How a Solo Trip to South Korea Turned Into a Social Experiment

Here's what I learned after visiting the same destination solo vs. with a friend

Sherri (a light skinned black woman wearing shorts and a tanktop) posing in front of a red gate at Gyeongbokgung palace in Seoul, South Korea

Sherri Gardner

We're dedicating our April features to all things solo travel. Whether it’s a soul-searching hike, a decompressing beach trip, or an invigorating urban getaway, tackling the world as a solo traveler has become safer, easier, and more empowering. Dive into this month's features to learn strategies for making friends while solo and the ways technology has changed the solo travel experience, then get lost in inspiring stories of bus journeys through Africa, a voyage to Mount Fuji, a social experiment in South Korea, and a solo bikepacking birthday celebration.

One of my biggest stressors—probably the biggest—when traveling with others: trying to make sure everyone is happy. But as an indecisive, Type A people-pleaser with anxiety, feeling responsible for another person’s enjoyment turns my (relatively) mellow vacation self into a ball of stress with an increasingly short temper. I never realized this quirk of my personality until I accidentally ran a social experiment: I took the same trip to South Korea twice, six months apart, and discovered all the pros and cons of traveling with a friend vs. traveling solo. 

The constants of the experiment were as follows: each trip was 10 days long, I did a meet-up with locals and other foreigners, and I stayed in Seoul the entire time at the same guesthouse. The variables were pretty simple. On my first trip, in May, I was solo and purely vacationed. In November, on the second trip, I went with my longtime friend and roommate of a year, Carmen. I also spent four hours each morning working to afford the $2,400 I spent on plane tickets.

There were some very tangible and distinct benefits to each travel style. Here's what the two trips taught me.

Sherri (a light skinned black woman with braids wearing jeans and striped t-shirt) pretending to kiss a statue of Jay-G, a cartoon mole with a yellow afro and sunglasses

Sherri Gardner

The First Trip: Solo

My first solo trip to Seoul was also the first solo trip I’d ever taken and my first vacation out of college. I wasn’t nervous because I spoke and read the language, the Seoul metro system was sure to be an upgrade from that of New York City, and I, for unrelated reasons, spent years learning all about Korean culture.

Looking back on it, that trip is probably the best I've ever had. Every person I met was warm and open, regardless of any language barrier, and while I braced myself for at least one negative incident, I never experienced one. The people I met at the guesthouse became my travel companions. They helped break me out of my shell, took me to their favorite restaurants, and one of them spent hours with me searching for a strangely elusive skincare store.

When I returned home, I couldn't say enough about how incredible the trip was. I gushed over the many excellent meals I had, the cute socks I bought, and of course, the people I met. I knew that I needed to make another trip as soon as possible. Less than two months after my return, I bought my tickets. But this time, I was bringing Carmen with me.

Sherri (a black woman with twists and glasses) and Carmen (a latina with her hair pulled back and glasses) smiling for a selfie with a metal sculpture in the background

Sherri Gardner

The Second Trip: With a Friend

Traveling with Carmen, the journey to each destination is what stands out in my memory. We turned a 20-minute walk from a museum to a restaurant into a 90-minute trek through extremely residential neighborhoods. Trying to get out of Olympic Park had us walking for hours before we finally located the exit... only to find out that it was another mile to a train station that would take us to the guesthouse. That sounds like the recipe for an awful trip, right? Those accidentally long walks were one of the biggest highlights.

Outside of being the designated translator, the only annoying part of traveling with Carmen was that she was too down for whatever. Rarely did she express a preference for where to eat or what to do. So all the decision-making fell onto my shoulders: a recipe for disaster. Especially in a city like Seoul, where there are dozens of restaurants and stores around every corner stacked three or four levels high, it would be weird if I didn’t get decision paralysis.

Never mind that it's hard to find a bad restaurant in Seoul, each time Carmen looked to me to make a decision, my frustration built. Not enough to overshadow all the many positives, but enough to leave me feeling bitter for a while until I finally got over it. Could it have been avoided by simply saying, “I’m overwhelmed picking all the restaurants?” Yes. Was I capable of doing that at the time? Absolutely not.

large crowd of people walking on a street in the Hongdae area of Seoul, South Korea

Atlantide Phototravel / Getty Images

What I Learned

If you asked me which trip I enjoyed more as a whole, it would be the solo trip. I made so many new friends, finally got to put my Korean skills to use, wandered around the city both on my own and with new friends, and even had a vacation crush. But paradoxically, I have fonder memories of the second trip that I took with Carmen.

I’m dying to take more solo trips where I can do everything at my own pace. But my experiment taught me that traveling with a friend who shares your interests and makes things as mundane as people watching or getting lost fun is a fantastic experience. Even through the frustration, the positive memories always outweigh the negative.

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