Travel2020: Solo explorations are the next frontier of travel
Wednesday, September 04, 2019
My first experience of traveling solo was not an easy one. I had broken with a group I had been traveling with from Europe to East Africa and ended up in Somalia.
I was a seasoned wanderer by then, so the fist-sized spiders on my wall, the uncrushable flying cockroaches and ubiquitous biting ants were no longer a problem for me. But I had to stand up to a lot more than insects on my own to make this solo travel venture work.
Expedia reports traveling alone is not only a one-of-a-kind experience but also represents one of the fastest-growing travel categories.
When you're traveling alone you are the master of your time, exploring the world on your own terms. Data from Expedia's first Solo Travel Report reveals 60% of travelers plan to take a solo trip within the next two years, proving people want more flexibility, convenience, and autonomy from their vacations.
What's even more interesting is how the desire for a digital connection is starting to rival the need of human connection on trips.
For me, traveling solo in Somalia was not a choice, it was a necessity. But what I did not expect was for the country to be in the throes of civil unrest at the time. I had been commissioned write two features for a magazine about things that had nothing to do with civil war.
No problem, I thought. Until I got there. Freshly landed in Mogadishu and in search of a hotel I learned I could not even rent a room for myself, much less get waited on, or get the interviews I needed or strike up conversations with strangers.
I was a woman alone in an Arab country lodged in the middle ages. Still, it never occurred to me that I should be afraid.
In the end, I navigated my way through the problems that came my way. A little “backsheesh” goes a long distance; a raised and commanding voice does even more. What I did not know at that time was that there were so many places that did not require me to bully my way into everything I needed.
There are so many cities around this globe that are solo-friendly, where you can drop your guard, make friends, explore at will, be normal with strangers and feel perfectly at home. Eventually, I did make Mogadishu my home, at least for a while. But there are other places I might have chosen, were I seeking calm, fun and self-discovery, rather than hotspot datelines.
Why Wander Alone?
Have you ever dipped into a gourmet meal with a group of business associates? How much of that plate did you actually taste? Traveling alone is having a feast all to yourself.
You taste every morsel and when the taste runs its course, you sample something else. You see the colors, feel the textures, smell the scents, hear the percussions. These are not things that slip by because you are always engaging in conversation or worried that a travel partner may not be having such a good time.
You are in control and you can come and go as you please. For many travelers, it will be the only time that such things are possible: to be anonymous and even invisible, to be the observer, to have one’s thoughts and one’s circumstances completely to one’s self.
At its most minimal, traveling solo is an exciting adventure. At its most intense, it is scary and character building, offering lessons and memories that will last a lifetime.
Sure, there are downsides to traveling solo. Strangers come up to you and take up your time; you are vulnerable to predators and do have to manage a degree of vigilance; then there’s no one to watch your bags while you find a fountain, or make sure you get on the right train. And there are those feared moments of loneliness, all part of the package.
But then there is the great book read, undisturbed on a deserted beach or the wonderful walking path accidentally discovered and blithely taken. There is the meal enjoyed in an outdoor bistro while writing entries in a journal and the conversation with a stranger on a train that turns into a temporary friend and travel mate.
Expedia’s Solo Travel Report revealed a few helpful facts about the magical act of traveling alone.
What Drives Solo Travel: Overall, solo travelers most often say they take solo trips to meet new people and explore new places, disconnect from work and life, and improve their independence and confidence.
And while the simple desire to get away is the biggest motivator for going it alone over any movie, book or celebrity influencer — it's no surprise that the best-selling novel turned feature film "Eat Pray Love" was the top source of inspiration for the 5% of travelers who said a movie prompted them to take a solo trip.
Solo Travel is Becoming the Preferred Travel Category: Two-thirds of respondents agree they prefer the freedom of traveling alone and meeting new people over the desire to have a vacation companion.
Younger travelers (83% of Gen Z and 80% of Millennials) are especially likely to agree. Less than 40% of the respondents Expedia surveyed identified themselves as parents, and of those, nearly all of them (82%) agree they too would prefer to travel alone.
The Ideal Solo Trip: While some might want to spend their summer backpacking across Europe, the most popular solo trip is the “Weekend Break” — a quick couple days in a new city or off the grid (30%).
Americans are more likely to want to experience an “Island Getaway” — cruise to a tropical destination or visit a beach (23%), “Foodie Trip” — eat their way through a region known for delicious cuisine (16%), or “Event Travel” — visiting a place specifically to attend a music festival or sporting event (14%).
Solo Travel Destinations: Domestic travel continues to be the foundation of how most Americans choose to vacation — and solo travel is no exception. U.S. travelers are more likely to choose new or familiar places within their own country, and 69% said their last solo trip was in the U.S.
When it comes to future solo trips, roughly three out of four Americans (74%) say their ideal location is in the U.S. followed by Canada (45%) and Europe (42%).
Solo Trip Advice is Practical: When it comes to planning your solo getaway, experienced solo travelers emphasize preparation and a positive attitude. Stick to a budget, know which travel documents you'll need and always have a plan B. Americans mostly feel that it's good to be mindful of fears but to not let them stop you (20%).
This Is When Things Get Awkward: Generally, solo travelers feel most uncomfortable when they are lost and need directions (42%), or when they are lost in translation (38%). U.S. travelers also dread having their phone battery die or eating alone (29%).
