Janice Waugh took her first solo trip at age 15, when she traveled from her native Canada to the United Kingdom for an organized, monthlong cycling trip. She was so immersed in the experience that she forgot to write home: “I got into big trouble because my mother did not receive a postcard for at least three weeks,” she says, laughing. “When I go, I really go!”
The passion to get out and dive in to new places, cultures, and experiences that inspired that first trip never waned, and Janice continued to travel both on her own and with friends and family. When she married and had children, she and her husband made travel a priority—any extra money went to fuel their passion for exploration. When the couple sold the business they had built together, they packed up and traveled in Europe for 10 months, taking the youngest of their four sons with them and homeschooling along the way.
In 2006 Janice lost her husband to a rare neurologic disease. The grieving process that followed, she says, “was not easy, as anyone who has been through it knows.” In 2009, just over two years after her husband’s death, she found herself facing down the prospect of another difficult cycle of grief. “I felt it coming toward me again,” she says, “just this physical wave. And I thought, I just do not want this again.” Her next thought surprised her: “For whatever reason, the thought came to me that, I guess I’m traveling solo.” Though she hadn’t been considering travel at the time, she went to her computer and searched “solo travel.” The first results that popped up were full of spam and offered little valuable information. “I thought, That’s just not right,” she says.
The next day Janice launched solotravelerblog.com as a resource for those interested in traveling alone, offering insight into her own experiences, practical information for those considering solo travel, and a community for travelers to come together and share their stories. Now, four years later, with many more solo trips under her belt, the website has evolved to become a virtual hub for travelers, and Janice herself is a sought-after authority on solo travel. She speaks on the topic widely and has authored The Solo Traveler’s Handbook. As she travels the world and shares her insight, she has not only made a career of her passion for travel but has emerged from the grief of her personal loss. “It has been my journey out of grief,” Janice says, “and I have not since fallen into that cycle again.”
The Joys of Solo Travel
Janice’s story and those of the many women who are active participants in her community and others that have emerged around solo travel are indicative of the growing trend of solo travel among women. Though statistics are hard to come by, one poll by Travel Guard Worldwide, a travel insurance company, found that “more than half (59 percent) of travel agents polled note[d] that they’ve seen more of their clients traveling alone now compared to 10 years ago” and that “73 percent of agents polled note[d] that more female travelers embark on solo trips than their male counterparts.”1 Though some solo travelers are single, many women in committed relationships are also choosing this route to explore personal interests and fulfill their own needs.
So why the rise in the number of women ready to launch their own adventures? The answers are likely as different as the many travelers who hit the road, but several key benefits seem consistent among those who take the leap.
Gain perspective. Stepping away from the trappings of everyday life and regular routine can provide welcome perspective. Janice says that women often find that the act of travel can open their eyes to new opportunities: “When you’re in your environment, you don’t necessarily see what that environment is doing to you; you don’t see the implications of it. If you step out of that environment, all of a sudden you see things you wouldn’t otherwise see.” This new perspective, she adds, can allow you to “discover who you are when nobody is expecting you to be who you have been.”
Pursue your own interests. Janice says that many women describe the joy they find in the opportunity to fully embrace their own interests while traveling solo. “Women spend a lot of time caring for others, and solo travel can be an opportunity for women to really investigate their own interests on their own schedule.” The self-care that solo travel presents can be vital in nurturing women’s independence and interests. “I tell women, ‘If you’re interested in wine, go wine tasting; if you’re interested in hiking, go hiking,’” Janice says. “Go and serve your own needs. I think that’s really important for women.”
Set your own schedule. Traveling with others is in many ways a continuous act of compromise. One of the joys and benefits of solo travel is the opportunity to set your own agenda on your own timetable. “In the act of solo travel, you are really in a space where you’re not traveling with anyone who expects things of you, so you’re free to discover your own likes and rhythms,” Janice says.
Engage more fully with the culture and the people you meet. When you travel alone, you have the opportunity to connect with the culture in which you are immersed on whatever level you feel comfortable. The fact that you are not focused on the needs of a travel partner or larger group means you can focus on the people around you and interact—or not—as you wish. “When you are by yourself, you’re very open to the world,” Janice says. “People around you realize that you’re alone, and they check in with you; there’s a dynamic that happens that doesn’t happen when you’re focused on another person.” You can choose how much you interact with the people around you, finding a balance that works for you. If you want to engage, you can; if you want privacy and quiet, you can have that too.
