At fiftysomething, taking your first holiday alone can be intimidating.
But as Rachel Carlyle reports, the single traveller can often end up enjoying some very unexpected experiences
Maggie’s decision to travel alone was more the result of a huff than a surge of adventurous spirit.
“My husband had taken early retirement and I thought it would be the start of our adventures, but I gave up trying to get him further than the golf course,” she explains.
“All he wanted to do was the crossword, so I decided I couldn’t wait around forever and marched down to the local travel agents – on a whim really – and bought a ticket to Boston to see my son.”
After a week with her son, Maggie joined a local women-only tour group to explore New England, then – emboldened by her success – braved a train journey to New York on her own to see the sights.
“I felt physically sick on the morning I was due to meet the group in Boston: I was used to my own company but I had lost confidence in my ability to be interesting.
But the dynamics of being in a group work in your favour – no one has ‘built-in entertainment’ in the form of a partner, so you just grit your teeth and get on with it. It’s amazing how much common ground there turns out to be.”
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The benefits of solo travel
Since that first trip five years ago, Maggie, 57, has travelled to India and New Zealand on her own, joining local tour groups if she felt lonely.
“With each trip my confidence increases, and now I prefer it on my own: you are looking at the world through your own eyes, not someone else’s.”
Janice agrees. The 66-year-old from Seaton, Devon, has always travelled alone and has recently returned from Las Vegas.
There she took buses to the outskirts of the city, which is rapidly colonising the desert. “You’d think a place like that would have no heart, but people loved living there.
On your own you meet people in passing, have wonderful conversations at bus stops, sometimes quite deep ones, and then go on your way knowing you won’t see them again. That is a great freedom.”
How to cope with evenings alone
Janice also travelled alone to Rwanda. The media was very negative about Rwanda, saying that it was hostile, so I didn’t expect to enjoy myself at all. But the first time I went I was stunned.
The country is small – half the size of Wales – and is known as the ‘land of a thousand hills’.
“It’s very green because it’s quite high and is intensively cultivated, so all the hills are terraced. It’s also very clean and the capital Kigali has some incredible restaurants, many with a Belgian or French influence.
I got about on minibuses, which are pretty much held together with sticky tape, but do work.”
On that first trip she developed a strategy for dealing with the twin terrors of solo travellers: dining alone and spending evenings alone.
“I get up very early so I can go out and walk about just as people are starting their day, and I also go to bed very early.
“I used to be so terrified of eating on my own that I would have picnics in my room, but now I’ve got used to it. Sometimes I’ll even ask someone else if they want to join me: you can get away with that as a white-haired 66-year-old.”
Her friend Hilary Bradt, founder of the Bradt Travel Guides, employs similar techniques. She considers herself an expert in dining alone since her first solo trip several years ago.
“It’s really important to hold your head up and meet the other diners’ eyes, to convey that you are not embarrassed.
I used to take a book, but I now take a newspaper because it sends out a subtly different message – that you don’t particularly want to escape the world and might welcome a conversation.
“Another good trick is to have a tourist brochure of the area on the table, which will often be a catalyst for someone starting a conversation.
When alone I choose the nicest thing on the menu and really taste it; I don’t think you really enjoy your food when you’re busy talking to a companion.”
Novelist Colin Thubron has a different trick, he chooses a restaurant table with an empty chair beside it and hopes someone sits down.
All agree that dining alone is the biggest hurdle for solo travellers; some never get used to it. One experienced and inveterate traveller admits she has never eaten alone in a restaurant or cafe in 20 years of travelling.
“I have been assaulted by robbers in the Malaysian jungle, but to me it’s far more terrifying to order a three-course dinner alone in a restaurant. You feel so vulnerable, all eyes are feasting on you.”
She now contents herself with sandwiches in hostels and hastily eaten snacks in street markets. According to Bradt, however, occasional nervousness is to be expected.
Her first trip alone was to Madagascar, where she spent three months researching a guidebook in a series she had launched with her husband (there are now 90 Bradt guides aimed at mature independent travellers).
Getting over the fear
“I remember staying in bed for a whole day in Nairobi because I could not face the thought of flying to Madagascar.
But I did do it in the end. Sometimes – and this applies mostly to women – you have to build up your courage. But it’s all right to be nervous.”
She believes it’s easier for older women to travel alone than younger people. “Generally in your sixties or over you don’t get trouble, it’s a much safer world for older women than it is for a man of any age.
I still hitch-hike – it’s brilliant because you are pretty unlikely to be attacked. People will stop because they feel sorry for you: I suppose it’s quite exploitative on my part, really.
“Many cultures, especially those in Africa, have a veneration for older people because they are closer to the ancestors.
I met an 87-year-old solo traveller once, and they loved her because she practically was an ancestor.”
As for the choice of destinations, both Hilary and Janice recommend beginning with English-speaking countries like Australia, Canada or New Zealand.
But they say Africa is a rewarding place for the solo traveller, particularly the less visited countries.
Sylvia, from Bath, agrees. She has travelled the world on her own since 1986 when she was newly separated and her sons were old enough to run her stationery business.
“Generally, the places in which you get least hassle are those that get the least number of tourists. In smaller guesthouses you meet other people and the owners are usually quite jolly, too."
