Alone doesn’t mean lonely.
It seems like the movies are finally catching up to reality. Inspiring films like Eat Pray Love and Under the Tuscan Sun (or even the apocalyptic thriller The Book of Eli) about solo travelers having lifechanging experiences on the road reflect the growing reality that more and more people are traveling alone. But this isn’t the Hollywood version. A recent poll conducted by US-based travel insurance provider Travel Guard, found that practical factors such as “life changes” (being widowed or divorced) followed by “wanting to follow your own schedule” or “pursuing a special interest” were actually the main reasons why people are traveling solo, with the more ethereal “a visit to an unusual destination” or to “reconnect with themselves” accounting for only 10 percent of the motivation.
Whatever your reason for traveling alone, you’re in good company as this niche sector has been steadily growing over the past decade or so. On average, the number of one person households account for 35 percent of all households in developed countries. This trend has even spawned categories like single-solos (live alone and travel alone) and collective-solos (live in a multi-person household, but travel alone), coined in a study by the University of St. Gallen (Switzerland).
While it’s probably more fun to travel with friends, solo travel definitely has its perks. The obvious ones are being able to set your own pace, not having to compromise over where to eat and what to see. On a trip to London with my sister, I remember us squabbling like cats and dogs on what we wanted out of the few days we were there. She was happy going to things I wanted to see as long as I accompanied her to her things. I, on the other hand, was happy for each of us to do our own thing, meeting up just for dinner.
Other benefits that solo travelers often talk about are: making connections out on the road that probably would’ve been missed because you were too focused on your traveling companions, being able to take out chunks of time to just sit and people watch or wander the streets with a camera without feeling like you’re impeding on someone else’s time, and even tasting your food more because you weren’t engrossed in conversation. Then there’s just the freedom to have totally random, unpredictable experiences that are often the most memorable despite not being on any itinerary.
I remember being in the back alleys of a Cairo neighborhood when an old man spotted me checking my map. Despite his broken English and my non-existent Arabic, he took me on a guided tour of the area, pointing out mosques and shops and hidden fountains that I would never have seen on my own. We ended up at his tiny shack having very strong Egyptian coffee. Sure, I wasn’t absolutely positive that I wouldn’t be the next victim of a serial killer (though I had one foot firmly planted by the door, propping it open to passersby) but in the end, it was just a very nice man offering up fabled Middle Eastern hospitality. Would that have happened if I had been traveling in a group?
The three most common deterrents to solo travel are: cost, loneliness and safety. I discussed ways to minimize single supplements in last month’s column. Now let’s talk about the other two factors.
Alone Doesn’t Mean Lonely
While most of us enjoy alone time, even the social interaction. Certain types of travel lend themselves to joining singles together, like adventure travel. Camping and meals paid out of a shared kitty make for more flexible sleeping arrangements. That was the case on a two month African overlanding trip I did with a friend. After the first leg, she went home as planned and I continued on with a tent of my own and no single supplement but still kept the social factor of traveling in a group where we shared chores and campfire meals. The group was diverse, more so than I would’ve naturally gravitated to, but ended up being really fun.
In addition, choosing a hostel over a hotel, with shared public spaces like kitchens and TV rooms, can also be a good way to meet fellow travelers and swap stories of the road. Hang out there just before dinner and you’re likely to be invited by your fellow hostellers for a night out. I’ve also found taking classes to be a great way of meeting people on the road as you’re sharing not only an interest but an activity, like cooking or sports. Couchsurfing.org is a great resource. Even if you’re not interested in staying with a stranger, there are often meet-ups scheduled where you can join the locals for a drink and a chat to get an insider’s take on the best things to do in a foreign city. New on the block is mealsharing.com, a site that aims to hook travelers up with hosts for home-cooked meals. Founder Jay Savsani spoke to Oi about the concept.
“I’m in Berlin right now and I’ve used the site to connect with people I don’t know. I’ve already shared three meals this week. Meal sharing takes interacting to a level of intimacy because you have to interact, you have to engage. I’ve hosted people through hospitality exchange sites as well and if I’ve been busy with work or been out, I didn’t have to interact if I didn’t want to,” he explains. “With meal sharing, I’m here to learn about you and we’re going to talk and we’re going to connect. It’s a very high burst of intimacy very quickly. Meal sharing also attracts a different demeanor. With accommodation exchanges, someone may be looking to save a few bucks, not really interested much in the culture. We don’t have the same price point motivation so we attract a lot of intellectuals and liberals who are there for conversation, not to save a few dollars.”
Though it’s relatively new, mealsharing.com is already up and running in over 250 cities worldwide.
