Are women who travel solo just a different, braver breed than the rest? Or can any woman become one? Well, if my experience is any indication, you don’t need to be born a brave female solo traveler – you can turn yourself one!
I’ve traveled to (and in) 27 countries and counting alone, and I currently travel the world as a female digital nomad alone too. And let me tell you: if I can do it, you can too. It just takes a little bit of practice.
How I Started Traveling Solo
While I will now happily hop on a plane to pretty much anywhere alone on a whim, I wasn’t always like this. In fact, it took years of building up my confidence and solo travel skills to get to this point. So how did I do it?
Well, I practiced.
I’m aware that it sounds fairly ridiculous to practice traveling – isn’t practicing something you do to learn a language or play an instrument? But really, traveling alone is a skill to be honed like anything else, especially for solo women.
In fact, once I stopped traveling for months during the initial phase of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, I realized just how much traveling alone is a muscle that you need to train or it will atrophy. Once I finally got back on a plane to England in July, I felt like I was starting to learn how to travel all over again – making rookie mistakes and feeling awkward and a bit uncomfortable.
But much like riding a bike, it comes back fast once you have enough experience under your belt. So how did I start getting that experience without hopping on an international flight right away? I started in my own backyard.
Travel Begins at Home
I didn’t literally start in my backyard – I lived in downtown Boston, after all, and a backyard there is a suburban luxury. (I did have a big porch with a very mean resident rat, but that’s a story for another time.)
I had wanted to start traveling alone for quite a while – there were so many places I wanted to go, but my friends were broke or had no vacation time, and my family wasn’t always up for the trips I wanted to take. And I was tired of feeling limited when I knew there was a whole world out there for me to see, if I was brave enough.
Facing Your Fears About Female Solo Travel
So I started thinking about what made me nervous about traveling alone – what specifically was holding me back?
Will Eating Alone Be Strange?
My main worry was about eating alone. Sure, going out to breakfast alone is usually fine as it’s not a very social meal. And I could find solutions for lunch, like taking a little picnic somewhere, that seemed fine. But sitting down to dinner in a restaurant alone? That made my heart flutter and my heart flip (thanks, anxiety!).
So I started taking that fear out to lunch, and dinner, and breakfast too. I did it right in Boston in places I knew to begin with so I wasn’t taking on too much, and gradually I got braver and went to new places I wanted to try alone. And I found that it was actually quite lovely – waiters were kind, most people quietly ignored me, and the chance to go where I wanted and people-watch or read a book was kind of heavenly.
What Will People Think?
Another part of my worry was the fear of what other people would think. Would they pity the poor, friendless girl who was all alone? Would I seem strange or scared or something else to the people I encountered?
Then I realized – it doesn’t matter what other people think of you generally, and it certainly doesn’t matter when they’re strangers passing by who you will never see again. And almost everyone you meet traveling alone falls into that second category.
Plus, the more I started traveling alone, the more I heard from other people (especially other women) who I feared would pity me that they actually envied me – they thought I was brave, independent, and cool. And they told me this pretty often. I’m sure there were a few who did think I was sad or strange for traveling alone, but they didn’t voice it and it certainly didn’t matter to me once I got more comfortable with it.
What If Something Goes Wrong?
My final fear was being alone if anything went wrong. This is a common fear during solo travel for women, since we can get into more dangerous situations alone. But I was accustomed to taking plenty of steps to keep myself safe right at home in Boston – not walking home alone at night, telling friends where I was when I went out on a date with someone new, staying alert to my surroundings, and all the little things women need to do to stay safe every day.
Just being a woman in the world is good practice for being a woman traveling the world.
Plus, I have an anxiety disorder. While most of the time this is not a fun companion, it also does help me prepare for pretty much anything. I am an obsessive researcher of any place I plan to go – how I will get there, what will I do, what little things do I need to know – and having all that planned before I get on a plane or a bus is great preparation.
Easing Into Female Solo Travel
Once I started to get comfortable doing things alone in my home city, I decided I needed to start stretching my wings a bit further to see if I really liked traveling alone. I got the perfect chance when my good friends were getting married outside of Portland, Oregon, which was a city I had lived in for a year after college as an Americorps VISTA* volunteer.
Most of my friends were fellow VISTAs who had moved away, and I knew I’d be on my own for about two days in the city before going out to the wedding. The perfect chance to practice – in a city I knew well, but alone to explore. I stayed in a cool hotel, took myself out to cafes and chic restaurants alone, and walked all over the city by myself.
It was nerve-wracking at times, like when I took myself out on a Saturday night to a romantic restaurant, but also pretty exhilarating. (Romancing yourself can be fun!) I didn’t have to compromise on anything I wanted to do! And when I did feel awkward, which happened fairly often, I’d just acknowledge it and it would eventually pass.
After that trip, I took myself on solo trips to warm destinations in the winter like Miami and LA to escape frigid Boston, and got even more comfortable alone.
Going Overseas Alone
Then it was time for the big trip – my first solo female international travel experience.
I knew traveling in the US wasn’t enough for me, even though it was comfortable and becoming pretty easy. I wanted to see the world! So I found the perfect chance. One of my best friends was asked to give a presentation at a university in France, and asked if I wanted to tag along. A week in France with her? Mais oui, of course! We spent a week in Paris and Angers, exploring and having a great time.
But she had to head back on a Friday to get back to her lab, and I had the weekend free. So I decided to do a free stopover in Iceland on the way home, and spend the weekend in Reykjavik. Iceland sounded beautiful and fascinating and also very, very safe and easy to navigate alone – and it was.
I stayed in an Airbnb hosted by a fellow American who took me out with his fun, artsy, very lovely Icelandic friends. We ate lamb hot dogs under the still-bright 2 am sun and drank brennevin, a strong local liquor, at rambling cool bars. I went on a brief bus tour to a few of the landmarks around the city – Geyser and a beautiful waterfall and the site of the ancient Icelandic democracy – where my fellow tour-mates were welcoming and kind and admired my independence. It was incredible.
And then I knew I was ready – I could take on anything alone.
Traveling alone has changed my whole life – first I took off for a year wandering the world alone, and now I live abroad full-time as a digital nomad. That small start led to some big, beautiful things.
Bravery Can Be Built
The title of this blog post, I now have to admit, is just a little bit misleading.
Being afraid of something doesn’t mean it’s off-limits to you forever. Trust me, I am afraid of so many things. I hate flying, I have truly wild levels of anxiety about mundane things most of the time, and I am super shy around people I don’t know. On paper, I am not the image of an experienced female solo traveler. And I’m certainly not fearless.
But you know what? I’ve just chosen to do it anyways. And I still often have those same fears when I get to a new place – how to ask someone for directions when I’m lost, the flip my stomach does when my plane takes off, the full hour I will sometimes spend researching if I’m supposed to seat myself at a restaurant in a certain country or wait to be seated. (Anxiety is really fun!)
Now, however, I know that I will probably mess something up – make a cultural faux pas at some point, get on the wrong subway line, order the wrong kind of coffee at a cafe. And life will go on, and I’ll be in a new place having a new experience, which is exactly what I want to be doing with my life.
I do it on my own terms, and I don’t have to wait to do anything I want. And you don’t need to wait either. Life is way too short for that anyhow – hasn’t 2020 truly brought that lesson home for all of us enough?