03 Jun Flying Solo
By Erin Klenow
In 2015, Kristel Rodriguez was looking forward to her first trip to Southeast Asia, where she planned to explore Thailand, Malaysia, and Bali with a girlfriend. Plane tickets purchased, Airbnbs booked, itinerary set. But a month before takeoff, her travel buddy backed out, citing professional obligations. A born-and-bred New Yorker, Rodriguez was a seasoned traveler in her 30s, but she had never ventured abroad alone. “I begged a bunch of people to come with me,” she says. “I was terrified to go to countries I’d never been to, where I didn’t know the language, by myself. I told people I’d pay for the lodging, and I still couldn’t get anyone to bite. And then I thought, am I really going to miss out on this amazing trip because I’m afraid of going alone?” She decided to take the leap.
As it turns out, Rodriguez is definitely not alone—solo travel is on the rise. According to Google Trends, the number of searches for “solo travel” has more than doubled since 2014. Expedia conducted its first-ever Solo Travel Report last year and concluded that 60 percent of travelers will plan a solo trip in the next year. As for women traveling alone, industry insiders like Cassandra Brooklyn, founder of EscapingNY, report increased bookings by solo women—“for help [planning] their first solo trip and also joining group trips as a first step in their journey to begin traveling alone.” She even led her first all-female group to Mexico City in 2019. “I didn’t specifically promote it that way,” she explains, “but that’s who signed up.”
Why the uptick? Judi Wineland, a 30-plus-year veteran of the travel industry who runs the outfitter Adventure Women with her two daughters, puts it this way: “Is the increase in solo travel because [more] women want to travel solo, or is it because there is a lot more information and possibility for them? I think it’s a combination of both.” As more women travel on their own, the more they document and share their experiences—which works to allay fears and create excitement around going solo. This outlook isn’t exclusive to millennials, Wineland notes. Her clients, primarily women ages 45 to 75, “travel by themselves for all different reasons. Maybe they’re single, maybe they’re married or divorced or widowed, maybe their partners want to do something different, or they would just love to have time on their own.”
Excitement and empowerment aside, the first thing holding women back from traveling alone is concern for personal safety. The growth in solo travel has led to an explosion of digital resources on the topic—such as the site Solo Traveler and its attached Facebook group—which agree on some best practices.
• Share your itinerary and a copy of your passport with someone back home.
• Register your trip with the US State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP).
• Bring a backup debit and/or credit card and store it separately from the ones you use every day.
• Know where you are. Learn to use an offline map app (like maps.me or Google Maps’ offline feature) so you can navigate without WiFi or a cellular connection. Or rent a mobile WiFi router from a company like Travel Wifi, so you can access WiFi on your smartphone wherever you go.
• Research the customs and cultural norms in your destination and respect them—especially when it comes to how women are expected to dress.
Choosing accommodation is also a key factor in feeling secure, and different travelers have different preferences. When Rodriguez realized she’d be solo, she canceled a Balinese Airbnb with an outdoor shower in favor of a bungalow on an enclosed family compound. “It didn’t have the pool that I wanted,” she says, but notes that one reviewer pronounced it “the perfect place for a solo female traveler, which felt like a bat signal. I always look for that now.” (Rodriguez recently accepted a position with Airbnb.) Whether you’re browsing a home-sharing platform, looking at boutique hotels, or considering international chains, Rodriguez advises reading “tons and tons of reviews” and scanning for relevant details: Is the surrounding area well lit? Will someone be there to greet you? Have other single travelers gone before you?
Another common worry is loneliness, but Rodriguez found that she connected with more people when she was on her own. She befriended one woman after they took each other’s photos at a palace in Bangkok, then had lunch together. A couple of Irish honeymooners “adopted” her for a day in a Thai beach town. And her highly rated Airbnb host in Bali? He took her to visit a gorgeous rice field, and she connected with his wife and kids over banana pancakes. “If a friend had been there, we would have been chatting the whole time,” but being alone “absolutely allowed me to experience the culture more, to meet more people.”
For women of color, going solo can feel like uncharted or uncertain territory. Rodriguez, who identifies as Afro-Latina, says it felt like a hurdle just telling her extended Puerto Rican–Dominican family about her first solo foray. “My parents, my aunts, my older cousins? None of them were doing what I was doing.” Dianelle Rivers-Mitchell, a wife, mother, and lifelong traveler based in Texas, started the Instagram account Black Girls Travel Too (BGTT) “to get people who look like me to believe that they have access to the world.” Rivers-Mitchell’s desire to showcase black female travelers came from intimate conversations with family and friends who would repeatedly communicate that black people don’t travel.
