Trailblazing solo traveler and author Elizabeth Gilbert once said, “To travel is worth any cost or sacrifice.”
After 5 years on the road on my own, I wholeheartedly agree… but I also worry that the era of solo female travel empowerment has glossed over some of the challenges in its worthy push to encourage women to see the world for themselves.
I will still jump up and down waving pom-poms for every single woman who chooses to travel solo. But I also commit to being completely honest about the challenges and costs that come with this wonderful choice.
Here are my five least favorite things about solo female travel:
Caution From Armchair Experts
“You’re going where? Alone?!”
It’s an odd phenomenon. When a young woman travels alone – especially to an off-path or non-Western destination – everyone suddenly becomes a globally knowledgeable safety expert.
Unsolicited, they caution us about the dangers of cities they can’t pronounce with the authority of a State Department official or international correspondent.
In my experience, the well-meaning peanut gallery has likely neither traveled to said destination recently nor traveled solo as a woman. But what these caution-bearers lack in qualifications and shared experiences, they make up for in fear mongering gusto.
While the intentions may be wholesome, these cautionary conversations leave a bitter taste in my mouth and drain my patience.
So how can we deal with the peanut gallery?
While it can feel frustrating, condescending, and redundant, I try to remember that most of these armchair experts are speaking from a place of genuine concern for my safety. As misguided as it may be, most are trying to be helpful and caring.
I suggest finding the sweet spot between polite and firm. Here’s a tried and true 3-point response:
- Thank them for caring so much about you, if it’s clear that they have good intentions.
- Mention a few reliable resources that you used to plan your trip, like the U.S. State Department’s country profiles, embassy websites, experiences of seasoned solo female travelers who visited recently, the international community living there, and locals.
- Politely close the door to further commentary. “I’ll be sure to reach out to you later if I need any advice about this trip” works wonders for me.
Reactions To Solo Fine Dining
My inner foodie has long silenced any insecurities or awkwardness some people feel when dining solo. I have genuinely enjoyed eating alone at some of the best restaurants in the world.
But the finer the dining experience, the more waiters and patrons in some cities seem to really have a problem with it.
I’ll never forget my lackluster experience at a makeshift basement table for one by the toilet at a Michelin starred trattoria in Bologna, Italy.
The maitre’d appeared very concerned when I arrived with so much culinary excitement and an empty stomach, but no partner or friends – despite an advance reservation for one.
Like many other times before, I was asked repeatedly if I was waiting for someone, made to stand by while they gave my reserved table to a walk-in couple, and stared at with pity and confusion by a whispering huddle of waiters.
A middle-aged couple seated nearby, unaware that I spoke Italian, entertained themselves with a stream of guesswork gossip to explain my solo dining. Did my family’s flight get delayed? Did I leave my unfaithful boyfriend?
Funnily enough, the American businessman seated alone by the window seemed to escape everyone’s concern.
So how can a solo traveler foster her inner foodie?
Women who consider gastronomy an important part of their solo trip should try solo diner-friendly countries like Japan, Portugal, Thailand, Denmark, Mexico, and Australia. On the other hand, you might want to be prepared for some challenges in countries like Italy, Switzerland, Malaysia, Morocco, or Korea.
Lastly, try a reverse order: fine dining for lunch, casual for dinner. Daytime reservations will almost always be more solo-friendly than busy evening seatings.
The Pink Tax: Travel Edition
There’s no way around it. Solo female travelers simply pay more.
Travelers of all genders will usually pay more just for being alone. We often have to pay a 2-person rate for everything from luxury hotel rooms to excursions. Airport transfers are usually flat-rate for groups of 2-4, so we end up paying for phantom seats.
Sometimes the tax paid is missing out on the experience itself, as many tours and activities won’t operate for just one person.
For women traveling alone, however, the safety factor takes its cut too. I can’t count the number of times I’ve passed up an insane flight deal, instead paying 2-5x more for the safety of not landing in an unknown city at 2 am.
Female budget travelers often really feel the squeeze. While backpacking through Latin America with some guy friends, I noticed myself spending a lot more on evening rideshares or taxis, while they felt safe walking back to the hostel or taking public transport to their Airbnb alone in the dark.
Hostels also frequently have a really obvious pink tax, charging more for the female dorms than the male or mixed dorms. On a recent trip to Istanbul, the female dorm was $5 more than the mixed dorm and $2 more than the male dorm. For a one-week stay, I would have been paying $14-35 more than a man on the same solo trip. When taking a longer trip or gap year, the hostel pink tax could add up to several hundred dollars difference.
The beauty of solo travel can be a double-edged sword: you’re in charge. Of everything. All the time.
For a week or a weekend, this can be incredibly empowering and recentering. But after five years of full-time solo travel, I can promise you that it gets exhausting.
Decision fatigue is a real thing for any solo traveler, regardless of gender. This is especially true for many digital nomads who run their own businesses or freelance, since they’re also the primary decision maker at work.
For women adventuring alone, there’s the added pressure of being your own Head of Security 24/7. The judgment calls about whether to trust a flirty taxi driver, whether you can walk a few minutes back after dark, whether you need to tell a white lie about a boyfriend or family member joining you… they add up to a substantial mental load.
So how can we prevent decision fatigue?
I suggest giving yourself a one-day breather for every week of travel, and a one-week rest for every two months of travel. Use this time to relax somewhere safe without any need to plan excursions. You could also join a solo female traveler group trip, or get your girlfriends together for a decision-free cruise.
Never Going Back To Bad Group Trips
Falling in love with solo travel forced me to break up with bad group trips.
Once you’ve had a taste of total decision-making power on a trip, it’s very hard to give it up.
With a group, getting out the door takes forever. Decisions take forever too, and the resulting compromises leave everyone disappointed about something. Even getting the trip out of the group chat can feel like a monumental feat!
Wouldn’t it be so much faster to just book an amazing ticket when it’s on sale and spend the next night planning the whole thing in your sweatpants with a bottle of wine without asking anyone for their approval? Then go where you want, when you want, and spend what you want?
So how can we travel with friends after we’ve gotten used to solo travel?
A mid-50s French fashionista gave me this advice in a cafe in Florence with a cigarette in one hand and an espresso in the other – Don’t go anywhere new with other people.
Repeat destinations you’ve been to before. There’s always something new to explore, taste, or learn, but you won’t feel the pressure of needing to properly ‘travel.’
No two women are the same; no two travelers are the same.
While my experience may not be the same as the solo female traveler next to me, I hope the adventurer reading this article can learn from my experiences to better plan her next solo trip.
I promise: the challenges are worth it.
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This article originally appeared on TravelOffPath.com