A to Z of Destinations
Australia, NZ and South Pacific
A to Z of Experiences
Walking and trekking
Diving and snorkelling
Wildlife and safaris
Meet the locals
Frontier and expedition
Cycling and Mountain Biking
Visiting the Poles
Career breaks and BIG trips
Body and soul
Volunteer and conservation
Australia, East Coast
Everest Base Camp
Aurora Borealis/Northern Lights
Trans-Siberian and Trans-Mongolian railway
Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail
Climb Mount Kilimanjaro
Sick of the soppy Valentine's Day stuff? Take to the road solo with Lyn Hughes' guide for independent travellers
Lyn Hughes | Issue 105 | August/September 2009
Standing outside the closed door of the bar, I could hear a din inside. I took a deep breath and walked in, battling through the crush of tanned, tousled yacht crews of various nationalities. Hearing a British voice, I tried to talk to the young woman it belonged to but she gave me the cold shoulder. So I pushed my way to the bar to order a drink.
Sailor after sailor started chatting to me; by the end of the evening I’d been ‘adopted’ by several crews. Drink after drink had been bought for me (well, it would have been churlish to turn them down…) and I’d been offered a place on the next leg of a couple of the yachts.
It would have been all too easy to stay in my room with a good book rather than venturing alone into the legendary Café Sport in the Azores. But then I’d have missed out on one of the most memorable and enjoyable evenings of my life. And I reckon that if I’d been with a partner or a friend, I wouldn’t have had nearly such a momentous time.
The thought of travelling alone can be daunting, whatever age you are. Although the popular image of a solo traveller is a young backpacker, first-time solo travel can occur at any age. Many of the newbie solo travellers I’ve met over the years have been, ahem, mature; on a Thai hill trek I met a white-haired 70-something on her first big adventure. Whether divorced or widowed, or simply wanting to do something that their partner isn’t so keen on, more and more people are taking to the road on their own.
Solo travel doesn’t have to mean ‘alone’. If travelling independently you’ll almost certainly meet other independent travellers, especially if you stay in guesthouses, lodges or hostels. If it’s the locals you want to meet, try family-run B&Bs, homestays or community-run accommodation.
Another option is to travel with a small-group tour company. Explore, for instance, says that 55-60% of its clients are travelling alone. If you’re prepared to share a room with someone, many of the tour companies that advertise in Wanderlust waive the single supplement. The majority of participants on special-interest trips, such as cooking, painting or photography tours, tend to be travelling solo, whether they are single or not. And expedition cruises and certain safaris tend to be sociable and ideal for solos.
If it’s a longer trip that you’re thinking of, consider booking with an overlanding company; around 50% of Dragoman’s clients, for example, are travelling alone, and come from across all age groups.
Even if you don’t want to do the whole trip with a tour operator, it is worth starting off with a group – this will give you a chance to acclimatise and gain confidence. You may find that other members of the group are doing the same, so could be future travel companions. Several websites specialise in finding travel companions, not least Wanderlust’s community website – go to myWanderlust.
If you’re booking a group trip, don’t be afraid to ask about the mix of clients – and what happens at dinner. Talk to anyone who has travelled solo and it is always the evenings that cause the most angst and can be the loneliest part of the experience.
Eating alone or having a drink in a bar is OK. You can always write your diary, read a book, read your emails or simply people-watch. But it is never as much fun as when you’re with some stimulating company. Not every evening has been as successful for me as the one on the Azores. There have been the times in anonymous hotels where no one would catch my eye, let alone speak to me.
At a supposed ‘eco-resort’, the other guests were all couples, and all the seating in the bar and restaurant reflected that, making it difficult to get into conversation with anyone. And on an Arctic cruise I was designated a seat on a table of unfriendly Italians for my four nights onboard.
In both cases I should have researched the trips more before I went, but a certain amount can be luck – and, of course, the effort that YOU put in.
Yes, there are downsides to travelling solo. Homesickness and loneliness can strike. But then you can feel even lonelier if trapped with a travel companion who doesn’t share your outlook on life.
And there are definite benefits to going alone. You can do what you want, at the pace you choose. Want to spend a few hours in that gallery? Well, you can. Can’t be bothered to visit the cathedral or yet another temple? You don’t have to!
What’s more, you’re more receptive to new experiences, more likely to be looking outwards than focused on a companion. You’re also more approachable, so it’s easier to meet new people.
At the end of the day the hardest thing about travelling solo is making the decision to go. Once you’re on your way, you’ll feel great about it. I know I still get a buzz when I head off on my own. Just try it – you will too.
Want more solo advice? Check out our solo travel guide | Plan a trip... More
Solo travel: top tips for the road | Destinations... More
Wanderlust blogger Marie Javins is travelling solo around the world. Check out accounts from her independent trip here | Blogs... More
Should you travel alone or with a friend? | Blogs... More
Who should you travel with? | Destinations... More
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Solo trips are not inferior by default. Alain de Botton, inThe Art of Travel, argues that “our responses to theworld are moulded by the company we keep, for we temper our curiosity tofit in with the expectations of others.” By way of contrast, travelingalone allows us to be our true selves. Thereis no meeting contrarian demands, playing up to an imposed role orcompromising on schedules and itinerary. Instead of being saddled withthe angst of whether our travel companion is restless, resentful orbored, there is time to think and listen to yourself.You have more room and bed space to rest and plot the next meal orouting. I view the absence of someone to talk to as an opportunity toavoid conflict. Travelling solo offers freedom in doing exactly as you want and answering to no one but yourself.
I so agree Lyn! I did my first longhaul solo trip - to Ecuador - in 2003 aged 61. My husband was no longer interested in South American birdwatching and was more than willing for me to indulge my Wanderlust as long as he didn't have to come! I was slightly apprehensive on the plane, but it was a wonderful trip (apart from the Language school). I avoided the impersonal hotels, staying mainly in lodges and also doing a fantastic Galapagos trip where most of my 15 companions were under 40 backpackers. Since then I have travelled longhaul, mostly back to South america, a further 5 times. This January I am off to Colombia. Birdwatching is an instant introduction to fellow travellers sharing the same interest but all my travel is booked independently. I think you are right Lyn that it is important to avoid hotels, esp. large impersonal ones. Lodges, B&Bs, guesthouses are the best and I very rarely eat alone, nearly always invited to join others. Friendliest place was the Greenhouse in the Sacred VAlley Peru - fantastic! It well deserves its 5 star Trip Advisor rating. Haven't tried Dragoman yet, but might be tempted one day. Yes, I am now 70 but not yet silver haired!!
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GoLearnTo.com’s linguistic guru Ulrike Reinke offers tips on how to start speaking like a local
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