Following a close call with cancer, Sandra Reekie discovered the joys and freedom of solo travel. Here's her story, along with specialist solo trips and our advice for how to make the most of travel-for-one
"You will never see a sky as beautiful as the sun rising over the Himalayas from Darjeeling,” my father said with an unaccustomed hint of nostalgia in his voice. I was five years old and we were sitting atop a hill watching the sun go down over the Essex town where we lived.
From that exact moment, I longed to see that sunrise for myself and visit Agra, where my grandfather was stationed with the army when dad was born. But it took me a while.
50 years later, my daughter and I travelled independently to India, and we did indeed see that sunrise and Agra. A nine-week trip with my daughter made me realise that it was possible to find your own hotels, discover what’s down that small and interesting-looking road the tour guide walks you past and, most importantly of all, learn just how incredibly friendly and kind people are to a stranger. The travel bug had bitten hard.
Solo female backpacker (Dreamstime)
The following year I had a close call with cancer and, when I didn’t die within the predicted year, I resolved to go back to India. No one would or could come with me so, pig-headedly, I said I’d go on my own.
It was an easy thing to say, but could I really go alone? After I’d said goodbye to my husband at Heathrow, I went into the ladies and sobbed. What was I doing?
I had never travelled on my own. When we went abroad on holiday, I had never even used the foreign currency. I was petrified. So I had cheated a little and booked the first 10 days with a small group adventure travel company to help me get over my initial nerves. We spent those first 10 days travelling to Kochi, Mysore and Ootacamund, then I said "Goodbye" and headed alone for the railway station in Bangalore to catch the overnight train to Hampi.
This fascinating historical site, set in a strange and beautiful, boulder-strewn landscape, was the perfect place for me to explore for the first time completely on my own. Each day, my confidence grew and with it my sense of awareness and safety. What was I doing? Was it respectful? A deserted restaurant was probably not as safe as a full one.
I learned to trust my gut feeling when it came to judging people. I found that all these long-buried skills, which we all possess, were slowly getting stronger. Before I left there, I’d even found myself in a Bollywood movie.
I needed to travel north, but I wanted to see Panaji, the capital of Goa, and for the first time caught an overnight bus. Imagine a double decker painted bright yellow, with homemade reclining seats. I was allocated a window seat that reclined so far back my feet were above my head.
Next to me sat an enormous, bald German man whose bulk spread from his recliner on to mine. As we rattled our way along the bumpy Indian roads in the pitch black, any ‘comfort’ stops were made at the side of the road and each time at least one person came back with cuts and grazes, having fallen down a ditch. But we made it to Goa.
Those who had the top deck fared best, as most were enjoying some ‘happy baccy’, but I had a new German friend.
From Goa, I found my way by bus, train, taxi and rickshaw to the ancient caves at Ellora and also to those at Ajanta. At the Ajanta Caves I was adopted by a taxi driver who decided that, as I was older than his mother, I needed looking after.
I suspiciously thought he just wanted to overcharge me for each ride, but how wrong I was. It was another lesson learned: to trust my own judgement and not go by the alarmist stories you hear. I was so proud of myself.
I had not only achieved my first trip alone, but had managed all my travel arrangements, even come to grips with the bureaucratic purchasing of train tickets and, finally, with just two days before my return flight, made it to Mumbai, arriving in the early hours at that wonderful carved stone-and-marble railway station six weeks after setting out. I felt great.
Winding section of the Silk Road (Dreamstime)
I subsequently returned to India on several occasions, sometimes alone, sometimes not. I also travelled along the Silk Road. Starting in Istanbul, I crossed Turkey, Syria, Iran and Turkmenistan with its bizarre capital, Ashgabat, then travelled on to Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and China, where I visited the largest Silk Road market in the world at Kashgar, before crossing into Pakistan at the highest paved border crossing in the world.
I made many friends along the way. Sometimes I joined up with people who were going my way for a few days or a week or two, such as the young man with whom I shared the hire of a car to cross the Pamir Mountains.
