One of the best parts of being the AARP Travel Ambassador is that I've been able to meet and talk to a lot of women at the Life@50+ events. I've attended three of them now, and there's one topic that always comes up: Can I travel alone? The fact is, more women these days are planning vacations for themselves, and it's not just because they don't have someone to travel with. Of those called "solo dreamers" by a recent AARP study on this growing trend, 42 percent want to take a trip to treat themselves to a relaxing, laid-back time away with no one else's schedule to worry about. And of those, more are women than men. So here's how I answer the questions women ask me most frequently.
Will I be safe?
The freedom of being on your own comes with some challenges, but they're easier to overcome than you might think.
First, I trust my gut. If any person or street (and I never walk down an empty street) just doesn't feel right, I remove myself from the situation with no second thoughts. I prefer to be out by myself during daylight, but that doesn't mean I'm always tucked away in my room by dusk. In big cities such as New York, London and Paris the streets are always busy at night, and you don't want to miss out on that energy. Simple rule: If you're in doubt anywhere you travel, talk to your lodging's front desk and ask if there are places you should definitely avoid.
For travel in developing nations, do some research beforehand. Check out Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree forum. Here you can exchange information and tips with avid travelers. There's always someone who's just come back from the destination you're heading for. And that's what you want: the freshest experience for the best advice. When I'm traveling in a developing nation I dress down a little — muted colors, nothing fancy. I want to blend in. On the other hand, I'm no wallflower. I'm there to experience the culture and talk to the locals.
One more thing: Refrain from posting pictures of your travels on social media until you're back home. If you live alone, those pictures in real time are a hint that your house or apartment may be empty.
How can I meet people?
I like to go out by myself and find people wherever they socialize: in cafes, markets, parks. Try staying in a smaller hotel or even a hostel, where there will be a more intimate and communal setting. Breakfast is a time I've found people to be very friendly and inclusive about what they're doing. For dinner I always choose a restaurant where I can eat at a bar with other people and a couple of nice bartenders. Much better than a table for one.
Another option if you don't want to go completely solo: You can join a women's travel group in the U.S. and participate in one of their trips. Gutsy Women Travel has been in business for a decade taking women around the world.
There's also a rising trend called the "sharing economy" (collaborative consumption is a fancier name). Try websites such as voulezvousdiner.com, eatfeastly.com and EatWith.com for chances to eat in someone's home with a group of other out-of-towners.
What will I do every day?
An important element of your trip is a well-planned itinerary. You can always be spontaneous within day-to-day parameters, but it's important to share as many details as you can with a trusted friend or family member and to keep in touch throughout the trip. Aside from the obvious safety reason for this, you'll have done a lot of the planning work ahead of time so you can relax and enjoy your journey.
Finally, if you're not ready to take the big step, try spending "apart time" on your next vacation — whomever you're with. I always do!