Invisible After 50? How to travel solo with attitude

Many women complain about “feeling invisible” after 50, both in their everyday lives and when they travel. What follows is a look at this invisibility, and strategies to avoid it.

You hear it often.

“I feel invisible.”

“No one is taking my order.”

“I have to repeat myself all the time.”

For women over 50, invisibility is an all-too-common reality, and while we may have our coping mechanisms at home, going under-noticed may be a bit more challenging when we travel.

Working alone on a terrace in Morocco and not feeling invisible after 50

This invisibility can manifest itself in a number of ways.

One of my lovely readers, JL, is 71 and traveling around Vietnam with her daughter. “I find it really frustrating when we are in a restaurant  and I pay the bill, and they insist on giving the change to my daughter. It’s as if they think I’m not sane enough to deal with money.”

My personal experiences tend to revolve around dining solo. Eating alone is not the norm in many places, and I’m never surprised when I’m guided to the back of the restaurant, usually next to a plant or to the rest room – even if the restaurant is still empty.

I used to grit my teeth and bear it, but birthdays often bring either self-assuredness, or simply a lack of concern about what others think.

Last time this happened, I called the waiter over: “Why are you placing me in the back, behind the plant? Do you think I’m going to scare your other customers?” Poor guy – I felt for him. He mumbled an apology or an explanation – I’m not sure which – and swiftly moved me to a nice table near the window. He spent the rest of the meal being overly courteous.

I know this isn’t always the result, but had I not spoken up, it would definitely not have been the result.

And I know I’m not unique.

“I agree that in restaurants as a single older woman I’m often seated at the small table near the kitchen or other unattractive area. I even walked out of a restaurant after having already ordered in Seattle after the server reseated me in an even worse area,” another traveler, Gisela, told me.

Seriously? An even worse table?

And what if you are less able or ill? L.J. feels staff often don’t understand her special needs. “Often, I will simply tell the hostess not to seat me in the “back 80”, and I haven’t been told yet that I can’t sit at the closer empty table.” Sometimes, being proactive works best.

There are those who can deal with these situations with aplomb, like Lesley R.

“Being invisible is sometimes welcome – dining alone, you can read, think, people watch or just savour your food. However on one occasion, dining alone in a fairly posh Italian restaurant I accidentally started a small fire, having dropped my napkin on a lit candle. Three waiters rushed to my table to douse the flames and replace the cloth. With all eyes on me, I stood up and took a bow and said ‘For my next trick…’”

Where does this feeling come from?

I’m no psychologist so I won’t try to explain the roots of these feelings. But I have done some reading and most of these feelings seem to stem, not surprisingly, from “not being young anymore”.

For some women, this is a disaster, especially if they’ve been accustomed to turning heads in their youth.

For others, as it was for Lesley, it’s a relief. Excess male attention is something many of us are happy to avoid.

Another reason for this feeling of invisibility tends to be loneliness. You may be widowed, divorced, an empty-nester, recently retired – any one of these can provoke that sense of being alone, especially if you spent many years in partnership or surrounded by people. Isolation can be a powerful enemy.

Invisible after 50 - woman on her own appears sad

If this isn’t an issue for you, wonderful! But if it is, what to do when you’re made to feel invisible and you’re traveling solo? Are there workarounds or ways to get beyond these feelings?

How to avoid feeling invisible after 50 on the road

None of these suggestions will eliminate a deep-rooted feeling that has to do with how you see yourself. What these tips can do is, when used with purpose, is to diminish or divert some of those feelings, allowing them to fade into the background so that you can get on and enjoy your trip.

You’re traveling to see the world, not to hide away so it won’t see you! 

1. Embrace a positive outlook

This goes for pretty much everything you do when you travel. Things happen, reservations get cancelled, connections are missed, plans fall apart. This is life.

In fact, in retrospect, some of our most memorable travel stories are born of these mishaps, which often lead to serendipity.

Trying to put a positive spin on things will go a long way towards making you feel empowered and positive. That energy will affect you internally – it’s hard to feel invisible when you’re raring to go – and externally, because a woman with energy and purpose is anything but invisible. You will be noticed.

2. Get to know yourself

To a certain extent, this follows on from #1.

Many of us feel “invisible after 50” because we don’t know who we are. We may have spent years being someone’s partner or parent or employee, and all of a sudden, that crutch is gone. We can no longer look at ourselves through someone else’s eyes, and that can be disconcerting.

We have changed through the years. At 70, I’m not the same person I was at 30, and getting to know this “new me” is a complete challenge, but a fun one. I use a variety of tools, from meditating to journaling. It’s not one of those clear-cut tasks, but you have to start digging somewhere.

For many women, being invisible comes from not not knowing who they are anymore.  Those bits of myself I become more familiar or comfortable with will be the first to break through the invisibility.

3. Push your boundaries

This is one of my favorites. Risk isn’t just for the young. On the contrary, I find my courage has grown with age, and I dare to do things today I might not have done a few decades ago.

