Newbies’ guide to solo travel

18 August 2017

To celebrate a landmark birthday, Saga Magazine reader Shelley Blackstein confounded her friends and set off as a solo traveller on a cruise halfway round the world, before exploring Australia and New Zealand on her own. Here she offers her tips on going it alone for beginners.



Last year, I marked reaching 70 with ‘the trip of a lifetime’, six weeks cruising from Southampton to Auckland and then a few weeks of exploring New Zealand and Australia under my own steam. Most of my friends were aghast. ‘You’re travelling alone?’ they shrieked, as though I needed a minder at my age!

There are thousands of single, mature people travelling the world at any given time and a good many reasons for solo travelling.

Discover a selection of holidays specifically for solo travellers Find out more here.

For a start, this means proper ‘me time’. You can please yourself, rather than the spouse/friend who is not as adventurous/like-minded. There’s no demanding companion to compromise with: I’ve even fallen out with someone over snoring in a shared room. I did, apparently; she, of course, didn’t.

You may have just retired and want to experience life and independence outside the box. If you’re recently widowed, you may not fancy accepting the generosity (or pity) of accompanying your married friends. I met a lady whose husband had booked their holiday but died before the event. She still went to honour his memory. Good for you, girl!

Going solo can be uplifting and exhilarating and, remember, alone doesn’t mean lonely – it means time to enjoy your own company and that of strangers. So, whether you’re deliberating over heading into the blue yonder strictly solo or among strangers on an escorted tour, just take a deep breath and go…

Shelley in Tahiti and in Curaçao
Shelley in Tahiti and in Curaçao

Golden rules for enjoying a great solo trip

1. Don’t be too ambitious at first

If you’re unsure, try out easier options such as singles or activity holidays that revitalise your interest with like-minded people. Or my personal favourite, cruising, which is an easy and luxurious comfort zone.

2. Know your limitations

If you’re nervous about driving abroad, just find another method of travel. I considered driving around Australia but had visions of breaking down in the middle of the bush with no mobile signal or human contact for hundreds of miles. I booked flights!

3. Prepare your itinerary as much as possible

There is nothing worse for your self-confidence than feeling at a loss, not knowing what you’re doing or where you’re going. Being organised doesn’t mean you can’t be spontaneous, but this way you change your plans within a structure.

Escorted tours offer security with knowledgeable guides while allowing you the space to be your own person, to mix and mingle (or not) as you choose.

4. Research local customs

For example, a smile may go a long way, but a lot further than you imagined in some countries where it can be misconstrued as suggesting way more than a ‘thank you’ or casual ‘hello’.

5. Throw yourself into activities

Book excursions and plan your days to keep yourself occupied. All of these will involve others and the chance to enjoy some company and meet interesting people. However, sometimes it’s better to savour experiences alone. You can take your time to marvel at what you are seeing without distractions from other people.

6. Take a book to dinner

Dining alone can feel uncomfortable, so take a book to read. It’s a useful prop, too, if you do enjoy a table for one. It looks as though you’re absorbed in something and don’t wish to be disturbed.

Don’t be fobbed off with a badly sited table. Get a window seat to watch the world go by or one backed to the wall to ‘diner watch’.

Chat and joke with the waiters; mostly they will go out of their way to make you feel comfortable. Hotel or hostel staff will have a fund of local knowledge, too. Take their advice on where to eat, what to see and where to go (or not!).

Read more tips for eating in a restaurant alone

7. Stay in touch

Late evenings and bedtimes can be lonely, so I used these to catch up with emails to friends and family and to record my experiences (it’s so easy to forget what happened where). Maybe email or Skype home – you don’t want family or friends fretting about your welfare.

8. Make friends

Travelling alone you will meet people like you, who you’d like to get to know, maybe spending a day sightseeing together – perhaps the first step in forging lasting new friendships.

9. Travel light and be savvy

You won’t necessarily have porterage to handle your luggage so you may find it better to buy clothes along the way, donating them to charities when you leave.

If you’re on your own you are naturally more vulnerable than in a group, so ditch the bling and the brand names. Carry your camera, mobile and tablet in an old bag rather than an ostentatious designer handbag.

And keep loose ‘street’ change and lower denomination notes in your trouser pockets rather than flashing wads of cash around. Wearing a pair of (cheap!) sunglasses saves making unwanted eye-contact, too.

10. Accept help when you need it

I found there’s a lot of kindness out there, so accept help if needed and offered. People are generally friendly and very willing to offer assistance if you give them a chance. They won’t bite, so don’t be afraid to ask.

However, things may occasionally happen that are beyond your control and you won’t have a partner or friend to fall back on. I won’t bother saying don’t panic, because even the calmest people sometimes do; just remember it’s not the end of the world. Whatever has gone wrong, the situation can be sorted out even if it’s not ideal.

Shelley after snorkelling at the Great Barrier Reef
Shelley after snorkelling at the Great Barrier Reef

Six great solo holiday ideas

Walking

A sure way to find your ‘solo’ feet. Guided walking holidays create a camaraderie, and there’s a wonderful European terrain to explore; from easy-on-the-feet to challenging gradients, from Croatia to the Costas.

Read more about walking holidays

Short cruise

A life (well, a week) on the ocean wave gadding about the Med in a small ship, rather than a mega-liner, is the perfect way to gauge your suitability to cruising solo.

Rail

Let the train ease the solo strain on cross-country/continental networks. Dine (and sleep) in comfort and watch the world go by from observation cars on the US Amtrak or Canadian rail network. Try the two-day California Zephyr from Chicago to San Francisco for a truly great experience.

Find out more about rail holidays

Special interest

A hobby-focused holiday puts you among like-minded people. You should never be short of conversation and you may return knowing a lot more than you did before, be it about opera or ornithology.

City break

Explore Europe’s great cities at your pace. If you’re a little unsure, try an escorted tour, and think about the relatively ‘unknown’ – Palermo rather than Paris, Antwerp rather than Amsterdam.

Epic trip

If time (and budget!) allow, go for a once-in-a-lifetime safari, tropical-island trip, South American jungle trek or explore the untamed regions of Asia – maybe the Silk Road and Uzbekistan.

Find out about the benefits of touring holidays

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.