Murmur 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 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 80s.
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 yearlong solo trip around the world 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 Christmases 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 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.
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 sun hats 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! :-)
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.
Update: In the decade that followed this first solo Christmas in Australia, I have spent dozens of holidays and birthdays either totally solo, or with other travelers in some far flung corner of the globe.
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.
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 11 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—I use a site like GetYourGuide to find food tours or beer crawls or historical tours—there are range of cool, niche ones that will keep your mind busy and engaged with your new friends on the tour.
Or go with a company like G Adventures, which offers multi-day tours of various lengths. The company itself has offers a great tour in general, but even more, their tour leaders always go the extra mile and will make a holiday special for everyone on a group tour during Christmas.
Stay at a busy hostel.
Hostels the world over are filled with other travelers in your same situation. I’ve never been in a hostel 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 hostel to see if any others want to make a potluck Thanksgiving or some such—I’ve done this to great success and usually you get the fun of sampling a range of dishes that travelers of different nationalities consider as “comfort food.” I usually putter around Booking.com for my destination and read the reviews until I find a hotel or hostel that sounds like it has an interactive and homey vibe.
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. When I lived in Chiang Mai for a year, other expats alerted me to a Thanksgiving dinner being served at one of the expat restaurants—complete with turkey and cranberry sauce (which my niece loved).
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 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.
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.
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.