I have a friend about to depart on a month-long solo trip to Paris. She’s excited and a bit nervous about striking out on her own, but exhilarated by the freedom to finally do what she wants.
The number of women choosing to travel alone is climbing. What used to be the spunky college student backpacking through Europe is now more likely to be the mature woman exploring the world on her own terms. Women who have worked hard and have some disposable income or savings, or have raised a family and are celebrating their own graduation into an empty nest or, like my friend, weathered tough times, are breaking through stereotypes and fear and are heading out to see a few things.
Travel is one of the best gifts we can give ourselves and sometimes traveling alone can deepen the experience and bring the added satisfaction of independence. Here are a few of the things I’ve learned along the way:
Be aware: It’s easy to get lost in the pleasure of being in a new place but the basic safety rules still apply. Pay attention to where you are and who’s around you.
Pack light. Nothing is more distracting--or attracts the wrong kind of attention--than dragging around too much luggage. If you’re struggling to maneuver a large suitcase over cobblestones or across busy intersections, you’re not paying attention to your surroundings. Plus, being held hostage by all the extras you don’t really need takes all the fun out of travel. (Tip: Pack everything you think you have to have, then try to eliminate half. Repeat the process. You’ll be surprised by how little you actually need.)
Prearrange transport to your hotel. The trip from the airport to the hotel is frequently the biggest hassle of traveling. If convenient public transport is not a practical option, when you book a hotel, ask if the property offers a shuttle to and from the airport or train station. If not, ask what private service they recommend. If you plan to take a taxi, stop by the airport or station Visitor Information kiosk to ask for taxi recommendations and what the expected fare should be.
Blend in: Wearing a big camera around your neck or standing on the street puzzling over a city map can draw unwanted attention. So can the flashy designer purse hanging on your arm. Use a cross-body purse with pockets and a zipper. My favorite--actually a men’s messenger bag--cost three times as much as I'd usually pay but has been around the world with me. When the strap began to fray, the company repaired it for me. I’m not a big fan of backpacks but they’re sometimes necessary for day-trip necessities. Again, as with luggage, don’t over pack. A big load on your back slows you down and makes you vulnerable to thieves. When you need to study your map, step into an office building or hotel lobby where you can get your bearings without having to worry about attracting attention.
Plan ahead and get some rest: For many of us, just getting ready to get away is the hardest part of the trip. There are deadlines to meet, household details to take care of and family obligations. I can't count the number of times I've taken off on a journey without having slept at all for the last 24 or even 36 hours. That's no way to travel. For one thing, we're not at our best. Foggy from lack of sleep, it's easy to miss a flight or train connection. And, fatigue makes us vulnerable to illness and human predators. Do yourself a favor. Start packing and taking care of things early and don't get caught up in last minute emergencies.
Dress the part: The cliché that you can pick the American tourist out of the crowd is unfortunately all too often true. Europeans are casual but never sloppy; their clothes fit well and are age appropriate. Last year, at breakfast in the elegant dining room of the Hotel Sacher in Vienna, a man walked into the room. He was wearing khaki shorts and a souvenir t-shirt from an American national park. On each belt loop of his shorts he’d fastened a carabiner to hold his water bottle, city map and sunglasses. The man was in one of the most beautiful--and well-dressed--cities in the world, outfitted like he was setting off to explore the Amazon. A few minutes later he was joined by his wife who was dressed the same way. Their clothing was expensive and practical, but completely out of place.
Don’t bring the bling: Why advertise? Leave the extra jewelry at home. I’ve been on group trips where we were all asked to help find a missing gold bangle and traveling on my own I’ve seen tourists in a panic because an expensive, sometimes sentimental, earring or necklace was lost. Think about leaving the big camera at home and bringing along a smaller high quality point-and-shoot.
Choose a hotel that caters to women travelers. One of my favorites is the Georgian Court Hotel in Vancouver, BC. Their Orchid Floor is dedicated to women travelers, especially professional travelers, and the rooms are thoughtfully designed. Going beyond the hair dryer and bathrobe, room extras include a flat iron, curling iron, yoga mat and padded hangers. There are also extra “necessities” in the closet, including pantyhose.(Bare legs are an American thing. In Europe and other countries, well-dressed means covered legs.)
Go to the source: One of the first things I do when traveling is contact the local tourism office. They are one of the best resource for “insider” tips and information.
Use a travel agent. The internet has simplified travel while simultaneously making it more complex. A travel agent can help you with every aspect of travel from booking to insurance. And, if a problem arises, you have someone to call.
Resources: Check out these sites for more information about women traveling solo:
Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a travel writer based in the Northwest whose audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of 'Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons' and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org