A Little Reflection… On Spending the Holidays Alone as a Solo Traveler

christmas cruiseMurmur the world “Christmas” and you likely imagine a toasty log cabin with a flickering fire. You’re sipping a steaming cup of hot chocolate while the snow blankets the cabin in an earthly quiet. Perhaps there’s even a twinkling Christmas tree tucked into the corner and carols tinkling from the radio.

That’s the Hollywood Christmas and one that I’ve long imagined everyone else experiences every December. But as a native Floridian, that’s not life as we know it. By late December, some years the weather still cranks out breezes in the mid 80.

And so it wasn’t so strange for me to spend Christmas in the Land Down Under, where the balmy breeze reminded me of the only Christmases I have ever known. I ended my round the world trip just last month, but the memories of that year will never leave me. This time a year ago I was fresh-faced optimistic about my trip, and I was happy to sun myself on a boat in the middle of the ocean, all in the name of a good time.

That said, it is a bit weird to leave your home culture during the holidays.  Christmas traditions in Australia are less commercialized than Christmas back home. On the one hand, that’s lovely. On the other hand, without the decorations and Christmas carols blaring from the radio, it felt more like a casual summer festivity than the huge tradition we’ve embraced in the U.S.

In the lead up to Christmas, I realized that I would like company during the holidays. When I planned my round the world trip, I considered that I would face the holiday solo. At first, one of my best friends had planned to fly over and join me for a month of diving and holidays and birthday (my birthday!) fun. She bailed on me the first week of December, however.

I’d be lying if I wasn’t heartbroken.

But, I regrouped. Holidays and special occasions are a rough time to be alone out there in the world. This proves true for anyone who travels, but also those people who might have just moved to a new city and don’t yet have friends. Or those without family nearby.

In my case, my birthday falls three days after Christmas. Then New Year’s Eve arrives. I knew the dangers of spending all of that time alone. Solo travel can already be lonely at times, and so I took stock of the situation. Australia is the land of many backpackers, and I decided to book myself on a group sailboat trip on the Whitsunday Islands.

And I learned an important lesson about the holidays, which echoes so much of traveling. Instead of focusing on how Christmas was different from those of years past, I learned and experienced traditions from dozens of other cultures. Unlike the many Christmases of my childhood that all blend together, my memories from my Australian backpacker Christmas are unique to that year alone.

Jumping off the side of the boat into the gorgeous blue waters. It was a long drop into the water, but I teamed up with two other women and we jumped together to help overcome the fear!

Instead of waking up at dawn to cook a feast with my grandma, I woke at sunrise and pulled on a stinger suit so I could snorkel in the first light of day. My boat turned out to have a party vibe (not sure there’s anything else possible in Australia as the backpackers love to party), and I spent the holiday with a dozen backpackers from all over this planet of ours.

It’s a tradition here make sand snowmen in your swimsuit. Sadly, the pure silica on the beaches in the Whitsundays didn’t lend itself to sandmen decked out in wide-brimmed sunhats and sunglasses. If it was possible, I totally would have joined with the Aussie tradition and made up an epic sandman. I suppose, however, that I shouldn’t boo-hoo about the purest, whitest sand in the world, it wasn’t that much of a hardship! :-)

Christmas Eve looking out at Whitehaven Beach. The water is shallow for ages and it makes for gorgeous wading water. After a while, however, I hid in the shade so I didn’t burn!

Views of Whitehaven beach, one of the prettiest spots in the Whitsunday Islands.

How to spend the holidays as a solo traveler.When I decided to tackle that year of solo travel, at the outset I knew that I’d face obstacles in unlikely places. I don’t love the holidays like some people. My family bickers and my mum is always sad about my brother’s passing. But it’s also the only thing I’ve ever known for the holidays. I attended an “orphan’s Christmas” my first year in Los Angeles and it was fun and weird, but ultimately it was comfortable because I was in my home culture.

