Jetting off alone has become a trend post-pandemic, particularly for women, but is it just for singles?
A hostel owner in Quito, Ecuador, told me that people who travel are “either searching for something or healing from something”. After nearly nine months of solo backpacking, I’ve discovered there is truth to this.
I left Ireland in May 2022 with the simple intention of seeing as many places as possible. I hugged my sister, my niece and my mother goodbye at Kildare train station, promising them I would be fine and that I knew what I was doing.
But deep down, I didn’t really have a clue. I was 30, heading off by myself with a backpack and a bit of blind hope.
And now? I’ve visited 19 countries across Europe, the Caribbean, Central and South America. I’ve heard the deep, guttural growl of a howler monkey in the rainforest in La Fortuna, Costa Rica. I’ve jumped into a cenote in Cancun and tasted good, smoky mezcal in Oaxaca, Mexico. I’ve visited Michelangelo’s ‘David’ in Florence, and wandered through the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu.
And I’ve met too many people to count.
If I could describe travelling alone in one word, it would be ‘freedom’. The ability to uproot your life entirely to move where you want, when you want, is the most drastic and self-affirming example of free will I have found. But of course, it’s a true luxury generally only afforded to the wealthy, the resourceful or the childless.
Some people I’ve met along the way have suffered tremendous loss and pain during the pandemic — seeing the world seems to be the solution. Others are simply in need of change, new scenery and true adventure.
While in Ecuador, for example, I met 24-year-old Katherine Corcoran from Croydon, London. She had been travelling solo for four and half months and was on her way to Rio, Brazil, to learn Portuguese. Over cheap beers on a rooftop in Quito, she told me how she planned on settling somewhere other than the UK capital when she returned.
“For me, the biggest pro is the opportunity for self-exploration and expansion,” she tells me when I follow up to ask what she would consider the benefits of female solo travel. “When you strip away all your responsibilities and home comforts (job, friends, flat, even clothes and possessions), you have a new-found ability to dig deeply into who you are and what you want from life.
“I don’t think this is possible while living a ‘normal’ life at home,” Katherine says. “The biggest con is that taxis are expensive because you can’t split the bill with anyone.”
“I would 100pc recommend women to solo travel,” she continues. “It is the only way you can truly question the status quo of your life and figure out what you truly want, irrespective of other people’s opinions and societal pressures. It’s also a great way to meet new people you wouldn’t normally cross paths with.”
As travel bounces back, so are solo trips. Numerous travel companies are reporting a marked increase in bookings, particularly from female solo travellers.
“Post-pandemic, we’ve noticed a particular increase in solo female travellers aged over 50,” says Zina Bencheikh of Intrepid Travel. “Nearly half of our bookings from the UK and Ireland this year have been from customers aged 50-plus, compared to a third in 2019, and a big proportion of those are solo travellers. People are keen to get out and explore the world post-pandemic, and they aren’t letting the fact that they are on their own hold them back.”
Among its customers this year, Zina says, are women travelling solo post-divorce, or who have retired and are ticking destinations off their bucket lists. “But it’s a misconception that solo travel is only for singles — many of our clients simply have different interests than their partner. While one wants to sit on a beach, the other is keen to tackle the Inca Trail or go cycling around Thailand.”
I also met fellow Irishwoman Martha Ryan, who is 28, from Portmarnock, Co Dublin, on my travels.
She’d been traversing the world solo for a year and a half and had incredibly positive stories, including an experience at a plant medicine retreat with the Shipibo tribe in Iquitos, Peru.
“Without electricity, phone signal or the luxuries of modern life, I slept in a wooden tambo for a week,” she says. It was “an extremely transformational retreat using various plant medicine and indigenous rituals. The lessons I learned from the Shipibo tribe, the other attendees walking the path and, of course, the medicines themselves, will stay with me for a lifetime.”
But Martha had also had negative experiences, including very serious bronchitis and kidney infections while on Ometepe Island in Nicaragua.
“I was staying in the tropical jungle at the time, hours away from any hospital, healthcare or support system to look after me. I lost a lot of my body weight and had a strenuous recovery process of six months, during which I lost half of the hair on my head... it was an extremely difficult period, many miles away from friends or family.”
However, she believes the negative aspects of solo travel are an important part of the experience. Her illness in Nicaragua “allowed me to truly face myself, to sit with my darkness, to overcome my limiting beliefs and to find strength in myself that I didn’t know was possible”.
