Out of breath and weary, I end my eager speech—that overlong lecture on travel that I deliver, somewhere, each month—and throw open discussion to the floor. Within four minutes, never more, it comes, that inevitable, inescapable, and utterly harrowing question: “Can a single woman travel safely, and enjoyably, alone?”
Amazing how persistent the inquiry, how it reveals a major, near-universal concern among a large portion of all potential travelers.
The questioner is usually a widow in her late middle age, her forehead furrowed with worry. She explains that she and her husband had enjoyed memorable trips abroad, that travel for her is a cherished activity, but that now she is anxious, even frightened, about undertaking further journeys on her own.
As she talks, a nervous movement occurs in the auditorium among men of a similar age. Though they—the men—never initiate the question, they now lean forward in rapt attention, concentrating on every word. And suddenly it is obvious: the problem is not confined to women; the question should be rephrased to ask: “Can a single woman, or a single man, travel enjoyably alone? And can this be done at a mature age?”
The glib response
Though my answer, generally, is “Yes,” I wish I could state it with greater conviction than I do. But the issue is complex, surrounded by ifs, perhapses, and maybes. In this respect I differ from a great many more impulsive travel lecturers who teach one-evening courses at urban night schools, under the title “Traveling Solo: The Joys of ‘Going It Alone.’”
These people claim that we should always travel unaccompanied, even if we don’t have to. Why? Because such is the road to romance and adventure, to chance encounters with foreign citizens, invitations to foreign homes. And the practice, as they tell it, is deliciously selfish: you do only what you desire, without compromise. You do not alter your itinerary or schedule to suit the tastes of another human being. For the first time in your life, you are free.
The message of these trendy singles (almost all in their mid-20s) is of course based on the assumption that a compatible travel companion doesn’t exist; that, almost as if by some law of nature, two people traveling together must necessarily have widely divergent views, inclinations, and tastes. Having themselves never experienced true friendship, love, or compatibility, they proclaim the resounding advantage of traveling alone.
I can’t go quite that far. For surely, only the most naive pollyanna can believe that the pleasure of traveling with a cherished companion—the joy of sharing reactions to renowned sights and experiences—can now be duplicated or replaced in the absence of that person. At best they can be experienced differently, with adequate enjoyment, but not usually with the profound satisfactions of discovering them in the company of a like-minded friend.
The alternatives to solitude
Therefore, before I discuss the ways to enjoy a solitary holiday trip, to “make a go” of traveling alone, it’s important to note that you don’t have to. By simply mailing in $25 to Connecting: Solo Travel Network, 689 Park Road, Unit 6, Gibsons, BC V0N 1V7, Canada (phone 604/886-9099, web www.cstn.org) or by ordering online—you can obtain the names of potential companions for your next trip. The network, begun by veteran solo traveler and former travel writer Diane Redfern in 1990, distributes bi-monthly “newsletters” by e-mail which feature about 100 travel companion ads in each issue. These, in effect, are “travel personals,” but Redfern herself screens them all for “good taste” and travel-appeal (meaning only ads with nailed down specifics, such as destination, dates, budget, etc., will be posted in the newsletter).
About half of the 1,700 subscribers are over the age of 50 and the readers are split pretty evenly between the U.S. and Canada, so you’ll reach a pretty wide pool of fellow solo seniors. The mailing also includes an extensive listing of single-friendly travel spots, tour operators, and solo traveler tips. You don’t have to be a member to submit an ad (which you can do online), but you do to answer one, and ad-posting priority is given to “paid-up” members. For the less cyber-savvy, a snail mail newsletter is available for $35 CAD/year. View the Connecting: Solo Travel Network Web site at www.cstn.org.
In cyberspace, online resources for finding travel pals are popping up all over the net as we speak.
WiredSeniors (www.wiredseniors.com), a Web site dedicated to senior-oriented interests since 1995, it hosts “Travel Mate” ads, specifically geared at matching up solo travelers in the 50 plus age group.
