All By Ourselves, Women Traveling Alone 13


As I pack up for another adventure, it occurs to me that traveling by myself has become more than normal. It is what travel is, especially since I’m traveling for work. I meet women traveling alone all the time in my travels, especially on my tours, who’ve decided to stop waiting for someone to go with them and just get out there and fulfil their travel dreams on their own.

A woman on her own abroad is a part of my everyday scenery, but I realize that might not be something everyone takes for granted. I thought it might be interesting to write down a few thoughts on the subject, and a few strategies for those who are giving it a try for the first time.

Why Travel Alone

We never question why a man might travel alone, but we do when a woman ventures out alone. A man may be seen as a noble wanderer, out to find the world on his own terms. A woman is questioned about why she doesn’t have a companion and maybe even pitied because she must be lonely. I guess that’s part of our social structure from the past. I love the movie “A Room with a View” because it deals with so many of the ideas about women traveling alone. In the past, you needed a chaperone. Women’s roles have changed and we certainly don’t need chaperones, but I feel like that idea still persists, or at least a subtle curiosity about why a woman would take a solo trip.

Women travel alone for all kinds of reasons and I love hearing their stories. Some, like myself, do it because their job requires it. I’ve gotten so used to it that it’s kind of weird when I’m not alone. Some women choose to go alone because they cannot find a travel partner or don’t want to wait for friends to save up or agree on plans. I’ve met lots of married women who go it alone because their husband doesn’t like to travel or is not a happy traveler. In the end, making the choice to go alone is like taking a machete and cutting through red tape, like casting off a heavy web of complication. In short, it’s liberating.

The Upside of Alone

When you go alone, you’ve got the world at your fingertips. Whatever you want, you’ve got it. Want to eat only gelato for days on end? Nobody is there to judge you. Want to see an exhibit that only you will enjoy? Go for it, nobody will be standing by looking bored. Live on your own schedule and change your mind when you like. That’s a pretty big plus.

Downsides?

Having an excellent adventure often feels more excellent when you share it. Not having anyone to talk to can be lonely. These aren’t really downsides in these days of instant Internet. You can talk or text with anyone you want and share your experiences from afar. I used to hate eating alone, I’d bury myself in a book just to not look and feel bad. But now, even people who have dining companions are staring at their phones. I usually bring my tablet to dinner and write or text friends. It may not be great etiquette, but it’s enjoyable.

Meeting Others

If you’re feeling adventurous, there are always plenty of ways to meet people. That’s one of the best parts of travel in any case. If you’re outgoing, striking up a conversation with locals is an easy thing. If you’re more introverted, there are still options.

Tours are an easy way to find companionship and a safe, efficient trip. Our tours at Rick Steves are full of happy women traveling alone, together. If you don’t want to do a full tour, day tours and walking tours are great options for meeting other travelers. For example, I always binge on walking tours in London with London Walks because they are a fun way to spend time learning and laughing with others.

Some cities offer local experiences where you can meet people. I subscribe to Friends in Rome, an organization set up to connect visitors and locals. They have events several times a month and I try to catch one if I’m around for it. In Paris, there are lots of options. One I’ve heard great things about is Sunday Dinner at the home of Jim Haynes. He’s been hosting an open dinner for 30 years in his home, for anyone who wants to meet others and have a good conversation.

Staying in sociable places makes it easy to meet others. Hostels are the most sociable option, many offer dinners and group activities. Sleeping in a room of other travelers inevitably leads to new friendships. If you think you’re too old or too shy to share a room, don’t count this option out. Some hostels have no age restrictions and many offer single rooms with the same atmosphere of fun and friendship.

The truly gregarious can also plot to make new friends by using home hosting websites like AirBnB or couch surfing.com. You can stay in communal situations and share in local life.

Safety

The only real, actual concern that I feel while I’m alone is safety. I’m a big, scary looking woman, but even so I am cautious in some cases. Some thoughts on safety:

Bring a cell phone. You always want to have some communication device to let people know where you are. Ping friends or family members every day just to make sure someone is aware of where you are. Program into your phone the local dispatch number for a taxi and know the local equivalent of 911.

Keep the business card of your hotel or accommodations in your money belt or wallet. If something happened to you, or you feel ill, it’s a good backup to be able to hand an address to a taxi driver.

After dark or at dusk, stay on main streets. Even if Europe is pretty darn safe, it still has dodgy bits. It happened to me recently, I tried to take a shortcut in a big Italian city that looked legit on Google Maps, but went into the scariest part of town. I ended up in a confusing web of dark streets. It was just me and the pimps/prostitutes at dusk and I was certain I’d be sold into some sort of slavery. Totally my fault, I should have stuck to the well-lit main streets.

