Until recently, I thought going on holiday by yourself as a woman meant that you were a real go-getter, the kind of businesswoman Romy and Michele try to be; suits, cellphones, killer heels and a sleek chignon. Basically, the sort of together adult woman I had not turned out to be.
How else, I had reasoned, unless one was entirely comfortable with themselves and their abilities and knew what they wanted from life, could anyone possibly up sticks, board several planes, negotiate with taxi drivers, find a place to stay and – the most horrifying prospect – actually be alone with their own thoughts for an entire week? I got cold sweats just thinking about it.
That is, until I started meeting and talking to women from the solo travel community for Flying Solo, a new week of articles from Refinery29 all about women exploring the world alone. It probably hasn't escaped you that female solo travel has been growing at an astonishing rate over the past few years. Women are earning more and more, and learning not to feel guilty about spending that money on themselves. Women are opting to stay single and putting off having children for longer. At the same time, the world, for all its differences and difficulties, is incredibly accessible to even your least experienced traveller. With low-cost airlines operating all across the world, companies like Airbnb offering six million places to stay in 191 countries and regions, remote working offered by many companies and connections to be made in far-flung cities through social media apps – there aren't really many places that are off limits for a solo traveller these days.
According to Hostelworld, there's been a 88% increase in women making solo bookings since 2015. And in fact, a survey of Refinery29 readers shows that 35% of you have already been away by yourself and although it's not yet been planned, a further 46% are considering it. Which is incredible news.
But still, a sad, childish voice in my mind said: "If you go on holiday alone, everyone will think you're lonely" (yes, I am 12). But hearing why our readers have been away by themselves, this couldn't be further from the truth – the reasons you've taken off on solo adventures range from enjoying and celebrating being by yourself, to having different interests from your pals (beach people vs exploring people does not a happy holiday make); you might be earning different amounts from your peers or maybe you fancy a long haul destination while your friends are eyeing up the overnight National Express to Amsterdam. Also, as one wise woman said to me, literally no one cares that you're by yourself on a beach; it's something you've made up in your head, and the only person you're hurting with this idea is you.
And so this week we're celebrating the female solo travellers whose battered passports and inflatable pillows are proof of their thrilling adventures. If, like me, you're someone who needs a little nudge of confidence or a little spark of inspiration, then there's plenty of it coming your way. There's Jessica Nabongo, who is aiming to be the first black woman to visit every country in the world (last count: 178 out of 195); Karolin Klüppel, the photographer who travelled to the Himalayas and spent a year with the Mosuo, a now sadly diminishing matriarchal community in which women are able to pick and change partners as they please; and Refinery29's own Charlie Elliot who, when she found out Flying Solo was happening, strode over to my desk and announced: "Solo travel is my THING." And she wasn't kidding – Charlie may be about to get married but that doesn't stop her heading off on holiday by herself at least once a year. In fact, one of the first things she said when she met her future husband was that her solo trips were not going anywhere anytime soon. Catch these stories later on in the week.
Of course, it would be naive to blindly talk about the joys of solo travel without also discussing the more serious points that need to be considered. We'll hear from queer black women, a community that experiences unforgivable marginalisation and discrimination in this country, let alone in countries with stricter laws or fewer allies. How have past experiences abroad shaped their approach to solo travel? We speak to women who have experienced sexual assault on trips away by themselves, and offer advice on what to do should you ever find yourself in that unthinkable situation.
Keep an eye out, too, for our piece from the woman who, after serious bowel surgery that left her with an ileostomy bag, battled doctors, insurance companies and less-than-ideal toilet situations to go out again and again on her own, along with the two extra suitcases she needed for medical supplies. We speak to the young woman determined to find the lesbian nightlife scene in every Asian country she visited and we discuss the politics of pulling up a seat at a bar and ordering yourself an alcoholic drink. Why, exactly, is this a sign to so many men that you need "rescuing"?
The overwhelming thing I heard from these women while pulling together Flying Solo is that the real joy of solo travel lies in the complete freedom you have. It is one of the few times in your life that no one will expect anything from you, no one will be relying on you for anything, you won't feel guilty for letting anyone down or have to go along with anyone else's decision just because it was easier than adding your opinion to the mix.
And it was that which got me. As women, we have so many expectations placed on us day in, day out, from our friends, family, our work and ourselves. Existing without those sounded kind of incredible. And so, halfway through July, I'm off to spend a week in Greece by myself – writing, eating my body weight in feta, and just being. And while it's far from the most adventurous of trips, it's a baby step in the right direction. So if you've been feeling a little timid about the idea of solo travel, then use this week to get the confidence, the inspiration and the practical tips you need to head out there on your own. After all – no one's going to do it for you.