With about 85 percent of the 1000 members from the U.S. and the rest scattered worldwide, there are approximately 150 ads currently listed. It’s $29 a year to join and you can search for a touring partner by gender, destination, or season of travel. Interested parties contact each other through the site’s internal messaging service.
ThirdAge Media, Inc. (since 1996) also hosts a Web site, www.thirdage.com, which features travel companion ads for “first-wave baby boomers” (from mid-forties through fifties, but a quick scan of the ads proves quite a few older travelers are getting in on the act). It isn’t necessary to be a member to browse the listings, but to post one requires filling out a brief survey, detailing dates, destinations, travel interests, budget, and desired companion qualities (it’s free). The site is kept well up to date and there are usually close to 200 ads listed at any one time.
Outdoor Singles Network (P.O. Box 781, Haines, AK 99827; E-mail: email@example.com) is an established quarterly newsletter (since 1989) that aids campers and other outdoor enthusiasts in finding travel companions, pen-pals, or soulmates. $55 is the cost for a one-year subscription and it covers any personal ad the subscriber might want printed. An online-only membership for a year costs $35. On the Web at www.kcd.com/ci/osn
And for a near-guarantee that you will find a suitable travel “match-up,” but at rates of $159 per year, contact Travel Companion Exchange (www.whytravelalone.com, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org), founded by the well-known travel figure, Jens Jurgen. His is the most elaborate of all travel match-up services, supplying you with literally thousands of available listings, all carefully grouped by computer into helpful categories (“special interests,” “special travel plans,” and the like) to enable a wise choice.
Traveling only with singles
As a substitute for seeking a travel companion, one can travel with groups consisting only of singles. The following list is but a few of the more prominent organizations in this field.
Solo Flights & Mature Tours
493 Church Hill Road
Trumbull, CT 06611
Tel: 800/266-1566, 203/445-0107
Geared to single mature audiences. Free newsletter describing tours.
P.O. Box 1940
Apache Junction, AZ 85217
Offers advice, support, seminars, caravans, and a bi-monthly magazine and membership directory to “on-your-own” women RVers who are single, widowed, divorced or have husbands who just hate camping. Membership is $42 a year, new members pay a one time processing fee of $10.
Going Solo Travel Club
629-11 Eleventh Ave, SW
Calgary, Alberta T2R 0E1 Canada
For singles of all ages, but their longer tours tend to be dominated by the over-50 crowd.
Loners on Wheels, Inc.
P.O. Box 1060-WB
Cape Girardeau, MO 63702
Operated for mature singles who possess recreational vehicles. A rather large organization, it forms caravans of RVs operated solely by singles, and takes them to rallies and camp-outs all over the country and occasionally to Mexico, too. Annual dues: $45, plus an enrollment fee of $5 (the first year only).
Activities where age doesn't matter
Your other option is to travel abroad with groups pursuing an intense social, political, scientific, or educational purpose. In that context, the fact that some are singles, some couples, becomes of minor significance: people are engaged in a communal activity, living helter-skelter in group lodgings, so intent on their work that they mix and mingle easily.
The study tours operated by the famous Elderhostel, 11 Avenue de Lafayette, Boston, MA 02111-1746 (Tel: 877/426-8056, Web: www.elderhostel.org), are that kind of program. Elderhostel sends people over the age of 55 to attend one-week classroom courses of instruction in the U.S. and around the world, using inns and university residence halls—sometimes even dormitories, segregated by sex-for lodgings. Rooms are generally double occupancy, with some facilities offering singles at a small extra fee. If you wish, they will assign you a roommate. The activity attracts a heavy number of singles to its continually fascinating curriculum (singles make up a full 30% of Elderhostel’s volume, and two-thirds of those singles are women). But because Elderhostel passengers are focused so intently on ideas outside of themselves, the fact that they are alone or accompanied dwindles in importance, fades from consciousness; and people glory in the camaraderie and joint activities of the entire group.
