Many of the most meaningful and fun experiences in my life have happened while traveling alone. I met people who are now life-long friends; took part in a Vendemmia (family grape picking and crushing celebration) in Italy; was treated to an “insider’s” tour of Rome by a fantastic guide, Andreas, who made the sites extra special because he felt sorry for me traveling solo; and drove winding French roads in the rain to Rocamadour, France, on a spiritual quest to visit a Black Madonna. I can indulge in as many farmer’s markets as I want! I also do my best writing when alone. No distractions or anyone telling me to “Hurry up!”
I asked a few of my friends, who also value traveling alone, for some tips they’ve learned over the years and what makes solo travel special. Here are their thoughts:
What advice can you offer on traveling alone?
Bonnie advises: Most important, savor every moment, enjoy every bite of local cuisine and take lots of pictures. Until you know your way around, carry the address of your lodging whenever you are out sight- seeing. Observe landmarks high and low, that are close to your hotel to help you find your way back. Go a little further from home base every day. If you are in a country where English is not widely spoken, explore thoughtfully. Until you get your footing, stay in the busy tourist areas if possible. There will be LOTS to see and absorb. If you are going to venture out on public transportation, watch the people getting on to see if they are using change or tokens so you can be prepared
Maya says: To just try it! I think three days is the perfect amount of time: long enough that you can’t mope about being alone the whole time, and short enough that you know it will be over soon if you truly hate it! I would also say I remember being worried about being scared or bored. I have felt both those things, but they are empowering to overcome. Also, bring a book.
Robyn suggests: Don’t be afraid to reach out and make new friends among other travelers or locals. Try new things, take a chance, put yourself out there. Embrace the people and culture. Get out of the museums and churches, and spend time in cafes and parks and local shops where ordinary citizens hang out. Find festivals and concerts and art exhibits. Explore the country by bicycle. This allows you to get out of the cities, appreciate the beauty of the countryside and its people, and get some exercise.
Ali recommends: RESEARCH where you want to go–decide on a few places you would like to go, and then determine if they address all (or much) of what you’re looking for, during the time of year you’ll be traveling: weather; landmarks (open at that time); activities to do as a “single.”
READ REVIEWS – on the hotel, the location, etc. People will tell you exactly what they think about a place, hotel or activities in your “chosen” place. I have often re-thought my destination, based upon candid reviews alerting me to items I never would have considered.
What are your greatest fears about traveling alone?
Maya: Like any woman, I fear for my personal safety the most.
Robyn: My greatest fear is losing my wallet/ID/credit cards…
Ali: Safety. Make sure you are aware of where you are traveling, and if there are any safety concerns you need to be aware of. Then read up on your destination to ensure there aren’t any specific areas where you need to be even more cautious. And…always be aware–even if you know it to be a safe area.
As for my travels–a few things… In Madrid I was pick pocketed. I found out later that pick pockets are rampant in parks in Madrid and Barcelona. I didn’t engage with these people who were asking for a donation for a kids charity for more than seconds, yet it was long enough for them to steal $100 from me.
A word of caution for single women travelers — always be alert. It’s no big deal if you’re pick pocketed, but you need to be alert for people watching you or showing an overly friendly interest. Never disclose any detailed personal information (last name, city of residence, company, etc.). Also, if you’re staying at a hotel at an airport and go to drink in the bar, there may be people who want a “hook up” before they go on their merry way–they aren’t always just being friendly because they want a nice conversation. I noticed this right away in a hotel I often stay at, at the Frankfurt airport when I have an early flight the next day. Don’t be scared, just mindful.
“The steward just asked me if I was not afraid to travel alone, and I said, “Why, it is life.”
― Emily Hahn, Congo Solo; Misadventures Two Degrees North
What do you miss most when traveling alone?
