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.
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.
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 (and mine here at Adventures with Sarah) 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 couchsurfing.com. You can stay in communal situations and share in local life.
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.