By Sharyn Alden
I’m often asked why I like to travel the world alone. For me, it was more by default than by design.
I simply got tired of waiting for someone to get over a cold or finally decide whether they wanted to go to a warm- or cold-weather climate or feel comfortable with a make-it-up-as-you-go-along itinerary or an off-the-beaten path destination.
Today, solo travel is more popular than ever, for all demographics and travel types.
A 2015 Visa Global Travel Intentions Study found that solo leisure travel had increased to 24 percent of all travel that year, up from 15 percent in 2013.
But it’s not just singles that are traveling by themselves. The latest Portrait of the American Traveler, compiled by MMGY Global, found that “10 percent of American travelers who have both significant others and children take vacations during the year without their families present.”
That number grows as you head up the age ladder; AARP has reported that about 53 percent of Americans 45 and older who travel alone are married. A majority of these travelers are women.
Women traveling alone is a bigger phenomenon than you might realize. A 2014 TripAdvisor survey of 9,000 women found that 41 percent had traveled alone, and 74 percent said they planned to travel solo.
When you go it alone, don’t let the thrill of solo travel overcome common sense. Here are seven travel tips that will help ensure your solo jaunt is a memorable one – for all the right reasons.
Watch your belongings. It’s a given you need to keep track of your stuff when you travel. For solo travelers, though, the job is more challenging because you don’t have someone to watch your back.
No matter what I’m carrying, I make sure it has a long strap that can fit across my body. When you put down strapped gear, put it between your feet and step on the strap. Don’t hang it on the back of a chair. Don’t stand in line with a backpack filled with personal information and valuables.
Distribute your money, credit cards, travel documents and passport inside a few bags, including the one you use for daily sightseeing. If one gets lost or stolen, you’ll have a fallback plan.
Watch out for scams. Beware of pickpockets and thieves when you’re crossing a street. These are popular spots for grabbing tourist gear because of the rush of traffic.
Why not wear a fake wedding ring? It may help ward off thieves who see you as an easy, isolated mark.
Carry a well-worn wallet. I’ve found them at thrift stores and use them often on the road. When you’re paying for something in a public place, that wallet, which looks like it’s on its last legs, may send a signal you’re not flush with cash.
Tell people where you’re going. Inform a friend or family member at home of your daily itinerary. Leave the same information with someone where you’re staying.
Blend in, don’t stand out. I could hardly believe my eyes when I sat in a cab in St. Petersburg next to an American woman dripping with jewelry. She was wearing necklaces of enormous Baltic amber nuggets. The golden amber dripped from her bracelets and rings, too. (Amber, in that part of the world, is found in many high-end shops and museum gift stores.) It was as if she had robbed a Russian jeweler but was too smug to stash the cache in her suitcase.
This solo traveler was sending three messages: I have money, I’m a tourist and I have no safety smarts.
Before you travel to another country, research local customs and dress codes. There may be religious restrictions for certain sites like St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, where you’ll be turned away if you have bare shoulders or legs. That’s true for both men and women.
Stay healthy. Pack extra prescription medicine and scripts. Make sure the drugs have a generic drug name. Having backup meds is especially important when traveling alone. You don’t have a group leader to help hunt things down for you.
Never give in to the vacation mode and give up on safety. It’s easy to want to grab takeout from a street cart’s food vendor, but you’re probably better off avoiding the urge. In developing countries pasteurization, sanitization and cooking methods may not be what you expect.
Some things like not drinking local water (that goes for brushing your teeth, too) are no-brainers for seasoned travelers. But if you’re going scuba diving, would you think to ask about the safety record of your dive operator? Or if your cab driver is driving so fast you’re gripping the seat in fear, would you tell him to slow down? I’ve done this in many countries, but always with the fear that the driver was going to ignore my request and make a point by driving faster.
Asking these kinds of questions usually works for me, but I always memorize the words “slow down” (and a few others) in the local language where I’m traveling.
Try to stick with a group. Sign up for a day trip to a hard-to-get site, or strike up a conversation based on common denominators. A couple of year ago, when I was sitting by a pool at the magnificent Buccaneer Resort in St. Croix, I couldn’t help overhear two women talking about the HGTV show The Property Brothers. I was in the midst of a major remodel back home, so I introduced myself.
As it turned out, we had all been through the horrors and rewards of home improvement. Over the next few days, we had a lot of fun as a result of our common interests.
With that said, don’t make a habit of announcing the fact that you’re traveling alone. Make up a story that your spouse is working while you’re sightseeing or that a friend is joining you later that day; anything so you won’t be seen as completely alone.
Stay aware of your surroundings. This sounds like a no-brainer, but if you’re watching a parade, poring over a menu at an outdoor café, or snapping pics of the Louvre, don’t let your guard down. Pickpockets may be watching the action, too.
No matter where you travel, talk to local resources you trust — such as your hotel concierge — about any local safety concerns or areas to avoid when you’re walking alone.
Drink alcohol wisely so you’ll be able to keep your wits about you when walking back to your hotel or taking a cab by yourself.
When you’re using cash machines, withdraw cash during the day, and not at night.
Don’t leave common sense at home. If you’re in a crowd, don’t be distracted by someone who approaches you to buy something. When in doubt, don’t put yourself in a situation that requires you give full attention to a stranger.
I have a rule that I never buy anything from an individual on a street unless I’m with a local who has a better sense of the seller’s trustworthiness than I do.
Have Adequate Travel Insurance. I know firsthand that travel insurance can give you more than peace of mind. It can be an all-important lifeline when you need it most. Yes, there’s that one time when I was stuck in Croatia after breaking my kneecap and the travel-insurance folks helped me out around the clock. But there have been several other times when life happened and I was able to get reimbursed for lost trip costs, trip cancellations and interruptions.
Just last week, a friend realized the expensive consequences of not having bought trip insurance for her two-week Alaskan adventure. Two days before departure her mother became seriously ill and my friend had to cancel the trip, a vacation that would’ve been covered in part if she had bought trip insurance.
“It’s not that I’ve never bought travel insurance,” she said, “I have. But this time I forgot.”
Don’t make yourself an expensive lesson for someone else. Don’t just think about getting travel insurance; do it.
Sharyn Alden is a long-time travel writer with a media-relations business, Sharyn Alden Communications, Inc., based in Madison, Wis. Contact her at email@example.com.