Sylvia spent three months travelling around India in 2001, and even wangled a permit to visit the war-ravaged northeastern states, where the only other foreigner was the Australian High Commissioner (she mistook him for a hotel worker).
“Teachers would stop me in the street and invite me to their school to meet the children.”
The thought of hitch-hiking around remoter parts of the globe would fill many with dread, but group holidays can be a compromise.
Divorcée Marion set up a travel club when she realised that many older women wanted adventurous holidays but didn’t wish to travel on their own. She has run trips to Kenya and Vietnam, and was initially surprised by how many of her clients were married.
“Quite often these women’s husbands had travelled a lot with their jobs and now just wanted to fall asleep over the crossword or play golf.
The wives see it as their time for adventure and travel, particularly if they have spent years bringing up a family. But they don’t want to slum it in hostels with 60 people to a room; they want a good meal, a bath and a comfortable bed.
We travel in groups of up to eight, and because they are all women they bond very quickly; there’s no competing for the one male in the group. After the first night everyone is quickly on to their likes and dislikes and dissecting their relationships.”
Veterans agree that there are certain rules to be observed on group trips. Never strike up friendships on day one (the over-friendly chap on the flight can turn out to be a bore on day two) and always carry a personal stereo to keep people at a distance if necessary.
And don’t drink too much in the first couple of days in case you end up spilling your secrets to strangers.
“It’s important to bond slowly,” agrees Tessa, who has joined group trips since her husband died in 1990. “I used to talk nineteen to the dozen out of nervousness on the first day and I could see people physically back away from me.
I now wait for them to come to me – people are attracted to you if you seem slightly mysterious.
The great freedom about being on your own in a group is that you can reinvent yourself each time – you are never likely to see these people again, as no one ever stays in touch despite the dashing round collecting e-mail addresses at the airport.”
Susie remembers well the nervousness she felt on her first group trip after her husband left eight years ago. “I had been married for 24 years, yet here I was alone at the airport,” she says.
“As I sat in the departure lounge I thought, if I slip off to the loos and stay there, no one would notice. A lot of them were young and in their hiking boots, but then, thankfully, I spied an older man with the same ticket on his luggage.”
Despite her anxieties, she enjoyed the trip to Morocco and has since been to the Sinai Desert on a walking tour. “The anonymity was so refreshing at such a raw time after my husband left,” she recalls.
“No one asked how the children were or how I was coping, because they knew nothing about me. We talked about politics, religion and what we’d seen and I fitted in extraordinarily well.
I cooked French onion soup for everyone, which I discovered is the way to everyone’s heart.”
Science teacher Charles, from Bristol, often finds himself the oldest on group trips. He’s been on African safaris, to Mexico and to the Falkland Islands.
“In Kenya I was the oldest at 56 – the youngest was 20. They looked on me as a father figure and kept asking me what that animal or plant was, because I had done safari trips before.”
He says it’s all down to the type of holiday you choose. “If you pick a trip with like-minded people – like a walking or bird-watching holiday for example – then it’s incredibly easy to strike up friendships.”
He has been on a couple of trips where the group hasn’t gelled – usually because one person has whipped up discontent: “It’s a bit like the classroom.
If you get one person stirring, it sours the atmosphere. But in general, British people are good because if there are a few problems we tend to laugh them off and not complain.”
Retired businessman Mike has undertaken group and solo trips: he went to Afghanistan with a group and to China on his own. If you’re on your own in a country, he advises booking yourself on a local tour.
“In China I got a local travel agent to book me on short package tours with Chinese holidaymakers. Perhaps it wasn’t the best way to see the country, as it was all in Mandarin, and the Chinese idea of what is of interest isn’t quite ours.
They have a taste for kitsch and a limitless enthusiasm for shopping stops.
But it was an intriguing cultural experience; the other tourists were very friendly and there was always someone keen to practise their English with me, at least to the extent of explaining where the toilets were and what time to get back on the bus.”
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He also tried a singles holiday in Tuscany last summer. As he expected, the gender balance was horribly skewed: 20 women to nine men (the youngest was 43, the oldest was in his seventies).
“I think the vast majority had at least half an eye to pairing off with someone,” he admits.
“Everyone was eyeing each other up discreetly from the start as fiftysomethings tend to be all too conscious of ‘time’s winged chariot hurrying near’ – which ironically involves indulging in exactly the sort of behaviour they are telling their teenage children to avoid.”
By the end of the week, two out of the nine men had found partners – he is still with the woman he met.
But most of the others had been on similar holidays – one man had managed 13 – which rather suggests that people don’t often find long-term relationships, but at least enjoy trying.
He advises the nervous to go ahead and try solo travel. “It’s far more daunting in prospect than in reality, and it’s amazing how quickly you become used to it, even blasé.”
You will also store up precious memories, as Hilary Bradt did in Latin America, where she spent three months travelling alone. “A young boy talked to me on the bus and invited me back to his family home.
I ended up staying several days: they were extremely poor but shared everything. They gave up a bed and served me meals, and they’d get up at 6am to practise their English on me. Every meal, including breakfast, was potatoes because that was all they had.
I never would have had that experience if I had been with someone else.”