Have you noticed all the blogs focusing on female solo travel these days? There are blogs written by solo men travellers of course, but they do not advertise themselves as “solo male travel” blogs. Here at BigTravelNut, one of my focuses is solo travel, but I do not discriminate based on gender. I like to think that my solo travel experiences are helpful and relatable by both women and men.
Yet, I wondered: do solo men travellers experience the world any differently than solo women travellers? If so, what are the differences? And what are the similarities?
Feeling in an investigative mood, I found nine solo travellers willing to answer a short questionnaire: five women and four men. Although it is a small sample, my respondents range in age from 26 to 65 and hail from Canada, the USA, and Europe. Most are veteran solo travellers, while others have only a few years of solo travel under their belt.
Meet the respondents. (The first number is the age and the second is the number of years travelling solo.)
After reading carefully through all the answers, I’ve summarized my findings below, including many quotes from the respondents themselves. (Warning: this is a long post!)
What people like about solo travel
The reasons listed for travelling solo seem consistent across genders. Both men and women mentioned freedom and independence as what they enjoy most about travelling solo. When you’re by yourself, you can do whatever want, whenever you want, and for as long as you want.
Kathleen says “I can go to five museums a day, or spend five hours in one. Who can endure that unless they have the same interests and passion for art as I do?” Roxanne also likes the ability to spend one or more days in a given museum if she likes. For Paul, the ability to stop somewhere and take photos for as long as he wants is one of the benefits of traveling without a companion.
According to Danny, solo travel provides a wonderful opportunity for introspection: “I tend to take away more from the trips I do on my own. My experiences feel more raw and vivid, perhaps because I’m not distracted by friends and don’t have a buffer between me and my experiences. I enjoy the ability to observe the way people think, act, or talk when on the road, and solo travel provides me with ample opportunity to reflect on these things as long as I’d like!”
Besides having different interests, travellers often have different travel styles, budgets, or taste for adventure. Taru says “Some of my friends require more comfort (like good hotels) while I love to stay and interact with local people in private homes.” Harold adds “When traveling with others, you may have to adjust your spending habits, adapt your speed, or take taxis rather than walk.”
Paul tells an interesting tale: “I got to travel up the Rajang River in Borneo with a tour guide on a fact-finding trip. I wandered into the office by myself and he offered to take me along as a companion rather than a passenger.” And it’s not just men who are up for some adventure. Charlotte accepted a ride into town from locals in Mexico, an opportunity she doesn’t think would have come her way if she had been travelling with others.
Something else that people of both genders mentioned is how much easier it is to meet people when you’re solo. Danny, a natural introvert, says: “I’ve noticed that I tend to be a much more outgoing person when traveling solo.” John echoes this: “On my own, I am more open to engaging with the people around me. When I travel with others, I don’t need anyone else to talk to.” And Taru agrees: “The best part of travelling solo is definitely meeting so many wonderful people all around the world.”
Not convinced that people will want to talk to a singleton? “If you strike up the proper attitude of confidence and just having a great time by yourself, you will exude a presence that other people are attracted to and respond well to”, says Kathleen. “Talking to people in foreign or new places is exciting, not scary or intimidating.”
A third advantage listed by my respondents is the ability to be spontaneous. In Fiji, Charlotte visited a family’s home for tea after a spontaneous invitation by the taxi driver. In New Zealand, she also went on a hike off-the-beaten-path, the day after learning about it. Ceil likes the simple fact that she can make last minute changes to her itinerary.
What people dislike about solo travel
Both men and women agreed on some of the less appealing aspects of solo travel. On the practical side, not being able to split accommodation costs was mentioned by a few people. We all know that a single room costs much more than half a double or twin room, and that’s if you can find one. As well, Harold doesn’t like having to look after the cash when he goes swimming!
Another issue was not being able to share impressions with a companion. Kathleen says “There are those “aha” moments like when you are standing in front of the Mona Lisa, or walking into a pyramid at Giza (…) when you want to say, “Oh my God, can you believe we are here”? But you can’t because you are by yourself.” Or as Danny says ”Sometimes, I see something fascinating and would love to turn to someone and just say, “Gee, would you have a look at that?!”
Occasional loneliness was also a factor, especially in destinations when one can’t communicate well in the local language. Roxanne says “I miss talking to someone in my own language”. John admitted that on occasion it could get lonely.
Interestingly, two men (but no women) cited the awkwardness of eating alone in a nice sit-down restaurant as one of the things they like least about travelling solo. Their tips to go around this include bringing a book or something to read, or choosing a small place with a view.
One woman, Charlotte, doesn’t like having to be constantly alert and vigilant when you’re on your own. And this takes us right into what most of you are probably waiting for…
Safety considerations is the area where you would expect to see the most discrepancies between men and women’s answers. I asked the respondents several questions, from their greatest fear, to episodes of discomfort, to being downright scammed or harassed.
Nobody seemed overly worried. (I guess if they were they wouldn’t travel solo!) While three women and one man didn’t list any “greatest fear”, the remainder cited several different issues which were not as gender specific as you would expect. Danny, and Harold in particular, both worried about getting robbed, while Paul worried most about getting seriously sick or injured. Kathleen had a series of worries from not being able to communicate, to getting lost, to sleeping through her alarm and missing a tour! “If something happened to me, how and when would my loved ones find out about it?” asked Taru rather selflessly.
