An Introvert Abroad: Getting Out and About When There’s No Place like Home

The public face of most travelers is usually that of the adventurer: energetic, free, open to anyone and anything. It could be that guy at a party telling you about the time he got lost on the streets of Bangkok with strangers from his hostel, or maybe it’s that woman giving a TED talk about all the friends she made on a spontaneous dip at a Hungarian bathhouse. Think of that stranger at a bar, the one in the corner with an accent you can’t quite place, wooing every starry-eyed passerby into sharing a drink. If you’re anything like me, this is someone who fills you with a combination of admiration and deep anxiety.

Unfortunately, it seems like introverts are not included in conversations about travel.

If you are someone to whom the idea of going out after 9 pm makes your chest tighten up, or if you need a nap after meeting more than one or two strangers at a time, being the intrepid explorer not only sounds exhausting, but wholly unappealing. It brings back flashbacks of the parties I used to attend as a college freshman, with their sticky floors, dark corners, alcohol-based chanting, and bewildering music feeling enough like a strange foreign land to keep me from ever wanting to visit a real one. It’s inspiring to hear about others getting out there and enjoying themselves, but in the end, it’s just not you. So you stay home and miss out, or you force yourself into unpleasant situations trying to do what you think a traveler is supposed to do. I have a history of doing the latter.
Thankfully, there are ways of traveling that are still accessible and fun for introverted homebodies, although it’s taken a while for me to learn them. Nowadays, I’m much better about knowing my limits and feeling less shame about my aversion to adventuring, while still getting out there and seeing the world. I say “less shame,” not “no shame” because I am and will always be an insecure people-pleaser, but in general, I’m on a positive trajectory here, and I’d like to share it with y’all.
So, here are some ideas on making a sanctuary for yourself wherever, and taking care of your brain far outside of your comfort zone:

Invest in your host: Don’t drown in the crowd

When traveling alone, opt for an Airbnb or Couchsurfing over hostels. While hostels are a wonderful, low-cost way to meet a building full of young, like-minded travelers, they’re not great about the privacy you need to recharge your social energy. The stereotype of introverts or people with social anxiety is that we hate meeting new people, but that isn’t necessarily the case. It’s more that we get our energy from solid alone time, then spend it as we please out in society.
So diving into a crowd of strangers drains the battery real quick, especially with nowhere to hide, but quality time with one or two new faces is much easier, and usually much more rewarding as well.
With Airbnb, it can be pretty cheap to rent a room in a host’s apartment –– but you know Damon and Jo have already hooked y’all up with plenty of cheap travel tips! What I love is that you can focus your energy on getting to know the one or two people that live in this space, and it is an added bonus that they are locals with good recommendations. You’ll get the benefit of getting deep down in a new point of view while still having your own room to which you can escape when your head is buzzing too loud to hear another word.

TIP: Just read the reviews and have a good long chat with your host before saying yes. Make sure you’re comfortable and safe.

When it comes to Couchsurfing, you have to be careful when choosing a host, especially, unfortunately, if you’re a woman traveling alone, but it’s certainly doable. My first experience Couchsurfing was in Budapest, and while I was convinced when I rang the doorbell that a Hungarian ax-murderer was going to answer, it was indeed the young woman who matched the description I’d seen and vetted online. I checked beforehand to see if she had a similarly chill personality, and so she went on about her days as usual until we spent some time getting to know each other in the evenings. I had my alone time, my independence, and a new friend whose Facebook I can still creep on from time to time.

Set boundaries: Keep your batteries charged

When traveling with friends, especially more energetic and extroverted ones than yourself, make sure you set up some expectations for the trip.
If they’re some of those friends you’ve known forever, hopefully they’ll already know about what makes you comfortable, but don’t be afraid to put your foot down when they propose four straight nights hitting up that Barcelona nightlife. Let them know how much you enjoy being around them all day, devouring tapas, seeing the Sagrada Familia, and stumbling over all of your rusty high school Spanish… but tonight you just feel like hanging back at the Airbnb with some wine and a laptop, and that’s okay. You’ll soak up all the good stories in the morning without the pain of a hangover, and go out and get ‘em next time, tiger.
I recently got to spend a week in Morocco, where I was lucky to stay with a friend with similar preferences as mine, and so we didn’t go out once. At night, we played with her pet squirrel, made tagines and seffa with her Moroccan boyfriend, and watched Queer Eye with Arabic subtitles until bed. Whatever nightlife may or may not exist in Rabat, I saw none of it, and I loved it.
Ultimately, FOMO is overrated when it comes to good self-care, and there’s no time you should be taking better care of yourself than when you’re far from home. If you don’t recharge your batteries, you won’t be fully there when the good times come. On the other hand, take advantage of exploring the nightlife in another city if you’re feeling up to it.

Take your time: Stay safe from the whirlwind

When Americans go abroad, particularly in Europe, we tend to popcorn all over the place. We try to see as much as we can before paying for that exorbitant plane ticket home. Particularly during breaks over a semester studying abroad, we’ll do Paris, London, and Berlin in a week. There is nothing wrong with exploring multiple cities during one adventure if that is your style.
If it’s not your jam, there’s nothing wrong with that either! Once upon a June, I went from Grenoble to Paris to Dublin to London to Berlin to Barcelona to Alicante to Vienna to Graz to Vienna again, to Grenoble again. I’ve got some great memories and some dazzling photos, but that doesn’t mean that I ever want to repeat it.
So, as much as you can, stay places longer, even if it means seeing one fewer city. Go to one or two locations for a week or more. With time, you can spread out the big attractions between moments of peace and quiet just for you.
Just take deep breaths. You’re doing great! So, remove any guilt you may feel for staying in to take a nap or do some meditating. This is all fine if you know you can go see the next big thing tomorrow or the day after. Whirlwind traveling is great when you thrive on high-energy exhilaration and stress, but if you don’t, you don’t. Try not to do that to yourself.

Still, you will need to push yourself –– at least a little bit

I have no idea what it’s like to suffer from anything like severe social anxiety. So, maybe for you, just leaving your hometown to go one hour away is overwhelming enough. If that’s the case, you’re pushing yourself, and I’m very proud of you.
Otherwise, even with these tips, traveling is going to be uncomfortable sometimes, and there will come moments when someone invites you somewhere that really is a once in a lifetime experience. That’s when you should say yes, even if it sounds scary at first.
For example, I’m typically in bed by 9:30 pm, but the two days I was out until 5 am at a festival in Alicante were two days I could live over and over again. We got dressed up, ate eggy Spanish tortillas and drank cheap wine, danced to Latin Top 50 with Enrique Iglesias’s “Duele El Corazon” sliding in every four songs, and stumbled home full of fresh churros. I even tried to flirt with a Spanish man or two, which was a very fun failure. However, I made sure to surround those days with calm trips to the beach to recharge. Even now, before the last party I attended — one in Paris where I surprised myself by actually having fun until 2:30 am — I spent a week at home in my pajamas.
If you’re kind to yourself and realistic about what you have the social energy to undertake, you’ll be able to tackle the adventures as they come, bright-eyed and fully charged.

Happy travels, y’all!

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