I took my first solo trip when I was 51. During five years of solo travel, I have met numerous female solo travelers along the way: There was the woman sitting next to me on the train from New Orleans to Tuscaloosa, buried under blankets most of the day because she had stayed up late playing cards in the observation car, who regaled tales of traveling to Japan and Thailand by herself. Then there was the retired schoolteacher I met waiting for a train in Colorado. She told me she lived on her retirement plan and then worked part-time teaching online courses. The money from the online classes was saved for one long trip each year. To alleviate any fears of traveling to a foreign country solo, she would first join an organized group trip for 10 days, then, once acclimated to the area with the group, stay on solo for a couple more weeks after it ended.
The reasons these women share for solo traveling are numerous: divorce or the children are grown, so they have the freedom to travel, a desire to meet other travelers -- which isn’t always easy when traveling with another or in a group -- or a way to challenge themselves.
My story is similar. I was single and my children out of the house when I decided to travel the U.S. by train. It was frightening at first as I had never traveled solo before. My mantra, to get me through the fear, became “Take the next step.” I found that my fears were based on what might happen rather than what actually was happening. So along each step of the way, like when I heard just minutes before detraining in Winter Park that there was a blizzard, instead of worrying about What if? I took the next step and got off the train. The empowerment I’ve gained from solo travel is measurable and people frequently comment that I have a newly-acquired inner strength.
A common theme I hear from solo travelers is that they learn and are inspired by the stories of fellow travelers, so I spoke with seven expert solo travelers so I could share their tips.
1. Be Prepared (But Stay Open)
Tami Al-Hazza is a 59-year-old traveler who has traveled both solo and with her daughter. Al-Hazza says the first time she traveled solo, it was a shock. “I was lonely, I felt awkward in restaurants, and I missed having someone to share my experiences with. While eating in restaurants, I learned to take a book or magazine with me, but I don't bury myself in it, I only use it as a backup. Sometimes I ask to eat at the bar so I can talk to others. I also book local group tours so that I can meet other travelers, and I search for experiences with locals. With time, traveling alone became less awkward, and I began to enjoy getting to know myself in new ways. With every trip, I felt more empowered to depend entirely on myself. Solo travel strengthened me.”
Her tip for solo travel: “I advise women to be prepared but always to be open to spontaneity. I suggest that they research the destination so that they know all the cultural activities that are available at that location and the unique foods and drink that they might like to try. Plan for too many activities each day and then be willing to completely depart from their plans if a new opportunity presents itself. Always be willing to try experiences with locals.”
2. Carry A Paper Map
Lynn Smargis is a travel podcast producer, editorial writer, and avid traveler, traveling 12 weeks of the year for vacation and conferences, who has traveled on long-term trips solo, too.
On a trip from Santa Fe to Chimayo, New Mexico, I decided to take the less-traveled path, depending on GPS for directions. I lost cell service and wound up lost for an hour or so before finally coming upon a postal worker who gave me directions. Because of this experience, I can personally relate to Smargis’s tip:
“The best tip I would give for traveling solo is to always carry a paper map of the area you are traveling. I travel solo for the freedom to create my own adventure, meet interesting local people, and to reinforce my ability to be a female independent do-it-yourself traveler. My favorite solo trip was an 18-day road trip from So Cal to Olympia National Park in Washington state. My love of travel and food has converged into the creation of my podcast, Travel Gluten Free.”
3. Choose Your Accommodations Wisely
Diane Lee is a 50-something Australian writer, editor, and blogger who prefers slow and solo travel. She’s currently based in Hanoi, Vietnam, with her Australian cat.
Lee said, “Choose your accommodation wisely. Even though I want to travel alone because of the freedom it gives me, I am sociable and like to chat with other travelers, so I tend to book smaller boutique hotels that have a swimming pool and restaurant or cafe. The pool takes care of the social aspect, and because I rarely go out to dinner on my own, the hotel restaurant takes care of the dining aspect. I rarely stay in Airbnbs because they generally don't provide me with the facilities I need.”
Traveling solo means freedom to Lee. “You can go where you want, do what you want -- when you want. No having to compromise. You can set your own schedule. I tend to mix things up when I travel. I often book myself into full- or half-day tours and cooking classes, but I'm also completely comfortable wandering around on my own with my camera, visiting museums and main attractions, and checking out local neighborhoods. I love local supermarkets -- they are so interesting!”
4. Find A Way To Get Outside Of Your Comfort Zone
Lisa Dorenfest is 57 years old and has been traveling full-time since 2013. “While the predominance of my travel is circumnavigating the world under sail with my partner, there have been numerous times I’ve traveled solo when we’ve been in port. Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Singapore, Malaysia, Sydney, Madagascar, and Colombia come immediately to mind. The tip I would give is ‘Push yourself out of your comfort zone one baby-step at a time.’”
Dorenfest’s favorite solo trip was 30 days she spent in North Vietnam in 2017. “At the beginning of the trip, circumstances found me being transported between hotels on the back of a motorcycle: a frightening yet exhilarating experience for me. I survived the ride, and through a series of follow-on baby steps and many local motorcycle rides later, I found myself touring Lao Cai and Lai Chau, Vietnam on the back of a motorcycle.”
She wrote an article telling about that trip.
5. Print Out All Important Papers
Dr. Cacinda Maloney worked as a chiropractic physician for 22 years prior to starting a travel website in 2012. She says, “Although I am married -- 28 years -- I think I have now officially traveled more solo than I have married: 47 countries in 2016!”
Her tip for a solo traveler is to have all your data printed out versus just looking it up on your smartphone. “I don't know how many times I have not been able to find what I needed on my iPhone. I keep a file folder on every trip I take that has flight information, hotel information, and any other pertinent information I might need for that trip.”
6. Work With A Travel Doctor Before Departing
Melody Wren considers her age (over 60) a gift in her travels. She brings wisdom and experience and a major If not now, when? attitude with a heavy helping of humor, which she says is required in any kind of travel.
Wren’s number one tip for solo travelers comes from personal experience. She contracted Schistosoma while wading or swimming in freshwater in an island in the Caribbean. Wren suggests: “When you travel anywhere, get advice from a travel doctor before you go about the specific destination you are going to in order to prevent picking up parasites.”
She suggests taking particular caution in the Caribbean islands, India, Africa, and Thailand and shared that “30 percent of all travelers return with at least one parasite. Strongyloides and Schistosoma can be severe if not treated.” For more tips on how to avoid getting parasites, read Wren’s article in Fodor’s.
7. Be Indulgent
The month before Adrienne Hew, a certified nutritionist, turned 50, she traveled solo to Japan. She’s making plans to return again -- solo -- in the spring.
Hew’s tip is to be indulgent and do something just for you. She says to pick at least one activity that you would have trouble convincing others to do with you.
Hew’s reason for traveling solo? “I travel solo because I’m usually the one at home holding down the fort while my husband travels frequently for work. I need alone time to process where I am in life, what I want from the last half of my life, and to connect with others outside of my norm.” You can read more about her travels at Nourishing Journeys Japan.
Looking for a perfect place for solo trip number one? A day in Lake Como, Italy, will whet your appetite for elegant adventure.