The trips sponsored by The Earthwatch Institute, 3 Clock Tower Place, Suite 100, Box 75, Maynard, MA 01754 (Tel: 978/461-0081 or 800/776-0188, Web: www.earthwatch.org), are also that sort of program. It sends its volunteers on scientific research projects (tagging turtles, measuring acid rain, interviewing rural residents), making use of a catch-as-catch-can array of housing accommodations (local schools and community centers, tents, and private homes) in which people are lodged as conditions permit. Its charges (“contributions”) are uniform per person, with no single supplement, and the composition of its “teams” is heavily slanted to singles. “We were an unlikely group,” wrote one recent Earthwatch participant, “..a history teacher from Ohio, a Long Island college student, a retired real estate investor from Arizona....” A full 20 percent of all Earthwatch volunteers, I am told, are 56 to 65 years old; nearly 10 percent are over 65.
Similar in character, largely erasing the distinction between couples and singles, and attracting a heavy percentage of singles, are the “adventure tours” (camping safaris, treks in Nepal and the Andes, outdoor nature expeditions) sponsored by an increasing number of tour operators. Though they require a certain minimum vigor (but less than you might think), they cater to people of all ages, attract a heavy turnout of mature singles, and house them in tents or improvised accommodations. Scan the catalogs of Overseas Adventure Travel (Web: www.oattravel.com, phone 800/493-6824)—which carried an 82-year-old woman on a recent camping safari to Tanzania—or Mountain Travel/Sobek, 1266 66th AVenue, Emeryville, CA 94608, phone 888-MTSOBEK or access www.MTSobek.com, for additional examples of purposive trips in which all participants become undifferentiated members of a cohesive group, without regard to marital status.
The same applies to volunteer “workcamp” tours engaging in socially conscious projects around the world: contact VFP International Workcamps, 1034 Tiffany Road, Belmont, VT 05730 (phone 802/259-2759 or visit it on the web at www.vfp.org), and specify the trips open to all ages; or to politically oriented trips, some heavily feminist in nature, organized by the companies described in our discussion elsewhere on our site.
While all such trips appeal to only a segment of the mature audience, they provide the perfect antidote to the “single travel blues.”
It is primarily—let me suggest—on the standard, traditional trips, with their single supplements and couples-only atmosphere, that the problems of traveling alone are most sharply felt.
Enjoying the standard trips
So how, then, do you travel alone for normal sightseeing or recreational purposes? How, as a mature single person, do you best vacation in new lands, or travel to visit important cultural exhibits or simply to refresh the mind and body?
The problem centers on that edifice known as a “hotel”—that ultimately boring and impersonal institution, with its inescapable “single surcharges.”
(One wise observer recently speculated that Hell consists of being condemned to stay, unto eternity, in a different Holiday Inn each night.)
The obvious solution is to avoid the use of standard hotels and replace them with a people-friendly form of lodgings. Staying with families while abroad serves the triple purpose of avoiding loneliness, gaining new friendships and insights, and lowering costs: you not only escape from that burdensome single supplement, but start from a radically lower base of costs.
Indeed, some mature singles even lower their lodgings expense to zero by joining the public-spirited, worldwide membership of Servas, 11 John St., Suite 505, New York, NY 10038 (Tel: 212/267-0252, Email: email@example.com, Web: www.servas.org), which believes that free and frequent people-to-people contacts, through home visits, serve the cause of world peace. On the eve of a trip, members obtain from Servas the names and addresses of families in every major city who have expressed their willingness to receive other Servas members into their homes (for short stays) free of charge, because they believe in the profound moral aspect of such hospitality.
Other mature singles opt for a more commercial form of homestay, but inexpensive and without the single supplement, by utilizing the services of homestay organizations in every major country. Female travelers should consider joining a marvelous organization called “Women Welcome Women,” currently in its 21st year of operation and more than 3,000 members strong.
