only way. In Barcelona, where I stayed with a host mom, it was sink or swim, and luckily I managed to keep my head above water. And although it was strenuous, it was also a learning experience unlike any I’ve had when travelling with a partner.
Even for the most independent person who loves new experiences, being abroad can be crushingly overwhelming at times. Seemingly simple tasks, like opening a bank account or buying a cell phone, appear insurmountable. During our apartment hunt here in Spain, there were mornings at the hostel when I wanted to give up and go home. Maybe I’d made a huge mistake, I thought. Maybe this life isn’t for me.
But if someone is there for you when you fail, encourages you to keep going when you want to move back, pushes you to do your best and laughs with you when you make mistakes, you’ll probably get more out of your stint abroad than you ever would have had you gone alone. You can share the burden of learning a new culture and clearing new obstacles, and that cannot be understated.
Meeting strangers you’ll remember forever
When I went to Barcelona solo, I made a group of friends who, to this day, continue to organize reunions all over the world. We stayed out late, took spontaneous trips together, and splashed in the Mediterranean in our underwear until the sun came up.
When travelling with a partner, this becomes more difficult. At times Lauren and I feel when we meet new people, we meet them as a couple, rather than as individuals. It then requires a little more work on our part to develop individual relationships with them. It’s not that having wild nights and making lasting friendships is impossible—we’ve certainly had those together—but in my experience, it’s markedly different than solo travel.
Pushing yourself to the limit
It may seem counterintuitive, but I’ve learned more about myself and about the world travelling with my partner than I did during any of my solo travels. When you travel alone, you’re relying on your own internal drive to explore, grow, and push yourself.
With a partner, you receive honest feedback on how you’ve evolved during your time abroad, which in turn can help you set more goals for yourself. This external constructive criticism has helped me push the boundaries of what I’ve been able to do, learn, and accomplish in my time overseas.
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