Today, BGTT has 127,000 followers and has expanded to offer group trips for black women in their 20s through their 60s (see sidebar). Rivers-Mitchell describes being regarded with intense curiosity in India and Thailand, but in a way that makes her feel “like a celebrity.” She admits that some of her friends in the United States think she’s crazy, but if someone who’s met very few black women wants to touch her hair or skin, “I embrace their request as this provides me with an opportunity to rewrite the narrative of what [black women] are.”
For travelers less extroverted than Rodriguez or Rivers-Mitchell, there are ways to test your comfort level without leaving the country. “If you’re scared to travel alone, start small,” Rodriguez says. “Go to a restaurant by yourself, and enjoy your own company.” Rivers-Mitchell advises checking out a new city in your home state as a first step. Would you rather spend all day in a spa or explore the sights? Do you prefer to join guided tours—even at a museum—or would you rather set your own pace? For first-timers abroad, she says, “I wouldn’t recommend to start out solo traveling. Find a group trip that speaks to you, learn your travel style, and make mistakes within that support system.” Even for an experienced globetrotter, group trips can offer a way in to destinations that are difficult to navigate alone. Cassandra Brooklyn, of EscapingNY, explains that some of her clients “are happy to plan their own solo trips to many destinations, but feel that they wouldn’t be able to meet locals or get off the beaten path in Cuba or Jordan,” for example, which is where a trip organizer comes in.
As for Kristel Rodriguez, she discovered she loves the freedom of solo travel and has continued to vacation alone—to Australia, Fiji, and Mexico City, to name a few. “I almost forget to invite people,” she laughs, “and now my younger cousins are like, ‘Oh, she does it so I can do it, too!’” Brooklyn, a tour organizer, believes that solo female travel is here to stay—in whatever form a woman chooses. “It’s not a trend in the sense that it’s going to end next year when something else is the hot new thing. Women are more liberated and independent than ever, and they’re not waiting around for friends or a significant other to explore the world with them.” DW
You can connect with Kristel Rodriguez on Instagram @littlemissjetsetter
Group Trips for Solo Travelers
For the first-timer, many experts recommend joining an organized group trip as a single traveler, which can eliminate much of the anxiety that comes with planning to travel on your own. For some women, it’s a gateway to eventual solo journeys, and for others, it becomes the only way they vacation.
In addition to actively catering to solo female travelers, every operator on this list specializes in small groups, getting off the beaten path, and making meaningful connections with locals.
With 37 years of experience, Adventure Women truly delivers on its name, leading all-female, active tours (of varying intensity) in 65 countries. Options range from a walking trip through Portugal’s Douro wine region to a Tanzanian safari to a culinary and cultural odyssey in Oman. adventurewomen.com; 800-804-8686
Black Girls Travel Too
More than an instagram platform showcasing jetsetting women of color, Black Girls Travel Too organizes group trips to destinations vetted by founder Dianelle Rivers- Mitchell. Locales for 2020 include Barbados, Thailand, South Africa, and India. blackgirlstraveltoo.com; 817-430-4066
Road Scholar is a not-for-profit organization offering “learning adventures” in 150 countries and all 50 states. Every group is accompanied by scholars and local guides and targets “baby boomers and beyond” (translation: travelers over the age of 50). roadscholar.org; 800-454-5768
Billing itself a group tour company “for people who don’t like group tours,” EscapingNY offers small group trips to Cuba, Mexico, and Jordan—places that some women are intimidated to navigate on their own. Trips focus on engaging with local people and incorporate walking tours, cooking classes, bike rides, hiking, and snorkeling. escapingny.com
Founded with the intention of connecting English-speaking travelers with meaningful volunteer opportunities in India, Escape to… also offers group tours in India and Sri Lanka that focus on vegan food, yoga, and zero-waste travel. escapeto.in
Butterfield & Robinson • Butterfield & Robinson is a luxury tour company that’s been organizing trips for 50 years. Its 2020 offerings expand into the wellness realm and include snowshoeing and saunas in Finland, a Himalayan hiking excursion, and a tour of hammams along Turkey’s Turquoise Coast.
Erin Klenow is a freelance writer living in San Francisco.
Photo by ATIKH-BANA on Unsplash