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10 Reasons Why Women Should Travel Solo

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Photo: Courtesy of Laurel Miller.
This post was originally published on May 23, 2015.
Over the last few years, travel companies and websites geared toward female travelers have become one of the fastest growing sectors of the tourism industry. Yet, women traveling solo is nothing new; famous female wanderers include the 18th century explorer Jeanne Baré (who circumnavigated the globe, admittedly while disguised as a man), Amelia Earhart, and the late anthropologist Margaret Mead.

The current craze for solo exploration is perhaps a reflection of our growing independence, increased power in the workplace, and the cultural trend of women waiting longer to get married and/or have children (if they decide to do so at all).

I’ve been backpacking around the world on my own for nearly 20 years as a culinary educator and food and travel writer, and I still prefer to go it alone. The good news for you is that there’s never been a better time for solo women (which isn’t necessarily synonymous with single) to hit the road domestically or internationally, due to rapidly improving global tourism infrastructure and technology. Ahead, 10 more reasons why you should consider traveling by yourself starting this summer, plus some tips for how to do it the right way.
You (Really, Really) Learn About Yourself
You can spend thousands on a therapist…or, you can just book a flight to someplace out of your comfort zone (preferably where English is not the primary language). Traveling alone forces you to deal with yourself, and in the process, you learn a lot about who you are and what makes you happy. Free from the distractions of everyday life and multiple devices, you’re able to focus on your goals, issues, relationships, and personality strengths and weaknesses.

By way of example, I’m a type-A, highly impatient person. Travel — particularly because I prefer and actually thrive under difficult conditions — has helped me learn to cool my jets and live more in the moment, rather than focusing on my to-do list or what my plans are for the day. If you’re honest and introspective, you can achieve a level of clarity that’s often not possible from the comfort of home.

Tip: I highly recommend leaving the electronics at home, turned off, or only using them for personal or (legitimate) work emergencies. I see so many travelers tuning out the natural wonders or cultural happenings playing out right in front of them in favor of playing with their phones or scrolling through Facebook feeds. You might as well save your money and do that at home.
It’s More Rewarding
I’ve long joked that I’m "spiritually bankrupt," so I hesitate to use words like "enlightening" or "empowering," but solo travel does in fact make me feel like I can accomplish just about anything I set my mind to. It’s a self-esteem boost and a rush to know that you can navigate a foreign transit system or negotiate a transaction using nothing more than sign language. Finessing your way out of cultural faux pas, challenging yourself physically with a new activity or intense outdoor adventure, or immersing yourself in a hilltribe trek, homestay, or language course are all rewarding experiences — even more so when you undertake them without a companion as safety net.
It’s An Education You Won’t Get From Academia Or The Workplace
Australia and New Zealand have it right: The concept of a “gap year” before heading off to university is far better preparation for life than a post-high school summer vacay. I have two degrees, but I’ve learned more about history, anthropology, sociology, geography, and politics by traveling than I could have learned just from going to school. I’m all for advanced education, but sometimes the only way to learn about the world is to be out in it. If you happen to be alone at the time, so much the better.

It Challenges You

It’s often hard to push ourselves when we’re in our daily routine. Travel — particularly to developing nations — gets you off the couch and out of your comfort zone, and forces you to be more self and culturally aware. I’m not suggesting you put your safety at risk; on the contrary, that should always be your priority. But, always choosing the safe, comfortable route doesn’t do much for personal growth or life experiences. Take the plunge.

Tip:
Always research your destination, including cultural and social mores, and how to deal with harassment. Depending upon what country or part of the world you’re visiting, how you react to unwanted advances varies, and it’s important you respond appropriately to avoid escalating the situation.
It’s Affordable
Of course, this depends upon your destination and preferences, but if you’re a low-maintenance traveler on a budget, you can spend months on the road if you choose to stay in guesthouses, hostels, or homestays. Additionally, sticking with street food and dining at the restaurants where locals eat and shopping local markets will not only yield the best prices, but also the best food and cultural experiences.

Tip: Prices fluctuate at different times of year, so if you’re on a budget, consider visiting a destination during low season, when flights, lodging, and activity prices drop significantly. The one drawback to solo travel is that sometimes it’s hard to do activities because they’re too prohibitively expensive unless you split the costs with other people. But, you can often join an existing group or rally enough other travelers to make a day trip happen. (On a recent trip to Laos, I managed to talk enough passersby into a kayaking trip to not only make it feasible for the operator, but affordable for all of us. Win-win.)
It Can Make You A Better Person
If you're a miserable person, a lifetime of travel may not change that. But, if you’re open-minded and eager to see the world, there’s no better way to inspire compassion, empathy, and cultural tolerance. It doesn’t take volunteerism — an often dodgy prospect — to make a difference. Just be a perceptive traveler, try to integrate culturally (use sensitivity; many locals don’t take kindly to, say, Westerners adopting their dress or religious practices), leave a light environmental and social footprint, and engage with locals. These are the things that make travel a life-altering experience.

Tip: It’s great to give back, but be sure to consult guidebooks or local outfitters for the best ways to do so. Many countries wish to discourage a “begging culture,” so they ask that visitors not give children money, candy, or even pens. I usually bring old clothes and shoes to wear and then donate at the end of my trip, which serves the dual purpose of lightening my load when I head home.
Opportunities Abound
The best way to experience a country or culture is to be invited into someone’s home (especially for a meal). Because solo female travelers are an object of curiosity — and sometimes pity — in many countries, I’ve found myself the recipient of many an invitation to dine, party, observe, or participate in a ceremony or event. I almost always accept (again, you want to be safe, which means going with your gut and using common sense), and some of my best travel memories have come from these moments.

Tip: Never put yourself in a situation where you may end up stranded, the only woman, or obligated to strangers in some way. I also find it’s useful to learn a few key phrases in the national language to politely (or even not so politely, if necessary) deflect unwanted advances, be they monetary or physical. I’ve rarely had to employ them, but knowing how to curse like a banshee in Spanish and Italian and warn off roving gangs of street kids in Portuguese and Arabic has served me well. You should always learn a few phrases in the language spoken in your destination regardless, as it makes travel logistics easier — and just making the effort almost always makes locals smile. At the very least, strive for “Hello/Goodbye,” “Thank you,” “That was delicious,” and “Where’s the toilet?” I swear by Lonely Planet Phrasebooks, available in just about every language imaginable.
Life Is Short
It may sound like a cliché, but I live by the credo, “You may get hit by a bus tomorrow.” Morbid? Perhaps. But, we can never know which day will be our last, and putting off that dream trip to Greece or holding off on the Andean trek you’ve been dreaming about until you have time/a boyfriend/can take time off more easily may mean you never go for it. Obviously, you don’t want to put yourself in bad financial situation or be irresponsible, but trust me, even if you’re on the most anemic of budgets, you can find a way to travel. It’s a question of priorities.
It’s More Relaxing
You know what’s not relaxing? Constantly having to negotiate or bicker with a friend, spouse, parent, or partner, when you should be experiencing your destination.

Tip: If you’re venturing out on your own, try to leave as detailed an itinerary as possible for your loved ones back home in case of emergency. If you’re traveling overseas — especially to developing or unstable nations — register with the U.S Department of State’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, which will evacuate you in the event of natural disaster or civil disturbance.
Your Time Is Your Own
Call it selfish, but when I travel — especially because I don’t make a lot of money — I want to do things my way. For me, food always takes precedence over museums or monuments. Whatever you get geeked about, when you’re on your own, you can feel free to binge, guilt-free.
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