People always ask me, “What’s it like to travel the world solo?”
The short answer? It’s awesome. Life-affirming-adventure-seeking-mind-blowingly, awesome. But when I give that answer, I often sense doubt. After all, how could I – as a woman – possibly enjoy solo travel? “Aren’t you ever scared?” they ask, “or lonely?” (Not really, and never.)
So, I thought it was time to explain what it’s really like to travel the world solo and why I think everyone (especially every woman) should try it – at least once.
So many times when I’ve talked to other women about my travels I get a response that goes something like this: “I want to travel but I’m waiting until I meet that special someone – I just couldn’t go by myself.” Yeesh. That is the single worst excuse ever not to travel.
No time? No money? Those excuses I can understand (though I contend they can also be overcome). But lack of a travel partner should never hold you back. Why wait for the right man to fulfill your travel dreams?
Embrace your independence. Savor it. Mark my words, you will miss it someday.
What’s it Like to Travel the World Solo?
What’s it really like to travel on your own in foreign lands? In a word: exhilarating! The beauty of flying solo is simple – you have total control of the itinerary. Only you decide where to go, what to see, how much time to spend there, where to eat and where to stay. There are a myriad of details involved in a round-the-world (RTW) trip and the fewer people involved in the planning process, the easier it is.
The obvious downside is that there’s no one to split the hotel bill with. And you’ll need to get over any inhibitions you may have about eating alone in a restaurant in Hong Kong or being in a resort full of honeymooners in Bora Bora. As a seasoned business traveler, I got over those things a long time ago. So will you, it’s no big deal.
I truly find that it’s easier to meet people and make friends when you’re traveling solo. Having spent plenty of time traveling with friends, it’s easy to slip into that comfort zone of hanging out with someone you already know. This is especially true if you’re traveling with a spouse or significant other. Part of the beauty of world travel is meeting the locals and experiencing their culture. Don’t miss out.
Is it Safe for a Woman to Travel the World Solo?
Short answer? Absolutely! Most places in the world are no more dangerous to visit alone than your own home town. The long answer is more complicated. Certainly some parts of the world require a little more caution; but if you’re smart and well-prepared there are few countries you can’t visit safely.
Recognize in advance that if you plan to visit popular tourist attractions, like the Pyramids, the Taj Mahal or the Great Wall you will be constantly hassled by guides and sales people. To me, this is probably the single worst thing about world travel. It happens all across the world whether you are alone or in a group and it’s just one of the downsides of visiting the world’s most popular attractions. While this can be unnerving if you’re a woman on your own, this type of hassle is rarely more than just an annoyance and a firm “no” will usually suffice.
Even away from the major tourist sites, you may experience harassment in airports (by persistent men trying to help you with your luggage for a tip) or in markets by men trying to sell you something. Markets in the Middle East and Northern Africa are known for especially aggressive vendors.
I often avoid all the hassles by hiring a guide when I want to visit someplace like this. For example, in Cairo I hired a guide for the day and she (an Egyptologist named Nora) was the perfect local guide who made my visit to the pyramids and Khan el Kalili market not just hassle-free but very educational. In Marrakech, Morocco I employed a similar strategy for exploring the city’s lively souk. My guide was very knowledgeable, surprisingly affordable (just $25) and worth every penny.
While I believe that sometimes it makes sense to hire a guide just for the peace of mind (I would advise booking one through your hotel), usually I just make good use of the “firm no”, try to ignore any unwanted attention and tough it out on my own.
Though I advise extra caution in Muslim countries, I do want to stress that it is not part of their culture to stare at women or to make rude comments. In a traditional Muslim society, a man may not approach, speak to or touch a woman he does not know. Unfortunately, many men in the Middle East hold mistaken stereotypes about western women (learned mainly through Hollywood movies) which can make us the subject of unwanted attention. Don’t be afraid to express indignation if you are treated disrespectfully in a Muslim country. This is often the best way to handle it.
And keep in mind that while blondes (like me) may have more fun, we are also more likely to be approached in places like the Middle East, Africa and Southern Europe so covering your hair or wearing a hat with your hair up isn’t a bad idea sometimes. Sad, but true.
Generally speaking, as long as you are respectful of local customs and dress codes (ditch the shorts and tank tops unless you’re in the islands), don’t walk around alone at night and use your common sense, you can safely travel almost anywhere in the world.
Other general safety tips:
- Leave a detailed itinerary and copy of your passport at home with someone you trust
- Keep in touch! Check-in with friends and family at home regularly and don’t be shy about letting your hotel know where you’re off to each day and when you expect to return
- Carry a daypack instead of a purse. When you stop for lunch or to check e-mail, make sure the strap is looped around your arm, leg or chair leg
- Leave expensive jewelry at home (I travel with only my watch and costume jewelry)
- Be careful who you smile at – in some countries this is considered an invitation
- Be especially wary of anyone who approaches you at a major tourist site – scam artists are everywhere and even the most innocent question (like, “Do you speak English?“) can be a trick to distract you. It may seem rude to ignore people, but safety comes first.
- Know where you’re going. Get good directions before you set out and avoid stopping on the street to check a map. If you get lost, ask for directions in a restaurant or shop.
- Confidence is key! Walk purposefully, with your head up and be aware of your surroundings – thieves are looking for a victim and confidence can be your best defense
- Use the safe at your hotel and only walk around with a minimum in cash and credit cards
- And finally always, and I mean always, keep an eye on your drink when you’re in a bar or restaurant
But, most importantly, don’t let any of this scare you off solo travel. Many of the safety tips I’ve listed above are just as important on trips within your home country as they are overseas. And some are just as important for men as for women. I’ve made it safely around the world ten times without anything worse than a little harassment. Annoying, yes. Dangerous, no. In fact, in many of the countries I’ve visited, I felt even safer than I do in the U.S. Don’t be scared, just be smart. Staying safe does not mean staying put.
It’s an Incredible World
And it’s meant to be explored. Thousands of men and women are traveling the world solo as we speak. It’s one of the most extraordinary adventures you can ever undertake. Give yourself the gift of a lifetime and conquer the world on your own.
You won’t ever regret it.