Be friendly and strike up conversations but don’t go anywhere alone with someone you don’t know. That is so obvious, I realize, but there are times that you will be tempted. You’ll meet a cool local and they will seem so nice and friendly, and maybe they are. The few times I’ve ended up in this situation, the problem was not that I felt endangered but more that I wanted to leave but didn’t know exactly where I was or how to get back to my hotel. If a local wants to hang out with you, keep it public and in a central location.

If you’re an AirBnB fan like I am, I recommend staying in a place with a family. A couple of the self catering apartments I’ve stayed in were in parts of town that felt a little too quiet and deserted. My best experience last year was in a home in the rugged East End in London. Even if the locale was not so polished, I was staying with a lovely couple and their young children. I got to hang out with them a bit and chat, and the sound of kids in the house made me feel warm and safe.

Making the Most of “Me Time”

Women traveling alone should be making the most of their time alone without guilt or regret. I highly suggest taking photos, lots of them, especially photos of yourself, so you don’t forget your adventures. The selfie craze may not be your thing, but it’s great for documenting a solo trip and you can have a great time taking artful selfies–nobody even cares these days.

Get a timer app for your phone if you don’t like the selfie look. It may sound a little egocentric, but having pics of yourself is important.

If you don’t like pics of yourself, try taking selfies with exotic or entertaining locals. Most locals get a big laugh out of it, it’s a conversation starter.

This guy, the “Wizard of Oz” in Orvieto, has a whole wall in his shop of selfies like the one with me. He likes to have them emailed to him to remember his visitors.

Indulge yourself. Eat the chocolate or the steak, or both. Get a massage or one of those weird fish pedicures. Spend way too much time shopping. Go to the theater every night. It’s your vacation and the rules are only that you should be happy.

Don’t be afraid of renting a car. You drive a car at home, right? You can totally do it somewhere else. As long as you have a cell phone and the number of the rental company help line, you’ll be fine. Drive when and where you like and get distracted floating in your own little universe of wonder. This is one of my favorite things, whipping through a foreign land with the stereo up loud, singing along like a fool.

Do things you wouldn’t do if any of your friends were there. Wear daring clothes, eat unusual foods, dance through the public square with a rose between your teeth. I am terrified of singing in front of my friends but I’ll do it in front of strangers. Find that personality you’ve always wanted to try out and go for it. Don’t worry, nobody is watching.

Above all, I suggest being shameless about your solo self. Be bold and brave about what you want. If you’ve never traveled alone before, you might find that the best travel partner on earth is yourself.


About sarahinitalia@yahoo.com

Sarah Murdoch is a tour guide and guidebook writer for Rick Steves Europe. Her blog, Adventures with Sarah, focuses on packing tips, travel stories and advice for planning the best trip possible.


13 thoughts on “All By Ourselves, Women Traveling Alone

  • Maria F

    Solo travel is self indulgent – some say ‘selfish’; but there is a flip side to it. We set an example….for our daughters, grand daughters, coworkers and fellow travellers. My first solo trip was at 19, then a longish break. Now I am working on those places I have dreamed about since elementary school. First volunteer stint was at 55. Also private safaris in Tanzania and a month in Ecuador and Galapagos. Coworkers are envious and some of other cultures actually say ‘my community wouldn’t let me do that’. I have had women travelling on tours stop and ask me how I manage to do the same by myself. I am always happy to share my tips and methods. I am so proud that my daughter (though afraid of flying) takes on the challenge of packing for carry on only and breaks out on her own when her friends can’t make up their minds.
    So, it’s a self indulgence with guidance for others.

  • Paula

    I always enjoy your posts, Sarah. And what a great idea to travel alone if I want to go somewhere hubby doesn’t want to! I did travel around Ireland by myself for 2 weeks when I was studying in Munich and on a university break….didn’t find it all that much fun. But doing it at 19 when you hardly know yourself is much different from doing it now at 61! Just might have to give it a try. Also want to eventually spend 4 weeks studying Lithuanian in Vilnius, Lithuania, and I know I’d be alone for that adventure. Now if I only had more vacation time and wouldn’t have to wait for retirement to do all this…you’re lucky to have found a job that allows you to travel as part of the work.

  • Helene G

    Sarah,
    I’ve traveled by myself in Europe and also with a tour. Both have their advantages. However, with my last tour — in Italy — I realized close to my departure date that I really didn’t want to go to Venice (I don’t like water) and, instead, preferred to go on my own to Pompeii and Mt. Vesuvius. So, even though it might cost a bit more, sometimes you can actually combine a formal tour with time on your own.

