People used to raise their eyebrows when I told them I was dashing off to see yet another part of the world on my own, as if to say, "Don't you have any friends?" But as more globe-trotters, particularly women over 50, set out to travel by themselves, lately I find I'm rarely alone.
While men of all ages have long traveled solo without fear or worry, older women taking flight have become one of the most sought-after segments of the travel industry. Whether we are single, widowed, divorced or simply unable to coax our partners off the couch, as a cohort we finally have the time and means to indulge our passion for travel in the ways that we prefer.
Still, everyone — male or female, young or old — who contemplates striking out alone has doubts: Will I be safe? What if I get lost, sick or lonely? All are natural concerns, but they shouldn't keep you home. The key is to take basic precautions and keep your dreams, not your fears, center stage. (See tips below.)
Over the years I've compiled a multitude of unforgettable memories from my companionless adventures. Standing alone under an umbrella in a downpour at Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Driving glorious back roads in the canyon country of Utah. Walking a footpath by the sea in Italy's Cinque Terre. As I stopped wherever I wanted to eat spaghetti alle vongole and sunbathed on the rocks above the Ligurian Sea, my recent divorce faded into the background and I forgot my fears about no longer being one-half of a couple.
I often tell wanderlusty women to start with a solo walking vacation someplace safe but scenically blessed, such as England's Lake District or the beautiful Berkshires in western Massachusetts. Walking (and biking) tour agencies abound, and some offer self-guided routes; they arrange lodging, transport your luggage, supply maps and launch you on little-trafficked paths through the countryside.
A cruise ship is another smart choice for a solo-travel rookie. Many major lines offer special inducements such as assistance finding roommates, obviating the dreaded "single supplement" payment. When looking for a ship, think small: Cruising Alaska's glorious Glacier Bay on a 75-passenger vessel some years ago, I felt cozy and comfortable — and I got to know almost everyone on board.
The same goes for hotels. Smaller establishments watch out for you and treat you like a valued friend. I stayed so many times at a family-owned hotel in the Bloomsbury district of London that I got to know the entire clan.
Tours can work for single women, too, particularly when organized around special interests, which throw you in with like-minded travelers. Think, for instance, about discovering Celtic Scotland with Smithsonian Journeys, or hiking to the bottom of the Big Ditch with a group of women backpackers assembled by the Grand Canyon Field Institute.
One final option: Have a travel agency customize a solo tour for you. It's a way to treat yourself to hassle-free trip planning. On a specially tailored train trip to the stately Chinese city of Nanjing, for example, I fell in with a delightful American group who provided some fun company. Still, they wanted to know, "How do you manage on your own?"
"Very well," I said. "Very well."
Veteran travel writer Susan Spano is the author of French Ghosts, Russian Nights & American Outlaws. She is now with the Peace Corps in Armenia.