Three years ago I embarked on my first solo travel experience, a nine-day reporting trip to Samoa. I was 23, fresh out of college and eager to see what the world had to offer.
Looking back, I marvel at how eager people were to strike up conversations with me, invite me to an activity or offer tips on a hidden gem not listed in my guidebook.
But I also cringe at some of my decisions, like getting in a car alone with two men who offered to show me around the island of Upolu.
Fortunately that adventure turned out fine, and overall, my visit to Samoa opened up my eyes to a whole new way of traveling.
I’ve since gone on solo trips to Vietnam, Hong Kong, Thailand, Australia and Antigua. And I’ve learned to make safe choices while experiencing destinations in ways that traveling with others might not allow.
Other women who travel alone have similar perspectives.
“I find that if I am traveling alone, it is much easier to meet the locals,” says Betty Thesky, 46, a flight attendant who has been to more than 30 countries and whose first solo trip was to Jordan and Israel.
She says that while people assume couples and groups want to be left alone, “you are more approachable when you are by yourself, and people assume that if you’re alone, you would appreciate company.”
Angie Orth, 29, who left her job as a New York public relations executive to travel the world for a year, says traveling solo allows her to be selfish with her time, money and itinerary.
“You can do whatever you want,” says Orth, who has so far this year traveled to Fiji, New Zealand, Indonesia, Thailand, Greece and Spain, among other countries.
“If you want to sit in a cafe and drink coffee and be on Facebook all day, you can. You don’t have to have someone saying, why didn’t we go here or see this museum.”
But the downside of being alone, she says, is that she can’t trust everyone she meets: “You just have to be a little more careful when you’re on your own.”
Orth, who is single, says she tells people that she’s in a relationship as a way to set a clear boundary from the start.
Thesky says she finds there’s an unwritten rule among solo travelers that asking another traveler to dinner or drinks in a new country does not automatically constitute a date.
In fact, she says, simply asking about a destination or something listed in a guidebook can sometimes lead not only to helpful information but to an invitation for coffee or dinner.
“Once you start to realize how friendly people can be, it gets much easier to approach them,” Thesky says.
Elinor Warkentin, 52, of Vancouver, B.C., recommends that female solo travelers consider joining an organization like Women Welcome Women World Wide.
The group connects female travelers with women living in the country they are visiting. Warkentin has met or stayed with more than 100 women this way, and is often met at airports and train stations by other group members.
“We all have a desire to get to know each other,” she says.
Safety is also an important consideration for Warkentin. After being robbed of her camera at knifepoint while traveling alone in Chile in 1992, she downsized her camera and routinely uses windows or other reflective surfaces to see who’s behind her.
She also always maps out in advance exactly how to reach her first hotel upon arrival in a new country, and leaves expensive jewelry at home while trying to blend in to the local culture.
Warkentin recommends a bus tour the first day in a new place too, as a way to get oriented.
“I kind of geographically get the lay of the land and then I can go back and explore,” she says.
Thesky recommends hostels and budget hotels for single travelers because they often have common areas where people can meet.
Another resource is the website for Couchsurfing, which connects travelers to hosts with free informal lodging as well as offering options for simply meeting locals for coffee or a drink.
On a recent trip to Antigua, I connected with a 22-year-old woman through Couchsurfing who picked me up at the airport, showed me local spots on the island and introduced me to her friends and parents.
We bonded instantly over our shared sense of wanderlust and were laughing within minutes of my arrival. We still talk about once a week and often discuss the possibility of traveling together.
So far, though, we haven’t done it. We’re too busy planning trips on our own.