Last updated on April 3rd, 2023
Featured image: There’s no “right way” to solo travel – do it on your own terms! / Photo by Teodor Lazarev on Shutterstock
Experienced solo travellers share their advice on taking the first step
by Carolyn Ray, JourneyWoman
When it comes to embracing the unknown, there’s no time like midlife to get started in solo travel. Every July, another birthday slips by and I am, by society’s standards, well into my ‘midlife’. A time when I should be winding down. Instead, I’m winding up.
Never before have I believed in the transformative power of solo travel as I do now. In a time when many of our rights as women are being diminished, travel is the antidote. Travel reminds us to fight for what we believe and for the things we cherish most — self-expression, freedom, independence and fun. How can we find out what we truly believe in without first understanding what we, as women, are capable of? This is the power of solo travel.
It’s never too late to get started in solo travel. The magic of discovering a new place, of connecting with women, or learning something new about myself. Without solo travel, we risk losing our spirit of adventure and sense of wonder. We risk abandoning the opportunity to discover our true selves and learn the truth about our world. I feel most alive when I am in an unknown place — one that stimulates all my senses and heightens my gratitude, courage and curiosity.
Inspiration from solo travellers
“You don’t need to start big. Try a few day trips on your own, join a hiking group, volunteer (as I did a few times). Volunteering in a foreign country is a safe way to experience the culture of the place you choose to visit and a wonderful way to make long-term friends. There’s no right or wrong way of doing this – the great thing about solo travel is that you make the choices that you feel comfortable with. Start out slow or jump into deep waters – either way, you will always have an amazing and worthwhile experience.” – Sandra H.
“It really comes down to the woman and her comfort zones. A journey that stretches that comfort zone just a little is a good start and it should be one that instills a good dose of excitement, a dash of nervousness and a boat load of anticipation and curiosity. It doesn’t matter if the destination is 100 miles (or kilometers!) away or on the other side of the world. Just follow that travel dream in your own way.” — Niina N.
“Many years ago, my first solo trip was to Antarctica. I got a lot of push back. People asked: Why would you go there? How could you go alone? They were trying to kill my dream. They didn’t have to, because there was a giant oil spill, and the Smithsonian cancelled the trip. I got a message from my travel agent who said: The Chilean government is organizing a trip with all of the people who wanted to go on this trip and will take 50 people, so do you want to go? I worked through my fears and went. That trip changed my life, and I have never looked back.” — Debbie P.
Women’s recommendations to get started in solo travel
The thought of taking that first step into solo travel can create a lot of anxiety, particularly if you haven’t travelled a lot or without a partner. Losing your co-pilot is a blow that leaves you reeling and wondering who you are now that ‘we’ has become ‘me.’ You might be on a solo journey that wasn’t your choice or was a difficult one.
Once the seed has been planted, however, only you can feed or starve it. When you think about venturing off on your own, what emotions come up? Where do you feel them? Fear lives in the chest. Fear is a constricting feeling. Excitement lives in the gut. It’s an expansive feeling. Ask yourself why you want to do this, and what it will give you. Ask yourself what’s holding you back, and how you’ll feel if you allow it to.
With more women wanting to get started in solo travel, a recurring question we often see is what type of travel is best for a first-timer. Fortunately, we have some of the most experienced solo travellers in the world in our private JourneyWoman Solo Travel Wisdom group, so we invited them to share their best advice. These women are ruthlessly honest and candid – a quality we embrace!
More than half of the women who responded recommended taking a woman-friendly group tour (51!%), followed by ‘just do it’ at 25%. An all-inclusive, something we often see recommended in other solo travel groups, ranked lowest at 2%. Even a river or expedition cruise ranked higher at 6%. While this wasn’t an analytical study, it does give us a place to get started in solo travel, on our own terms. Thank you to all the women who responded to this prompt and for your sage advice.
Recommendation 1: Travel with a women-friendly group – 51%
Women recommended group travel as the best way to get started in solo travel, particularly if you’re feeling anxious or aren’t sure where to start.
There are many women-owned and women-led group tours that create safe travel experiences for women and create environments that push and challenge a woman’s sense for adventure, with less ego and less competitiveness. (After all, we don’t need a man to show us how much fun travel can be, am I right?!)
As women, we often are caring for everyone else and setting aside what we want to make other people happy. A women-friendly group prioritizes the perspectives of women travellers and guides alike. Traveling in a women-only group means we can choose an itinerary that suits us, not our partners.
As a solo traveler, feeling safe is important. Many men will never truly appreciate the potential dangers we face, and women feel safer with other women. When we feel safe, we can push our boundaries and fuel our freedom and independence. Surrounding yourself with women can be empowering and educational.
Considering a group tour? Check out the women-only tours on Trafalgar here!
What women say about group tours
“First time on a trip without my husband, who passed away three years ago. I decided to do a small, all-women group in a 10-day trip to Ireland and it was just perfect for me. 11 women with a private driver. I felt safe, not a “loner” and it was a comfortable beginning to what I hope will be many more trips. (I will stick to small groups just as a matter of preference). — Christine D.
