One summer I had an internship in Denver, so I packed up my car in Berkeley, California, and made the drive alone. I stayed in a few motels along the way, kept my own schedule, and listened to a Nora Ephron book on my iPod.
I loved it. I was traveling alone, with no one’s opinions to consider but my own.
But that’s nothing compared to my cousin Kristy McNiff. She has done four solo trips internationally — to Panama, Brazil, Puerto Rico, and most recently, Portugal. She’s also traveled by herself quite a bit inside the U.S., including to Yosemite, Joshua Tree, Death Valley, the Channel Islands, and Mount Rainier. She often travels for work and then adds on extra alone travel time.
She said she loves solo traveling because she gets to make all her own decisions about what to do.
“I learned to scuba dive in Panama, something I couldn't do on my first trip there because my friends I was traveling with weren't interested in doing it,” she said.
On her recent trip to Portugal, she’d picked out ahead of time a few beaches to visit.
“But once I was there, I stumbled across other beaches that weren't listed in the guidebooks and were so much prettier than I could have imagined,” she said. “I originally planned to visit southern Spain in the trip as well, but I ended up liking Portugal so much that I decided to skip Spain and see more of Portugal instead. Being on my own gave me the flexibility to change plans like that.”
She did Google searches for more beaches in Portugal and found an island off the western coast “with an incredible 17th-century fort also not found in the guidebooks.”
“The fort was basically built on the water and after a short, steep hike over and down the island to get there, you could swim and jump directly off the steps into the ocean,” she added.
McNiff is part of a growing trend — more women are traveling alone. A poll by the insurance company Travel Guard found that last year a majority of travel agents said more of their female clients are now traveling alone compared to 10 years ago. Reasons for solo travel included being single, wanting to follow their own schedule, because they have more time to travel than their friends or family members, or because they are traveling to pursue a specific interest.
The trend has spawned lots of advice books and articles with tips for the woman solo traveler, including a somewhat controversial New York Times piece that advised women to stay in expensive hotels for safety reasons.
That’s not McNiff’s method. She stayed in hostels in Portugal and said it led to some of her best experiences.
“An English guy at my hostel actually knew where Vermont was due to Bernie Sanders — usually no one has ever heard of my tiny state,” she said. “And a restaurant owner in a very tiny town who upon learning I was from New England said he loved American football and especially liked ‘the guy who wins all the championships and is married to that model,’ a.k.a. Tom Brady.”
“The only ‘What the heck I am I doing?’ moment I had was when I first got on the highway in my tiny European rental car and realized it had been years since I'd driven a manual car,” she added. “But it all worked out and was smooth sailing from there.”
I am really impressed, and somewhat jealous, of my cousin’s adventuring, but it drives our 95-year-old grandmother Mary Trageser crazy. She is also a world traveler — she’s been to England more times than she can count, traveled throughout Europe, to Japan, but has never really traveled alone. She goes with friends, her children, or on organized trips for seniors.
She lived in London during part of World War II, and that might be in part where her ideas about traveling alone originate.
“I was one of 20 females amidst 4,000 troops on board the New Amsterdam troop ship,” she told me. “Never be alone. Always go with another woman to eat, meetings, and so forth. I was almost attacked when I was followed into our empty bedroom by a too-friendly officer. Lesson learned.”
In wartime London, she said the streets were deserted at night, with no streetlights, or lights from shops and restaurants.
“I learned to tell by flashlights whether it was an American or someone else walking behind me or by footsteps whether it was male or female,” she said. “If American, they were just lonely and wanted to chat. ‘Where are you from? Want to go have a beer? No? Well can I walk with you to the Underground?’ were the usual questions. From the subway to home, I often walked in the middle of the deserted street so there would be no surprises.”
She said she did go by herself with a small bus of men on an army R&R trip to Switzerland.
“I had no trouble, just made friends,” she said. “Should I have been insulted?”
My grandma knows that traveling alone is more common for women now. “You can eat when you want, where you want, and bring a book,” she said.
But she still worries about her granddaughter.
“Kristy is brave, I think,” she said. “Having a friend is more fun and safer.”
My cousin said she takes steps to be sure she’s safe.
“I generally feel safe, no less than I do by myself at home,” she said. “I make sure to be smart about it. I avoid walking by myself in shady areas or late at night, I conceal my wallet or wear a small cross-body bag, and I stay aware of my surroundings. I may actually be safer traveling because I'm so much more conscious and present.”
She also likes traveling with friends, but finds the freedom of making her own plans hard to give up.
“Traveling with friends gives you a shared experience and companionship, but it requires compromise and a lot of planning to agree on itineraries,” she said. “Looking back at long email chains of travel plans gives me anxiety. It's hard to do everything you'd like to when you have to cover the needs of a group and it can be stressful trying to make everyone happy.”
“Traveling by myself, I'm able to do whatever I want,” she added. “I can get up early and walk the entire city, or sleep in and spend the day at the beach. I like traveling somewhat unplanned, allowing myself to have surprise discoveries and adventures, and that mentality almost never works with others in tow.”
She said being alone also makes her more present.
”I'm more observant and less distracted, able to take in all the details and make stronger memories,” she said. “It's also easier to meet new people when you're not part of a group already. Traveling solo, you're bound to meet other friendly travelers on a similar agenda that you can join forces with when you want the company. It's easy to have more engaging conversation and you'll make friends faster than you ever would at home or if you were with a group. Traveling alone is also a huge confidence and character builder. Figuring out how to navigate a foreign city, remembering how to drive a manual car, or managing travel plans solo, you learn to be more resourceful and that feeling of accomplishment is all yours to enjoy.”
And as for our grandmother, who has a family reputation for being an extreme worrier, McNiff said, “Grandma doesn't need to worry. Although, I know she will regardless.”