Online forums have also made meeting fellow travelers pre-trip so much easier. Sites like Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree are a great resource for either gathering info or getting an impromptu group together. Dyanne, a Dalat resident, recently took a trip to Mongolia and wanted to visit the Gobi Desert. Within a week of posting on a travel forum, she had gotten a group of five together to share the trip, and therefore expenses, turning what would’ve been a very expensive solo endeavor to a mere USD420 for the week, traveling more than 1,600 miles.
I similarly use the “Roll Call” forum on Cruisecritic.com to hook up with fellow passengers on a specific sailing looking to put shore excursions together for ports where independent trips (like hiring a car and driver for ports far from public transportation) would be cost prohibitive. Lots of unique websites are joining the fray. A few months ago, easynest.com started operating, with the aim of pairing up solo travelers to share hotel rooms, with each paying 50 percent of the best available price, theoretically providing access to better hotels and locations. Interesting concept, but not sure I’m ready for that level of intimacy.
Tech and Safety
Making the most of solo travel often requires additional research. After all, you’re booking travel outside the ‘norm.’ Thankfully, the internet has responded with apps, websites and resources for single travelers (even CNN Travel and the Guardian Travel have posts and pages dedicated to the subject) focusing both on convenience and safety. According to the Travel Guard survey, 73 percent of agents polled noted that more female travelers embark on solo trips than their male counterparts. For single female travelers, safety is often a concern, and rightly so. Planning ahead on securing accommodation close to public transportation is smart. June, unfortunately, saw two high profile rapes of single travelers in India, with one occurring at night when a traveler hopped into a truck with three men because she couldn’t find a taxi back to her hotel.
The Help Call app (helpcallapp.com) is great for solo travelers, auto-detecting international police, fire department and ambulance phone numbers in 126 countries. There’s even a shake feature which calls an emergency number for when you’re having trouble seeing or physically can’t touch the appropriate button on your screen. Wandermates.com lets you post your trip itinerary or a single activity plan to find a buddy. Inviteforabite. com aims to match women up for meals, addressing the “love to travel alone but hate to eat alone” dilemma. Users create an invite, nominate a place to eat (or an activity) and then open it up to the public or to specific users.
Whether you travel solo by choice or circumstance, just remember that traveling alone doesn’t mean traveling lonely (or even expensively). With some research, a bit of initiative and a few good gadgets (read on for my favorite accessories when traveling solo), you’re good to go out and make new friends, create lasting memories unfiltered by anyone else’s perspective and explore the world at your own pace!
Carry On – What savvy solo travelers are packing
Luggage: The last thing I want to do while journeying solo is attract attention by flaunting electronics, jewelry or cash. The same goes for luggage. Understated and supremely durable, when you need to quickly hop on and off trains and planes with no one to help you, having a light, maneuverable bag is key.
The BMW of travel bags, my Tumi Alpha Lightweight Trip Packing Case accompanies me on longer trips. Ever since my Samsonite hardside case cracked at the end of an around-the-world trip, I’ve sworn off hardside cases. This Tumi bag is lightweight (4-wheels is a must) and durable, made from ballistic nylon covering a strong and flexible polypropylene shell. I love some of the added features: convenient exterior pockets, interior tie-down straps and a handy removable garment sleeve.
For shorter trips, I absolutely love my Alpha Bravo Lemoore Wheeled Backpack. I first saw it years ago and immediately coveted it despite its posh price tag. But I recently bought one and it’s awesome, the perfect size for a carry-on. The best thing is that it can be used as a backpack (which means check-in agents usually won’t bother asking you to weigh it) but has wheels to make it maneuverable on the ground, therefore saving your back when it’s fully stuffed.
4-wheel Case | Tumi | VND23,520,000
Wheeled Backpack | Tumi | VND17,380,000
In Ho Chi Minh City: Vincom A, Level 2, 171 Dong Khoi Street, District 1
In Hanoi: Trang Tien Plaza, Level 02-07A, 24 Hai Ba Trung Street, Hoan Kiem District
Something new on the market is Adventure Underwear. This product finally answers the question of what to do with your valuables if you’re lazing out on the beach on your own. Instead of wearing a geeky container around your neck, or worse, tucking your valuables in your shoe or under your towel and hoping it’ll all be there when you get back, Adventure Underwear has two waterproof ziploc-type pockets where you can stash your cash and cards (and even your phone). Made of 100% superfine Australian merino wool underwear designed to keeps you warm in cold weather, and cool in hot climates, there’s one quick access pocket and a second larger removable one which can fit a passport and smart phone (it’s also certified waterproof up to 200ft deep by Scuba Schools International). It’s in the Kickstarter stage now, so there are only 10 more days (until the 21st of August) when you can pledge and get a steep discount off of future prices.