Traveling through Costa Rica over the past week has brought back so many emotions from my 12 week backpacking trip this past summer- the feelings of self-reliance and freedom, and the excitement of discovery and uncertainty. This time around, I strangely feel more at home “on the road,” but also further away from home than I ever have felt before. I find myself thinking less about how exciting the adventure is and more about how my traveling fits into my personal long and short-term goals. For me, I think I’m working on defining what home means, and I think there’s no better way to do this than traveling solo. Particularly, women traveling alone may face a unique set of questions, coming both from others and from their own self-doubt. I address a few below.
1- “It’s bold of you to be traveling alone as a girl.” I got this exact comment from a very nice Floridian gentleman I met at Manuel Antonio a few days ago, who had just finished telling me his own son had traveled through Africa alone when he was my age. I couldn’t help but smile and wonder if the fact I was traveling solo would have elicited the same response if I were male. To be fair, this gentleman was with his college-aged daughter, and he encouraged the two of us to talk some more so she could “learn from me,” which I found humbling (he thinks I have something to teach!?) and inspiring (he wants his daughter to feel empowered to see the world on her own volition).
Traveling solo while female isn’t necessarily bold or out-of-the-ordinary (at least it shouldn’t be). I have girl friends from Europe who do this type of thing regularly. And let’s not forget American pop culture icons Elizabeth Gilbert (of Eat Pray Love fame) and Cheryl Strayed (Wild).
I found this encounter illustrative of something I view as a uniquely American perspective– the world’s not safe enough for women to travel alone. I have to disagree. To be fair, my own parents were reasonably concerned when I traveled to Africa last year on my own. But the truth is, practicing a certain level of care and attention will keep women just as safe as men in most places in the world. I’ll admit there are some places even I wouldn’t travel alone right now, but they’re few and far between. You have to accept 1 thing (America is just as dangerous or, in some ways, more dangerous than some places in the world) and believe 2 things: 1-despite what the media shows, most people generally have goodness in their hearts, and 2-practicing heightened care by paying attention to surroundings and instincts goes a long way.
2- “You’re staying in a hostel!? / Aren’t those sketchy and gross?” They’re awesome, if you pick the right one! I’m actually a huge fan of hostels, yet I feel they get a bad wrap in the USA because they’re just not as common there. Despite the sound of the name, I’ve found “hostels” to be quite hospitable places. Many of them are just as nice or nicer than hotels, with the added bonus of meeting fellow travelers and making friends more easily. The average age is somewhere between 23 to 35, if you pick the right one. And they are generally far less expensive to boot, with special deals on stuff to see and do around town. In addition, many hostels have a private room option which provides the privacy benefit of hotels at a far cheaper cost.
I use Hostelworld to research and book in advance. The reviews are very helpful here in terms of choosing a hostel that’s clean and safe, with the right blend of social-ness and solitude. The flexible deposit option also allows you to receive a refund if you cancel far enough in advance that’s then credited toward booking your next hostel (they also have hotels on here too!)
Ironically, I feel hostels are a much safer option for female solo travelers than single Airbnbs or hotels. As much as I love Airbnb, I think it’s better to be around a group of fellow travelers if you’re traveling alone. Also, it’s just an easier and more convenient way to make friends!
I think my favorite hostel I’ve ever stayed in was St. Christopher’s Inn in Berlin. I stayed in a huge room with 3 other girls, one who became one of my closest friends from the summer. We also had 2 full baths, a living room and kitchen, and a full bar and restaurant downstairs. It was also next to 2 major train stations. And it was ridiculously cheap– if you’re going to Berlin, book in advance because it fills up fast.
3- “Doesn’t it get lonely sometimes?” Yes and no. I am a firm believer that everyone would benefit from taking a solo trip at some point in his or her life. Solo travel teaches you how to rely on yourself in a completely unique way, as you are often the only person you know when you first arrive in a completely new part of the world. Solo travel is a healthy exercise in self-reliance, and I’m convinced it teaches you more about yourself than you thought you could know. It also forces you to step outside your comfort zone to make new connections, causing you to realize your comfort zone is in fact larger than you ever realized.
That being said, I think it takes a special blend of introversion and extroversion to truly relish the experience, as I tend to do. I am admittedly an introverted extrovert, which means I tend to gravitate towards social settings and being around other people, but I not only crave, but need, time alone to recharge and reflect. I love traveling solo because I can direct when I want to be social and when I want to be alone, which is a luxury for someone who lives in one of the most crowded cities in the world!
Does it get lonely sometimes? Sure, sometimes. And I have to admit I also love traveling with other people, too. It’s just a different experience, and there is a lot of value to be recognized in both methods. I don’t think I’ll travel solo forever, but at this point in my life I’m relishing the freedom.
4- “Why travel so much now? Don’t you want to wait and do it someday with a husband and kids?” My response is why not travel now and then! The (morbid) truth is, none of us know how many hours we have left on this earth. Or, you may wake up one day at 80 years old and realize you never pursued your dream of seeing the world because you kept waiting on other people. So if seeing as much of the world as possible is a priority to you, do it now. Not only is it safe and practical for women to solo travel (for reasons discussed above), but it makes so much sense to do so during the free, uncommitted days of early adulthood. You can stay in hostels! You can take an overnight bus with your backpack! You can wander through a jungle by yourself!
Traveling has allowed me to make sense of both the world and myself on a deeper level, even as what I see and learn often uncovers even more questions. I feel richer because of the opportunities I’ve had over the last couple of years to travel solo, and these experiences will enrich my future, whatever it holds.
5- “Isn’t it expensive though?” To be fair, this applies to guys and girls. My answer is twofold- 1) it’s not as expensive as you may think and 2) it doesn’t have to be as expensive as you think. Budgeting and using a savings plan, being flexible with flight dates, replacing some eating out with groceries, and using hostels can combine to make (almost) any trip a reality. Everyone has a right to choose what they value most, and for me, in the last few years I’ve begun to value experiences more than things. (That doesn’t mean wanting to spend money on nice things is a less worthy goal at all! It’s all personal preference). Life is all about choices anyway. If you want, feel free to message me to chat privately about travel finances. I promise I’ve paid less for this trip than you’d believe, and I’d love to share my secrets with you!
Also, each time I travel, I’m blown away by how many Americans I do not meet. For people from other countries (Australia and the U.K. come to mind), traveling abroad is a priority that manifests in the way people save and spend their money. Most people I meet traveling are not extremely wealthy, yet they just prioritize traveling in their finances. And, so many countries are cheaper to live in and travel in than the USA- with a bit of financial planning, I’m convinced more Americans can see the world.
If you take the chance to travel alone, you’ll discover you’re stronger than you ever realized, meet some of the most interesting people, and learn just how small the world really is. The world is yours to explore, so I encourage all women (and men) out there to not make any more excuses and do it. To combine two of my favorite cliches- fortune favors the bold, and travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer.