Travel accommodation will carry one of the heftiest price tags of your trip. Other than flights, you'll probably be paying more for your hotel room or apartment than for food, attractions or shopping.
So choosing where you stay is an important part of your travel planning.
There are several ways to choose your travel accommodations:
Whatever you decide, you'll be spoilt for choice because here's the good news: there are plenty of rooms of every kind at every price, everywhere (unless there's a special event, like a festival or a conference).
For me, part of the fun of solo travel is not quite knowing where you'll end up – with a local family, a religious congregation, a friendly charity, a research station. And that's part of the fun of discovery when you travel.
In French there's a wonderful phrase: l'embarras du choix, the embarrassment of choice, which means there's so much out there that making decisions is too hard. Here are some of the great types of accommodation you can choose to stay in anywhere in the world.
Hotels are the most common accommodation by far, our default search when we're going somewhere. They're safe for solo women, and easy to book. They also tend to be the most expensive type of accommodation so do yourself a favor and don't pay full price. I was recently looking at a hotel in Amsterdam and on their website the cost per night was €130, but on HotelsCombined it was €90 - that's the advantage of a comparative booking engine that scours the web and gets you the best price.
The term B&B now encompasses all kinds of accommodation, from a small room in someone’s cottage to a dazzling hotel with a 5-star breakfast spread. The defining factor, of course, is that breakfast is included with your room. These accommodations are typically quaint and cozy — you’ll find fewer business travelers and more couples, families and vacationers. Before there were hostels, there was the local B&B, where you spent the night if there wasn’t an inn or monastery nearby.
You can easily find them on booking engines. With booking.com for example, just use the filer under "property type" and check the bed and breakfast box.
If you'd like something more personal, you could book a room in a private home and get to know local people better. When I traveled throughout the Baltic states for several months, I stayed with families in three countries. While you do pay a fee (often quite modest) for homestay accommodation, you'll sleep in someone's home and share part of their lives for a few days. (You can read about my homestay in Sabah here.) Often your hosts may speak a few words of English (but not always), and will provide a welcome contact point to local life - along with home-cooked food and great bus directions if you need them. This is also the inspiration for sites like Airbnb…
While they have become more commercialized, Airbnb and similar sites like VRBO and HomeAway were designed to connect travelers with locals who rent out rooms in their homes, or their entire homes while they are away.
These properties can be quirky and different and carry definite advantages. They can be cheaper than hotels, and have a kitchen. You get the benefit of staying where the locals live to truly get a feel for the area and culture, and if you stay in a room as opposed to an entire apartment, you may have interaction with your host. You’ll also usually get more space to spread out. So yes, plenty of advantages. But this type of accommodation has quite a few downsides as well.
What better experience than staying in a monastery for solo female travelers who are seeking peace and serenity? They are scattered around the world and many of them don't involve religion at all. While some have been converted into luxurious hotels, a few remain inexpensive and, just once at least, it's an experience you shouldn't miss.
You may not be able to book online (a phone call or letter may be in order) or pay with a credit card, and your room might be simple. Click here for more on how to find some great monastery stays.
Once in a while, it feels good to head upscale. When I was backpacking around the world, I made sure I spent one night each month in a 'good' hotel - one with hot water, a firm mattress, my own bathroom, and preferably a buffet breakfast with pancakes and maple syrup to fulfill my cravings for something that wasn't pounded or served on leaves. These days when I travel, I don't usually spend much on accommodation but if I'm gone for any length of time, I make sure I build in a few 'luxury treats' along the way.
I once spent a week in a rural village in Zimbabwe's Lower Zambezi River Basin, researching a story on water scarcity. The only available accommodation in this scorching, dry area was an open-air circular thatch hut facing the savannah, with a wide entrance that didn't close. I sealed it off with a rusty metal barrel but it was low enough for a lion to jump over.
For several nights I slept intermittently, trying to keep myself inside (and everything else outside). I found this incredibly local accommodation through a local charity and while I'm not suggesting this as a way to travel, a bit of uniqueness might help break a journey's monotony.
So would staying in cool accommodation that would give your trip something extra, like these:
Some of the above accommodations can be pricey, depending on what you choose and when you book. If you happen to be on a strict budget, have a look at the following possibilities.
Hostels aren’t what they were when you were 20. While there are plenty of party-all-night spots that attract the college crowd, there’s a whole new world of boutique and luxury hostels that might be more your style.
Even the fanciest hostel bed will likely cost less than a hotel room, and comes with the chance to meet all kinds of people, from all walks of life and have great conversations with them (one of my main travel goals!) Find out what it's like to stay in a hostel for the first time when you're not 20-something anymore.
University and college campuses sometimes rent out their rooms when classes aren't in session. These won't be luxurious by any means, but they'll be cheap, there will probably be good public transport nearby (students are broke, right?), not to mention cheap eats (for the same reason). My first ever solo stay in Geneva was in a university dorm, the only accommodation my youthful budget could cope with in this expensive city. Thinking back, it wasn't so bad at all... and these days university rooms are even better.
If I'm tight on money, I start with hospitality groups or free homestays. There's couchsurfing, of course, but it's not the only one - there are plenty of incredible free hospitality networks out there, some of which cater to special-interest or specific groups, such as women, or senior travelers. You won’t pay anything, and believe it or not, couchsurfing doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily be sleeping on a couch. Some of these networks have guest rooms for you, so you won’t be roughing it.
The other side of this is contact with local people, which is always such a plus when you're in a different country, and one of the best ways of understanding the culture of your destination.
If you're well organized and staying put for several weeks, you could housesit – on a beach or in a quaint old village in Provence or in the heart of London or New York... When homeowners go away for vacation or business, they often don’t want to leave their homes empty, and they may have plants, gardens and pets that need care. That’s where you come in.
By housesitting, you get an entire home to yourself (which is typically quite nice!) and you don’t have to pay (other than joining a housesitting network): your role is simply to make sure their homes and belongings stay safe. It's a wonderful way to remain in one place, soaking up local culture and language for weeks or even months. And if you've been traveling a long time, the presence of a pet or two might be welcome!
If picking grapes or apples is your version of staying fit while you travel (I can assure you it is not mine!) there's a wonderful organization called WWOOF, which stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. You get room and board, not a bad deal if you're in shape but need to stop traveling for a while and regroup.
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the issue of safety. Of course you won't go wandering off into the wild blue yonder with a group of men offering you free hospitality, we know that. But always double-check where you're going and notify someone you trust, back home. It's wise to refuse accommodation where there are no women, and when booking through a group or association, opt for those whose addresses and contacts have been 'verified' – Airbnb and Couchsurfing offer this service, as do many others. It's not failsafe, but it does help.
Around the world, the number of hotels or bed and breakfasts that cater partly or wholly to women is on the rise. They haven't quite hit the mark yet – pink sheets or curling irons won't do it for me – but there are some good reasons for female-only spaces.
According to research by a Cornell University professor, three factors are important to women when they're deciding where to stay: "safety; empowerment; and pampering." And if a full on women-only facility isn't available, a good compromise might be a hotel with women-only floors.
Last time I checked, there were hotels for women or women-only floors in London, Singapore, Vancouver, Mallorca, Bali, Finland, Zurich, Tokyo... and the list keeps growing.
I can see the appeal of opening the door for room service knowing a woman is on the other side, or the safety of knowing a man on my floor would immediately look out of place. Not a perfect solution, but an interesting trend.