On Traveling Alone: Why I Did It & The Lessons Learned

"Over time, you make choices to be safe in lieu of little bits of your autonomy; so small at times, that you don’t even realize you’re doing it."
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Selfie (of course) of the author and intrepid traveler. 

Selfie (of course) of the author and intrepid traveler. 

When Shayna Stevenson reached out to inquire if we would be interested in hearing about her experience traveling solo as a partnered woman, we were expecting her to share the challenges and triumphs of her journey—what we were not expecting was the notable reactions of others to her decision. Along the way she navigated not only the world, but her own sense of self. "My decision to go on this trip was based on being tired of making myself smaller for the comfort of everyone around me, and deciding to go alone disrupted that comfort." Read on for more, including tips for those who are new-to-solo-travel from Shayna below. 

Solo female travel is having a long overdue moment and is more popular than ever. There are a growing number of websites and blogs dedicated to the topic of women who travel alone, and there are Instagram accounts like @dametraveler and @sheisnotlost that focus on celebrating and empowering women traveling the globe. 

The popular podcast Women Who Travel from Condé Nast Traveler focuses solely on this topic and has built a community around it. But when you google “solo female travel” the same pervasive theme repeats: How to be safe. The top hits include lists of the safest places for women to visit, tips on how to stay safe, and even a New York Times article from this past spring which examined the dangers of women traveling alone, all in an era when it is more common than ever. 

This focus on safety, however, isn’t exclusive to traveling alone—it is something women are constantly reminded of in our daily lives. It has been ingrained in me since I was a teenager: If I was going out of the house—especially on my own—I had to be smart and careful. And I am. I walk with the volume low in my headphones, if I wear them at all; I keep keys in my pocket and hold them in my hand if I pass a man or group of men on the sidewalk; if a man is walking behind me I cross the street; at night I avoid streets that feel desolate; I wear shoes that I can potentially run in if I need to. This is all commonplace for women, and we have become accustomed to making these efforts every time we leave the house, let alone travel.

Last October, at the end of a perfect lingering summer-like day, I was walking home from a friend’s house when I was followed by a man in a car. It escalated to the point that I began to cause a scene on the street and called 911 before he decided I was no longer worth the hassle and drove away. The first responses from my partner, family, and friends were the protective refrain I have been hearing for as long as I can remember: They were glad I was okay, and reminded me to be smart, to be safe. It was well intentioned, of course, but if it isn’t clear, women are constantly taking actions to "be safe". 

The author, Shayna Stevenson, in Instanbul. 

The author, Shayna Stevenson, in Instanbul. 

The reality of being on the receiving end of this message over and over again—which puts the burden of "being careful" on women rather than addressing the behavior of violent men—is that it chips away at your confidence as you move through the world. Over time, you make choices to be safe in lieu of little bits of your autonomy; so small at times, that you don’t even realize you’re doing it. After this incident, though, I could clearly see it in myself. I felt uneasy taking my dog out for a walk when it was late; I hesitated to walk home from my studio if it was past a certain time; I had become dependent on company in order to feel confident exploring new places. I realized I had been making my world smaller because that was the way to avoid dangerous situations. Timidity had crept in without me noticing, so this past spring I decided it was time to reclaim some of that space in the world. I bought a plane ticket to Scotland.

The anticipation and planning that leads to a trip always sparks a nervous excitement, and like any trip I had planned before, I was eager to tell my friends and family about my upcoming adventure. I knew that they would share in my excitement, but even before I spoke to them I felt some trepidation about their possible reactions—because I was going by myself and leaving my partner at home. My decision to go on this trip was based on being tired of making myself smaller for the comfort of everyone around me, and deciding to go alone disrupted that comfort. 

Gentle questions such as Doesn’t your partner want to go? and Is he sad he’s not going? were asked repeatedly, and while the questions were polite and the responses were ultimately supportive, the underlying message was clear: It is weird to choose to travel without your partner. It also implied something even more troubling: Women only travel alone when they have no other choice. This was a new barrier that I wasn’t prepared for; it seemed unfathomable to others that a woman in a committed relationship would want to have her own experience and time that was only hers. 

This meant that I ended up coming up with answers that were less honest to make others more comfortable with my decision, a form of mental work that I was partially looking to take a break from by going away. My most true answer was Because I want to full stop. Instead, I rambled on about having a few friends in the country, about it being hard for my partner to get time off work, how we had no one to watch our dog, and whatever else I could come up with that would soften the blow. The conversation was no longer about my trip; instead it was about the reasons behind my trip. I felt like I had betrayed myself because in my effort to push back against the notion of it being a woman’s job to stay safe, I conceded to the status quo in another way, and kept my dissent to myself.

Driving on Skye

I loved my time in Scotland. After visiting friends in Dundee, I picked up my rental car and had to clarify that Yes, it’s just me when I was shown the SUV I would be driving instead of the compact I had reserved—a car so big that the rental agent joked my friends could sleep in the back if they wanted to come along. My journey from Dundee to Ullapool was an ambitious four-hour drive considering I was new to driving on the opposite side of the road. For the first half hour of the drive I was preoccupied with navigating roundabouts and staying on the correct side of traffic, but once the road opened up to long stretches of landscapes and rare car sightings I was hit with a feeling of freedom so suddenly that I had a short, but forceful, cry. It was perfect. 

