Going It Alone: Kate on Solo Travel

Posted by Kate Humble 14th May 2024
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Going It Alone: Kate on Solo Travel

Kate is no stranger to solo travel, and in this blog, she explores the formative travelling experiences of other women, her first foray into going it alone, and why this is a particularly poignant time for her call to arms for solo explorers everywhere to book that ticket, grab their backpack and hit the road…

The first time I went away without my family was the summer after I finished my ‘O’Levels. I went ‘Euro-railing’ on the new £100 train ticket that allowed travel throughout Europe. I went with a friend, a young man who, I confess, I rather fancied when we left Victoria Station and didn’t fancy at all by the time we returned. The month we spent away gave me an intoxicating introduction to the joys of independent travel, but also made me realise that travelling with someone else isn’t always an advantage, particularly when you discover you have no common interests.

So my next adventure—to Africa when I was 19—was on my own. My parents were understandably nervous: this was 1988, before mobile phones and the internet, the era of airmail letters and post restante. But I wasn’t nervous at all. I set off with my rucksack and my hard-earned spending money hidden in a sock, feeling only the joy of utter liberation. 

It was a formative experience. A true adventure which set me on the path of a joyfully peripatetic life. And I learned so much over the course of that year. This wasn’t a carefully planned trip. Beyond the first couple of nights staying with a friend and her family, I had no itinerary, not even a return date home. My journey could be – and was - entirely dictated by chance. I was free to follow up any opportunity, accept any invitation, go wherever I wanted.  I got jobs – as a waitress, a truck driver for a safari company, hatching crocodiles on a crocodile farm.  I hitched, camped out under the stars, travelled on the rooves of buses and sailed to Zanzibar in a dhow full of goats.  But rarely was I ever on my own and never had cause to feel scared or lonely.

I spoke to two other women for this month’s podcast on the subject. Phoebe Smith is an inveterate solo traveller who likes nothing more than hiking to the top of a lonely mountain top, pitching a tent and spending the night there by herself. Yet she agreed that travelling solo is rarely a lonely experience. “People just want to help you! Particularly as a woman travelling alone. I’ve hiked long-distance routes, like the Camino, and many of the old pilgrimage paths in Britain, and I’m often overwhelmed by the kindness and hospitality that I come across on the way. People invite me to eat with them, to stay with them, to walk with them.”

Lorna Moore had similar recollections of her time travelling in her twenties. She journeyed to China in the early 80s as a lone backpacker. “It was a very difficult place to travel then. Communication was really challenging.  I’d turn up at a train or bus station and have no idea how to ask for a ticket or how to read any of the signs or notices. But there were other foreign travellers too, and we’d all help each other and share stories and tips. The local people were always friendly and tried to help as much as they could, so I never felt scared or vulnerable. It was exciting! And I loved travelling. When I got married in my mid-30s, I encouraged my husband to go to places he would never have considered. In fact, my only scary travel experience was not when I was on my own but with him. We were in Naples and managed to get on the wrong train. We were both so obviously tourists and obviously lost. Joe had his camera around his neck. I had my jewellery on, my bag with our money and passports. We both felt very ill at ease and vulnerable and threatened. It reminded me of the wisdom of not travelling anywhere with anything precious or expensive on display.”

Lorna was widowed in 2020. She and Joe had been married for 27 years, and she was suddenly faced with a life without him. Her love of travel had never diminished, but she had lost, she realised, the confidence she had had in her younger days to travel alone. So she took the leap and booked herself onto a small group tour. “I was definitely apprehensive at first, and worried that I might not like or get on with my fellow guests, but my fears were unfounded. I’ve met people on group tours who have since become great friends. Before I book, I always check how many people are in the group and the ratio of couples to people travelling alone. Although I used to really enjoy planning trips - researching the things to do, where to stay and how to get there - I’ve discovered there is a huge advantage to having all the logistics arranged for you. It makes travelling stress-free, and having an expert guide gives you real insight into and understanding of a place.  I’ve never looked back!”

Clare Tobin has had a long career in the travel industry, but although she has frequently travelled alone for work, she always holidayed with her family. Before she took up the post of MD at Wild Frontiers, she joined one of the company’s group tours to India. She shared Lorna’s concern about travelling with people she didn’t know, but, like Lorna, said by the second day there was a great camaraderie between them all. 

“There were 11 of us on the tour, aged between 35 and 73, and we’re all still in touch! A number of people had partners at home and had chosen a group tour to India because their partners couldn’t or didn’t want to come too.” I ask her about the single supplement and why the travel industry appears to discriminate against solo travellers. It is, she explains, absolutely not a discriminatory charge. "When we book hotels for a tour, we pay per room, not per guest.  So if a guest does choose to have their own room, rather than share, they are charged the full room price."

Clare also gave me an insight into how group tours are priced and how that can affect someone who has booked to travel on their own. “Not all tours include lunch or dinner in the price. For solo travellers, this can mean they have to eat alone, which many find uncomfortable, and as a result, choose to stay and eat at their hotel rather than venturing out.  They miss out on eating locally and probably spend any money they saved by booking a non-all-inclusive tour.”

And now it’s confession time.  There is a very personal reason why I wanted to address this subject in this month’s blog.  

When my dad retired, he and my mum started travelling. Our family holidays had rarely ever been outside the UK and never outside Europe, so together they broadened their horizons – literally – heading to Asia and South America, the Middle East, Canada and the States. They joined small group tours or did tailormade trips, had unforgettable experiences and met people who were to become dear friends. But then my dad died. He and Mum had been married for over fifty years, and the thought of travelling by herself had been just too daunting and too sad. She and I have done a couple of trips together, and she will occasionally go away to stay with friends, but no more than that. Then, out of the blue, she phoned to tell me she had booked herself on a group tour to Sweden. “I’ve always wanted to go, so I’ve just done it!” She sounded both elated and – rightly – proud of herself. But now, as her departure date gets closer, I sense a growing anxiety, and I know she is starting to think she has made a reckless decision. So I hope Phoebe’s encouragement and enthusiasm and the experiences of Lorna and Clare allay her fears and those of anyone who wants to be reassured that solo travel is anything but lonely.

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