I have wonderful memories of many people: the Sikh man who, without my knowing, kept an eye on me during a three-hour wait at an Indian railway station and who, when I nearly boarded the wrong train, gently took my arm and shook his head; the lady on a bus journey in Iran who planted a large bag of sweets on my lap; and the student in Syria who waited 20 minutes with me to ensure I caught the right bus and that the driver knew where to let me off. I have a well of such memories.
In northern Pakistan, I met a young jeep driver. The following year, I returned to live with his extended family for a month, teaching at the local school, before taking two months to travel through every valley between Afghanistan and Kashmir. We all know old sayings like, ‘Life isn’t a rehearsal,’ and looking back I now realise that whenever I made myself do something that scared me, it always turned out to be the best experience ever.
Travelling alone is one of them. I can’t deny it can be lonely, but travelling with the wrong person is far, far worse. After years of being a daughter, wife, mother and granny, I am now me. If people aren’t going my way, I know I can happily go on my own.
At 73, I must confess that it’s time to retire my beloved rucksack and get something on wheels, but so long as I have a good guidebook and a water heater to make a cup of coffee, there’s nothing that can stop me.
Specialist tours are a great way for solo travellers to meet people and do something special, so here are our top tips for planning your next trip…
Group safari tour (Dreamstime)
Spending hours cramped in small 4WDs on safari often results in some intense camaraderie. But whether tracking through the bush together or recalling that skipped heartbeat when you saw your first lion, it’s these kinds of shared experiences that result in easy conversation and fewer barriers over dinner.
Indeed, the evening meal, in particular, is what makes safari tours ideal for solo travellers. In the smaller camps, they typically take place at a communal table, meaning everyone chips in and gets to know each other fast.
Top Tip: Try to avoid the plusher lodges and camps, which tend to be more popular with both newlyweds and couples looking for intimacy, rather than new friends.
Train tours are the perfect answer to the typical single supplement dilemma. Many sleeper trains have cabins for single use, and for those sharing, it can often feel less intrusive to split a cabin than, for example, a hotel room.
Clearly the tour ops have caught on, as train travel accounts for a large number of solo-only trips, while the lounge car often affords a chance to not only regularly touch base socially with your group, but others outside it, too.
Top tip: Many sleeper trains offer single cabins for the same price per person as doubles (Orient Express, Royal Scotsman, etc). It’s worth checking beforehand if you want to avoid single supplements.
Arctic cruise ship (Dreamstime)
A boat trip isn’t all ballrooms and cabaret. Expedition cruises into far-off (often Arctic or Antarctic) waters and specialist multi-day river trips can deliver you to lost worlds.
Whether you’re ploughing the lesser-seen waters of the Peruvian Amazon or setting sail for Arctic Russia to spy mammoth bones and polar bears on Wrangel Island, these trips tend to attract a mix of travellers. The communal dining is a great way to meet others, with ships often holding around 100 passengers.
TOP TIP: If seating is allocated at meal times, it’s worth finding out from the tour company how many other solo travellers there are and whether you can be seated together.
By the very nature of overland trips, which typically span weeks (even months) of travel in the confines of large trucks, they commonly see more solo travellers than most. After all, arranging schedules around an extended break is trickier for two than for one.
Trips often clatter around areas with little infrastructure, such as slipping between Tajikistan and Pakistan along the Wakhan Corridor or through wild Patagonia, so it makes sense to go with a tour, which eliminates the hassles of arranging multiple border crossings and breakdowns.
Groups rarely exceed much more than 20 passengers, but spending large amounts of time in close quarters can forge close bonds at fast-forward speeds.
TOP TIP: Trips can last as long as six months, with the option to join for just a few weeks. Develop lifelong bonds fast, then get dropped off somewhere incredible. It’s win-win.
Group cycling tour (Dreamstime)
Trekking, kayaking and cycling tours are ideal for those going it alone. They can, of course, be done independently, but the safety of doing this kind of thing in a group (particularly in remote areas) makes going on an organised trip a safer choice.
