Beth Whitman, author of 'Wanderlust and Lipstick: The Essential Guide for Women Traveling Solo,' answered your questions on solo travel.
Beth Whitman: Welcome world travelers! This is Beth Whitman here. I'm eager to share my solo travel tips and information with you in order to get you started in your travels. There's a whole big world waiting out there for you so let's get going!
Fairfax, Va.: I am a young women who loves to take backpacking trips and I am always looking for the perfect multi-use items. Is there one thing you always bring when you are traveling? And which Asian country do you think is safest and most friendly to single female travellers?
Beth Whitman: I always say that all you REALLY need to travel is your passport and (access to) cash. Of course, we all have creature comforts and must-haves beyond those two items.
I carry an eye shade with me so that I can sleep on a long flight while my seatmate has the overhead light on or in my hotel room when the shades won't close all the way.
Also, I insist on traveling light. I pack my small amount of clothes and accessories into a combination roll aboard/backpack. This allows me to throw my bag over my shoulder to climb stairs or make my way over uneven streets. And it allows me to pull it behind me in the airport. I don't check baggage unless it's when I'm coming home and I have too many souvenirs to fit in my carry-on!
I'm partial to Asia and believe that all countries there are safe and friendly for women travelers. I've been to Vietnam seven times if that's any indication where my heart is.
West Harwich, Mass.: I am meeting some friends in Paris the first week in November. We signed up for a week at a bargain price. However, after a week, my friends leave. I want to stay on for another ten days and do some exploring since I have never been to France. Am I better off renting a car and just going off or taking a train and exploring a destination as yet unknown, but for the sake of this question, say Provence? Thanks.
Beth Whitman: If it were me, I'd rent a car and explore rather than taking a train. But, there are pros and cons to both methods of travel.
If it fits your budget and you're comfortable driving in a foreign country, by all means rent a car and just begin exploring. You might find this type of travel a bit insulating unless you make an effort to stay in pensions or hostels where you can easily meet other travelers, many of whom might enjoy tagging along with you (and sharing expenses).
Taking the train will remove some of the stress out of your travels but you'll be beholden to the schedule of the train system and you won't have the flexibility of stopping in small towns along the way.
South Windsor, Conn.: I am a 41-year-old woman planning a 3 week solo adventure to Australia/New Zealand next fall. My first instinct is to go the tour group route since I have enough time to save for it (approx. budget-$8000). Having taken a few solo trips already, I am not afraid of the unknown but with all of the information out there, my head is swimming. I guess what I need at this point is some advice on how to decide which route will work for me--drive yourself, tour group or perhaps a mix of the two? Any suggestions would be most helpful. I am halfway though your book--it has lots of great tips!!
Beth Whitman: So glad you are enjoying the book! Thank you!!
You have a big budget for a 3-week journey but don't feel like you have to spend it all--you don't! Australia and New Zealand are both very easy countries to travel around and a full-on tour is not necessary. However, to experience some of the diversity of these countries, I would suggest taking a shorter tour here and there in order to see things you normally couldn't experience on your own.
For example, get out to the Great Barrier Reef with an eco-friendly tour, either to scuba dive or simply snorkel. It's amazing and really can only be done with a tour. Kakadu National Park, in the northern part of Australia, is another area that can only be visited with an organized tour and there you'll see 40,000 year old rock art paintings and unique wildlife.
Many of these tours you can book once you arrive in-country.
As for New Zealand, I'd recommend renting a car and driving around the countryside on your own. Again, there may be areas you'll want to visit that can only be seen with an organized tour but the country is small enough that driving yourself is an excellent option and once there, you can book a tour depending on your interests.
Atlanta, Ga.: I have plane fare to Mexico or the Caribbean and need to know what a good bargain is for a single older woman--I would like a bargain in an upscale resort or hotel.
Beth Whitman: Well, a bargain is really subjective. You and I might have very different ideas about what makes a good deal. Having said that, no matter what your budget is (or where you're going), you'll want to travel during the shoulder season (neither the high nor the low season) to get the best deal with the best weather.
I'd recommend narrowing down which location you're most interested in visiting, and then doing some research into when the shoulder season is. Hotel rates and airfares will definitely be lower during this time.
Once you've picked out a couple of resorts that you are interested in, bargain bargain bargain. Don't be afraid to ask for a lower rate or that free meals or an organized tour be added at no cost. You may even want to reveal that one resort is offering you a better deal than another and let the haggling begin.