I drove 959 miles in the six days I spent exploring the Highlands, and there is so much I can share about my trip that isn’t about me being on my own. The sun sets slowly and so late that I could drive all day until I was ready for bed. I discovered that I love smoky Scotch whisky, and that vegetarian haggis is delicious. I saw Scottish red deer scatter across the road at dusk, and I have an unreasonable amount of photos of sweeping vistas and the sheep that grazed them. My favorite views were the ones heading to Gairloch and driving through Glencoe, which were filled with Queen Anne’s Lace, tiny daisies, rhododendrons, and yellow flowers growing along the side of the road that were so bright at times my eyes couldn’t process the intensity of the color. In the background were moody clouds and layers of mountains in all directions. 

Anstruther, Fife

I learned the etiquette for passing oncoming cars on the single lane country roads, and I took delight in the way the drivers would always give you a wave as they passed you by. I did get to share those things and many others with travelers I met along the way; but first, we had to establish that yes, I was alone. I couldn’t help but laugh every time people looked over my shoulder and at my comically large car to see who I was with, only to realize no one else was going to be getting out. Even the taxi driver from the airport felt compelled to give me his two cents on my travels when I told him I was on vacation alone. I must really be trusted, he said, to be allowed to travel on my own. This trip was hard-won, and my first conversation with a stranger had me pegged as someone’s wandering, yet trustworthy, girlfriend. I pretended not to hear this, but if you’d like to know what my internal response was to that, please refer to the trucker scene in Thelma & Louise.

Traveling alone isn’t just a different way to see the world, it’s also a way to be reminded of how the world sees you. In my experience, you are more likely to be approached by other people, and it has led to some of my favorite travel moments. I’ve dined in a gorgeous hacienda with another woman traveling alone in Mérida, and I went to my first Shabbat dinner hosted by a group of new Israeli friends who were staying at the same hostel as me in Tulum. There was the time I had to stay up all night in the airport in Barcelona to catch an early morning flight, and I met another solo traveler who was an underwater archeologist. We hung out in the empty airport until our flights boarded, and she told me a story of how her mother built a house in a tree because she wasn’t legally allowed to build on the land she was living on. 

I’ve experienced some of the greatest gestures of kindness when traveling alone. I once ran out of money in Germany over a holiday weekend when banks would be closed, and in an act of desperation, I went into an Indian restaurant to see if they would take my Canadian money. Instead, they asked me to take a seat outside where they fed me and sent me on my way without payment. There’s also the obvious: That you can do whatever you want without compromise. I drove illogical, zigzag routes, I took long baths, I ate chips with curry sauce along the harbour in Ullapool, and I hiked the Quiraing in totally inappropriate clothing and got soaked by a heavy rainfall. I drove to the same café in Talisker twice, although it was completely out of my way, because I wanted to have their amazing coffee and homemade pastries one more time. All of this isn’t to say that traveling with someone isn’t great—it can be wonderful. On the last day of my Highland road trip I passed a car with a young couple in it. The man was driving and the woman was asleep in the passenger seat, a scene that can be so nice and was deeply familiar to me, but that’s not the trip I was on, and I didn’t want it to be.

Drive to Gairloch

If you are considering going on a solo trip, here are a few of my tips to make the most of your travels:

Write it down. Even when traveling with others it can be easy to forget experiences. Carrying around a journal and a pen will help you remember the details from your trip that made it so worthwhile. It’s also a perfect thing to do when you’re sitting in a café or pub by yourself.

Ease into it. If you’re nervous or new to traveling alone, choosing a country that is somewhat familiar to you can make it less daunting. Language is an obvious barrier, but learning a few key phrases including Do you speak [your language]? will go a long way.

Make a plan with room for impulsive decisions. Having a plan that you’d like to do each day will get you moving after breakfast, but try not to fill your whole day with plans. One of the greatest aspects of solo travel is the freedom to do whatever you want, whenever you want. You can take a detour, change your plans, pull over yet another time to take a photo, or change your route to check out a spot that you only found out about from someone at the last spot you were visiting.

Talk to locals. My favorite experiences and meals were ones that were recommended to me by locals. Your host, the person working at the front desk, your bartender, or even someone standing next to you on the sidewalk are incredible resources—many are often happy to share what they love about their town, city, or country.

Music, podcasts, and books are your BFFs. A common concern about traveling alone is the worry about feeling lonely. Podcasts have a magical way of making you feel like you’re hanging out with friends, and you know that song you can’t get enough of? Play it on repeat—there’s no one else there to groan about having to listen to it again. Books are another great option for solo meals or while on transit. It can be especially nice to read a book by someone from the country that you’re visiting.

You will make mistakes, and that’s okay. Did I get lost while driving? More than once. Did I accidentally drive on the wrong side of the road without thinking? I sure did. Mistakes can be sorted out, and often times these unplanned moments can lead to your favorite trip stories. 

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