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Putting Down Roots: How to Stake Out Your Corner of Paradise
Living like a local and getting to know a place when you travel

Do you ever get tired of being on the go go go when you travel?

Does everything whip by so fast you don't even remember where you've been or whom you've met? Have you been traveling so much you're suffering from travel burnout?

Squeezing every possible moment out of all-too-short vacations or trips is something we all try to do.

But by trying to see more, we often end up seeing less.

Sometimes, settling down for a week teaches you more about a culture than any amount of rapid sightseeing.

bar in Genoa, ItalyBy putting down roots you'll have your own touchstones - a local bar, a restaurant, a small shop where the signora waves Buongiorno each time you walk past

Choosing a place to call home for a week (or much longer, of course) is part art, part science.

Naturally there's passion involved: you fall in love with a place, you stay.

Your expectations are probably high so here's how to make you aren't disappointed. Ask the questions below before you choose your new temporary home - and avoid the frustrations of making the wrong decision.

What exactly are you looking for when you travel?

Culture and History
If you're an avid seeker of knowledge, if you love architecture and art and need to know how a place became what it is, you'll probably be more comfortable in a place seeped in history rather than in a modern metropolis.

While capitals do have their old quarters, I'd go for a small provincial city... Segovia or Avila rather than Madrid, Bahia instead of Rio.

If you're keen on staying in a city, try one of the more traditional neighborhoods. In Istanbul I lived in Sariyer for a week, way up the coast, and commuted into town every day from my apartment (I'm a fan of Airbnb and use them a lot when I travel).

Ask yourself:

  • Does this place feel as it might have 500 years ago?
  • Are the streets filled with tourists?
  • Do you recognize the shop names or does everything look deliciously old-fashioned?
  • Are the streets filled with local people going about their daily business? Schoolchildren with books? Women heading off to work or to shop?
feeding cats in IstanbulEach morning I walked down to the water and cats emerged from the night, hungry. People always appeared with leftovers for them. Photo Anne Sterck

Accessibility
How near are you to major transport hubs? How easy is it to get in and out? However lovely your new home, you might get tired of it once in a while and you'll need to escape. Countries and cities served by low-cost airlines are worth a look, as are places near major train lines and bus stations.

Connectivity
You'll probably want some kind of internet access or wifi. How often will you need it? Is a weekly visit to an internet café enough or will you be uploading hundreds of photos a day? In addition to access, cost and signal strength and speed should be considerations.

Legality
Is it legal for you to live there a month or two or more? If you're not European, getting a long-term visa in the EU will be difficult unless you're a student or have a job (and even then, it's far from simple). Some countries are stricter than others so check extensively before you go. Thailand, for example, is relatively flexible, allowing you to nip in and out of the country to renew your visa. Indonesia, on the other hand, is quite strict.

putting down rootsSome countries make it easier to get visas than others

Security
Is the country politically stable, or do you run the risk of being sealed in or deported? I was once stuck in Prague while the then Soviet Union decided whether to re-invade Czechoslovakia. The borders were temporarily closed and the most popular building was the post office, where people lined up for blocks to call abroad and let everyone know. It only lasted a day or two but - it might not have.

Safety
Is this a safe country for solo women? How to avoid crime abroad is always a concern, more so if you plan on living somewhere for a number of months. Lets face it - some countries are more woman-friendly than others. While I'd feel perfectly comfortable in Turkey, I'd definitely feel less so in Iran. There's also the issue of unwanted male attention, which is more common in some countries than others.

Familiarity
Putting down roots might be easier somewhere relatively familiar. You may prefer a 'taste' of home - the existence of a Starbucks, for example, of bookshops or a large English-speaking community nearby. Or you may like the novelty of difference - Arabic or Cyrillic script, for example, or a country where English isn't the second, or even the third language. A place like Ethiopia is - at least to me - quite foreign. The only significant expat community is in the capital, Addis Ababa, but elsewhere, you're on your own.

Putting down rootsFamiliar, everywhere

Cost
If you're on a limited budget putting down roots is a financial decision. We may all want to live in Tahiti or London but it's not always possible - the one exception may be if you become a housesitter, in which case you'll be able to live pretty much anywhere for free. Otherwise you have to seriously take your budget into account, as well as working possibilities. Some countries will allow long-term visas and allow you to work as well. Others will throw you out the moment you're suspected of teaching English abroadwithout working papers, so choose wisely and match your destination to your budget - and to overseas jobs possibilities.

Liveability
Quality of life is something we can't neglect, especially if we're staying put for some time. Weather, for example - I get nervous at the first sign of freezing so France, where I now live, is about as cold as I can handle. If the idea of tropical rains makes your skin crawl, stay away from the Equator!

Then there are all the other things that make a place liveable - public transport, entertainment, friendliness, cleanliness, health infrastructure and the existence of disease... make sure your chosen home matches your own values and needs.

Putting down roots: choosing a place

Once you've set your criteria, it's time to start shopping - for a new home, that is!

Over and over, the same places come up. That's because other travelers have tried them before you and can speak from experience. Here are just a few of the eternal favorites:

  • Thailand: it continues to top my list for best value for money, simply ease of living (although the political situation comes and goes) and world-class medical care
  • non-EU Eastern Europe: costs are climbing but some of these countries remain popular
  • Greece: low prices, glorious sunshine, fabulous food (Turkey used to rank up there as well but these days, increased conservatism and terrorist incidents would make me hesitate to actually move there). 
  • Portugal has always attracted a British expat contingent but it is broadening its reach and is a great destination for women travelers
  • Central America: my vote goes to Panama, but several other countries fit the bill and Costa Rica is always popular
  • Argentina and Chile: I have never visited but many of my friends rave about these two countries
  • Australia and New Zealand, assuming you have the right paperwork and enough money

I'm a great believer in putting down roots when I travel. Some of my own homes away from home? Bangkok (more than a year); Algeria (three months - twice); Eritrea (two months); South Africa (two months); Italy (six months); Brazil (four months); Geneva (many many years).

If I don't have time to do that - sometimes trips are only a few days long - I've learned to appreciate the benefits of slow travel, where I can intensify my travel experience even for a few hours.

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