Waltham, Mass.: I am a solo 60-year-young woman who will be traveling to Barcelona, Sicily and the Amalfi coast this September. I have read the numerous websites on how to protect yourself and your belongings from potential thieves and scam artists. Once in Spain and Italy, my main mode of travel will be the local train and bus systems. Am I asking for trouble being a solo female wanting to get to know and explore Italy, the country, and not just see the main tourist havens so many people trudge through? My grandparents were born in Sicily and I want to get to know the people and their island. Any suggestions on how I can explore by myself and still stay safe?
Beth Whitman: Hi, Lynne. Just because you're a solo woman traveling on her own, you're definitely not "asking for trouble" but you'll want to take some extra precautions.
Thieves are generally opportunistic and are looking for a quick steal. Travel with a cable lock to secure your bags to your seat/sleeper on the trains. Also, lock the zippers together of your bags so that no one can easily open them.
I carry my passport, the majority of my cash as well as my credit cards in a neck pouch (though I think I'm going to travel with a leg pouch next time) tucked under my clothes. I then carry a change purse with a small amount of local currency and perhaps a $20 bill (U.S). If I am robbed, I can quickly hand this over to a thief and not feel like I've been totally swindled.
Always stay on guard and never let go of your belongings. It's that few seconds of inattentiveness when your bag(s) could get snatched.
Finally, be aware that gypsies and young children are often the culprits of thievery in some European countries, not men with knives. A nice middle-aged woman with a baby could rip you off by reaching into your pockets and grabbing your cash simply because you are not aware of her intentions.
Burlington, Vt.: Is it safe for a woman to visit Chile alone? Can you recommend any tour operators to visit the Atacama desert?
Beth Whitman: Under the right circumstances, I believe it's safe for a woman to visit any place on her own. I would never suggest that a person (male or female) not go to a place that is high on their wish list. Despite the warnings from the U.S. government, few places are life threatening. Perhaps not always easy, but rarely dangerous.
Get yourself educated about Chile (if you're not already) and prepare yourself for the machismo, politics and any other issues you feel you might encounter. Talk with others who have just returned from there and read lots of magazines or online articles about the current state of affairs.
I actually don't have any recommendations for tour operators for the Atacama Desert, but an online search and some research in online travel forums will, I'm sure, reveal some great options.
On the June 26th Trip Coach, Wayne Bernhardson answered questions with regards to Chile. You might be able to find some additional information there.
Lake in the Hills, Ill.: I will be going to Paris on my own between Christmas and New Year's. I am very excited as this is my first visit to Paris, but as a woman (38-years-old) traveling alone, I am also a bit anxious. During the day I am quite comfortable wandering and exploring at my own pace; however in the evenings my danger senses perk up and I get nervous going out anywhere on my own. I feel that I am missing out on a lot of the travel experience because of this my fear. Do you have any tips on how I might overcome this? And if you have been to Paris, do you have any suggestions for "safe" evening attractions?
Beth Whitman: Great question, Suzanne. I was in Rome by myself years ago and had the same issue.
My first response is "follow your gut". If you don't feel safe going out on your own in the evening, then don't. Spend your days seeing the sites, eat your biggest meal at lunch and perhaps get to know your local neighborhood in the evenings, not straying far from your hotel.
During the first few days of your trip, however, make a big effort to make new friends, either with other travelers or with the locals. My bet is that you will meet up with some other travelers who would love to have you along on their adventures, perhaps even other single women who are in the same position as you.
Many small hotels in Paris provide breakfast in a communal dining area. Step out of your comfort zone and sit with some other travelers, letting them know your intentions of connecting with others.
As for safe evening attractions, my favorite was just staring at the Eiffel Tower as it was lit up! Head up to the top of La Samaritaine shopping center (it's free) and you'll have an excellent view of the Eiffel Tower.
Los Angeles, Calif.: Hi! I would like to go to Cancun at the end of August and just relax. I travel often and by myself sometimes (mostly Europe). I am not sure if it is safe to travel to Mexico alone these days. Can you shed some light? Thanks.
Beth Whitman: I'm not sure what your concern is around safety (terrorism? theft?) but Mexico is very safe. Sure, there's a little machismo to deal with (catcalls, whistles, etc.) but if you can ignore it, you'll have a great time.
As with any destination, be smart and stay alert. Connect with other travelers when you want to and make friends with the locals when you can. Get to know the proprietor of your hotel and frequent the same café or restaurant in order to meet the employees. Ask for tour and restaurant recommendations from these folks--they'll be happy to share and you'll fast become friends.
