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.
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 safe. 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 how much it will cost before you leave. If it's considerably different from what you know to be true, take a different cab.
- Find out if hotels at your destination are open 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-shirts and skip the Bermuda shorts.
- Don't draw attention to yourself by wearing flashy clothes or jewelry.
- Lie a little. Not only can you invent your own persona or history, but you can also make your life easier with little white lies. 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.
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 tack onto your bill to make up for the fact that they're not making money off a second occupant. This 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 GAP Adventures, Intrepid Travel, Elderhostel 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.
If you're flexible and ready to go at a moment's notice, you could save money by booking at the last minute. Many tour operators are eager to sell out their last few places, so they may be willing to reduce their usual single supplement.
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 dining
Eating alone isn't so bad. Many solo travelers (and frequent business travelers) are terrified of eating alone, worried that they appear like some worn-out Willy Loman of the road. There's even a name for it: solomangarephobia. Nonetheless, 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. Turns out that waiters and waitresses are some of the best local color you'll find.
- Most Zagat guides include a section on "Singles Dining"; you might not be out to meet a new beau, but this should offer some options nonetheless.
- 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, write letters or in a journal, 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 meal alone, use room service. It's often no more expensive than local restaurants.
- 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.
For more tips, check out SoloDining.com.
Staying in touch
Internet kiosks can be found from Toledo to Thailand; a free e-mail account is all you need to stay in touch. For your safety and your loved ones' peace of mind, leave them a copy of your itinerary and check in periodically.
There are more options than ever for using your existing cell phone or renting one when you travel abroad. If you won't be traveling outside the U.S., your current cell phone will suffice; if you are, you might have a temporary number. Be sure to give your number to family and friends before you leave in case of emergencies.
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 "American bar" — locals will often know where these are — where you can hang out and speak your native tongue with some fellow ex-pats and travelers. When traveling stateside or in 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.
AllSinglesTravel.com offers tours and cruises for singles, guaranteeing you a roommate as long as you book 60 days in advance. They'll also make an effort to waive the single supplement for you if you'd prefer a room of your own.
Connecting: Solo Travel Network features tales and tips from solo travelers. Membership grants you access to a wide range of tips, a subscription to its electronic newsletter and the opportunity to connect with other solo travelers.
Singles Travel International guarantees to find you a roommate whenever you pay in full by the cut-off date. If they don't, they'll pay the single supplement.
Solo Cruiser offers many cruises with reduced single supplements -- or even no supplement at all.
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Travel Alone and Love It, a great site by solo travel expert Sharon Wingler, has tons of helpful travel tips.
Travel Chums is a site that allows you to find and connect with fellow solo travelers who want to travel to the same destinations you do.
Women Traveling Together aims at women whose companions can't or won't travel with them and who prefer not to travel alone. The company offers tours, retreats and other getaways, complete with roommate matching.
The Independent Traveler is an interactive traveler's exchange and comprehensive online travel guide for a community of travelers who enjoy the fun of planning their own trips and the adventure of independent travel. You can access our wealth of travel resources and great bargains here at www.independenttraveler.com, or at www.bargainbox.com.