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Tips for solo travelers

By Nancy Trejos
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 7, 2011; 2:18 PM

All you solo travelers out there, take heart: You're not actually alone.

According to market research firm TNS's TravelsAmerica Study, solos make up 10 to 12 percent of all U.S. adult leisure travelers.

Some go solo because they're single. Some have partners who don't share their wanderlust. And some simply like the freedom of traveling alone: You set your own schedule, choose your own activities, eat where and when you want to, sleep whenever you feel like it.

But you also face unique challenges: You and you alone are responsible for your safety. You don't have someone to share expenses with. And you might occasionally get lonely.

So if you're going to leave home on your own, you'll have a few extra things to take into consideration.

"A lot of stuff can happen when you are alone, and it can be extraordinary," said Janice Waugh, who blogs at SoloTravelerBlog.com. "But you have to be careful and read people and understand what they want from you."

Which type are you?

First ask yourself: Do you want to be a solo traveler or an independent traveler? There's a difference.

Solo travelers can join a community of like-minded travelers so that they don't feel entirely alone. Want to learn how to cook in Italy? Take in Montreal's International Jazz Festival? Tango in Brazil? Volunteer in a Mexican village? There's probably a group tour company that offers such arrangements.

The downside is that most tours charge single supplements to make up for losing money on a second person. But occasionally, a company will waive that fee. Abercrombie & Kent, for instance, is waiving the single supplement on a $3,120 Feb. 22 trip to Costa Rica booked by Jan. 15, a savings of $760. Waugh also points out that if you book at the last minute, you could simply ask that the fee be waived. And if you're willing to share a room with a stranger, some companies will find you a roommate.

Cruises also charge a single supplement, but some are coming around to solo travelers. In July, the Norwegian Epic debuted with 128 studio staterooms, all with access to a two-floor singles-only lounge.

Independent travelers, on the other hand, want DIY vacations and shun tour groups. But that doesn't mean that they don't want to connect with strangers. Consider hostels and bed-and-breakfasts, which have a built-in mechanism for meeting people. In a hostel, you'll probably be sharing a room. At a bed-and-breakfast, you'll have the innkeepers and other guests to keep you company, at least during breakfast. Or you can try membership communities such as Couchsurfing.com, where you stay at another member's home free or for a small fee, or Airbnb.com, whose prices are higher but still less than most hotels.

Security concerns

Like it or not, when traveling alone, you're more vulnerable because you have no one to turn to if you get into trouble.

If you don't feel comfortable sharing a room or a small house with a stranger, consider a hotel a little closer to the beaten path, where there's more foot traffic and better lighting. Look at pictures online and read other travelers' reviews. "If you arrive at a hotel that just doesn't feel right, trust your gut and go elsewhere," said Kate Reid, a travel expert and chief executive of Call of the Wild, which arranges adventure travel for women. "Don't risk it.

Also, don't overpack. Not only will it slow you down, but if you have to run to the restroom, there's no one to look after your bags. "I had luggage stolen that way once," said Valerie Knoblauch, a frequent solo traveler and president of the Finger Lakes Visitors Connection in Canandaigua, N.Y. "I recommend making friends with the bellman."

Another recommendation: Research your destination before you go. If you're traveling internationally, familiarize yourself with the language, even if it's just a few key words, such as "help." Find out what the social customs are, and make sure you pack appropriate attire. Yes, that means no tank tops and no miniskirts in Cairo.

Without a companion, maintaining your ability to communicate is particularly important, so if you're traveling abroad, check the mobile network of your destination country in advance, said John Rendeiro, vice president of global security and intelligence for International SOS Assistance Inc., a security company in Trevose, Pa. And keep all handheld devices charged at all times. A backup battery and car charger could come in handy.

Before you book flights and lodging, call your credit card companies to find out what type of coverage you'll get in case of illness, accident, lost luggage or canceled flights. You'd be surprised what benefits some card companies will offer. Also, if you're traveling overseas, consider exchanging some money into the foreign country's currency before your trip so that you don't have to go to an ATM alone in an unknown place.

Finally, register with your embassy or consulate and scan all important documents such as your passport and inoculation record. Rendeiro recommends e-mailing them to yourself at an address easily accessible via the Web.

What do you do once you've landed at your destination? If you haven't exchanged your money yet, use an ATM in the airport, not one out on the street.

If you're a woman traveling alone, pretend that you're not. Carolyn W. Paddock, founder of In-flight Insider, goes so far as to wear something resembling a wedding ring, even though she's single. (But remember: No flashy jewelry.) Woman or man, always have a plan to check in regularly with friends or relatives back home. And don't tell strangers where you're staying or that you're alone.

Paddock also suggests keeping a card in your wallet with important information, such as the names and phone numbers of doctors and an emergency contact.

A good person to have on your side is the hotel concierge. He or she can recommend a restaurant, call for a reservation and arrange round-trip transportation. "This ensures that you will be missed if something happens and you didn't have time to check in on the home front," Rendeiro said.

But most important, just let common sense prevail. Don't stop on the street to study your map. Don't read a guidebook at a restaurant. Don't drink too much. And walk with confidence.

Connecting with others

Now it's time to have fun. But what if you start to feel lonely?

"Do things you would normally do at home to socialize," said Ann Lombardi, a travel agent who blogs at TheTripChicks.blogspot.com. "Take time to experience the local happenings. Don't miss out on the serendipity of meeting people as a single traveler. There are many opportunities to meet people and take in the culture if you are open to it."

That means going to a concert instead of only visiting tourist attractions. Or attending a church or a synagogue. Or taking in a folk festival.

Another way to combat loneliness is to hire a driver to take you around the city, or taking a museum tour.

When you're dining alone at a nice restaurant, sit at the bar and chat up the bartender. Or make your main meal lunch, when you're less likely to be surrounded by couples on dates. You can also seek out restaurants with communal tables. Or eat at a farmers' market.

If you're staying in the same city for a few days, become a regular at a particular restaurant or cafe. "You'll get adopted in no time," Waugh said.

Want a picture of yourself to prove that you actually went somewhere? Knoblauch suggests taking time to study other tourists and choosing someone who's taking family pictures to snap your photo. You can also take along a bendable tripod if your camera has a timer.

Most important, though, take time to enjoy the experience. "I think that traveling alone is actually important," Waugh said. "In addition to all the wonderful things that can happen, there's also an opportunity for reflection and an opportunity to gain that confidence about who you are and your relation to the world. You find out who you are when no one is looking, and that's a really great gift to give yourself."

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