Miami, Fla.: Beth, I noticed in a story you just did for Perceptive Travel that you had a travel partner with you in India. Was this someone you met up with along the way or someone who was with you on that trip? How easy is it to find people to travel with when you get tired of being by yourself (and paying for a single room)?
Beth Whitman: Hi, Joseph. On that particular trip, it was my partner, Jon, whom I traveled with. We stayed in many backpacker-type hotels and met many women and men traveling on their own. Though it's not as easy when you're traveling with someone, I intentionally make connections with solo travelers. I enjoy the additional companionship, I love to get their perspective on their travel experiences and, I hope, it helps them feel safer and a part of a group.
No matter where you go in the world, it's generally very easy to meet other travelers if you are open to it (some people WANT to be alone). Youth hostels, backpacker hotels and even bed and breakfasts are excellent places to stay in order to meet up with others. Eating at cafes with tables set close together or where you share tables are also excellent places to connect with others.
By the way, I'll be heading back to India in January--solo. I plan to spend time there doing research for my next book, Wanderlust and Lipstick: The Essential Guide for Women Traveling to India.
New York, N.Y.: I would like to extend or begin a trip to Cape Town next March with a self-drive or small group trip to the Garden route and a malaria-free Safari. Is this possible or practical to do on my own and is it safe? I have driven and traveled by myself in several other countries but never in Africa. Nor have I ever driven on the left side of the road.
Beth Whitman: I've heard mixed reactions to driving in South Africa. The roads are well maintained and driving on the left side of the road isn't as difficult as it might seem. However, driving at night is not safe. I've had several friends nearly run off the road in an attempt to rob them or steal their car.
Particularly when it comes to wildlife, you're really better off booking a tour with well-trained guides. You'll see and experience far more than if you tried to do this on your own.
I'd vote for a mix of organized tour to get an in depth introduction to the place but to leave yourself some flexibility to travel on your own via car.
Mattapoisett, Mass.: Could you suggest a few websites for booking solo travel?
Beth Whitman: Hi, Janet. It depends on whether you're talking about a tour or creating your own itinerary.
There are a number of tour companies that cater to women travelers, many of them are solo women in that they aren't traveling with anyone they know. Try:
Adventures in Good Company
Wild Women Expeditions
When I book my own adventures, I generally go to the major travel booking engines first and work from there. I get pricing for airlines and hotels from Expedia, Orbitz and Travelocity and then check the websites for the hotel or airline that has the best deal to see if I can do just a tad better if I go direct. (If you run into a snag with your reservation, customer service will generally be better if you booked directly through a hotel or airline and often the price is the same as if you had booked through a travel booking engine.)
For hotels, I check out sites such as TripAdvisor to see if there are any recommendations (or alerts) for the hotel I'm considering booking.
Forums such as Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree and Fodor's Talk will have up to date info about particular destinations.
If you're really ready for an adventure and interested in meeting the locals, try:
Women Welcoming Women Worldwide
These sites/organizations will allow you to connect and stay with locals at no charge. They are all excellent ways of traveling around the globe on a budget and ensuring that you'll meet lots of people along the way.
Overall, the key is to do your research, whether it's on or off line, and become familiar enough with your destination so that you can feel and act confident when you get off the plane. Also, I recommend having your first night's stay booked in advance and, if possible, have a ride waiting for you at the airport so you aren't trying to figure out where to go while also trying to work through jetlag.
New York, N.Y.: I am trying to plan an affordable trip of the west coast for next year. I would like to fly from New York to Los Angeles to start the trip. From that point, I'd like to spend a day in Mexico, a day in San Francisco, a day in Portland, three days in Washington state to visit family, one day in Vancouver, British Columbia, and then drive back to Los Angeles to fly back to New York. How would you recommend that I purchase this trip or plan the trip?
Beth Whitman: Unless you have a specific reason for starting out in LA, why not fly from NY to Seattle and then book another ticket from LA back to NY? Many online booking engines now allow you to book one way tickets for a reasonable fare. Sites such as JetBlue and Southwest often have online specials that you could take advantage of as well.
You could rent a car in Seattle or check into the availability of a DriveAway (in which you are given the "job" of driving a car from one destination to the next).
Starting your trip in the Northwest would allow you to work your way down the coast after visiting Vancouver and seeing your family. You could then easily meander, stopping in Portland, San Francisco and LA and then head down to Mexico for a day (though I don't know how much of Mexico you'll really be able to see in just one day).
