Traveling alone leads to delightful encounters, discoveries — and deeper interactions with places and people
By Donna Sapolin
Originally Posted On October 15, 2013
Donna Sapolin is the vice president, editorial director and general manager of Next Avenue. Follow Donna on Twitter @stylestorymedia.
I’m in the process of planning a holiday trip, and although a good friend of mine is coming along, once we get to our Southeast Asia destination, we plan to meet only occasionally and go our separate ways. Why? Because we each treasure the many advantages of solo travel.
I’ve long enjoyed journeying to places both near and far on my own. In fact, when given the choice of going on my own or with a companion, I often opt for the solo experience.
I first became aware of the unique pleasures of traveling alone about 25 years ago, when my journalism work began propelling me to distant destinations with only a notebook, pen, camera and books for company.
With no friends, colleagues or family members to talk to en route or help plot itineraries, I was forced to take up the tasks myself. At that time I was so consumed by family and work responsibilities that the freedom to spend a few hours in an airport and plane without colleagues or kids in tow seemed like pure heaven.
Back then, I came to know what every young mother appreciates: "alone time" and the chance to delve deeply into one’s inner self and be wholly self-directed are among life’s most precious commodities.
But I discovered even more advantages to solo travel after the children were grown. I had serendipitous encounters with other travelers who not only delighted and provided useful information during the trip but turned into lifelong friends (especially now that we can stay in touch via Skype and Facebook). I made deep connections with residents of the places I visited and gained authentic insights into their way of life. In general, I enjoyed wonderful, unplanned experiences along with the ability to do exactly as I pleased, on my own timetable.
I rarely choose to skip the destinations and experiences that guidebooks call out, but I want my trips to deliver so much more.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a thrill seeker or a super athlete looking for extreme outdoor adventures. I go for culture, art, food, history and beauty — not just the kind found in spectacular natural settings, palaces, cathedrals, mosques, temples and monuments, but also the more mundane variety. The sort offered up by the eyes of Cairo’s children, the tiles of Lisbon, the wood carvers of Bali, the pidgeons of Istanbul and the women of Salvador de Bahia who always seem to be dancing.
I like roaming about without a schedule or agenda since I have all too many of those ruling my days back home. My soul is ignited by surprise discoveries, and I have more of them when I am alone.
Solo travel requires a different sort of adventurousness than, say, scaling a tall peak or zip-lining through a rain forest. It demands an open spirit, a desire for authentic connection, a belief that fascinating experiences are just around the bend and that a lot of walking and talking will lead to them.
Contrary to what some may think, I don’t prefer to go solo because I’m a loner. I go it alone because that leads me to engage more with the people who live and move about my foreign destinations.
Being Comfortable With One's Self
The key thing is to be okay with the concept and to be immune to the probing questions of those who might imply that there’s something a bit off with you.
Last fall I fielded several questions that seemed tinged with judgment while I was abroad: “You’re doing this because you’re writing about it, right?" (As if a work assignment is the only possible justification for traveling singly.) "Aren’t you afraid?" (The guy who asked me this in front of his wife admitted that he wouldn’t "be brave enough" to do what I was doing.) "When are you meeting up with your husband/boyfriend?" (Like that was the only option!)
Writer Ann Friedman recently spoke to the "judgment and pity" issue in this New York magazine blog post. She also shared some interesting stats from a 2013 poll of travel agents: “Agents reported that it’s much more common for woman to travel alone than men, with 73 percent noting that more female travelers embark on solo trips than their male counterparts.”
That may be true, but solo travel has actually taken off for both genders. This approach to seeing the world has become so popular that some people have launched blogs dedicated to the topic, guidebooks abound, and top tour companies, like Cosmos, now offer up an online guide for solo travelers. The company says 11 percent of Americans travel solo and of those, 26 percent are 50-64 and 12 percent are 65+.
Of course, one has to take precautionary measures and be strategic about costs, since many tour companies and rooming facilities tack on premiums (single supplements) for solo travel.
If you’re taking a tour and want to save money, it’s a good idea to look for deals that waive the single supplement or that allow you to share a room with another lone traveler.
Safety Tips for Traveling Solo
To avoid looking like a tourist, plan where you will go before you head out and consult guidebooks, maps and train schedules. (If you're taking a mobile device, download apps ahead of time).
Stick to walking in public places, especially at night, and always move with an air of confidence.
Carry identification and a cell phone at all times. Before you leave, give your friends and family the numbers of the hotels where you'll be staying.
Place your valuables in a hidden pocket or a money belt.
Consider taking an escorted group tour (ocean or river cruises or land tours) conducted by a well-known, reputable vendor. Or book an independent travel package that arranges all travel and accommodations for you as well as an itinerary that builds in plenty of free time.
How to Deal With the Single Supplement
Most travel vendors (tour companies, hotels, cruise lines) charge a set rate based on two travelers and double occupancy in rooms. Solo travelers will frequently have to pay the full double-occupancy rate or, at least, an amount that is more than one-half of that. This extra charge is called a single supplement.
Be on the lookout for deals that reduce the single supplement or waive it. (If you sign up with tour companies and travel deal outlets, you’ll get email notifications.) Be sure to ask travel vendors about single bargains when you call to book.
Stay at B & Bs, which are more likely to have single rooms and charge lower rates. And when booking tours that provide room accommodations, ask about the availability of single rooms and "single share programs" that pair you with another solo traveler of the same gender.
How to Get the Most Out of the Solo Experience
Pack lightly, especially if you’re not booking a tour where there’ll be someone to help with your luggage.
Enjoy the regional cuisine in restaurants and strike up conversations. Sit alongside others at a counter or bar or at a long, family-style table.
Talk to the locals and allow them to give you tips about their favorite places to eat, shop and see.
Follow the schedule of residents: For example, get up early to shop at markets, nap in the afternoon and dine late.