It’s clear from my own journey that men have a sense of freedom and confidence in travelling alone that has yet to be afforded to women. I’ve looked on with jealousy at male solo travellers who wander back to hostels late at night alone, never fearing what lurks in the shadows. They don’t spend hours googling their travel routes, and some I’ve met even hitchhike from town to town. The reality for women is that travel planning needs to be scrupulous.
Would Martha recommend other women travel solo?
“Travelling is not a holiday,” she says. “It will test you, push you, challenge you and cause you to grow beyond the limits of your mind. I certainly believe that every woman should solo travel — particularly in their twenties and thirties — to experience every colour of this life.”
However, if I could impart some advice, it would be to expect that something will inevitably go wrong. That way, the panic won’t set in and you’ll handle it better. Take a ‘prepare for the worst, hope for the best’ attitude.
Remember, you are out of your comfort zone, a little fear of the unknown will be part of the process, and keeping your head screwed on will do you the world of good.
The Uber app has been incredibly useful for me in most cities I’ve visited (I tend to google to see if Uber is available depending on which city I’m in, and then book when I arrive. If it’s not available, a litany of blogs and travel websites will tend to offer a safe alternative). I only use buses when I’m told by locals and guides exactly what to do, but then I’m not the best with getting myself from A to B if I’m not spoon-fed directions. I think it’s good to admit defeat with these kinds of things to keep yourself safe.
Most importantly, I’m out doing exactly what I dreamed of doing, but that doesn’t mean I don’t need to keep my wellbeing in check. Eat well, find time to exercise and sleep. Your mental health will suffer otherwise and you need your wits about you... especially if you get sick.
You don’t have to travel alone, of course. Many women also travel solo as part of small group tours, with the likes of Intrepid and G Adventures. They seem to provide the best of both worlds — the safety that comes with travelling with others, while also giving you the freedom to do exactly what you want to do.
“Over 50pc of G Adventures travellers are solo travellers in the UK and Ireland,” it says. Last year, the company teamed up with Hostelworld to launch ‘Roamies’ — small group tours with hostel stays — and I wrote and blogged about some of these trips for their website during my travels. Solo females make up 69pc of travellers on Roamies tours, it says, and G Adventures has seen an increase in demand for solo travel in destinations like the Galápagos.
Is it lonely travelling by yourself?
I can’t say I’ve had it yet. That’s the thing about hostel-hopping; you always have someone like-minded around with something interesting to say. Also, family and friends can be communicated with constantly thanks to WhatsApp and Facetime.
If anything, I’ve craved routine — a sleep and exercise schedule and no one else in the kitchen while I’m trying to make dinner. However, these things are so minor in the grand scheme of things. As I write, I’m on a plane looking out over mountains and terracotta-tiled roofs dotted around a green-filled Costa Rica landscape.
Overall, the things I’ve seen and done and the memories I’ve made by stepping outside my comfort zone make the risks seem minuscule. In the last eight and a half months, I’ve hiked across the Uyuni Salt Flats in Bolivia, gazed upon the Acropolis in Athens, snorkelled with giant eagle rays and Belizean nurse sharks and swam with penguins as they hunted fish in the Galápagos.
I’ve strolled through a cloud forest to find snakes and scorpions in the Chocó rainforest in Ecuador and found myself surrounded by bioluminescent plankton in Corfu, Greece. I’ve dived into waterfalls in Grenada, floated down the Venice grand canal in a gondola and hiked through the great wax palms of Valle de Cocora, Colombia.
Getting to see and travel the world is an incredible gift. Whether you’re doing it solo or with others, healing from something or searching for something — it’s simply something worth doing while you can.
Have a think about the climates you intend to travel to, but a good rule of thumb is to pack enough clothing to cover you for 10 days in all weather conditions.
I have packed a raincoat, a warm jacket, two pairs of leggings and two jumpers. The rest is made of T-shirts, shorts, underwear and swimwear, and it's worked out well so far. I have hiking boots, runners, Converse and a pair of flip-flops.
I think a backpack is the way to go in terms of luggage for long trips. I’ve seen too many people struggle up stairs, hills and rocky terrain with wheelie suitcases, so you’re better off carrying everything from the get-go. Also, you're more likely to keep things light and not overspend on unnecessary items.
Things like a quick-dry towel, multi-use adapters, a mini hair dryer and sportswear clothing have proven to be the most useful items for me. I also have a mini iron that really has come in handy (despite the bemused looks I get in hostels!).
Airolo is an app that allows you to buy data in any corner of the world from €6 to €9 a week. Expensive, but handy.