Formed to facilitate “cultural exchanges” between women from all parts of the globe, the club also arranges conferences and gatherings where members take courses, hear lectures, sightsee and socialize in the home city of the sponsoring member.
As with Servas, regular homestays are arranged on a person-to-person basis, with the aid of a yearly directory of would-be hosts. W.W.W. currently has members in 70 countries, including such exotic locales as Vietnam, Turkey, Zimbabwe, Kuwait and Latvia. There are high concentrations in Europe (particularly Germany, The U.K., the Netherlands, Belgium and Switzerland), Australia, Japan and the U.S. The suggested donation for membership is 25 British pounds (approximately $47) to defray postage and administration costs. For more information, write to: Women Welcome Women, 88 Easton Street, High Wycombe, Bucks, HP11 1LT, United Kingdom. See its Web site at www.womenwelcomewomen.org.uk.
The most relaxed and adventurous of mature singles stay in youth hostels both here and abroad, now that the international youth-hostel organization has removed all maximum age restrictions on the right to use their facilities. Particularly in the fall and winter months, when young people are in school, the predominant clientele of many youth hostels is today middle-aged and elderly! But even when one shares these multi-bedded rooms or dorms with young people, one pays an inexpensive charge, without a supplement. And one stays in a lively setting of international conversations and encounters. For information, contact American Youth Hostels, Inc., 8401 Colesville Road, Suite 600, Silver Spring, MD 20910 (phone 301/495-1240 or visit its Web site at www.hiayh.org).
One rather affluent and mature U.S. lawyer of my acquaintance, who has traveled extensively by herself in the South Pacific, actually favors hostels, though she could afford much better. “They offer a wonderful way to meet people, including local people traveling in their own country,” she points out. “The kitchen is a great social center, with perhaps 12 people, each attempting to cook dinner for one—a hilarious scene. By the time the various dinners are ready, you’re all old friends.”
Revising your attitudes
If, despite this advice, you’re determined to keep going on the standard trips and to use standard hotels, you may need a new mental outlook for coping with the problems of solitary travel—a confident and positive outlook. Though at the outset I was careful to stress my own view that traveling in twos is usually superior to traveling alone, there are nonetheless some attractive aspects to the latter experience.
You might regard that first experience as a zesty challenge, a chance to shape yourself for the better. Whatever your usual personality, you must of necessity attempt to be more outgoing and convivial. Introduce yourself to the people around you. Ask locals and other tourists for advice on restaurants and sights. Suggest the sharing of a meal at some celebrated establishment. Just as the same human necessities breed invention, so traveling by oneself often leads to increased openness, receptivity to new people and ideas, greater self-assurance and pride.
Among some single travelers—certainly not all, but some—the experience soon takes on a mood of surprised exhilaration. They find they’re more sensitive to the people and culture of the destination. The absence of a familiar companion removes them from the familiar cocoon of their own language and culture, and teaches them a new language, a new culture.
(And, incidentally, traveling alone is the fastest—some say the best—way to learn another language).
These new solitary travelers become less self-conscious. After that first nerve-wracking dinner alone in a large hotel restaurant—when every eye seems focused, accusingly, on them—they suddenly realize that in reality no one is terribly concerned with or interested in the fact that they are dining alone. It is a liberating bit of knowledge. On all subsequent evenings they bring a book or magazine to the dinner table, and revel in the luxury of thus relaxing at a high-quality meal.
Though it may not be all that it once was, traveling while alone is soon recognized to be immeasurably more satisfying than the alternative: moping at home alone. And with every succeeding trip, the experience gains in pleasure, ease, and depth; it keeps us alive. As that canny voyager, Miriam Tobolowsky who operates Partners-in-Travel, puts it: “Travel isn’t something you do in old age; it is something you do instead of old age.”
Travel is thus far too important to be dispensed with when a companion is unavailable; it is part of a civilized life, our birthright. The most vital of our fellow humans travel, whether alone or not—and so should you!