When I left, I wasn’t sure what it feel like to be half a world away from my family. Christmas day was nearly over for me by the time they were sitting down to family dinner. And so, I learned that I like to be home for the holidays. I also like all the weird and wacky travel gifts my family comes up with over the years. It was delightful to experience Christmas on the water with other backpackers, but it there is something to be said for embracing your traditions and showing up. My family missed me last year. My nieces and nephews had grown so big. This year, as I reflect back from the comfort of my childhood home, I am happy to be home for the holidays.

Quick Tips: Six Ideas for Spending the Holidays as Solo Traveler

If you’re on the road and facing a holiday alone — Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving — here are a handful of ideas for forming new holiday memories that help beat the loneliness of being alone while your family back home is gathering.

  1. Book a group tour. This was clearly my choice, and it has panned out well over the years. I’ve done this several times on a handful of holidays during my more than eight years of travel. There are so many fun activities all over the world, so you could even treat yourself by booking something that you might not usually splurge on doing. My tours are often multi-day, but at least book a day tour to keep yourself busy and engaged. If you’re in a part of the world with Urban Adventures tours, they often offer food tours or beer crawls, or historical tours — a range of cool, niche ones that will keep your mind busy and engaged with your new friends on the tour.
  2. Stay at a busy hostel. Hostels the world over are filled with other travelers in your same situation. I’ve never been in a hotel that doesn’t organize a party for Christmas. If you’re celebrating a purely American holiday, then you might need to get creative and ask around the hotel to see if any others want to make a potluck Thanksgiving or some such.
  3. Contact local expats. Find a Facebook group or an expat blogger and reach out to them! They will have a bead on any celebrations in town, and they just might be organizing their own open event.
  4. Plan a spa day or “treat yourself” day. Consider a day of pampering or fun. In some parts of the world, Christmas Day is business-as-usual, and you can find book yourself into a spa day. I’ve gone this route in Southeast Asia before, and it’s always lovely to treat myself. You could also partake in your favorite activities. Even back home, I will sometimes head to the movie theatre on Christmas as it feels like a fun indulgence to see the latest blockbuster.
  5. Discover the local traditions. If you’re in a part of the world that celebrates the holiday, dive into their festivities. Even similar cultures often have wildly different traditions. Use your trip as an extension of your travels and get curious about the local holiday customs and traditions.
  6. Do something cool, unique, or from your bucket list. My niece traveled with me during the holidays one year and I wanted to make it a memorable one. We were in Thailand, which celebrates the holiday a bit, but I knew she would miss home. Instead of trying to duplicate home traditions, I signed us up for a Christmas Day 10K run. We joined several local expats and created a fun, full day out of it. After the run, we all ate a massive pancake breakfast and generally enjoyed the uniqueness of our day.

 

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24 Responses to A Little Reflection… On Spending the Holidays Alone as a Solo Traveler

  1. Eva & Jeremy Rees December 31, 2009 at 4:29 am #

    This is hilarious! We weren't really counting on much of a celebration for Christmas here in SEA, but we didn't want to be lonely, either. We checked into SpicyThai in Chiang Mai on a friend's recommendation — and boy was she right. The staff went out of their way — we had a festive tree, a barbeque, and even a gift exchange most everyone participated in! We even found pumpkin pie for sale nearby — not bad at all, even if it this is our first Christmas that doesn't quite smell like Christmas.

    • ShannonOD December 31, 2009 at 5:27 pm #

      I have actually heard really good things about SpicyThai as well – I will
      have to stay there when I make it to Chang Mai! I love that you guys had a
      tree and everything, sounds like a truly unique Christmas! Oh – and I can't
      believe they had pumpkin pie – that's pretty awesome! :-) Cheers and Happy
      New Year guys!

  2. Eva & Jeremy Rees December 30, 2009 at 9:29 pm #

    This is hilarious! We weren't really counting on much of a celebration for Christmas here in SEA, but we didn't want to be lonely, either. We checked into SpicyThai in Chiang Mai on a friend's recommendation — and boy was she right. The staff went out of their way — we had a festive tree, a barbeque, and even a gift exchange most everyone participated in! We even found pumpkin pie for sale nearby — not bad at all, even if it this is our first Christmas that doesn't quite smell like Christmas.

