Shannon O’Donnell took her first solo trip in 2008. She was working remotely in Los Angeles and wondered if she could travel while on the job. After all, she didn’t need to be in a specific location. But when she started looking into the idea, her internet searches didn’t turn up much in the way of women traveling alone.
“Maybe one or two people were blogging then,” she says, “but it wasn’t really a thing.”
She eventually found a blog called The Lost Girls, which shared the stories of three friends who left their jobs and hometowns to travel the world. She read up on their exploits and decided that if they could do it, she could, too. One week later, O’Donnell bought her first one-way ticket. Destination: Australia.
In the fairytale, Instagrammable version of this story, O’Donnell would wax poetic about selling all of her belongings and preparing to go it alone. But that isn’t how this tale goes. Instead, O’Donnell had a meltdown before she even boarded the plane.
“I was like, Who do I think I am that I can do this? I won’t see anyone I know for a year,” she remembers. “But it’s natural to be afraid of what you don’t know. Once I was on the airplane, I realized that I was smart enough and I didn’t mind asking for help.”
She landed in Australia and spent several days wandering the tourist sites alone. It only took a few weeks for her to gain some travel savvy, and at that point, she realized she loved traveling solo. She loved getting to choose where she wanted to go and when. She loved eating meals alone and making travel friends. She loved learning new things. She loved how travel helped her to prioritize her life.
Now, O’Donnell lives in Barcelona and runs a travel blog called A Little Adrift, where she writes about her adventures, tips for traveling to certain destinations and bigger issues like how to travel more sustainably. And while she fell in love with Spanish culture and plans to stay in the city until 2020, she says she’ll keep adventuring, both alone and with loved ones, for the rest of her life.
The rapid growth of female solo travel
Women like O’Donnell are the reason solo travel for women has become one of the hottest travel trends of the 21st century. In 2018, the Adventure Travel Trade Association named solo travel and women-only itineraries as two of the most popular trends based on data from dozens of tour companies and tourism bureaus. The South China Morning Post reports that in 2017 a Princeton Survey Research Associates study found that 26 percent of millennial women had already traveled solo, and Hostelworld, a popular booking website, found that between 2015 and 2017, the number of women traveling alone increased by 45 percent based on its reservations. Even the Onion published a playfully satirical story about the trend titled “Woman’s Solo Hiking Trip Shockingly Doesn’t Have To Do With Inner Journey Or Anything,” in response to Wild, author Cheryl Strayed’s hit book on solo hiking.
And many industry professionals and solo travelers, like Janice Waugh, say they’ve also seen an anecdotal, but dramatic, uptick in the number of women they meet on solo trips. Waugh is the publisher of Solo Traveler, a website which includes courses and articles about the art of traveling alone. She’d traveled by herself a few times when she was younger, but when her husband passed away in 2006, she started booking a solo trip once a year. She launched her website shortly after. For Waugh, solo travel isn’t just a millennial trend—it’s a trend women of every age are opting into. She sees this both in her own trips as well as in her website’s readers and students, 85.6 percent of which identify as female according to surveys and analytics data.
Why more women are traveling alone
Although women have been traveling alone for a long time, the rising popularity of solo travel is likely tied, at least in small part, to the internet. The reasoning is pretty simple, says REI Adventures Trip Specialist Shelby Huff, an experienced solo traveler who previously worked as a travel guide before coming to REI. “It’s easy to think: Why not me, too?”
O’Donnell points to Instagram specifically as a reason for the growth. As our social media feeds fill up with beautiful, curated content about solo travel, she says, it’s only natural for us to feel FOMO (fear of missing out). O’Donnell suspects that the increase in pictures depicting lone travelers could lead to more trips booked, or at least to the normalization of this kind of travel. There are case studies that illustrate social media's power to change where and how we travel. For example, the tourism organization in Wanaka, a small mountain town on New Zealand’s South Island, began hosting Instagram influencers in 2015 to attract more tourists. The result: a 14 percent growth in guest nights, which officials attributed in large part to the town's increased presence on the social media platform, according to news reports.
“You have complete freedom to spend your trip exactly how and where you’d like. You’re forced to step up."
Ciara Johnson, the writer behind popular travel blog Hey Ciara, cites another reason for this travel trend: generational shifts in the United States. Today, women make up 46.8 percent of the workforce, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, an 18 percent increase since 1948. They also marry later, with the average age of a first marriage increasing from just over 20 in 1960 to just under 28 in 2018, according to U.S. Census data. There seems to be more room for solo travel.
