Traveling Alone to Europe: A Different Way to Experience Portugal and Spain

Jackie Writing Postcards © Jackie DesForges

Jackie DesForges is a lifelong dedicated travel lover and a Rail Europe Travel Consultant from our Chicago office.  On her off time, Jackie goes on exciting travel adventures.  We were lucky to have Jackie approach us to write about using our products in exchange for passes and city cards.  We are thrilled to contribute to Jackie’s love of travel and to read about her experiences.  In this blog series, Jackie used the Global Pass, 15 days in 2 months flexi, Barcelona Card, Lisbon Card, Malaga Hop On, Hop Off Sightseeing Tour and Sevilla Card.  If you happen to call our contact center and get Jackie, make sure to mention that you read her blog series!

When I told family and friends that I was heading off to the beaches of Spain and Portugal in January, I was met with mixed reactions. “Aren’t those beaches typically summer destinations?” asked the skeptical bunch. “And aren’t they kind of expensive? And aren’t you too pale to be on a beach right now?”

Conversely, those who don’t know me so well were impressed. “Good idea,” they told me, “no one else will be traveling there this time of year! You’ll have the whole beach to yourself! And everything will be so cheap!”

Lisbon, Portugal © Jackie DesForges

Traveling in the Algarve Region of Southern Portugal

It turns out that everyone was right about something. The Algarve region in southern Portugal and the Costa del Sol in Spain are usually reserved for summer getaways, romantic honeymoons, or celebrities hiding away from their latest scandals. And for this reason, no one was there when I arrived in January. Almost literally no one.

For the most part, this was a welcome change for me. Having just recently graduated from college, I have only ever been able to travel during the summer, when school wasn’t in session. My travels have taken me all over Europe, which is where everyone else generally goes during the summer, too. I’m used to being surrounded by tourists in every city, or moaning over the higher transportation prices, or arriving at a hostel only to find that all of the beds are occupied, save maybe the gross one covered in mystery stains in the corner of the twenty-bed dorm room.

Empty Beach in Malaga © Jackie DesForges

On this trip, however, I had an entire ten-bed hostel dorm room to myself in Malaga. Many of the shops and restaurants in Faro, Portugal, were closed – sometimes entire blocks were closed for business, the streets resembling empty movie sets. I walked through an entire museum in Barcelona by myself. During a three-hour train ride along the Portuguese coast, the only other person I saw in my coach was the conductor. On the cable-car ride up to the Rock of Gibraltar, there was one other lone traveler, and we went our separate ways once we reached the top.

When I first set out on this trip, I wanted to be alone. I wanted to have a vacation with myself, and only myself, for company. I wanted to lie on the beach without having to make conversation, preferably with a mojito in hand.

Empty Portugal Train © Jackie DesForges

Traveling Alone is Fine, But Only Up to a Certain Point

I learned that this is fun for about three days, and then you kind of start to wish you had someone to share dinner with. It’s one thing to travel by yourself during the summer when there are hundreds of other people out there doing the exact same thing, staying at the hostels with you, standing in front of you in line, sitting next to you on the train. It’s another thing to travel by yourself in a place where you actually kind of are by yourself.

Since I didn’t have many other people around to keep me company, I instead developed attachments to buildings, plants, pieces of art, cafes – these were the things that were left on display even when the crowds weren’t there to see them. I don’t have pictures of myself or of the few friends I did make, but I have several of the quiet corners where I sat and had a one-person picnic, and several of the infamous, sunny beaches where I read for an afternoon.

Learning the Locals’ Way of Life in Costa del Sol

I made better use of my sightseeing products than I probably would have if I had been traveling with friends – I had my Lisbon Card, Barcelona Card, and Malaga City Sightseeing Tour. When I travel I tend to want to see as much as I can at my own (usually rapid) pace, and the transportation cards and bus tours helped me accomplish this even more efficiently.

Without all of the visitors there, it was impossible not to focus on the locals’ way of life. Every little shop and restaurant along the beaches was as quaint as it had looked in pictures, but each place was also much quieter – they felt less like tourist spectacles, very different from the token crepe stands you’ll find every five minutes in Paris. I wondered if they changed at all in appearance once the crowds arrived.

I was also surprised by the number of parks along the coast. The Costa del Sol isn’t really known for nature that extends beyond sand and ocean, but in Malaga, Lisbon, and Seville I came across some of the greenest, prettiest parks I’ve ever seen. These parks almost looked like miniature forests to me – massive trees, winding paths, little animals darting around. It was a pleasant change to read under a tree instead of the sun from time to time, and it was comforting to walk along a shady path that was clearly so familiar to the people who lived there long after the summer crowd went home.

Lisbon Park © Jackie DesForges

I think about how crazy Paris has been during the summer whenever I’ve visited, and I imagine that the Algarve and Costa del Sol regions must be similarly crowded and difficult to navigate during the busy season. Since I was there during a time when I got to be alone with these cities, I felt like I had a more personal experience than someone just passing through on a whirlwind summer beach vacation with hundreds of other people. There’s nothing wrong with traveling during high season, and there is a certain delight in mingling with dozens of other people who are just as excited to be there as you are, but when it’s busy like that you aren’t forced to get to know the city like you are when you’re the only one there.

And another thing to consider: in the off-season, it’s definitely less expensive. The people working at my hostel in Malaga were so happy to see someone actually arrive that I was given a discounted rate for the first night I stayed there. The restaurants along the deserted beaches were all offering really great lunch specials every day, and many of the museums and other attractions even seemed to have discounted rates. I didn’t encounter any sold-out buses or trains, nor any ticket prices that increased in price as the date of travel approached. So even if you start to feel a little lonely on a quiet beach, at least you’ll have the money you saved to keep you company.

Traveling in the off-season has its perks and disadvantages like anything else does, especially if you’re going to do it by yourself. Even though I spent a few restless afternoons longing for some company, I’m grateful I had the chance to visit this region of Europe not as a celebrity, cruise-ship guest, or newlywed, but rather as someone who just wanted a quiet place to lie on the beach and drink a really good mojito in the middle of winter.

  • islandtradermarket

    Traveling a lone is always interesting when compared to traveling in groups.  You get an entire different experience from the freedom you have.  It can get lonely though at times.

    • Phaedra

      Yes, the common consesus is that dinner time is when company is mostly missed for those traveling alone. Great to hear about your travel experiences, John!

  • lisbon sightseeing

    Lisbon is a beautiful place and traveling alone gives a great adventure and thrill .Know more http://goo.gl/YwXsC

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