Solo travel is one of travel's greatest joys - it allows you to focus on your surroundings rather than on yourself. But it can also take you to the depths of misery.
The good news? There are far more highs than lows when it comes to going on a holiday alone - at least that's what I came to believe after traveling solo around the world non-stop for more than three years.
You'd be amazed at how many women traveling alone you'll find on the road. Some days, you'd think every single traveler is on a solo trip.
Study after study confirms not only an increase in solo female travel, but that we are actually enjoying it.
All kinds of women travel solo - and they travel in all kinds of styles. Some prefer rock-bottom backpacking, some of you want to be pampered in luxury while still others prefer to live like a local.
Solo backpacker arrives in Santiago de Compostela after weeks on the Camino
But we solo women have fears and questions...
Not a day goes by without women - often first-time solo travelers - asking questions and raising their concerns about traveling on their own.
Questions like these:
Some of us love solo travel, some of us hate it, and some of us love and hate it.
Solo travel for women can be extraordinary
In case you're wondering why any woman would be crazy enough to travel or vacation alone, here's a little list (which I could make a lot longer).
By traveling the world alone you'll... have more freedom to get off the bus when something catches your eye... be able to change your mind and your direction whenever you feel like it... be more open towards others... be more spontaneous... take risks... make fewer compromises... or just lie in bed or go for a massage if you feel like it without having to make excuses to anyone.
If you're a woman travelling on your own...
- You'll have more freedom to get off the bus whenever something catches your eye
- You'll be able to change your mind... your direction... even your destination
- You'll often get special treatment - I can't count the number of times I've been given preferential seating on a bus because I was a solo female.
- You'll meet more people - in countries where a single woman traveling alone is rare, your solo status will awaken interest and curiosity, and you'll be more open about starting a conversation if your attention isn't taken up with a travel partner
- You'll become more self-confident when there's no one to blame or complain to - life just is
- You'll be more approachable. Think about it: isn't easier to walk up to a woman and ask for directions than to a group or a couple?
- You'll do what you want, when you want, even if others wouldn't think it's the right thing to do
- Traveling by yourself teaches you perspective - things you would have considered disastrous back home become mere inconveniences to be dealt with, not cried over
- Flexibility means you'll be able to take advantage of unexpected opportunities (and even a few risks) - like the traditional Balinese marriage I attended after meeting someone at a bus station - you'll be more spontaneous! (But keep safety in mind!)
- Your language skills will get a quick brush-up if you're on your own with no one to turn to - a phrase book and wildly gesticulating hands usually do the trick and you'll learn something along the way
- Don't want to get out of bed in the morning? No need to. Have a lie in!
- With no one to talk to incessantly, you'll have time to sit with yourself, and get to know yourself.
Meeting people is my greatest joy in travel.
In Zanzibar I met two Irish aid workers from Ethiopia - Rosie was heading to South Africa on a bicycle, and Sam was returning to Addis Ababa. We exchanged addresses, never really expecting to see one another again.
As I neared Ethiopia, I dropped Sam an email (still a rarity in those days). She sent a car to meet me at the airport and put me up for several weeks, introducing me to all her friends. None of this would have happened had I been with a group.
Many years ago in Burma I hired a horse and cart to visit the ruins of Bagan and struck up a conversation with the driver. He had been the town's photographer until he was 'relocated', his house near the temples confiscated to make way for tourism. He was given a few sacks of cement and bricks to rebuild his home - obviously not enough.
He had to sell his camera for money and began driving a cart to earn a living. He invited me to his house to meet his family, and I was made aware of a slice of Burmese life I never would have seen otherwise. Had I been with others, the danger (in those days) of meeting openly with foreigners would have made him keep his distance.
In any event, solo female travel doesn't mean you're on your own all the time, quite the opposite. It just means you make your own decisions - but anyone can come along for part of the ride.
Traveling abroad alone for the longer term isn't something you should approach lightly: it's different from other kinds of travel and carries with it a number of twists and turns you won't find in a brief vacation away from home.
It's probably clear by now that I love solo travel - I don't always travel on my own but when I do, I travel differently than when I travel with others.
