Every woman should travel solo at least once in their lives, for the sense of empowerment and confidence it brings, writes Julietta Jameson.
Freedom to do what you want when you want is just the start of the benefits of travelling solo. No amount of therapy can give you the sense of empowerment and confidence single travel engenders. There's no doubt travelling alone as a woman has its ups and downs. But any female who has ventured out into the world solo knows the benefits far outweigh the negatives: like taking that one last ticket to an incredible concert, or meeting a fascinating stranger on a train, or finding the headspace to begin that novel.
Solo travel is something all women should do at least once in their lives. Take Jane Morris, an English doctor who lost her husband when she was 54. Holidaying with her children and their broods, she "felt like an intruder". But, she adds, "Their father's death brought the finite nature of life into sharp focus. After about three years I felt strong enough to travel alone."
Her son was in Vancouver, Canada, so she went for the obligatory brief visit, then joined the Maple Leaf tall ship, a 92-foot schooner and wildlife and wilderness explorer that charges no singles supplement. "There were about 12 of us on board," she says, "all Canadians except me, including crew, and we slept on bunks.
"We were part of a team and being so close to nature somehow restored me. I am a keen botanist and although it was a late season we found some lovely flowers. On the last day we moored on an island and the captain took us to a viewpoint and told us to put the view into our memories and bring it back in the tough times back home. I have always done this since."
Fast forward a decade, and Jane has met "a lovely retired doctor" who also lost his spouse. "I don't plan to travel alone much in future." But not everyone's going to meet the love (or second love) of their lives while out there alone. Not everyone wants to. But you can have the same kind of life changing experience as Jane and in a manner that suits you.
There are many ways to travel solo; backpacking, hotel hopping, walking, driving, cycling ... as many modes of travel as there are for packs, so there are for lone she-wolves. The key to having a successful me-time trip, is to be honest about your interests, expectations - and most importantly, limitations. If you don't like socialising with strangers, a tour or retreat won't be the answer.
If too much of your own company is a terrifying prospect, a one-person Eurail trek across Italy, France and Austria may push all the wrong buttons. Love luxury? Hostel life probably won't be for you. If you're not sure about all that, a good way to find out may be joining a short tour or small cruise such as Jane's - long enough to enjoy, short enough so if you hate it, you don't feel stuck.
You'll see plenty of singles cruising on big ships too. The main thing, in terms of practicalities, for this kind of travel, is the no-single-supplement policy such as that of Maple Leaf Adventures. Seek out operators with the same. Just You is a British tour company that takes people off the beaten track, indulging their sense of adventure. This is a particularly handy way to travel solo to places that may not be particularly safe or comfortable for a woman on her own.
Just You's India and China itineraries, for example, allow singles to delve into exotic culture with assurity (justyou.co.uk). There are always deals going and some, like Beyond Travel, responding to "unprecedented growth" in the solo traveller market, have reduced single supplements, now charging about 15 per cent on some itineraries, compared to the 50-100 per cent you may find elsewhere (beyondtravel.com.au).
Retreats are good too, balancing plenty of communal activity but plenty of alone time. Sharing Bali is an Ubud health retreat that runs mixed and women only programs and doesn't charge for the privilege of being there solo (sharingbali.com). Further afield, Spanish Steps Retreats is the perfect balance, in Asturias National Park, affording access to Spain's dreamiest walking trails, from a nurturing base in a restored farmhouse where yoga retreats, language immersions and art workshops are held (spanishstepsretreats.com). The world is full of these kinds of amazing opportunities for women keen to have their very own adventure. Be brave and get out there. But don't just take it from us. Here's what five experienced female solo travellers think, along with their favourite pieces of advice and experiences.
Spa cuisine chef, blogger and author
FIRST SOLO TRIP
I skipped off to south-east Asia to meet my childhood best friend on a remote island called Tioman off the coast of Peninsula Malaysia. I had never experienced Islamic culture before, so arriving with duty-free cocktail mixers was certainly not de rigueur. Once I got the hang of solo travel and an understanding of cross-cultural borders (via Malaysia and Thailand), I felt liberated by independence and risk.
MOST MEMORABLE SOLO TRAVEL EXPERIENCE
Travelling solo for pleasure in my younger years from NYC to Martinique in the Caribbean was the most unique travel destination. It was four weeks on a French antiquated island, people-watching some of the world's most beautiful beings, scuba diving by day, French fare by night.
BEST THING ABOUT SOLO TRAVEL
Being able to book experiences on a whim rather than procrastinate with a co-traveller.
Sport and travel broadcaster and filmmaker
A MEMORABLE SOLO TRIP
I love a road trip and bought an old Pajero for $3000 to drive from Sydney to Byron to visit my beautiful sister Kara. I'd driven the east coast route many times, but not for over a decade, so it was incredibly nostalgic. I stopped off in Umina for a body bash in a rough and thrashing ocean, and Kempsey for fish and chips at Lou's (which is next to the Kempsey pub) and then played countless games of darts at the Sawtell RSL.
NEXT SOLO TRIP
I've been talking to National Geographic about a documentary travel series format I've written that is part cultural commentary, part social experiment. It could see me moving around Australia and then on to Berlin, Jaipur in India, rural Russia, to Northern Tanzania and beyond. It will be a wild and wily shoot, much of it very much on my own, being met by camera crews for short stints along the way.
SOLO TRAVEL DO
Be open-minded. Be willing to be minimal. Be respectful.