Maya: Of course there are times when I wish I could share a view, or a funny misunderstanding, or something reminds me of someone in particular, and I wish they could experience it too. But I think traveling alone really forces you to deepen your relationship with yourself simply because you have no other option. In the least self- absorbed way possible, it really strengthened my own understanding and friendship with myself. In the least clichéd way possible, it has helped me learn more about myself and contribute to my own self improvement. For example, I have a lot of anxiety, and it has been great practice in trusting myself and going with the flow (like when transportation is delayed or you’re not on the bus you think you are).
Robyn: Sometimes you want to share the experience and emotions with someone you know – in the moment. “Look at that!” “This tastes incredible, try it.” I miss being able to share the journey, the adventure, with a fellow traveler.
Ali: Having someone to share experiences with.
Do you feel you are treated differently when traveling alone?
Maya: I’m really answering this from traveling abroad alone, so I do feel that most of the attention I’ve gotten has resulted more from being a foreigner than being alone.
Robyn: No different from at home. In the presence of couples, you really have to make an effort to reach out, being especially nice to the wives. They always seem to be nervous when a single woman is in the room, and the husbands are often reluctant to engage in too much conversation for fear of making their wives mad!
Ali: No—I enjoy meeting other people. Sometimes it can feel awkward, however, that’s all on me–no one has ever made me feel that way.
Do you venture out at night alone?
Bonnie: When I am out during the day, I check out places close to the hotel where I can have a nice dinner. I ended up going to one little restaurant in Istanbul many nights because the food was amazing and the proprietor was so interesting to chat with.
Robyn: Sure! But I pay attention to my sixth sense and local intel regarding whether a certain area is safe.
Ali: It depends. Not about the safety aspect–it depends whether or not I’m traveling for work (when being “out at night” means dinner, then bed), in a place where there may not be much night life (i.e. Maine–where again, it may be dinner and then bed), or if it’s a place where there is local night life–then I would definitely go out (However, in this case, I am mindful to be cautious in different surroundings).
What do you love about being by yourself?
Bonnie: The best part of traveling alone is setting your own schedule and leisurely indulging in places that are of great interest.
Maya: I really value the time to myself. As I’ve grown older and more comfortable with the idea of being alone in general, I’ve been practicing how to use that (now very precious) time to its fullest extent. I would like to point out that I am exceedingly lucky at my point in life, I have few obligations, no dependents or serious relationships I can’t take a small break from, I am financially stable, and I have generous time off working for a school. I recognize the majority of the world is not this lucky. Here is an example of a time an independent trip helped me: Last autumn I was really struggling with my job and unsure if I wanted to stay with it. During a holiday weekend I gave myself four unscheduled days in a different location. The physical and mental space from my work gave me the clarity to see benefits to the job I hadn’t considered, and it gave me unpressured time to decide what was right for me. Of course, I was fortunate in the regard that I could afford the trip, and it was made much simpler by the fact that I was already living abroad. But if you have the time and resources, I would encourage you to try it!
Robyn: I can do what I want, when I want, and go where I want. Freedom and flexibility. When you travel by yourself, you end up meeting more new people.
Ali: I can travel when my schedule allows, to a destination of my choice. So much of what we do is dictated by a travel partner or family–it’s nice to do something YOU want to do. I can get up when I want, go where I want, see what I want, eat where I want, leave when I want. It’s actually very relaxing knowing that if the sight at your destination was not as touted or a restaurant wasn’t great– there is no one to apologize to–you just go on!
“Whether by plane, bus or carpet,
own the magic in your ride.”
― Gina Greenlee, Postcards and Pearls: Life Lessons from Solo Moments in New York
Do you have an anecdote or experience to illustrate how your advice impacted your trip?