And while traveling through Africa alone may not be everyone’s cup of tea, places like Bangkok, Copenhagen, Paris, Reykjavik, Shanghai and Vienna call out to solos with reality fairytales of magical possibilities.
Most of Thailand could be considered tourism heaven. Beaches are vast, white and clean with chic resorts to budget bungalows to match the interests. Bangkok, a crowded city of 6.3 million souls is a perfect place to plan a Thailand journey.
Hotels vary, from the eco-friendly Bangkok Treehouse to the Lanna-style Siam to the legendary Mandarin Oriental. Backpackers also have their pick of properties, especially near Khao San Road. The city is easily navigated by tuk-tuk, those pedal carts, mostly motorized now that ferry folks through otherwise often impassable city streets.
Food is everywhere and cheap. Head to the many street markets and night markets for steaming stalls of satay and spicy noodles, and all manner of religious amulets, souvenirs and clothing. Wellness pursuits are big in Thailand— and relatively inexpensive.
The Wat Pho temple complex in the Phra Nakhon District, offers very inexpensive Thai-style massages to walk-ins in a large group setting. Or, one can opt for more opulent surroundings at Spa the Mandarin Oriental.
This is where you grab a bike and get rolling. Copenhagen requires very little orientation, as the whole city is bike and pedestrian-friendly and full of youth culture. Stay at the Absalon Hotel, comfortably located between Tivoli Gardens and the café and nightlife of the Meatpacking District in the Vesterbro or western section of Copenhagen.
It’s an easy walk from there to the Stroget, a pedestrian shopping artery that cuts through the heart of Copenhagen and remains one of the longest pedestrian byways in Europe. Copenhagen is the place for craft beers and the latest trends in Nordic cuisine.
It’s easy to find inexpensive cafes, but inveterate foragers can head to Torvehallerne and find a complete fantasy of Nordic cuisine from coffee to gourmet oatmeal with cheese to hanging herring to gourmet chocolate, all sold in sparkling indoor/outdoor glass stalls. And then there is NOMA, considered one of the top restaurants in the world.
Paris, just by being Paris, is as romantic as it gets. You don’t need a Bogart or Bergman to shepherd you through it. In no time you will be in your own movie, finding your own daring leads into walk you through a storyline of your own devise.
Wandering solo through some of the city’s great museums of art and culture is an especially fine treat as is savoring a café au lait at a sidewalk table overlooking the Seine. Shopping can be an adventure in self-discovery as designer one-off shops allow budget-minded dressers a shot at looking hot in the duds celebrities reject. Try Rue du Commerce, where the locals go to fashion up.
Roving in Reykjavik
Considered one of the safest cities in the world for women, Reykjavik rarely disappoints those looking for escape, amusement and cold toddies in hot mineral springs in the land of the midnight sun. The city is easily navigable by foot, bike and bus. It has a great party seen, particularly around the main shopping street, Laugavegur.
Barhopping wanders into the streets at closing time and the party continues. Dining can be an adventure here where meaty stews are the staples. But it is all an adventure, clothes on or clothes off as nearly two dozen hot mineral pools around the city offer sublime soaking. Blue Lagoon is the top choice for most travelers — cocktails in the lagoon come with the price of entry.
But, for all it offers in scenic beauty and exotic experiences, Reykjavik is also a pricey destination. Shopaholics should look elsewhere.
Shanghai can be overwhelming, even for the most seasoned of travelers. But once you bite into it the city gives way like a steaming dumpling. Wander the Bund, that mile of style along the Huangpo River, for a look at old and new Shanghai.
Designer studios mix with posh new and rebuilt hotels, top restaurants and historic neighborhoods overlooking ships and yachts that ply the waters. The Shanghai Museum of Fine Arts and the Natural History Museum are worthy draws.
Shopping, whether at the Yuyuan Gardens, fashionable Nanjing Road or the Hongkou district of Sichuan road, provide some of the finest silk designs at bargain basement prices. Tailoring is often done on the spot.
Remember that this is China and the land of well-made fakes. If you want a real designer watch, go to the Hualian Shopping Mall. Also, be aware that ATM cards and often credit cards too are not easily managed outside of hotels and designer boutiques. This is a cash country. Take plenty.
Vienna is one of the easiest cities in Europe to navigate, whether by its sensible subway system or easy walking routes through the old city. Find plenty of clean and inexpensive pensions there for lodging around Mariahilfer Strasse, or stay in more luxury minded places, such as the NH, the Hotel Imperial or Ritz-Carlton.
Start with a Viennese Coffee and sacher torte at the famous Café Sacher, a throwback to an era that Freud might have known, then hit the Museum of Fine Arts, near a cluster of museums that also includes the Leopold Museum.
Find a trove of Bruegel the Elder at the former and all the Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele one can handle at the latter. A coffee and an art book at the Fine Art’s dreamy tearoom, with its golden dome and hand-painted walls, is a blessed way to while away the day in perfect solitude.
It’s all complemented by a walk down Mariahilfer Strasse for shopping and people watching. A meditative sunset amble along the Danube allows for channeling the souls of famous thinkers who repeatedly took that very path in centuries past.
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