Going solo encourages me to think, to explore, to concentrate and to take risks. It forces me to 'enter' my surroundings more deeply, to make conscious decisions about whether I will become 'a part of' or simply 'apart'.
But traveling alone can also be dismal
This is especially true if you're traveling long-term like I was... but thankfully it doesn't happen much, or often.
As I traveled around Africa and Asia for more than three years on my own, here are some of the challenges I grappled with.
- At first, I was hit by an existential crisis. I found it harder to explain who I was or what I was doing. No longer defined by my job or my town or my daily routine, I had to find new ways of explaining and introducing myself. Mind you, the flip side of this was far deeper understanding of myself.
- I got lonely. Not often, but it happened. A particularly beautiful or moving moment would have me looking around for someone to share it with - so I learned all about dealing with things on my own, especially during special times of the year like birthdays and anniversaries.
- I pushed my boundaries. Sometimes, the simple things got to me, like eating on my own. It took me a long time to be able to walk into any restaurant alone with my head up high. Macdonald's is one thing - a one-star Michelin is something else.
- Sometimes I didn't feel very safe. When you're with others, there's strength in numbers. Most of the time this isn't an issue - unless you get hungry after sundown in the wrong part of town, or the bus drops you off in the middle of the African savannah and you're the only single female for miles around. But... that was an infinitesimal part of my travels. I applied basic safety sense and that - plus luck - kept me out of trouble.
- I often felt vulnerable. This goes beyond safety to gender inequalities. Sadly in today's world women are NOT equal and that can lead to disrespect, danger and discomfort. I shouldn't have to worry about being a woman anywhere but sadly, I do.
- I missed people. These days it's easy but much of my solo travel took place pre-Internet, when calling home required finding special long-distance pay phones. Relationships with people were sometimes perplexing and I longed for the familiar.
- I couldn't understand the language. In many countries I couldn't speak a word, and no one spoke English. I would have to make efforts to understand the language and the culture and some days I simply wasn't in the mood.
- I often paid more. In some countries, you pay by the room, not by the person, so I'd end up paying twice as much as I would have if I was sharing. It's the dreaded single supplement - yes, there are ways around it but, not always.
- I became a member of the selfie stick generation. With no one to take pictures of you, you have to be resourceful. Sadly, it's not safe to hand your phone to a stranger...
- Things got a little heavy. Weight-wise. When there are more of you, you can split the weight - toiletries or guidebooks, for example. When you're solo, it's all up to you!
- I became a prisoner of my bag. Whether backpack or carryon, when you're alone you can't leave your stuff anywhere. Need to go to the bathroom? No problem. Just carry your impossibly heavy luggage up two flights of stairs and try to stuff it into a tiny stall - and then carry it back down.
- And then there's culture shock... Who hasn't coped with that, especially when settling down in a place for more than a few days? You can gloss over differences if you're breezing through but staying a while means having to accept things in a different way and integrating just a little.If you traveled to certain countries of the Middle East, would you be willing to wear a chador or burkha on a daily basis? What about a simple scarf over your hair? And how would you cope with countries where women are considered second-class citizens?
- Being sick alone is no fun. I can be a real grouch when I'm sick - but mostly, I want people to bring me things because I can't move or get up. When you're on your own, that option disappears, and there's no one around to grump at.
- I would get caught off guard. Like everyone, I've formed stereotypes in my mind - I expect certain people and places to be a certain way and getting rid of my stereotypes could be challenging, especially without someone to talk things over with.
- I got burned out. Travel burnout is a very real thing. There were days I wasn't sure I could continue: too many churches/mosques/ruins/impersonal rooms/development projects. Too much of everything, too many changes, too much motion. It passed quickly.
- Coming home was even harder than traveling. The reverse culture shock I had to deal with when nothing was as I'd left it yet everything was the same - I can't quite explain it other than by saying I didn't fit in at first, not for a long time.
The beauty of going solo was the learning and the discovery, especially the self-discovery. I started with baby steps, thinking I'd only be gone for six months. But I kept going, and looking back, that one solo journey was the best gift I have ever given myself.
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