Worries for first-time solo travellers are common and sensible. Today's post examines some of those worries.
I'd like to introduce Lookie. She's intrigued and attracted to travel but she doesn't actually travel. She's a mature, possibly recently-single woman. Her kids have grown. She's retired or close to it. Lookie may have never travelled or travelled with her spouse and family but those companions are no longer be available. Her friends say they want to travel but never actually commit.
Lookie has a lot of sensible questions. She's not fixated on unknown dangers like a Negative Nellie. We don't engage with Nellies. I don't like Nellies. Begone Nellies!
Lookie on the other hand, I like. Lookie is trying to figure out how to travel, perhaps for the first time, without a companion. Lookie is very concerned about being in a foreign location without knowing the local language (see I Only Speak English!). She worries about how she will get around or deal with money (see Handing Money Abroad). Lookie worries that people will look at her if she eats alone in a restaurant. Lookie remembers every travel rumour and crime story (see Scary World of Travel: 1st Edition) told in her lifetime. The last time Lookie travelled, she may have used traveller's cheques and an agent.
The solo, mature female traveller niche is one of the largest and fastest growing demographics in the tourism industry. We are an attractive segment of the market: we have disposable income but we want to be comfortable and safe. Women are travelling with friends and alone. Potential solo female travellers like Lookie need some reassurance and the travel industry want to give her that reassurance.
Lookie is worried: What if she's lonely? What if she isn't having fun? What if she doesn't like the food? What if a driver takes her to the wrong place? What if no one speaks English? What if she packs the wrong clothes? What if there is a hurricane? What if some foreign guy tries to hit on her? What if he doesn't? What if she can't figure out food or transportation? What if she looks lumpy in a bathing suit? What if people are talking about her? Lookie is not really, totally sure she wants to travel but she's almost, absolutely sure that she doesn't want to travel ALONE.
Lookie needs some help and reassurance getting started. If you are a Lookie, you landed in the right place. I am a fully qualified Know-It-All. I am a mother and former teacher, which should be qualification enough to be In Charge Of The World. Few things create such tremors of delight as being able to direct someone on a path to doing Something-I-Think-Should-Be-Valued.
Solo Traveller Worries
Being in a different place won't magically make your discomforts disappear. The things that make you uncomfortable at home will be the same elsewhere. Practice going to events, exhibits, and restaurants alone. Take long walks to places you don't know. Use public transportation. Get lost in your own town. Ask a stranger for directions. Go to a new place without using GPS. Learn to use your travel apps and devices. Take some selfies.
Start by making the decision that you ARE going to go somewhere new, for some length of time by yourself. Let's find your travel style and preferences, prepare some travel skills, and book that first trip. Start small, build confidence.
I Don't Know Where To Go
That is a tough decision because there are so many choices. I devote an entire post to that topic, here. The world is pretty big. There are many, many more places to explore than can ever fit into a lifetime (although I'm trying). I'm kind of a nerd, so you probably like very different things than I do. It is worth taking some time to think about your desires and fears about travel before dipping into your savings and booking that trip.
Where do you want to go? Do you like cities or do you prefer quieter settings? Do you want to see exhibits, performances, events, and museums or do you want warm beaches and surfing? Are you travelling or vacationing? Do you want to sample several destinations or do you prefer a homebase? How much time do you have? What languages do you speak? Do you want to feel pampered or do you want to feel challenged? Do you have far-flung friends or family? Do you want luxury or are you roughing it? What's your biggest concern? How do you feel about travelling with a group of strangers? What is your budget?
You can stick closer to home and be a tourist in your own town, state/province, or country before tackling international travel. Another strategy might be to choose a destination where you have people to visit. Organizing a trip can be part of the fun but if the details are overwhelming you can book a group tour and let the company handle all the arrangements. If the various tour companies don't have the exact experience you want, visit a travel agent.
I Don't Know How Much Time I Need
Maybe more time than you've got; probably less time than you want. You'll take the time you've got available and you'll learn what feels right and works with your life and responsibilities. It doesn't make sense to take an eight-hour journey each way for a three-day trip and, for many, two weeks in an all-inclusive resort would be considered too long. Lookie might want to practice with a couple of long weekends or midweek breaks and then increase the time as it feels right. I never have enough time in any location; I always want to return (except Pula, Croatia... but that's another story). I like slow travel but I also like being home. There are just as many good reasons to enjoy a brief getaway as there are to be gone for weeks, months or longer.
Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, California, USA
I Don't Have A Travel Companion
Don't wait for a companion. If you have someone interested but not currently available, don't hold off to fit their schedule. They may never come through or cancel on you. There are Facebook forums to seek random strangers as travel companions. That seems risky to me, but may be perfect for you. When a friend or acquaintance wants to join you, it might be tempting to agree, whether they are great fun or even if you've experienced frustration with them in the past. As explained previously, I strongly believe it is better to travel alone than travel with someone who wants a different experience. Travel Buddy relationships are nurtured and developed over time. Few friendships can endure the close contact, intimacies, and stresses of travel. Too many really good non-travel relationships have shattered on the road. There are many ways of travelling solo, without being alone, and without destroying good relationships. The travel industry recognizes there is a significant number of mature adults, especially women. who want to travel. Tour companies and cruise lines will pair you up with another traveller or, for an extra fee, offer a private room. These tours cater to all sorts of different interests, demographics, fitness levels, and travel preferences in locations from Pole to Pole. They handle activities, transportation, routing, and accomodations. Look for a group tour with flexibility and a choice of activities built into the schedule. Read reviews, but all the major group touring companies do a good job. Some have more luxury, some are lightly scheduled, some are very socially and environmentally conscious, some cater to women only, singles, vegans, adrenaline junkies or other special interest groups. Some people I know use group tours exclusively, while others never join groups. I will join group tours as part of a longer trip. I like group tours to explore multiple locations with transportation/geographical challenges or other complexities that I want someone else to solve for me. I want tours that offer a lot of flexibility and opportunities to choose my activities. I look for companies that contribute to the local economies and offer ethical environmental tourism. I prefer to use companies that are run by and employ locals.
The G Adventures Costa Rica Crew
Being alone isn't bad, either (see No, You Can't Come With Me). There is no disagreement on where to go or how long to spend there. Really.... no one is looking at you with pity at restaurants or at events -- they are busy with their own stuff. If someone does look at you or talk about you, who cares? You are never going to see them again or the people that they talk to. Take a book, your phone, or your journal to dinner. Sit back, enjoy a glass of something, and people-watch. Discover what great company you are. Take your time to savour the experience and be present. More ideas on how to navigate eating alone can be found here
I Only Speak English!
Me too. I am slowly learning French but I am not good enough (yet!) to comfortably have a complex conversation. I can sputter out some simple phrases in Spanish and Indonesian... but it doesn't matter. It has been uncomfortable or confusing at times. I have needed the assistance of English-speaking locals. I've used translation apps. I've mimed. I have often let my Travel Buddy take over, but.... it doesn't matter that I do not speak the local language. It seems obvious that it is polite (and fun) to learn greetings but for those staying in areas serving tourists, you WILL get by with English.
You don't have to read Arabic to figure this one out.
The primary language of tourism is English. Also common are French, German, and Spanish. Any given tourism company can usually provide simple service in these languages, plus Mandarin, Arabic, and perhaps a little Portuguese. When travelling in Africa, it is very common for workers to speak many African languages. Sixty percent of the world speaks more than one language and most of those people include English amongst their additional languages. Young people around the world are highly motivated to learn English. When unable to find an English speaker, Google Translate does a decent job translating from text and voice for languages based on the Latin script. If travelling in countries that don't use Latin script, do an internet search for the particular language for recommendations. Papago works well for many Asian languages. Pull out your phone, open the app or webpage, and speak or write in English. Your words will be translated into the language of your choice aloud and in written form. It will then translate the response into English. They are not perfect but are pretty good and constantly improving. If you download the dictionary for your chosen language, it can be used offline, as well. Check out my full post on this topic here.
I'm still nervous
Of course, you are. It's only sensible to be nervous when doing something out of your comfort zone but you've got this. Make the first steps. Discard the Lookie label and become a Traveller. You will make missteps however, those are the best travel stories. Solo travel is wonderful and enriching but can be a little intimidating for novices. You can make that travel dream come true, one step at a time. Send me a postcard, please.
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