It also affords the opportunity to explore those places tricky to reach on your own, whether being heli-lifted onto a mountainside or embarking on a multi-week trek where the logistics of planning each stop in advance and lugging food and gear can quickly build up.
Not wishing to invoke too many clichés but if you travel solo and want to meet like-minded people, then a themed trip makes sense. Such tours are naturally geared towards those going it alone. After all, how many couples do you know share the same passion for learning Swahili, tropical birding or historical watercolours?
It also breaks down social barriers pretty fast when you all share a common topic. Then there’s the trip itself, which can find you doing anything from spotting toucans deep in the Brazilian Pantanal to photographing red deer in the Scottish Highlands.
TOP TIP: More so than perhaps any other trip, meeting fellow solo travellers is easy with special interest trips. Just try not to be the know-it-all. There’s always one in every group.
Travelling solo can be a liberating experience, but only if you approach it in the right way. Here are some tips on how to stay safe, eat alone, meet others and, above all, have fun.
Woman reading in cafe (Dreamstime)
♦ Eating alone can be a worry for those travelling solo but it needn’t be. Bring something practical to do, such as filling in a diary or checking your emails, something you don’t mind being distracted from. Don’t let the waiter shut you away in a corner. A spot in the midst of things affords better people-watching, while sitting at a bar or counter allows others to join you and frees you up to talk to the staff, who usually have some good local tips.
♦ Stay safe. It is not uncommon for solo travellers (women, in particular) to be targeted by scammers, but just appearing confident can go a long way to avoiding this. For instance, clutching a guidebook wherever you go is a dead giveaway that you’re fresh off the boat and by yourself. Instead, read up in advance or disguise the guide, and even prepare ready-made excuses (“My friend will be joining me here in a minute”) in case of unwanted attention. Just be sensible: don’t arrive in strange places (airports, railway stations) late at night, or at least have someone meet you. Also, let others know where you are going and use online travel communities to check out a place in advance or to make local contacts.
♦ Be open to new experiences. Travel light, so you’re free to move about without the hassle of lots of luggage, leaving you open to change your plans at a moment’s notice.
♦ Talk to people. Most other tourists are just as friendly as you are, and fellow solo travellers can often offer valuable advice. Homesteads and family-run B&Bs can help you meet the locals, while picking a small, friendly hotel (as opposed to a large chain) with a communal area opens you up to other travellers. There are also some incredible hostel experiences out there, but don’t feel like you have to pair off. If you want time to yourself, give yourself that option.
♦ Choose a trip that suits you. If you’re travelling independently and solo for the first time, make it easy on yourself by picking a destination that’s simple to navigate, whether it be in your own country or simply a more compact city, or even just somewhere you already speak the language. Consider tailoring your trip to something you’re familiar with or comfortable doing. For example, if you’re a keen cyclist, pick a cycle-friendly location that you can easily explore on two wheels and feel at ease.
♦ Going with a tour operator has benefits. Firstly, it offers you ready-made companions with similar interests, especially if you choose a themed trip. But plenty of operators now also specialise in catering for those travelling alone, which helps alleviate the main bugbear of going solo in a tour group: single supplements (fees passed down via hotels for single occupancy of a double room). But being prepared to share a room or simply going during low season can often help you avoid these.
♦ Common sense gets around a lot of problems. If you have to dump your bag on public transport, wedging it into an awkward spot will make it more difficult for others to take. If you hate Selfie sticks but still want to capture your travels, find someone with a better camera than yours and ask them to take the shot. They’re less likely to steal your inferior gear and might even be able to frame it properly too. Lastly, if you’re nervous about being alone at night, take a doorstop with you to wedge under the door. You’ll feel more at ease after a peaceful slumber.
For more inspiring tales from solo travellers, including Hilary Bradt, Phoebe Smith and the Sandra Reekie story excerpted here, get Roam Alone (Bradt, £11), out on April 5.
Main image: Solo hiker (Dreamstime)