    After going to a country once, I’m usually confident enough to travel it on my own a second time. Although, it does take more advance planning. But, of course, trip planning is half the fun — such anticipation and excitement!

  • Lynn Corken

    Hi Sarah thanks for this great article. I too have travelled solo several times and just love the freedom of doing what I want, without having to consult various people eg going to two theatre performances in London in one day, both tickets purchased at the last minute. There is always one ticket available even for the most popular plays. I can also recommend Good Morning Hostel in Lisbon and Abigail’s Hostel in Dublin – great atmosphere, events, tours, evening pub tours and great craic – even if I was much older than most of my fellow hostellers! Oh, and great value and perfect central locations too. I’m also a Rick Steves guide, leading my first tour in July (Ireland) so I hope to see you next year again in Edmonds for more of your great tech sessions! Take care Sarah and Keep on Travelling !

    • sarahinitalia@yahoo.com Post author

      Hi Lynn, I was thinking of that very example, I do the same thing in London. There is always a cheap single ticket! Good luck on your first tour, and sorry about your leg. Sending healing thoughts!

      • lynn corken

        Thanks Sarah. I did a French tour yesterday in Belfast, albeit most of it in a car. It’s all the rage in Belfast – tour guide on a crutch! Cast coming off on Tuesday when I look forward to rejoining the Free World!!

        • sarahinitalia@yahoo.com Post author

          Falling in general seems to be the rage these days, need a few more St. Christopher medals to protect me and my groups!

  • Barbara

    I love this post, Sarah! I have been traveling solo for 10 years now and people still ask me – you’re going alone?! It’s as if they pity me, but, really, it is like you said – I can be the “real” me – dancing to music on my iPod at night in a piazza in Montone, staring at a particular piece of artwork for longer than a companion would want to hang out, eating/drinking whatever I want, whenever I want, walking and walking or sitting at a cafe for hours. Love it! I go on Rick Steves tours as a solo but share a room and always enjoy meeting my roommate and the other tour members. I urge any woman thinking about it – just do it. You just need to be aware of the same safety issues at home when you’re alone in Europe – so you already know those things gals!

    I also thank you for urging me to drive in Europe too. I love driving at home – now I need to get over the angst of foreign road signs and just do that too. My only downside, still, is eating dinner at a restaurant. How do you linger for two hours over dinner by yourself? I guess a book/tablet is a good prop. I usually have my big meal at lunch as that feels very comfortable.

    Can’t wait to hear about your Italian adventures starting next week. Buon Viaggio!!
    (P.S. your selfie in the Pantheon is gorgeous. Thanks for a good idea for shooting a different perspective!)

    • sarahinitalia@yahoo.com Post author

      This is all good stuff! And absolutely rent a car, it’s great. As for dining, I often bring a notebook and write or end up chatting with the owner or other diners. Some restaurants have really outgoing owners, that makes it fun if you’re in the mood to chat. Sometimes I just like staring into space and savoring flavors. Being shameless seems to be the key. 😉

  • Linda

    Sarah you are so right about Traveling alone.. For years I dreamed of going to Italy, finally my kids were almost done with college and I realized I had no one to travel with. I fall into the husband doesn’t travel category.. I thrive on anything new .. My daughter in law and son convinced me to go it alone.. Then I discovered Rick Steves tours.. Perfecto!! Took a Heart of Italy tour and it changed my life!! It was a perfect balance of being part of a tour and having plenty of time to do EXACTLY what I wanted.. Extra time in the museums… Yes…finding that perfect restaurant…yes… Taking a train at the end of my tour to Venice for 3 extra days.. Staying out late at night with no fear, listen to music at San Marco … Yes.. I have since gone to France and a different experience for sure, but so special .. I have had wonderful conversations and have been slightly lost… Always with a back up plan.. I have shared tables with other travelers that were perfect strangers and had the best time… I’m shy by nature , I find the more you put yourself out there , the more rewarding experience you have. Traveling alone has been hands down some of best experiences of my life.

    • sarahinitalia@yahoo.com Post author

      I am also terribly shy but have worked to overcome it for that exact reason. I’m so happy to hear that our work has made a positive impact on you. Keep on Travelin’!

  • Gail McKelvie

    Sarah,

    I loved this post. I have traveled by myself all over the world for years. Sometimes on my own, sometimes on a tour. I never regret doing it. Life is too short to wait around for the perfect travel partner to appear. Thanks for sharing your perspective so eloquently.

    • sarahinitalia@yahoo.com Post author

      It’s wonderful to hear that other women feel the same way I do. Being alone is not a bad thing, nobody laughs at my jokes more than I do!

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