A Journey of Self-Discovery
For many women the act of solo travel can be an empowering and inspiring experience. Making the commitment to venture forth and embrace your own interests on your own timetable in a way that is most fulfilling to you is a way of honoring your spirit. It is also a way to reaffirm your own strength and abilities. The challenges that arise during travel can present myriad opportunities for growth and self-reflection, and the result can be a life-changing sense of empowerment. Describing a recent travel experience that tested her confidence, Janice notes, “There I was coming up against myself, asking myself, Can I do this? But I did. You just don’t know how strong you are until you do it.”
Tips for the Road
1.Choose your destination carefully. “You have to know yourself,” Janice says. “Know what you want out of the trip, know what your experience level is, and know what you can manage yourself.” This means being realistic about finding a destination that will allow you to be comfortable in your surroundings and enjoy the experience. “If you’ve never traveled alone, don’t go to India on your first trip,” she says. “If it’s on your bucket list, build up to it. Consider going somewhere like the Lake District first, to test things out.”
2.Settle in, then explore. “When you arrive in a new place, during the first 24 hours you’re really ‘landing,’” Janice says. She advises travelers to take that time to settle in: “Get a sense of where you are, what you want to do. Spend time sitting and watching, and figure out the basics like food and transportation.” With this time spent “landing,” you’ll be better prepared to launch and explore.
3.Always book accommodations for the first night. “The first night in any place should always be booked ahead,” Janice says. And, she cautions, “You should always arrive no later than midafternoon. That allows you to move if you don’t like your accommodations; even if you’ve made the perfect choice, it may seem intimidating at night.”
Solo Traveler Profile: Susan Portnoy
New York, New York
Though she had always embraced travel and considered herself “a bit of a solo adventurer,” Susan Portnoy, a communications and public relations consultant in New York City, fell into what she considers her first truly solo travel experience when friends backed out of a planned trip. The group had been planning a vacation to Machu Picchu, and when her friends canceled, Susan didn’t want to give up the opportunity. “I didn’t want to miss out, so I swallowed my apprehension and went on my own,” she says.
That trip to Peru, where Susan had the opportunity to explore on her own and become fully immersed in the ancient ruins and the history of the place, introduced her to the joys of solo travel. Since that initial solo trip, her travels have taken her around the world, including especially memorable trips to Tanzania, Botswana, Myanmar, Bhutan, and the Galapagos Islands. Many of Susan’s destinations are chosen for the opportunity they provide to view wildlife, and she is also drawn to remote locations and ancient cultures: “I love going anywhere where cultures have remained, for the most part, authentic and where most of what you see is truly taking place because it is part of the current culture, not a reenactment for a tourist’s dollar.”
Susan says the trips she takes on her own are fulfilling in many ways, allowing her to engage in her own interests and truly connect with the people and the culture in the places she visits. “I have found that I am a bit more adventurous than many of my friends,” she says, “and they’re not always interested in the types of trips I take.” And, she notes, “I’ve met wonderful people along the way with whom I still communicate. When traveling with others, there is a tendency to become too insular, and you don’t reach out to those around you.”
Perhaps the most significant benefit of solo travel for Susan is the opportunity it provides to pursue her passion for photography. “I found my love of photography through travel, and it has opened the door to a creativity I hadn’t yet expressed and didn’t really know was there,” she says. “It has become an integral part of my travels, but it requires a lot of attention and effort to capture the images that will convey the culture, animals, landscapes, and people of any given destination.” For that reason, she says, it’s a “somewhat selfish pursuit” and one she feels free to indulge in when she’s on her own and doesn’t have to worry about friends and family who may be impatient with her quest for the perfect shot.
As she continues to travel the world and document through her photographs the cultures and the landscapes she visits, Susan also appreciates the change she notes in herself when she is on the road. Her life in New York is often intense, as she works in a high-powered industry and is driven and competitive by nature. When she is on the road by herself, she says, she is able to operate from a more centered, open place. “I think I am a better version of me when I travel,” she says. “I naturally find a level of curiosity, wonder, patience, and serenity that I don’t feel when I am at home.”
Susan’s love for travel and photography is evident on her blog, theinsatiabletraveler.com, where she shares photos and posts about her adventures.