It’s always interesting to read a book about the region you’re traveling through. Having someone else’s experiences as a companion on the road gives you that extra layer of knowledge and insight. When I set off on my first solo trip, to Australia, I took a copy of Bill Bryson’s In a Sunburned Country/Down Under, then Marching Powder by Rusty Young accompanied me to Bolivia. But compelling as they were, what I really wanted were more solo travel narratives written by women.
On return to England, the search began for women with a story to share, to contribute to an anthology of travelers’ tales. What started as one tweet escalated into hundreds of enquiries and submissions.
A Girls’ Guide to Traveling Alone was open to absolutely everyone, not just published writers. After all, every traveler has a story they love to tell. It was a tough process, but the editor and I finally narrowed it down to 23 stories. Here, 10 of those women share their thoughts on why they choose to travel alone.
“I’m more optimistic and fulfilled than I’ve ever been.”
After I turned forty and both of my daughters were nearly grown, I felt like a victim instead of the proud single mother that I was. Life was good, but it hadn’t turned out the way I’d hoped. I’d long imagined that I would have remarried and had more money, and that I would travel with my husband after my girls grew up.
Then I decided to do the unthinkable; travel alone. It was liberating to book a ticket to Laos from Alaska. Traveling alone meant that I didn’t have to defer to anyone else’s wishes, and that I could mind my budget without apologizing.
Now, more than ten years later, I’m more optimistic and fulfilled than I’ve ever been. I finally stopped waiting for circumstances to align to realize my dreams, and that’s spilled over into other areas of my life.
2. Amy Baker
“I do it for the sense of empowerment.”
When you arrive alone in a new place, it’s up to you to get yourself from A to B and to make the most of your time there. When there’s no one else around to rely on, that’s when you find out how strong and capable you really are. And once you know that, you don’t just forget it, you carry that confidence with you in your everyday life.
3. Orla Lehane
“Learning to be open to the kindness of strangers.”
It’s that feeling. The one you get when you set foot in a new place. Stepping off the plane, train, ready for adventure, unsure what form it will take. This is heightened when you travel solo.
Sometimes it’s for practical reasons. Not everyone wants to, or can, put a rucksack on their back and trust, sitting in Istanbul, that they will, somehow, arrive in Beijing.
The interaction with locals. Watching the differences between us melt away. Learning to be open to the kindness of strangers. In Iran, fellow train travelers shared their food with me. In Russia my compartment companion insisted upon making my bed for me. She was missing her daughters. They had waved us off in Mongolia. Waking during a taxi trip through the desert in Uzbekistan I found the driver and a fellow passenger gently covering the window, worried the desert sun would be too much for me.
Nothing else compares.
“I usually go a little further off-piste.”
I find I often experience the inspiration of a new place more intensely when alone. When traveling solo I’m more likely to meet local people and find myself in bizarre situations, and I usually go a little further off-piste, taking odd detours to do something unplanned and not knowing how it will turn out. Being a solo female traveler means you have to be careful, but you can also be treated very, very well (I remember an amazing week I had on Margarita Island, Venezuela, when I was hardly allowed to pay for a thing myself). The boring bits of traveling — e.g., airports — are often easier to tolerate when I’m reading a captivating book and suiting myself rather than in company.
“Without that three-year period of solo-travel, I wouldn’t be the person I am today.”
Prior to my separation and eventual divorce, I had never travelled on my own. I had married young and my ex-husband was my travel buddy. When our marriage ended, however, I decided to push myself. I wanted to reclaim the independence that I so proudly flaunted in my youth; I wanted to put myself in situations that would allow me to grow as an individual now that I was an adult. In the three years since that happened I regained a sense of confidence that propelled me to travel across Canada, take overnight buses to New York from Toronto for weekend jaunts, and hike the Camino de Santiago in Spain to celebrate my thirtieth birthday — all done on my own. Without that three-year period of solo-travel, I wouldn’t be the person I am today. Some people travel to escape; I travelled to heal and to find myself again.
“You discover that you’re capable of far more than you ever thought.”
For me, one of the greatest joys of travel is to journey alone in remote areas, miles from anyone or anything familiar. I find it fantastically liberating and hugely rewarding. Companionship makes us idle and gives us masks to hide behind, allowing us remain one step removed from our surroundings, whilst solitude sharpens our senses and enables total immersion in where we are.
Traveling alone also forces us to confront our weaknesses. Whilst traveling solo down the Ho Chi Minh Trail, I had no choice but to learn how to fix my motorbike, navigate and get myself out of trouble. Had I been with other people I would have no doubt leaned on their knowledge and strengths, thus never giving myself the chance to find out what I was really capable of. And believe me, when you travel alone, you discover that you’re capable of far more than you ever thought.
7. Rebecca Hall
“Traveling with friends can be testing.”
For me, traveling solo means I’m afforded the opportunity to meet more people from all walks of life than if I were traveling with friends. I can’t actually remember the last time I travelled with friends, except blogging trips, but then we are all like-minded travelers.
I think that’s the problem with traveling with friends; you’re thrown together 24/7 (which you wouldn’t usually be in your every day life) and it can be testing: X wants to go to the museum whilst Y wants to go to the beach. I find when I travel alone I speak to more people and find that locals are intrigued by a solo female traveller. Oddly, this makes me feel safer, as I’m looked after.
“I don’t have to be held back by anyone else’s expectations or temperaments.”
Many people have asked me why I chose to travel alone, especially as a young woman. My reply at the time was that I didn’t really have a choice. If I wanted to take the trip I was planning, I was going to do it on my own (no one else was free to come with me, or they didn’t have the funds, or they just plain weren’t all that interested in traveling). However, there was more to it than choosing to go alone: It was an adventure; it was exciting. I didn’t have to be held back by anyone else’s expectations or temperaments. I could choose to reinvent myself or just be myself.
9. Lu Barnham
“People see you as more of an open book, and that can lead to some fascinating encounters.”
I tend to have a pretty clear plan of how I’ll spend my time, and that can include ambitious hikes, off-the-beaten track destinations, and bizarre festivals that wouldn’t necessarily appeal to my husband or my friends, nor necessarily be appropriate for my four-year old boy. I’ve noticed that when I travel alone, people approach me more often. In a group or family unit, you’re considered a private party. Alone, people see you as more of an open book, and that can lead to some fascinating encounters.
10. Jules Sanderson
“I continue to learn new truths about myself every time.”
I’d like to be able to say I had some grand epiphany or moment of empowerment when I decided to start traveling alone, but really it just came down to the fact that I was tired of waiting for someone to come with me! I knew I wanted to travel in a different way from my friends who were content enough with a week at the beach or a weekend city break.
In hindsight, I think I was really trying to pin down the kind of person I was. As I began to grow out of those teenage years where fitting in is so important, it struck me that I could no longer remember what genuinely bought me joy. Traveling alone allowed me the time and space to rediscover those things, without having to worry about anyone else’s opinions or judgements. Seven years later I’m still traveling solo and continue to learn new truths about myself every time.