People who have never traveled alone often describe their first solo trip as an almost religious experience. To take in new surroundings unfiltered by the prejudices, tastes or preferences of a traveling companion can be heady stuff. Traveling alone gives you the chance to indulge yourself fully.
Of course, single travel has its perils too -- such as safety concerns, loneliness and the dreaded single supplement. But a little preparation and common sense can save you money and get you through the rough spots.
Why Travel Alone?
Solo travel can be the ultimate in self-indulgence; you can rest when you want and pour it on when you're feeling ambitious. Another benefit is that your mistakes are your own, and your triumphs all the more exciting. There's no worrying that your insistence on trekking all the way across town to a museum that was closed ruined your partner's day; it's your own day to salvage or chalk up to a learning experience.
Also, you can do exactly what you want to do -- all the time. Always wanted to try surfing? Sign up for a class and go for it; there's no one sitting on the beach bored while you have the time of your life. Have no desire to see Niagara Falls? Just drive right by.
Staying Safe While Traveling Alone
Perhaps the foremost concern of the solo or single traveler is safety. Without a companion to watch your back, you are more vulnerable to criminals and scam artists, as well as simple health worries. But the saying "safety in numbers" isn't necessarily true -- a solo traveler can blend in more easily than a group, and not drawing attention to yourself as a tourist is one way to stay secure. Here are a few tips:
Know how long it takes and how much it costs to get from the airport to your hotel or to the city center. Solo travelers are more likely to be "taken for a ride," so ask the taxi driver for an estimated fare before you leave. If it's considerably different from what you know to be true, take a different cab.
Book a hotel with a 24-hour front desk if you'll be arriving late, so you don't end up sleeping in your car or worse.
Be your own best counsel; if it doesn't feel right, don't do it.
Carry good identification, in more than one place.
Keep to open and public places, especially at night.
Exude confidence and walk purposefully.
Avoid appearing like a tourist. Ditch the Disney T-shirt and don't walk around with your face in a guidebook. (See 10 Things You Should Never Wear Abroad for more thoughts on this one.)
Don't draw attention to yourself by wearing flashy clothes or jewelry.
Lie a little. When asking directions, don't let on that you are alone: "Can you direct me to the museum? I have to meet a friend."
Check your maps and transportation schedules before leaving your hotel/train/rental car/tourist office. A solo traveler poring over maps can be a mark for unsavory types.
Leave a copy of your itinerary with a friend or family member at home, and stay in touch regularly via phone, text, video chat or email.
For U.S. citizens traveling internationally, consider signing up for the free Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP), which could help the State Department assist you in case of emergency. If you're from outside the States, see if your home country has a similar program.
Trust Everyone and No One
One of the best reasons to travel alone is to meet new people, but this also makes you more vulnerable. It's okay to hang out, travel and share with new friends, but you might not want to ask them to hold your money. Scam artists can often be the most charming companions you'll find; you want to be open-minded, but keep your guard up enough to ensure your safety.
Avoiding the Single Supplement
Frequent solo travelers are all too familiar with the single supplement, which tour operators, cruise lines and hotels often tack onto your bill to make up for the fact that they're not making money off a second occupant. The supplement can range anywhere from 25 to 100 percent of the trip cost, meaning that you could end up paying twice as much as someone traveling with a partner.
There are several ways to get around the single supplement. You can avoid it altogether by booking with a tour operator that offers roommate matching, such as G Adventures, Intrepid Travel, Road Scholar and Holland America Line. By finding you a roommate, they maximize their own profit off each room and save you the single supplement. The catch is, of course, that you'll have to share a room with a stranger. If you're concerned, contact the tour operator and see what kind of procedures they use to match roommates. Some pair people off at random, while others will make an effort to put complementary personalities together.
Several cruise lines offer single staterooms on select ships, including Royal Caribbean International, Norwegian Cruise Line and P&O Cruises.
You can sometimes save money by booking at the last minute. Tour operators eager to sell out their last few places may be willing to reduce their usual single supplement. Abercrombie & Kent and Road Scholar are two companies that regularly discount or waive single supplements.
It's not for everyone, but you may also want to consider staying in a hostel, which charges per bed rather than per room. Hostelling International properties tend to be reliably clean and secure, and they're open to travelers of all ages.
To keep track of the latest single travel deals, sign up for solo travel newsletters and regularly visit sites that cater to singles. See our resource list below for ideas.
Tips for Solo Dining
Eating alone isn't so bad. Many solo travelers (and frequent business travelers) hate dining by themselves, worried that they appear like some worn-out Willy Loman of the road. There's even a name for it: solomangarephobia. (Occasionally the fear is justified -- see Terror at the Table for One.) The following tips can help you overcome what for many travelers is the most unpleasant aspect of going it alone.
Chat with the service people. Waiters and waitresses are some of the best local color you'll find.
Cafe and outdoor dining is often attractive to single travelers; sitting alone with a book in a cafe isn't as unusual as a table for one at a fancy restaurant.
Choose a counter seat or a seat at the bar.
Go to a restaurant that has booths, which offer more privacy.
Bring reading materials. If you start to feel uneasy sitting alone and staring down at your food, you can crack open a book, whip out your phone or read a magazine. One hint: The more high-minded your pursuit appears, the more likely folks are either to ignore you, or to become intrigued and maybe say hello.
If you don't want to endure yet another public meal alone, use room service or order carry-out from a restaurant nearby.
Eat well. Just because you're alone and on the run doesn't mean you shouldn't take time for sit-down meals, a leisurely cup of coffee or a decadent dessert.
Female travelers can check out a site called Invite for a Bite, which organizes meet-ups for meals with other women. For more info, see Take a Bite Out of Solo Dining.
SoloDining.com is a good source of advice for those eating alone.
When You've Just About Had It
The constant sensory input and vigilance of traveling alone can wear you down. If you feel your attention or your body flagging, don't be afraid to back off your ambitious itinerary, slow the pace and kick back for a bit.
When traveling abroad, seek out an expat bar -- locals will often know where these are -- where you can hang out and speak your native tongue with some fellow expatriates and travelers. When traveling in more familiar locales, a hot shower and a night in front of the boob tube in a nice hotel room can often give you enough of a reprieve to send you out eagerly the next morning.
Resources for Solo Travelers
AllSinglesTravel.com offers tours and cruises for singles in a variety of categories, including active trips, beaches and classic sightseeing.
SafeCheckIn.com is a service that allows solo travelers to register their trips in order to make sure they get back safely. For a monthly membership fee, you can enter specific information about when you should return from a particular trip or outing. If you don't check in with the site at the designated time, SafeCheckIn.com will attempt to contact you; if you're out of reach, the site will reach out to your emergency contacts and, if necessary, the local authorities.
SinglesTravelIntl.com guarantees to find you a roommate whenever you pay in full by the cut-off date. If it doesn't, the company will pay the single supplement on its tours, cruises and weekend trips.
SoloTravelerBlog.com offers tips, resources and destination guides for solo travelers, as well as a free e-book called Travel Alone and Love it!
Women-Traveling.com is for solo female travelers who prefer to be with a group of like-minded women. The company offers tours, retreats and other getaways, complete with roommate matching.
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