“First time solo traveler: if you are not comfortable or adventurous to jump in and travel on your own, I recommend group solo travel experiences with “Just You Tour company”- small group touring. Specialize in solo travel. A division of G Adventures. NO room sharing or single supplement.” — D Jay C.
“I recommend a woman-friendly small group tour extended before and/or after for at least a few days on your own. A really nice mix of adventures.” — Nancy T.
“I went with a group of strangers for my first solo trip seven years ago. I have taken 12 more group trips – a few alone and most with travel friends I’ve met. Pick a place and decide on solo or group travel. Then find what you can afford and pack those bags!” — Barb H.
“My first solo trip I signed up for a small group tour to Jordan. Upon arriving I discovered everyone else on tour cancelled. Private tour guide and driver for the entire trip. Yes, please!! Best trip experience. Still talk to my “tour guide” every day just to tell him good morning. You never know what adventures you’ll find or the amazing people you will meet.” — April N.
“I have travelled several times on the basis of private tour guide and driver, organised by specialist tour operators. One of the best ways of getting to know a country, its people, its way of life . . .” — Danae P.
“I’m a fan of small group tours for challenging situations like places with languages that I can’t read, extreme weather (Morocco, UAE), dense population (India), and challenging cultural or political situations (Tibet, Nepal). Sometimes a short tour for part of the trip is enough.” — Diane E.
How to choose a group tour
The best way to find a group tour isn’t to ask Google, it’s to ask other women for recommendations. There are five main criteria to consider: Value for money; Destination/Itinerary; Safety; Cleanliness and Health; and Reputation.
There are other considerations we should look at too, like engagement with local communities, emphasis on sustainable travel practices and even leadership. If you haven’t looked at the ownership and leadership structure of a group tour company, perhaps it’s time. What percentage of leaders are women? Do they use female guides? How do you know your safety needs are being taken into consideration?
Our Women’s Travel Directory lists hundreds of women-only tours that need your support and who better to help them recover from the pandemic than the top decision makers in travel? (YOU!)
Recommendation 2: Just get out there! – 25%
Recommendation 3: Travel at Home — 10%
While it might seem easy to say ‘just do it’, fear of the unknown can often hold us back.
Why not start at home first? Many women I’ve spoken to feel anxious even thinking about eating alone or taking a flight alone. Let me tell you – we’ve all been there. There’s no question it feels awkward at first, but with practice, you can overcome that and boost your confidence.
My first ‘solo’ trips were extensions of my business trips in the US and Europe. I still remember the first time I lugged my unwieldy suitcase through Milan to the train station, and then ate alone at Lake Como. I remember getting some strange looks but after a while, I stopped caring and enjoyed my solitude. From then on, it was carry-on only!
What women say about going solo
“My first time solo travel (apart from solo travel for work reasons) was a week in a train in northern Spain. Very comfortable, very interesting and very friendly. I realised that I could do group travel for the first time because I was with like-minded people (37 Spanish and Mexican passengers plus a Peruvian guide) in an area which I already knew slightly, and a more comfortable way of train travel than I had ever done before. Therefore, choose something a bit different from what you have done before non-solo, but to a place you wanted to go to anyway, a bit organised (but not too much) and fairly comfortable.” — Danae P.
“I’d suggest going with what interests you personally and the travel style that represents your interests best then you’re more likely to be with like-minded travellers. No two first time travellers will be the same.” — Paula C.
“Travel with anyone else is a challenge for me. There are parts of the world where I definitely would only go again with a local guide for parts of the area. Before I married my late husband I grilled him on solo travel. He came up with a compromise that as long as we had one holiday a year together, then he was fine with me going off on my own (obviously I was okay with him going off on his own). But I come from a hospitality background and I am living in my 3rd country. Being awash in tourists all year soured me on being stuck with people on my very precious time off. I really, really hate being trapped (i.e. anyone else with me) and having MY experience and schedule dictated by others. I am a raging extrovert but I get far too much contact with people in my workaday world. I really really really need to not have others encroach on my private time too. Having said all that, one of my best friends is a great travel buddy. He lets me do the organising and never complains, we’re both super easygoing and don’t believe we should be stressed on holidays.” — Debra K.
“I started with petsitting. Check out Trusted Housesitters.” — Lynne Foley
“For a beginner, a solo trip to a new region of your own country, all researched and planned by yourself. It’s normally ok to use a travel agent, but I’m only booking directly with the airlines until the staffing crisis, lost luggage and widespread cancellations are in play. After building the skills and experience from a domestic adventure, traveling to a new country where your own primary language is widely spoken and written is a great building block. Learning the local language opens doors. Hiring a guide for special sites or a driver can expand the experience in the new country. Adventure activities can help to meet travelers. Making connections with distant family, expats, or new friends is easier when the language barrier is less significant.” — Diane E.
What women say about places to go solo
While there’s no perfect destination to try solo travel for the first time, women often recommend starting in your own city. Being a tourist in your own city can not only refresh your mindset, but it allows you feel comfortable in a place where you have a built-in support system. Why not book a hotel room for a staycation, or a VRBO/Airbnb in a different neighbourhood? Housesitting and petsitting are also good options.
