One year ago, I had just gotten back from my first real solo trip. I’d spent a week in Paris. And I sort of hated it.
But I couldn’t tell anyone this, of course. No one wants to hear how much it pained me to wind the paths of the Luxembourg Gardens, the spiraled steps of Sacré Coeur, and the labyrinth of antique décor at Saint-Ouen’s famed flea. All week, friends and colleagues left comments on my Instagram dispatches to the tune of “Living vicariously through you” and “Jealous!” and even, “Looking at your Instagram for this trip is like watching someone eat cake when you’re on a diet.” It would be rude to report that the cake, while gorgeous, tasted like cardboard — wouldn’t it?
I had no intention of turning my first time in Paris into a really long, really beautiful checklist. It just happened. The trip started out innocently: I saw a really great flight deal and booked it immediately. Going alone was my way out of having to quickly coordinate dates and budgets with my boyfriend or a friend, which has caused me to miss out on many a cheap flight in the past. But going alone also meant I had no one to please but myself. For many people, this is freedom. For me, a lifelong perfectionist, it was smothering.
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To get an idea of just how bad it got, picture me seven days in, at the Louvre. Arriving later in the evening than I’d wanted to, I was so nervous that if I just wandered, the museum would close before I was able to find the Mona Lisa. So, despite my self-disdain for doing so, I used the issued Nintendo DS guide to navigate, selecting “visit a must-see work” and following the blinking path it lit for me on the screen. I found Mona with no problem, then wove around determinedly hitting all the major points of interest and spending an acceptable amount of time ruminating on their respective meanings until I could confidently check the Louvre off my list.
It was just about sunset (and how dare I miss a sunset?) so I snuck behind the drapes to watch. Just as I settled in, the Eiffel Tower started sparkling on the horizon and my brain shut down. When it finished five minutes later, I didn’t move. I leaned into the glass, tracing the movement of shadows and light in the courtyard below, busying my eyes to keep from crying. If it weren’t for a museum staff member tapping me on the shoulder to say it was closing time, I might have slept there.
On the walk back to my rental apartment, I couldn’t name what I was feeling. I was exhausted in an uneasy way, not the gratifying exhaustion of a day well spent. The twinge of discomfort I had initially written off as loneliness — though I’m usually at ease in a sea of faces and languages unlike my own — now read more like a heaviness, a thick, permeating regret with every passing hour of Central European Time that I might have wasted.
I’d thought the freedom of being alone abroad would feel light with, as the French say, joie de vivre; instead, the constant decision making had the opposite effect. In search of the most creative Eiffel Tower views and the best vintage wares and a croissant with the perfect flaky-to-chewy ratio, I sabotaged my pursuit of what I’d actually crossed the Atlantic to find: a break.
With one full day left in the City of Light, I felt like I’d still never been there. And in a way, I hadn’t. Not really. I’d spent most of the trip in my head. I was so intent on doing Paris the “right” way that I wasn’t leaving a spare minute to exhale. It’s a well-known cautionary travel tale: by seeing too much, you see nothing at all. But what happens when you know you’re going too fast and you still can’t slow down?
This was where I was a year ago: aware that I was ruining my trip, but unable to stop myself from doing it. Now that I’ve had time to process — and thanks to Jaime Kurtz, Ph.D., and her book "The Happy Traveler: Unpacking the Secrets of Better Vacations" — I can see quite a few factors that contributed to my guilt-laden discontent in Paris. For me and anyone else who’s ever found solo travel wrought with burden and shame as opposed to the wonder and delight they were promised, I’ve laid out my mistakes and how I plan to prevent or work through them, with help from Kurtz, on my next solo trip.
Mistake 1: I went way overboard on pre-trip research.
When I booked a September trip in April, I didn’t consider that I’d have five months to accumulate tips, and this is where the checklist began. Research shows anticipating a vacation is half the fun, but I may have taken planning a little too far. By the time the trip came, I had mentioned to almost everyone I know at some point or another that I was going, and they each replied with recommendations. I’d spent hours scouring hashtags and following Parisian accounts on Instagram and Pinterest. I watched “Amélie” and “Moulin Rouge.” And free time found me clicking through countless travel blogs, articles, and the ever-recommending internet to collect more potential ways to spend my week.
This might account for why Paris didn’t feel real when I finally did make it there. I had become so oversaturated with depictions before going that the cookie-cutter facades, manicured gardens, and beautiful women wearing stripes and scarves (and yes, even carrying baguettes) were all so perfect that they seemed fake, like a trompe l’oeil of a city.
Kurtz explains that a destination is much more likely to invoke that coveted sense of shock and awe upon arrival when your prior exposure is calculated. So to protect the wonder integrity of a new place, sometimes a lighter dive is more beneficial in the end. And don’t forget to seek out the mundane along with the magical. Ask people who have recently been there about the highs and lows, and read reviews on sites like TripAdvisor or Yelp, so that you get the full, real picture of a place.
Mistake 2: I thought a vague list would be more helpful than a day-by-day plan.
Before I left, I pinpointed maybe 100 (OK, 164) suggestions in Google Maps — patisseries, boutiques, museums, parks, markets — and figured I’d use the map as an occasional reference to check out what I might happen to be near. I’d thought this was the chill way to plan, that I was taking the pressure off of the trip. I’d never make it to them all. But that certainly didn’t stop me from trying.
