Research indicates more women are traveling solo than they were a decade ago. They’re influenced by having more time, the desire to spend money on experiences rather than things and reading about other travelers adventures on blogs and websites.
Many independent female travelers are single while others are in committed relationships. Traveling solo is something I have done for almost 30 years and am constantly asked, “How do you travel solo?”
Here are my insights and tips for women looking to travel solo for the first time.
PERSONAL PATH TO SOLO TRAVEL
My first solo journey was a trip to Yellowstone National Park when I was 20 years old to spend a summer working in the kitchen at one of the resorts. I didn’t know anyone and was petrified. As I walked down the jetway at the Buffalo Niagara International Airport, I was so frightened that I almost turned around and ran back to my mom. Once I landed in Bozeman, Montana, and was transported to a guest house, I cried myself to sleep. I was thousands of miles away in a strange state, didn’t know a single person and was terrified.
My coping skills kicked in the next day and I said “hello” to the first person I met on the bus to the park. Saying “hello” opened a summer of opportunities and a hiking trail led me into a career path in the tourism industry. Almost 30 years later, I am still friends with that “first person” as well as with many others I met.
NOT MISSING OUT
Since then, I have been married and divorced and have traveled the world for business and pleasure, with others and alone. Traveling solo after divorce was difficult. But, I discovered waiting around for others to coordinate plans often meant those plans often fell through. I decided I was not going miss out on seeing the world because I was afraid of doing it alone. Although I was traveling solo when my former husband unexpectedly passed away more than a decade ago at age 43, his untimely death changed my perception on life. His passing served as a catalyst for the way I embrace life experiences and travel.
BENEFITS OF SOLO TRAVEL
There seems to be an unspoken stigma, yet mystery, when it comes to solo travelers. Yes, it can be a frightening experience going out on your own to a place you’ve never been. Yet, it is one of the most liberating, exhilarating, and rewarding experiences. You learn to rely on yourself to navigate through the journey. In addition, you literally get to go wherever you want.
Solo travel has pushed my personal boundaries. Traveling alone builds confidence in your day-to-day life because you learn to problem solve when speed bumps come along during your adventures. You also learn more about yourself. During an independent trip, you are the one setting your schedule, itinerary, and pace. You have the opportunity to try things you may not do while home, whether it is a cooking class or fishing trip.
You also have the option of showing off other sides of yourself. I recommend letting your true self out and enjoy the moment. When traveling into a place where you know no one, it is like getting a fresh start in life. People do not know your story and cannot pre-judge you.
MEETING OTHER PEOPLE
Traveling solo does not mean you are traveling alone in a bubble with no communication with others. There are organizations and companies making it easier for individuals to enjoy group travel. Several travel groups and tour operators offer tours perfect for solo travelers. These trips offer structured days and opportunities to meet others. Also, check with your travel agent for options. If you are an AAA or AARP member, utilize those memberships.
If you plan to visit a destination independently, book a city tour to meet and interact with other travelers. There are several reliable companies offering tours and some that limit the group size which makes it a better experience. Again, check with your travel agent, including AAA and AARP. During a trip to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, I booked several tours and during a food tour with Saigon Street Eats, I was the only guest. This meant I had a VIP experience. If you are a member of a civic organization, such as Rotary, see when they are meeting and attend as a guest.
AVOIDING A LANGUAGE BARRIER
When you are ready to travel abroad but not sure which country to visit, start with an English-speaking one. Traveling to a foreign country can be frustrating and not understanding the native language can add stress to your journey. Good English-speaking countries for first-time solo travelers include Belize, Canada, Ireland, and the United Kingdom.
When visiting another country where you do not speak the language, at the very least, learn basic words and phrases such as “hello,” “please,” “thank you,” “goodbye,” and the most important one for me, “Where is the bathroom?” Your effort in speaking some of the native language will be greatly appreciated. And remember, a smile is understood internationally. Of course, you may come across people who want to practice English with you. In Afghanistan, Japan, and Vietnam, many locals approached and engaged me in lively conversations.
If you want to learn a language prior to your trip, check with local colleges and continuing education centers to see if the language you want to learn is offered as a class. There are several language programs on the market such Pimsleur and Rosetta Stone. Many guidebooks have a dictionary with key phrases. Pocket-sized translation dictionaries are useful, too.
BE AWARE OF DATA FEES
In the age of the smartphone, download either a language learning program app or translation app to your smartphone. Duolingo is a great free program for learning key phrases and words. Google Translate is terrific for translating words and phrases. With this app is you can type in words or phrases, use your finger or stylus to write the word or phrase, snap a photo of a sign, or dictate a word or phrase using the microphone. The app will display it in the selected language as well as pronounce it.
A word of caution, if you will be downloading apps and using them during your travels, be mindful if the program relies on internet to function. If you are not logged into WiFi, be aware of your smartphone carrier’s data usage fees. I learned the hard way on a long weekend to Canada and racked up $700 in data fees.
DOWNSIDE OF SOLO TRAVEL
While solo travel is empowering, there are downsides for trekking alone. Every so often, that lonely feeling sinks in. Thankfully, in the digital age, it is easy to reach out and connect with a familiar face or voice.
One of the biggest budget-busters for solo travelers is the single supplement fee many tour providers charge. A single supplement fee makes business sense because a hotel cannot rent out half a hotel room a night to a solo traveler. As an independent traveler, it’s painful on the wallet but should not prevent independent travel. Instead, a solo traveler should look at the entire value of a packaged trip rather than the final price tag.
FEAR OF DINING ALONE
The best way for leaping into your first solo adventure is taking a small step. Dining alone can be an uncomfortable experience for those who have never done it. If you are uneasy about traveling alone for the first time, take yourself out to dinner and dine solo. Enjoying local cuisine is part of the travel experience and during your journey, you do not want to sit in your hotel eating room service food.
Do you know how ridiculous it is to eat dinner in your Paris hotel room because you are too afraid to dine alone? Early on, I let silly fears rule my life and missed out on experiences because I was afraid of what people around me would think. Soon I realized, “Who cares what they think? I’m not going to see these people again and I’m not going to miss out on a good meal.”
To alleviate that self-conscious feeling of being stared at, bring along a book, magazine or smartphone to read at the table. This will distract you enough until your meal is served. Remember, people are not judging you when you are sitting alone. If they are, give them something to keep them guessing about you.
Before heading out on your trip, share your itinerary, including your flight and hotel information, with someone back home. This can be a parent, sister, friend, or co-worker. Drop a line to this person once a day so they know you are enjoying yourself. This can be done through email, Facebook messenger, iMessage, FaceTime, Skype, or using a free smartphone app such as Viber or WhatsApp.
Guidebooks, magazines and smartphones are ideal for passing idle time while waiting for your meal or sitting on a bus. They offer security too, by serving as a barrier until you get a sense of a venue. Once you feel comfortable engaging with others, put the book or smartphone away and make new friends.
When checking into your hotel room, ask the front desk clerk for two keys especially if you are within earshot of other guests. This will give the impression there is someone traveling with you. Enjoying a beverage in a pub with the locals usually makes for a memorably enjoyable time but limit your alcohol intake so you do not lose your inhibitions and can stay alert to your surroundings.
Traveling solo allows time for reflection and getting to know your authentic self. Being comfortable with yourself and traveling alone is almost like gaining a superpower. You realize you are capable of anything, both on the road and in your daily life. I enjoy traveling with others and hope to find and travel with a soulmate again. Until then, I will continue traveling alone, not lonely.
Jennifer Huber is the founder and voice behind the award-winning blog SoloTravelGirl.com where she celebrates traveling alone, not lonely.