Bonnie: Met two men on the flight to Istanbul and ran into them the next day in the park. Ended up spending the day with them sightseeing, laughing and chatting. They were from Houston, had been lifelong friends and the one man was accompanying his best friend to Africa. The son of one of the guys was in the special forces and fighting bad guys in Somalia. They were meeting the son on his R @ R and they had just broken up the trip with a one night stay in Istanbul. I still think about them. I am quite sure if I was with someone I never would have spent the day with these two terrific, well-traveled gentlemen. Lucky me! Seems the people I met on this trip were travelers, not vacationers. Be aware of and count on your instincts. I tried to be pretty close to “home” when the sun started setting. Best laid plans, right? One day I was in the 1000 year old Grand Bazaar just meandering and enjoying all the sights, sounds and people. When I left, the sun was setting. I ended up leaving from one of the many entrances but not the one through which I had entered. I found myself in a close dark alleyway filled with people who were selling their wares. I had NO idea where I was and I had a very uneasy feeling. I figured if I just kept going downhill, I would hit my main landmark, the Bosporus Sea. When I got to the Bosporus it was pretty dark but I knew my way back to the hotel from there.
Robyn: On a trip to Slovenia, I was the only single person in the group. At our little hotel in a small town, Podkoren, I decided to order a beer and join a group of local men outside at the picnic tables. We couldn’t speak each other’s language but had so much fun trying to communicate using a few words and body language. They bought me a second beer and we laughed a lot. I made new friends and learned more about the local ski jumping facility. The rest of the group was just hanging out in their rooms.
Ali: I went to La Rioja in Spain to drink wine and went to many wine tours specifically in Spanish to improve my command of the language. After a few glasses of wine, I thought my Spanish was really good (they may not have felt the same way!) In Bad Durkheim, Germany, the annual Wurstmarkt is a 600 year old tradition, now with rides, great food and amazing wine from the famous wine region. I imbibed, as I took the tram from Mannheim. On the way home, I didn’t relinquish my last glass of wine because, in Europe, you evidently can have alcohol on public transportation. I was chatting up the entire car, talking with a German who had lived in Kansas and talking with a nice grad student about my cute single daughter in NYC. While I was jumping off of the tram, at my stop, he kept asking where she was–poor guy. On another train ride, I was on my way back to Mannheim from Basel, Switzerland and there was a group of middle-aged friends who decided to lead the train in song. This happened for about half of my two-hour train ride–it was great–they had everyone laughing, including the conductor. All I could think of was–“That was me after the Wurstmarkt”!
Did you ever have a “What happens in ____ stays in Vegas?”
Maya: Not kissing and telling!!!
Robyn: When cycling on the islands of Croatia, our group took a break to hang out at the beach. There was also a nude beach close by. I decided to swim naked in the beautiful, warm waters of the Mediterranean and it was amazing!!! I was able to recruit one other woman to join me and we took pictures of each other walking out of the water and onto the beach. Only for ourselves. Just to remember.
Ali: Yes, however, it was by a work colleague and, ew-NO. However, I am going to a Club Med in December, so maybe we should have a “part deu,” as I would never rule it out. :-).
I am grateful to my dear friends for the stories and advice they’ve shared for traveling solo. Here’s one last anecdote from me:
One time, when I was 23, I took a train from Paris to Mont Saint Michel, in Normandy, for the weekend. The train was uncrowded and at one point split tracks. This meant that I had to be in the correct part of the train to continue onto my desired destination. In my broken French, I asked the conductor which car I needed to be in for Mont Saint Michel. He eagerly ushered me into a private compartment which was lovely, assured me this was the correct car and went on his merry way punching tickets. After his rounds, he returned to my compartment, and sat down next to me for some conversation…actually, flirtation! Suddenly, he had his arms around me and started making out with me! Flabbergasted, I nicely pushed him away and showed him the fake wedding ring I wore, insisting that ” je suis marié!” I am married! He finally got the message and left. I quickly gathered my bag and found a seat next to an American family visiting their son who was in the military. I was protected!
Do you have any advice or stories to share? I’d love to hear about them! Until then!
“When you’re (traveling) with someone else, you share each discovery, but when you are alone, you have to carry each experience with you like a secret, something you have to write on your heart, because there’s no other way to preserve it.”
― Shauna Niequist, Cold Tangerines: Celebrating the Extraordinary Nature of Everyday Life
Ciao for now!