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Going on Vacation Alone? Smart Tips for Nervous Nomads

Knowing how to travel solo is increasingly important as we get older.

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Wide shot of a woman taking a selfie during sunrise hot air balloon ride
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Some women love traveling alone. My friend Samantha regularly goes to Africa by herself. My friend Desa takes last-minute trips to London and Jamaica. Debra heads off on solo hiking and biking adventures. Andrea travels alone through Europe.

“When you travel by yourself, you end up having all these fascinating conversations and happy accidents,” Samantha says.

“You’re not beholden to other people’s interests, tour groups or timetables,” Debra adds.

Many of us American women have a privilege that our grandmothers — and most women throughout history and across the globe — have never had. We can travel alone for pleasure. If we have saved some extra money, we can take off across the country at a moment’s notice. If we have a passport, we can take off around the world. We don’t need a spouse, a chaperone or a tour guide managing us.

Knowing how to travel solo is increasingly important as we get older, particularly if widowed or divorced. But for many of us, exploring the country or world alone can be scary. I’m a nervous nomad myself — and I’m a travel writer! Yet taking off alone never comes easily to me. I always panic: What am I going to do all by myself? Where am I going to eat dinner? What if I’m lonely?

Each time I do embark on a solo journey, I am surprised how exhilarating, empowering and fun it turns out to be. It’s easier to go at my own pace and explore whenever and wherever I’d like to go. And navigating foreign places on my own always boosts my confidence and endorphins.

Once, for example, I’d planned to travel to the Pushkar Camel Fair in India with two other women — who canceled at the last minute. India is not known as an easy place to navigate as a woman alone, but I’d heard the camel fair was a “once in a lifetime experience” and “not to be missed.” Plus, I’d already arrived in Delhi.

I figured out how to secure a driver and a single bungalow for myself. Then, I felt a bolt of ecstasy when I found myself at the fair riding through the desert at sunset on a camel cart. I was free and strong and adventurous and humbled all at once. The world around me was astonishing.

If I had given into my fears and canceled the trip, I would’ve missed something extraordinary. What’s more I would have reinforced my own timidity and limitations. Instead, I defied them!

Here are some travel tips for other nervous nomads, hesitant to purchase that airplane ticket for one:

Start small. Before booking two weeks alone in Greece, try a long weekend by yourself at a place in the United States you’ve wanted to see for a long time. Book a wine tour of Napa or an excursion to the Grand Canyon. If your first solo trip is short, domestic and exciting, it’ll be less daunting.

Alternatively, revisit a place you once enjoyed long ago. If you haven’t been back to New York City or Savannah in 40 years, you can test your solo wings on familiar grounds.

Travel with a passion and a purpose. When I first backpacked alone to Amsterdam, I panicked. Yet when I first went overseas as a journalist, I was excited. Why? Because as a reporter, I had an assignment to focus on. So, when traveling alone, give yourself an assignment.

As the founder of the Susan Jane Gilman Institute of Advanced Gelato Studies, for example, I always make it a goal to investigate a place’s best ice cream. My designer friend arranges visits with local artisans. A die-hard Bruce Springsteen fan I know follows the Boss on tour as an excuse for seeing the world. Going someplace to study tango, glassblowing or art history gives your journey both pleasure and purpose. Plus, you meet like-minded enthusiasts who may make great dinner companions.

Participate in a group activity. Guided walking tours, available internationally through websites like Tripadvisor or GetYourGuide, are great ways to learn about your destination and mingle with other travelers. Food tours, wine tastings, market excursions and cooking classes are even better. You learn about local culture and meet people. An added benefit of pasta-making in Rome or Thai cooking in Bangkok? You’ll share homemade meals with fellow travelers.

Take yourself out at night. Like the song from “Cabaret” goes, “What good is sitting alone in your room?” Don’t spend evenings at the hotel on your computer. Opera, acrobatics, folk music, dance recital, and live concerts can be appreciated in any language. Book tickets online or through your hotel. Some offerings may be super-touristy, but so what? You’re a tourist. Enjoy the kitschy polka demo, the insane laser-light show, the string quartet of locals playing Vivaldi in a church!

Use social media. Facebook has exclusive groups for women traveling alone, such as Solo in Style: Women Over 50 Traveling Solo & Loving It. These are terrific sources of support and community. You become part of a digital sisterhood of women travelers who share stories, give travel advice and hold your hand virtually while you plan to venture out alone.

Engage with the world. A little small talk goes a long way. Asking any tourist taking a selfie, “Do you want me to take your photo?” is a great icebreaker. Nowadays, many fellow travelers from all parts of the world speak English. Ask bartenders about their favorite drinks, hotel managers about their favorite parts of the city. Don’t be shy: People everywhere like to talk to friendly strangers. Be curious — and really listen. If you don’t focus the conversation on yourself, you’ll be amazed by the “fascinating conversations and happy accidents” that unfold, as described earlier by my adventurous friend Samantha.

The superpower of being an older woman is that it makes people more open to you. When I travel with others, we’re a closed circuit. We talk mostly amongst ourselves. But as a midlife woman alone, I’m considered approachable, even inspiring. “You’re here in Croatia by yourself? Wow. What brings you here?” a couple from Scotland asked me recently in Dubrovnik. As we began exchanging life stories, our worlds expanded. We ended up at a café together, for more conversation and drinks.

You may be afraid to travel on your own but trust me: The world will see you as interesting and indomitable. And you will feel that way too!

Have you ever taken a vacation alone? Let us know in the comments below.

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