Women-only group tours have become popular, but what does it mean to be a solo female traveler? (©Mooshny/Shutterstock)
A hundred years ago, it was quite remarkable to hear of women who traveled alone. Stories of pioneering female travelers like American journalist Nellie Bly (who, in 1889, took a solo trip around the world in just 72 days), Elizabeth Bisland (another journalist, she raced Bly around the world; Bly won) and famed female pilot Amelia Earhart still ring like wild tales from that time period. Today, however, the act of a woman packing a bag and taking off for a solo trip is no longer news.
That's not to say it happens without much thought, so we asked some prominent women known for venturing through the world solo about their thoughts on safety, loneliness, practicality and why it's so valuable for women to have a solo travel experience. Here's what they had to say:
Why You Should Travel Alone
Though traveling alone can be an experience for men and women, everyone experiences travel differently.
"I think women are more introspective than men," said Eileen Smith, the author of the travel blog Bear-Shaped Sphere. "I think women think if they go out and do something by themselves they'll be changed in some way, where men typically don't think that way until later."
Other than introspection and self-growth that comes from traveling alone, there are other perks to solo travel.
“I went on a trip to the American South recently, and I find that I talk to more strangers when I’m traveling on my own,” said Pam Mandel, a seasoned travel writer who authors the Nerd’s Eye View blog.
Practicality sometimes can justify solo travel.
“On more than one occasion it’s been really advantageous to be the only person traveling, especially with transportation,” said Smith. “There have been many times where I’m only one person, so they’d let me on a boat versus being with someone where they’ll say ‘Oh there’s two of you? You can wait for the next one.’”
Smith said that there have been destinations that were geared toward groups or couples where she was welcomed as a female traveler.
“I was on an island and didn’t realize that it’s a romantic, honeymoon-ish destination,” Smith said. “The hiking and sightseeing was great, but then for dinner people came out of the rooms dressed in nice tops for a fancy dinner and I was like ‘Oh, I’m by myself.’ It worked out, though, because some new friends took me around the island and showed me all the sights and the local radio station.”
Today, she says she's seeing a rise in the number of solo female travelers coming to Chile, where she lives, and she credits that to lower travel costs throughout South America, which makes solo travel even more appealing.
Safety: Common Sense Always Makes Sense
One of the most indispensible tips that experts we interviewed gave for any solo female traveler was to always employ common sense and caution in an unfamiliar destination.
“I’ve been traveling for a long time, and I’ve become pragmatic,” Mandel said. “If I’m going to a place where women are expected to cover their legs, I’m going to do that. Dress modestly and don’t be flashy.”
Mandel started blogging and travel writing in the early 90s; it was an effort to catalogue her world travels at a time when there were few others on the web attempting travel blogging. More than two decades and hundreds of trips later, she knows how to pay attention to what's happening around her when she travels, and she uses that awareness to her advantage.
“I do not carry [self-defense items] nor have I enrolled in self-defense classes,” said Mandel. “My common sense is it, and just so you know I’m not a huge person. I’m a small woman who is not very strong, just so you don’t think I’m a muscular bodybuilder or anything.”
Whether you call it common sense, listening to your gut or trusting your instincts, Mandel and Smith both said that if the situation doesn't feel right, act accordingly.
“I think [your instinct] is always there,” Smith said. “You know when something is probably not a good idea fairly early on. I think you should also listen to the people who are like you who are around you. You can ask them questions about the vibe or feel of a place.”
Though following your gut is important, Smith also says you have to give yourself a little leeway because you might miss an incredible experience if you limit yourself to only what feels comfortable and familiar.
Loneliness and Fear: Acknowledge Your Feelings
Shared experience drives almost everyone—and with that comes the loneliness associated with solo travel—a loneliness that cannot even be prevented by text messages, tweets, Snapchats and Facebook posts from friends at home.
“Focus on the advantages of solo travel,” said Mandel. “If you’re not focused on the advantages of it you’ll never get over [loneliness]. You can set your own schedule, you talk to more people and you don’t have to have input from anyone else on what you want to do.”
Another way to stave off loneliness, Mandel said, is to alter some travel habits like when to eat major meals. Mandel said she eats large meals at midday and enjoys a light snack at dinnertime rather than eating dinner alone.
While being alone is mostly an emotion, being physically alone can sometimes put travelers in an uncomfortable position when others want to ask questions or make observations.
“People pointing out to you that you’re alone is more about people wanting you to see their powers of observation, not necessarily as an insult,” said Smith. “I don’t think it needs to feel threatening.”
Smith also said that she tries to acknowledge temporary loneliness as a feeling and keep in mind that it will pass. These same powers of observation and intuition can keep solo travelers safe and decrease their risk of being a target for theft and violence.
“A long time ago, a person who’s been in the national spotlight said that ‘Women shouldn’t hook up while traveling,’” said Smith. “It was based on the idea that foreigners were out to get you. I would shift the focus from the locals to people who are thinking about different things than you are. I don’t want people to be paranoid but [to] use the same caution inside the hostel as outside.”
Another tool against fear and loneliness can sometimes be a good sense of humor. Kira Salak, a travel author and writer for National Geographic, wrote on her blog that she maintains a good sense of humor in the face of harassment. "I find it intriguing; I laugh at it," she wrote. "Harassers don’t like being laughed at—you’re supposed to be scared and intimidated by them."
One way to find out if you’re ready to travel solo? Smith recommends trying something new in your own city because it will feel “not entirely different but not entirely the same,” and at the end of the night you can go home to your own bed if the experience was uncomfortable.
What to Bring (Hint: Leave the Shoes)
A list of travel tips for women traveling solo wouldn’t be complete without packing hacks and tips. Smith and Mandel both agreed that fancy shoes are the last things they’d put in their travel bags.
“Don’t pack stupid shoes,” said Mandel. "Seriously. Give up on shiny shoes that you can’t walk in.”
Smith said that it's important to pack zen-inducing items and comfortable clothing.
“I traveled recently with a friend who brought really fancy tea even to the most off-the-beaten path destinations,” said Smith. “I liked that. Now I bring tea with me. Bring things that make you comfortable. When you’re physically comfortable—when you have clothes that don’t pinch or pull and comfortable shoes—and when you feel good, that’s a good day to do something you wouldn’t normally do.”