The hem of my blue skirt flaps in the wind as I bike along a dirt path on a main road that heads back into a small town. I’m beating the sun’s descent below the humid horizon as my legs peddle faster. The dampness of my hair clings to my scalp from dipping into a cave’s cool water pool known as a “cenote” (se-NO-tay) in Mexico. I fly down the dirt path with the sun turning a golden orange behind me feeling a sense of accomplishment in getting to the cenote right before it closed! This was right after I wrangled a bike rental and promised the nervous young male attendant that I would safely return it after only providing a copy of my passport and not the real one. Where was I gonna take it? To Mexico?
The exhilaration I felt biking down that path might not always be the first thought that comes to people’s mind when I say I travel by myself even in places like Mexico. Once people learn this, some ask, “You’re going by yourself?” with a subtext that suggests surprise, disbelief, and worry.
Soon I’ll be traveling alone to Scotland. I have been traveling solo for many years and mostly out of necessity. Thanks to freelancing I can make my own schedule more easily than my friends who work “real jobs”. Quite simply I often travel alone because I’m impatient and don’t like to wait for other people to decide if they want to come. Sometimes it’s not even a thought – I just go! For my upcoming trip, I did wait for some friends who expressed interest in coming along but they ultimately declined. Hey, I am traveling to the land that was the muse for author Diana Gabaldon’s book series “Outlander”. Its words have sprung to visual life through the Starz TV show and though I’ve been obsessed for only two years (the books have been around for over twenty five), I’ve waited long enough. It’s time to go!
Because of this upcoming trip, I’ve been thinking more about other solo female travelers. More of us are doing it and the travel industry seems to be meeting the demand. For me, traveling means freedom to explore not just a foreign land or culture, but to explore yourself. That’s right! All those self-help books and tweeted affirmation posts have a kernel of truth – Take the time to discover yourself! The discoveries along these journeys can be both profound and practical: What do you do when you’re stranded in a small Mexican town because you misjudged the length of a bus ride and there are limited transportation options to the next location? Just pay the over-priced cab fare. Or what happens if you’re always lost in Japan and don’t speak a word of Japanese? Try asking a non-English speaking local for help! Hand gestures are, well, handy. The value lies in determining your own path, making decisions (or very few), experiencing, and seeking. It’s a great time to take a risk like driving a (automatic) car through Scotland for the first time!
I think it’s best to travel at least once when you’re in your twenties but really it could happen at any stage in life. I know a widower in her sixties who takes solo trips on African safaris!
Of course there are some drawbacks to traveling alone: While in the Yucatán, I ordered an enormous calamari appetizer where the portion was so large I couldn’t finish it. I couldn’t stand wasting that food! When you’re trying to plan a day, it’s helpful to have someone who could be a soundboard to bounce ideas off of or suggest an idea I didn’t think of. Also, it’s incredibly helpful to have someone spot you extra cash when you’re short on clink, particularly when you’re at a bakery drooling over a pastry that’s just within reach. Some accommodations will charge an extra fee if you’re solo. The argument being that without double occupancy, they lose money. Another downside is not having someone with whom to share the experience – I mean a physical person not just Twitter followers or Facebook friends. The occasional email to your parents notifying them that you’re still alive doesn’t cut it either.
Without a companion, traveling alone as a woman can also mean an increased vulnerability to dangers. I’ve visited Mexico several times by myself and even refuted my parent’s begging me not to go one year. Personal safety is always my number one priority no matter what country I visit. Nefarious men take more of an interest in a woman traveling by herself. Though I’ve been lucky so far to not experience anything unfortunate, walking down streets in the evening or, more importantly, not appearing “vulnerable” are at the forefront of my mind. Yet it’s also on my mind when walking home at night from the subway to my apartment, just as it was riding a bike into town to beat sundown after visiting a cenote.
As I gear up for Scotland, I expect to see a few couples on the “Outlander” tour. This is another unfortunate element when traveling solo. Whenever I’m walking around a romantic place and averting my eyes from amorous couples, I might feel the pang for a companion but eventually it dissolves like the ice cubes in my drink. I trust that someone (like Tobias Menzies) will join me one day.
Here are 5 Unsolicited Tips for Traveling Solo:
- Just do it and don’t make excuses! If you don’t have the money, come up with a plan, start saving, and set a goal. If you’re scared or nervous, think about your reasons and do they begin with “What if…”? You might as well not walk out of your home!
- Always tell people where you’re going for the day. This helps if you are attacked by a giant squirrel in New York City or any other place that has giant squirrels.
- Always ask the locals if a place is safe to visit. Often I’ve been told not to go to a particular location by people who aren’t as familiar with it because they live further away and they only “heard” things. When I got closer, I talked to the locals and it turned out the place was safer than the others thought. Make sure you talk to people whom are more intimately knowledgeable about a place and will therefore know better if you can safely explore it.
- Don’t be afraid to ask or talk to new people! Sometimes I have to remind myself of this but your adventure is the time to meet new people and learn more! You might make a new friend – maybe they’re traveling alone too! – and learn something new about the place you’re visiting.
- Be mindful of etiquette and any cultural differences that locals may find rude or offensive if you don’t practice them. On the flip side, notice if there’s local etiquette that you may find rude! The point is to pay attention to how people interact with each other and places then do your best to accommodate. Remember, you’re a guest!
I have a friend who doesn’t want to travel alone because she needs someone to talk to – all the time. I can accept this (she knows her limits and who she is!) but never make an excuse not to travel out of fear particularly if you’re interested in a relatively safe country. Are you interested in Afghanistan? Then I suggest you rethink this.
When you’re alone you can discover things that only lie in the silence as you drift off to sleep after a long day visiting an ancient city, trusting your intuition more to decide which path to take, shaking a hand when meeting a new friend in a foreign land, or tasting a pastry that is still warm from the oven and its caramelized sugar crackles on top…There are so many moments we share on social media that it seems unusual to do something alone, truly alone. Traveling solo is one of the last adventures we can have and make it our own.
Just ask yourself, “What would Claire do?”
Whether you’re male or female, what are some of your tips or experiences traveling alone?