Michela Fantinel, founder of the popular adventure website, Rocky Travel, has seen this generational change first hand. She started traveling alone in 1993. Back then, she was one of the few. Now she’s surrounded by women who want to get away on their own.
Huff agrees, noting that traveling alone feels more accepted, at least for Westerners. “No one bats an eye ... anymore,” she says. “Women feel empowered now to go out ... and hike or bike across a country, climb a mountain or sail across the ocean on their own.”
Rising safety concerns
All that said, traveling alone also comes with concerns about violence and safety. The New York Times recently detailed the dangers women can face while roaming the planet solo. The article received both criticism and support; some women chimed in about moments when they felt unsafe during their travels while others expressed frustration at the supposition that travel causes added safety concerns. One of the main criticisms was that violence against women may not be directly tied to solo travel at all; rather it's likely a consideration for every woman in every place.
“Being on your own certainly makes you more vulnerable, and that applies to both traveling and in your own backyard,” Huff says. "It’s, unfortunately, a reality, especially as a woman, to have to prepare as best you can for the worst and to keep your head about you no matter where you are.”
It’s worth noting that women aren’t the only people who experience increased threats associated with gender while traveling, either. For example, as of 2017, there were 72 countries with laws against homosexuality.
“Safety is all about not having too many variables that you don’t understand.”
For her part, O’Donnell was always cautiously optimistic about her safety. That is, until she went to Istanbul and was followed by a stranger into an unsafe part of the city.
“It was starting to get dark and this guy was saying aggressive things to me,” she remembers. Eventually, she sat down next to someone on a bench and waited until the man left. “I felt really out of control in that situation, even though I did everything right. ... I booked my ticket out of the city the next day.”
How to Travel Alone as a Woman
When traveling solo, there are ways to mitigate risk, and many of the women we spoke to offered tips for staying safe in a new place. Although this list isn’t conclusive, here are some things to consider when taking a trip on your own:
Plan your destination carefully.
Most suggested starting small and picking a destination in your own country or on your own continent where you’ll speak the language and feel somewhat less alone.
“Don’t venture into a big solo trip right at the beginning,” Fantinel suggests. “See solo travel as a long road, and gradually grow into more adventurous trips.”
Don’t be afraid to be rude.
When it comes to safety, Waugh says it's okay to be rude. “Regardless of whether it may hurt someone’s feelings or disturb other people, if you have to, be rude to ensure your safety.”
O'Donnell agrees. “Safety is all about not having too many variables that you don’t understand,” she says. “It’s also about choosing not to engage. In the West, we are habituated to be nice, but you don’t have to be nice to anyone you don’t want to. You can say no.”
Get to know the ins and outs of a new city.
O’Donnell suggests taking a walking tour on your first day abroad to meet other travelers and learn the landscape. It can help alert you to areas you might want to stay away from if it’s dark and you’re walking alone. Plus, making new friends can mean having allies when something goes wrong, says Waugh.
Travel with protective tools.
Many women mentioned that it’s a good idea to keep your hotel or hostel door secured at night by locking the door and jamming a doorstop under it from the inside. Johnson also packs a personal alarm and pepper spray (which must be in your checked luggage if you’re flying).
If something happens, engage the people around you.
Waugh says that O’Donnell did the right thing by sitting down next to a stranger in Istanbul. If you feel unsafe, head to a public, highly trafficked place in the city or tell a passerby that you need to talk with them for a moment. For the most part, Waugh says, people want to help.
Build a technology safety net.
It’s always a good practice to let someone know your plans, whether your exploring town or hiking a backcountry trail. But don’t be afraid to use technology to take it a step further. Huff tells her fellow travelers to share their phone’s location with family and friends, use a GPS tracker, monitor their area on social media, and check reviews of their accommodations in advance.
Project confidence, even if you don’t feel it.
“By showing a high level of confidence, researching your surroundings and not showing fear even if you are fearful, you [can better] keep potential harassment situations away,” Fantinel says.
Why you should consider solo travel
Despite the potential pitfalls and dangers, everyone we interviewed for this story says that for them, there’s no doubt that traveling solo is worth it.
“Travel renews my faith in humanity and shows me that the world is filled with mostly incredibly good-natured people,” Huff says. “When I cycled around Australia and New Zealand, a local I had met on a ferry delivered a desperately needed new bike part to me the next day. He drove hours out of his way to make sure I had what I needed to make it to the next bike shop about two weeks down the road.”
For Johnson, the best part is not having to compromise. “You have complete freedom to spend your trip exactly how and where you’d like,” she says. “You’re forced to step up, trust yourself and follow your instincts. You discover that you're capable of more than you ever thought and this can really boost your confidence.”