In terms of no-go-solo regions, one woman and two men said that there are regions they wouldn’t go to whether alone or with a companion. Men cited mostly regions with high crime, political instability, and active conflict. Roxanne, for her part, excludes all of Asia and Africa, and Kathleen shuns the Middle East.
No matter what country he finds himself in, Harold says he listens to and follows locals’ advice about which neighbourhoods or hiking trails are best avoided. And of course we all know that walking alone after dark in deserted areas is asking for trouble.
Interestingly, cities were seen as safer than rural or countryside areas, especially by women used to living in large cities. “I am someone who lives alone,” says Roxanne “so it’s no different to roam all by myself in other cities than here in Montreal.” Taru says: “I would reconsider twice when travelling to rural areas in countries and cultures where women are not respected or protected in general.”
Overall, the secret to feeling in control boiled down to knowing one’s limitations and vulnerabilities, and listening to one’s instinct. Taru and Danny both mentioned that you should always listen to your intuition, so intuition is obviously not just a woman thing!
On the positive side, Ceil says “I believe that people are more caring of females travelling solo and I’ve had many positive experiences with people extending themselves more because I was travelling alone.”
Harassment and Scams
Some people talked about non gender-specific harassment such as constant begging and pestering in Egyptian markets, and being harassed by gypsies and homeless people in various locations. Harold was also wary of Central America where stories of people being robbed are common.
But what about gender-specific trouble?
“A cab driver in Istanbul played the trick of pulling a small bill to say I didn’t pay enough after I gave him a 50. I don’t think he would have tried this if I was a male passenger.” says Charlotte. (I personally try to avoid taxis – they’re the origin of half the scams in the book it seems!)
On the topic of sexual harassment specifically, Taru and Ceil had the following comments. “I’m a very social and outgoing person, and sometimes men get me wrong,” says Taru. “I never flirt on purpose or anything like that but because of the cultural differences they may misunderstand my behaviour.”
Ceil explains: “When I was in Ethiopia, I had several negative experiences with the locals and that marred my trip. After speaking with several traveller couples there, I was left with the impression that solo female travellers were harassed more than couples.” She continues “I also believe that being a woman from a race that’s considered exotic by some, led to my being sexually harassed in some places.”
Paul says “In Thailand, bar girls accosted me everywhere I went.” That’s pretty typical in Cambodia as well from what I hear. John adds “In one incident, gamblers tried to convince me to help them cheat a casino.” Whoa! No, I don’t think they would have tried that with a woman. And from Harold: “This year, I had my wallet stolen in Ho Chi Minh. Wouldn’t have happened to a woman as he was frisking my pockets.” (Money belts are a good investment for both genders.)
How solo travel changes you
Several people commented that solo travel is a great way to learn more about yourself, as well as about the world. Taru enthuses “To me travelling solo has been a very empowering experience, not only because it makes you stronger and more independent, but also because it allows you to get to know yourself better. When there’s no one to take care of you, there’s also no one you should be taking care of. It’s a feeling of total freedom.”
“Traveling solo is one of the most transformative things I’ve ever done!” says Danny. “I’ll be honest, it’s not for everyone. But everyone should try it at least once.”
Kathleen talks about being called “an inspiration” by people who want to do what she does. “What I really am is stubborn. I want to go places and I don’t want to wait for someone to go. People talk about it all the time, but something always comes up. I say that there really is never a convenient time to travel; you have to make the time. You can never really afford the splurge, so you have to find the money to go, sacrifice something or save up for it. It is a lot of work to research a place: where to go, when to go, the culture, the language, the money, the weather…and I find that many people don’t want to do this, or they put it off. Time will slip by and someday you will be too old to travel successfully. Go now!”
I couldn’t have said it better. 🙂
So, is there a difference between the way solo men and women travel? As I suspected, the gap isn’t as wide as you may have imagined. Woman and men like to travel solo for pretty much the same reasons, and recognize similar disadvantages to the lack of companions. (Although for everyone, the benefits seem to greatly outweigh the pitfalls.)
The main difference seems to be in the knowledge by women that they are more vulnerable to harassment (and sexual harassment in particular) and so must take extra precautions. Overall, this seems to lead to a somewhat more careful and less adventurous behaviour than men. No surprise here.
I also find it very interesting that the two Europeans in the group (Taru and Harold) both started travelling when they were 16! I’m guessing part of the reason is the relative ease in reaching many other countries without having to fly when you live in Europe. But I can’t help thinking that there is more to it than that… (We’ll need another study!)
I’ll leave the closing words to Danny, because although he’s only 26, he seems to be wise beyond his years. “If anything, solo travel has taught me that the world is a lot less dangerous than we might think, and that we are all more alike than we are different.”
By the way, Danny also has a blog, so if you want to read the perspective of a young American male expat traveller, check out The Dusty Compass. Paul, who’s actually a friend of mine, also has a great blog called The Travelling Boomer, aimed at, you guessed it, the Baby Boomer crowd.
And you can read my own perspective on solo travel here.
Do you agree or disagree with any of the points made by my respondents? Had a different experience? Let me know in the comments.