    • ShannonOD December 31, 2009 at 10:27 am #

      I have actually heard really good things about SpicyThai as well – I will
      have to stay there when I make it to Chang Mai! I love that you guys had a
      tree and everything, sounds like a truly unique Christmas! Oh – and I can't
      believe they had pumpkin pie – that's pretty awesome! :-) Cheers and Happy
      New Year guys!

  3. ShannonOD December 29, 2009 at 10:58 pm #

    That sounds perfect! And right on par with an Aussie Christmas – I admit
    though, it was strange for me too to slather on sunscreen on Christmas :-)
    Hope you guys are gearing up for a great New Years!

  4. Chris December 29, 2009 at 1:18 pm #

    Christmas here in Australia is as you described in your post, for me, was a nice “Barbie”(no plastic has been burned) with some new friends that we met along the way.
    However the hot weather in Christmas was a bit strange for us, but still very enjoyable.

    • ShannonOD December 30, 2009 at 5:58 am #

      That sounds perfect! And right on par with an Aussie Christmas – I admit
      though, it was strange for me too to slather on sunscreen on Christmas :-)
      Hope you guys are gearing up for a great New Years!

  5. Chris December 29, 2009 at 6:18 am #

    Christmas here in Australia is as you described in your post, for me, was a nice “Barbie”(no plastic has been burned) with some new friends that we met along the way.
    However the hot weather in Christmas was a bit strange for us, but still very enjoyable.

  6. CandiceW December 29, 2009 at 3:36 am #

    I totally can't imagine a Christmas Eve at the beach! SO cool!

    • ShannonOD December 29, 2009 at 4:49 am #

      It's funny Candice, in my wildest imagination I can't come up with what it
      feels like to spend a Christmas with snow!

  7. Stephanie December 25, 2009 at 3:00 pm #

    Very nice. Although I've yet to visit Australia I did spend a Christmas in London WITH a pack of Australians. I got to absorb their traditions, which seemed to include a LOT of drinking.

    Next year I'll be…somewhere in that hemisphere, maybe Thailand? I'm looking forward to it in some ways, but being away from home is never easy. You are right though, it's totally an oppurtunity to learn…

    • ShannonOD December 27, 2009 at 4:07 am #

      You know, I think I must have been with that same pack of Aussies Stephanie!
      I've got my fingers crossed for you that you'll have all of your savings in
      order by Sept!! :-)
      Hope you had a great Boxing Day!

  8. Peter Loh December 25, 2009 at 7:39 am #

    Glad you had a good Christmas down here last year and I'm hoping you're having a great one this year.

    I'm currently in Melbourne… It's abnormally cool this year… No barbies though. We usually have roast for Christmas lunch (Christmas dinner isn't big down here; probably due to being stuffed from lunch and tired from the heat). :)

    • ShannonOD December 25, 2009 at 3:05 pm #

      Thanks Peter :-) Sucks that it's cold – although I was in Melb the first week of Dec last year and seem to remember being so cold I wanted to cry (11 degrees C maybe?)…so perhaps ya'll are just lying about it being summer there! ;-) Merry Christmas! and hope you enjoyed your lunch.

  9. Leila December 24, 2009 at 1:09 am #

    My favorite Christmas was my Christmas in Australia! Santa brought a wakeboard and we spent all weekend on the boat scuba diving and wakeboarding in the Coral Sea!

    • ShannonOD December 24, 2009 at 1:48 am #

      That sounds like so much fun – better than the cold weather that just came
      through! Gotta love a wakeboard and diving right?! xoxo

  10. ShannonOD December 23, 2009 at 6:48 pm #

    That sounds like so much fun – better than the cold weather that just came
    through! Gotta love a wakeboard and diving right?! xoxo

    • CandiceW December 28, 2009 at 8:36 pm #

      I totally can't imagine a Christmas Eve at the beach! SO cool!

  11. Leila December 23, 2009 at 6:09 pm #

    My favorite Christmas was my Christmas in Australia! Santa brought a wakeboard and we spent all weekend on the boat scuba diving and wakeboarding in the Coral Sea!

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