A bit like reading about that centenarian great-grandmother who received a paragliding session as a birthday gift, there are wonders out there that we may not have considered. You’ll never get me to jump off a mountain, but I have done other things involving travel to dangerous places or heading off on my own to distant lands.

Just as an aside, I don’t advocate taking mindless risks – plenty of pre-research goes into my choices, and my gut feelings play a big part in my decisions about where to travel next.

One of my biggest boundaries has been to speak up when I feel “dismissed” – as I did in that restaurant. That did not come naturally, but quaking or not, I pushed the words out. I might not have had that courage when I was younger, but experience has taught me that seething within feels worse than speaking out! And doing so with humor or diplomacy, not rudeness or aggression…

4. Get out and see the world

Whatever your travel fears, try to confront them and push past them just a little. If you’re scared of traveling solo, stay close to home for your first trip.

Or join a small women-only group tour to get your feet wet.

Or choose a destination where you know someone, or where the language is familiar, or where you know you’ll feel at ease.

It’s not about major jumps, but about taking baby steps. There’s nothing like travel to make you feel empowered, and feeling that energy inside will be reflected outside.

5. Shake up the brain

This is another of my favorites. If my mind is occupied, I won’t have time for concern, worry, or self-pity. I don’t have to remember everything I learn (that would be an impossibility since I usually can’t remember where I parked my car) but the act of learning stretches my brain, builds those cells, and makes me feel intelligent, capable, and wise.

Just this afternoon I found myself looking at courses on heritage and history, the kinds of courses people take to become travel guides. I have no intention of becoming one, but I wouldn’t mind a few art and history courses…

Or perhaps learning another language. Whatever you choose, learning or reading will boost your power and your self-esteem, and that, in turn, will provide you with that self-confidence which is so visible.

6. Reinvent yourself and affirm your personal style

What could be more fun?

I plan on changing the way I look… my haircut doesn’t suit me anymore and my clothes don’t fit. This is my chance to “change my look”. I don’t know what it will eventually be, but I can promise you there will be nothing invisible about it.

This is also about rethinking who you are. For years, I was a journalist… that was my identity. Then I joined the United Nations and became an “international civil servant”. After retirement, I became a “travel blogger” and occasional travel writer.

I’ve changed directions before, I can do it again. Who do I want to be for the next few years? There’s no one peering over my shoulder and nudging me towards an answer.

If in the past you’ve relied on others to shape your choices, this may be the right time to reevaluate who the “authentic you” really is.

7. Own it!

No cream or magic powder is going to relieve me of my hard-earned wrinkles. No makeup is going to hide my years of experience. And no outside judgment is going to get in my way.

I own my age, sometimes proudly, at other times less so, but I don’t dislike who I am and I certainly don’t feel diminished in any way by increasingly frequent birthdays.

I take life one day at a time, but oh, what a day! I try to make it meaningful or magical (sometimes it can be both at the same time!) but I won’t let anyone cheat me of the joy I feel I’ve earned. Not even a surly waiter.

Not everyone feels “invisible after 50” when they travel!

“I am 65 years old,” says K.,  “and I am exactly the the type of woman who is supposed to feel invisible: fat, white-haired, not particularly well-groomed, unstylishly dressed. Yet my experience is very different.

“There are two types of attention that I reliably get wherever I go, and which I don’t dislike:  compliments on my hat, and requests for directions.  

I always wear a stylish hat outside, for warmth or sunshade as the season dictates; it’s the one aspect of my dress that looks like a play for attention, though it’s entirely a practical choice on my part.  

I find that when I travel solo, I attract more attention than when I am with others.  I have had many memorable (and welcome) conversations with strangers in restaurants, museums, concert halls, shops, and the like.  I don’t initiate these conversations; they seem to grow organically out of small interactions.

So although I don’t like attracting attention generally, somehow I seem to be able to get attention when I do want it for a specific reason or when I am open to it, without making any special effort.”

Ignore us at your peril

So this is it, our reality. Over 50, on the sliding side of life, but still well away from the bottom. The thought that life isn’t eternal may occasionally pop into our heads, and there’s no better reason to live life to its fullest.

According to a recent global study by Journeywoman, women over 50 are empowered, prefer to travel alone, and are seeking adventurous experiences in bucket list destinations.

At the same time, we have this huge spending power, but we are undervalued by the travel industry, often having to hand over the dreaded single supplement for the privilege of having decided to travel on our own. To make things worse, the study revealed that most of us don’t feel understood by the travel industry.

The travel industry, too, thinks we are invisible, although things are beginning to change.

In the words of another one of our delightful readers, whom I’ll call M, “Let’s just all get out there, travel and make ourselves fully known and at ease to refuse to be seated next to the palm tree table in the restaurant!”

Our attitudes can contribute to the way the world sees us, and by acting confidently and refusing to be invisible after 50, we are sending a signal that it is not OK for us to be treated with anything less than total respect.

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