Instead of accumulating, I should have filtered, adding a reasonable amount of pins to that map and deciding in advance when to see them all. Doing less was Kurtz’s suggestion, too. “It can be hard because you can always see more and especially if you’re going really far away, there’s that temptation to just tack on one more city or something like that,” she said. “But then you don’t really get to see any of it; you’re just rushing from thing to thing.”
She also recommended scheduling activities for while you’re there, even if it’s only one a day. This is why people will tell you to sign up for a cooking class, go on a guided tour, take a paddleboarding lesson. They’re all experiences you could DIY, but having an instructor or guide takes the focus away from you, and you’re free to be absorbed. Doing something engrossing will make sure you’re not in your head all the time thinking, “Am I having fun?” For me personally, planning in advance to do one or two specific things at specific times each day — even if I end up canceling or changing that plan — is far less intimidating than taking on a blank slate every day.
Mistake 3: In traveling to a huge city, I overwhelmed myself with options.
The alternative to choosing to do less is going somewhere that forces you to. In her book, Kurtz suggests those who struggle with decision-making travel to places that offer less to choose from. “Recognize that a large city with a multitude of options may overwhelm you, and your quest for the best will be futile and exhausting,” she explains. “Fewer choices mean less opportunity for regret. Consider traveling to a small town, a mountain lodge, or a secluded resort or taking a cruise. Too much freedom, too many options, can be surprisingly crippling to many of us. If there are fewer decisions to be made, you may be better able to relax and be satisfied with what lies before you.”
Mistake 4: I forgot that I’d be bringing myself with me to Paris.
Like many people do, I failed to note that I’d be the same person, with the same tendencies and traits, walking through the Tuileries as I am in Central Park. There’s no doubt travel can be transformative, but not in a week and certainly not as much as it appears to be in pop culture. “We read books like ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ that show narratives where people go away and they’re completely transformed and it’s a great story, but I think it’s maybe a little bit too much fiction,” Kurtz said.
“In my daily life, I’m actually kind of terrible at relaxing,” she continued, explaining an all-too-familiar mindset. “I’m antsy, I fret about work, and I constantly worry about all of the more productive things I should be doing.” Knowing this, she now sets aside trip time early in the morning for work or working out, because she’s learned the sense of accomplishment early on helps her to relax later in the day.
Along those lines, if you want a restorative trip, consider what’s most restorative to you at home. I thought days of wandering with no agenda (the opposite of my real life) sounded like a dream, but in New York City, I can really only manage to do it for an afternoon without feeling restless. As an extrovert, my truest form of restoration comes from good company. While it was great to have no one judge me for ordering a platter of cheese for dinner two days in a row, there was also no one to laugh with as we ordered a platter of cheese for dinner two days in a row.
Mistake 5: I didn’t realize how hard it would be to do nothing but what I wanted to do.
The biggest challenge of taking an eight-day trip on my own was the need to constantly determine what it was I really wanted to spend my limited time and money on. These limits create a high-stakes environment for anyone when traveling, but on a solo trip, it seemed to me like the anxiety around having an amazing time was hugely amplified, and Kurtz agreed.
“When you’re by yourself, you don’t have anyone to quiet your inner voice,” she explained. “With someone else, you can think, ‘Well, maybe this isn’t the best restaurant or the most beautiful sunset, but we’re together,’ or, ‘I’m making this person really happy by doing this.’ You don’t have any of that when you’re by yourself. It’s all about you, and I think that can make you a little crazy.”
I could have decided from the Paris trip that solo travel’s just not for me, but there were immensely rewarding moments that make trying again worth it. In the future, knowing that a week of making decisions on my own is too much from me, I may take shorter trips or consider signing up solo for a group trip — like a yoga retreat or an adventure with a tour company — so that I can still test my limits but share the experience with others.
Mistake 6: My pursuit of the perfect trip left no room for the moments that make travel feel transformative.
As demonstrated by the aforementioned aversion to disappointing my Instagram admirers, Kurtz points out that social media has magnified the need to travel well. “Part of the pressure to make sure we have each day be great is that we want to be able to tell everyone,” she said. “It feels kind of bratty to at the end of the day say, ‘Eh, it was fine.’ ”
It does, but why? Why is there a right and wrong way to see a place? How can being somewhere be so much more complicated than setting foot across its borders?
There’s a sweet spot between the deep immersion of slow travel and the do-it-all checklist, and I think I caught a glimpse of it on my last day. I left the apartment in the morning with one intention: to be in Paris. I wandered a market in Bastille, cataloging the colors of fruit and leather-bound notebooks and watching a man shuck oysters in an almost meditative state. I spent an hour flipping through books of vintage postcards and photos at a flea, trying with my (very rough) Duolingo French skills to decipher the correspondence. I noticed a patisserie with a queue out the door and down the block, and that was the sole reason I chose to try it. And if that pain au chocolat wasn’t the best damn one I’d had all week.
Before I’d seen it, a friend mentioned to me that, up close, the Eiffel Tower is really kind of ugly. And when I got there, I saw she wasn’t wrong. It is ugly. It’s intricate in design and impressive in size, but looking up from the base, it’s just iron spindles and bolts and beams painted a dusty, dirt-path brown.
But its beauty doesn’t come from the structure alone. It needs the spaces between, where there’s room for light and sky.