If you feel ready to travel outside your home town, consider alternative ways to travel like train travel. This spring, I travelled from San Francisco to Portland on the Amtrak Coast Starlight Train instead of flying. Most women agree that doing your first solo trip where you can speak the language is a good idea too.
What our last survey said
In April 2021, we invited women to share their experiences on personal safety in a global survey. Completed by over 350 women, almost 90% of respondents were age 55 and over.
In our survey, most women agreed that safety is more about a mindset, and less about the destination. “As females, we are vulnerable anywhere.”
Recognizing that safety is subjective, women did recommend the countries below as more or less ‘safe’, based on their own personal experience. Read more here.
Recommendation 4: Try a river cruise or expedition ship – 6%
From previous discussions on our private Facebook group, it’s fair to say that JourneyWomen readers are river cruise and expedition ship enthusiasts. Less so ocean cruising, which typically carry thousands of people and discharge millions of gallons of chemicals and pollutants into our water. (Incidentally, you might notice that we don’t cover large-scale cruises in our editorial for this very reason).
What could be more memorable than a river cruise along the Danube at Christmas or tulip time in Holland? Among the top experiences, women recommend the Panama Canal, and the Amazon, Mekong, Rhine and Nile Rivers. a once-in-a-lifetime excursions. River cruises and expedition ships offer the benefit of staying in one place but it’s important to remember not all offer solo travellers affordable pricing. In addition consider whether tips, drinks and excursions are included. If you’re working with a budget, finding a travel partner is one solution instead of allowing the cruise line to place you with someone.
According to Travel Weekly, guests are booking longer itineraries and more add-ons. Uniworld is seeing include a rise in solo travelers and rail travel, with the line saying its cruise-and-rail combo itineraries are in “very high demand.” Ellen Bettridge, CEO of Uniworld, says there is also a spike in longer, back-to-back trip bookings and a rise in bucket-list trips.
What women say about river cruises or expedition ships
“I recommend a river or expedition cruise, however I would choose expedition over river because river can be a little more formal and mainly couples while expedition is casual and you are traveling with like-minded individuals. The focus is on the scenery, wildlife and not you.” — Donna M.
“I river cruise alone often. I am very outgoing and can carry on a conversation with just about anyone…Pick an itinerary that interests you and book it …you won’t regret it.” — Wendy C
“River cruises rarely have single rooms. Mayflower lets you get an unknown roommate. That was a mistake.” — Sarah G.
“I have gone solo on two French River Cruises with Uniworld. They have several single cabins, and have waived single supplement offers. Both the crew members and fellow passengers were very inclusive , so very comfortable being one of the few singles onboard. Went on cruises in 2018 and 2019. Planning another river cruise in 2022.” — Louise
“One thing I did notice about anyone with mobility issues – sometimes the boats park side by side, so in order to get ashore, one has to get off our boat, cross the boat next to the dock, to get ashore – difficult for people with a mobility issue. Overall river cruising is better than ocean cruising, as you always see land and it is a smoother ride, good food and entertainment from each country you visit .” — Joy F.
“Two pieces of advice – Look at water levels. When you least expect it, due to drought and climate change, many routes become part river, part land trips! Also, if you’ve been on ocean liners before, don’t think a river cruise is anything like a typical ocean faring cruise.” — Nancy S.
Recommended River Cruises and Ships for Solo Travellers
River cruises and expedition ships offer the benefit of staying in one place but it’s important to remember not all offer solo travellers affordable pricing. In addition consider whether tips, drinks and excursions are included. If you’re concerned with a budget, finding a travel partner is one solution.
Readers recommend these lines to start with. Keep an eye out for our upcoming feature on River Cruises which will provide more guidance, particularly on pricing for solo travellers.
An expedition trip to the Northern Lights, Antarctica or the Arctic Circle can be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, one that usually requires advance booking of up to one year, if not more. For Antarctica, read our tips on Antarctica.
For the Northern Lights, many of our readers recommend Hurtigruten. Joy went solo on an eco-friendly Hurtigruten expedition ferry from Bergen to Kilkenny in the Arctic Circle for her birthday. She says being on a ship allowed her to experience the fjords and majestic scenery, with shore excursions to learn about local history in the towns along the route. Hurtigruten has no single supplement and a Northern Lights guarantee for certain months.
“It made me feel as if I was in heaven,” she says. “I started to cry because it was so absolutely beautiful. It was a fact of nature and it happens all the time, but to just see it, I felt like I had died and gone to heaven. I cried my eyes out.”
Solo Travel Inspiration
August’s featured solo travel deals for adventurous women from women-owned businesses in our Women’s Travel Directory. (Sponsored)
In this new series, we explore sustainable travel and our role as women, featuring Shannon Guihan from The Travel Corporation (TTC).
Thinking about post-pandemic travel? Meet our expert panel of women-owned tour operators to learn about group travel for solo women.