Entrepreneur and specialist in developing events/programs, head of Start-Up Australia
FIRST SOLO TRAVEL
I first travelled solo on my gap year. I was 17 when I finished school. I couldn't wait for my big adventure. I travelled through Israel, England, France and Italy. It was a wild year: first love, first time in a nightclub. Lots of firsts. But thankfully, despite some hairy moments, I survived it. I got to grow up in my own time, shed my 12 years of school, and return home independent and ready for the next phase of my life.
SOLO TRAVEL DOS
Make time for a walking tour. It is the best way to get your bearings and see things you might otherwise not notice. Learn a couple of phrases before you go, so you can at least say, "hi", "bye", "thank you" and "excuse me". Eat the local food. Research what the signature foods are before you get there and make sure you try them all, however weird and funky they may be. You may only get to this destination once in your lifetime, so savour every site, smell and taste.
SOLO TRAVEL DON'TS
Don't drink tequila shots ... ever. Unless you are with a group of people you know well and trust will get you home safely. Be very sensible with alcohol intake when travelling alone. Don't over-pack. You never end up wearing those four pairs of stilettos you packed.
BEST SAFETY TIP
The internet and social communities give you access to so many recommendations on your chosen destination. Don't travel without first researching if it is safe to stay in a particular area or in a particular type of accommodation. There is no excuse any more to travel anywhere unprepared.
JO DE FINA
Executive producer, head of production company, The Otto Empire. See hellootto.com.au.
MOST MEMORABLE SOLO TRAVEL EXPERIENCE
In Venice I bought an original "forcule", the beautiful carved wooden cradle for the gondola oars. Tourist types are sold all over, but I wanted to find one that had actually seen action on the canals. I'd sweet-talked a gondolier into selling me one "straight off the boat" and was on my way back to my hotel with this bulky thing, wrapped in newspaper, when I noticed a printing store I'd always seen shut was open. Inside, the proprietor asked me what was in my package.
It gave him an idea. He closed his little shop front, and led me down little laneways. After 20 minutes, we came to some enormous wooden doors which he slid open. It was a gondola workshop. I sat in the workshop, surrounded by sawdust, saws, wood shavings, dust, and Italian men, watching these incredible artisans at work.
SOLO TRAVEL DON'T
Don't judge. People have so much to offer, on so many levels, don't dismiss someone because you think you already know their story. Be patient. Travel takes time. If you are in a rush, you have planned your trip all wrong.
WHAT DO YOU LOVE ABOUT SOLO TRAVEL?
After living in London and New York for eight years, and travelling with my family since I was a small kid, adventure is important to me. That adventure could be finding a favourite store in a street in Paris (Chantal Thomass on Rue St Honore) or being taken on a boat trip over the Bosphorous in Istanbul to eat where the tourists don't go. Or being served pigs head soup in a hutong in China.
Chief executive, Business Events Sydney
FIRST SOLO TRIP
My first solo trip was to Bali to go surfing. It was 1982.
Back then Bali was relatively unknown and non-commercial. I packed up my board and my backpack and left for a month. It was an eye-opener. This was my first time overseas and I was alone.
It was a lesson in survival and strength, dealing with different cultures and currency and language and landscape.
Over the month, being a low-budget surfing trip, I had some dodgy accommodation and experiences living on a shoe string. It helped me to develop street smarts that I still draw on today when travelling.
SOLO TRAVEL TIPS
Do your homework. Read about the cities and countries you will be visiting to develop an understanding of their culture, politics and society. Pack your own bags and always make sure that you can manoeuvre them yourself.
Pack light and smart and be ready to hit the ground running when you arrive.
FIVE GREAT PLACES FOR SOLO FEMALE TRAVELLERS
The second largest city after Venice in the northern Italian region, the Veneto, Verona is not pretentious like Milan to the west, nor over run with tourists like Venice to the east. It's small enough to feel like a village, clean, safe and unbelievably beautiful. It's also on the train line for trips into neighbouring cities and the countryside. See tourism.verona.it/en
Full of attractions, you'll never feel bored in London. Tick off the big items - the Tower of London, the galleries, the palaces, then pick something that interests you: Harry Potter, Dickens, Brit pop - historic trails you want to follow. Other attraction-laden cities such as New York, Paris, Berlin and Rome are great like this too. See visitbritain.com
Head into the hills for retreats and healing, do a surfing course (shetravels.net.au) or ensconce in a resort in Seminyak. The great thing about Bali for solo women travellers is choice - and of course, its closeness. There are regular single lady customers at gorgeous Villa Sungai at Canggu, who lap up the butler and private-driver attention and paradisiacal privacy (bali-villasungai.com). See indonesia.travel
Voluntourism is a terrific vehicle for solo female travel. A chance to immerse as well as to make a difference, Hands Up Holidays tailors trips to South Africa (and 40 other places including Fiji and Thailand) for individuals, combining stays in luxury hotels with experiences such as teaching children in a Cape Town township school (handsupholidays.com). Acacia Africa is popular with "wo-mads", with no single supplement and itineraries that are a combination of safari and voluntouring (acacia-africa.com). See southafrica.net
If you loved The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, The Mistral Hotel may appeal - it's geared exclusively to solo travellers. Though far more luxurious, the Mistral, on the beautiful Greek island of Crete caters to travellers in their mid-30s right up to their 70s (singlesincrete.com). It has activities, including spotting spring flowers, photography and Cretan cookery lessons. See visitgreece.gr
ABOUT THE WRITER
Julietta Jameson, a regular Traveller contributor, has done road-trips in Canada, Fiji and Ireland on her own; navigated trains, buses, taxis and tuk-tuks by herself; shared five-star hotel rooms with no one else, and dined alone in Italy, Indonesia and Thailand - and loved it.