Holdenville, Okla.: I plan to take a trip via Summer Bay Resorts to Cancun Aug 10-14. I'm traveling alone and 67-years-old. I've been to Cancun a couple of times, but not since Hurricane Katrina. Is there anything I should be concerned with? I plan on taking a tour to the pyramids and or Tulum.
Beth Whitman: Hi, Fran. I have not heard of any additional issues in Cancun since Hurricane Katrina but I haven't been there myself since then, either.
I'd start with Summer Bay Resorts and ask them if anything has changed since the Hurricane. They may not be completely forthcoming, but you can give it a shot.
I'd also visit with travel agents in your area and ask them if they know of any issues. Be upfront with them and let them know that you may not book with them but that you are looking for information on the region. I bet they'll have some great info to share with you.
Marblehead, Mass.: I want to travel to Turkey, but none of my friends are interested. I don't really like the regimentation of an escorted tour. What options are there?
Beth Whitman: You could simply book your flight and your first night's hotel stay and make a grand adventure of it on your own. One thing to remember when you're traveling solo is that you're only ever alone if you want to be. There are lots of other travelers out there and with just a little effort, you'll be able to meet up with them and have fast friends. Guide books list popular internet cafes, coffee shops and backpacker hostels where you will undoubtedly meet up with others.
If you feel like you need to have someone with you from the beginning, try connecting with other travelers through an online site such as Solo Travel Portal.
Dallas, Tex.: I will be traveling to London for business and some solo sightseeing from 7/31-8/12. Is there anything that I should be aware of traveling as a solo woman in London? Any recommendations for sites to see?
Beth Whitman: Hi, Charlene. Luckily, London is a popular tourist destination and relatively progressive when it comes to women's rights (as opposed to Middle Eastern countries, let's say). As a solo woman traveling to London you should take the usual precautions. Always be aware of your surroundings; keep your bags close to you at all times; if traveling by train, lock your bags to the luggage rack with a cable lock; never let anyone overhear your room number in your hotel lobby. I could go on and on but I'm sure you get the gist.
As a first timer to London, you will want to see as many sites as you can squeeze in. I recommend you give some thought to what your interests are and doing a little research as to what you might enjoy most and plan accordingly. You might love museums and architecture. Or perhaps you are a theatre person. If shopping is your thing, visit Harrods. My point is to focus in on what it is that YOU enjoy doing at home and then follow those interests while you travel!
Philadelphia, Pa.: Hi Beth, I am planning on doing some solo traveling through Western Europe and into North Africa this coming January, for 6 months or so. My biggest worry is travel insurance. I do not have too much money to spare, but my mother's worries are perhaps not baseless. What do you do about travel insurance? Do the coverage and/or prices depend on the destinations? Where should I look for possible insurance plans? Thank you for your help.
Beth Whitman: Hi, Sam. Generally, if you have healthcare coverage already, your insurance will cover out of pocket expenses if you are injured while out of the country. Check with your provider before departing to make sure.
Beyond that, there's travel insurance (in which you may recoup your travel costs if you have to cancel your trip at the last minute) and then there's evacuation insurance.
Personally, I have never purchased travel insurance in which my costs would be reimbursed or my bags and clothes replaced if they were lost.
However, I do purchase evacuation insurance. I've used MedJet Assistance in the past and I find it to be really reasonably priced. If I am injured during a trip, they will get me to a Western hospital that can treat me.
You might consider getting evacuation insurance just for the portion of your trip that might be a bit more dangerous (Northern Africa, for example). This will cut down on your costs so you're not paying for all 6 months but will give you some protection if you do need to get out to a Western hospital quickly.
New York, N.Y.: I want to take a solo vacation over the last two weeks of August. I am considering Central or South America. I have backpacked in Western Europe and parts of Asia extensively, and am comfortable staying in hostels or other budget accommodations. I am interested in culture, food, and nature, and plan to spend most of my time outdoors. I am fit enough to do some biking and/or hiking. Can you recommend a safe and inexpensive trip? (I will use frequent flier miles or airline employee passes, so airfare cost is not a concern, only the availability of seats to my destination.) Thanks!
Beth Whitman: Costa Rica! This is an outdoor adventure paradise. You won't have the same cultural and culinary experiences that you might find in other parts of Central and South America, but you can't beat watching macaws, monkeys, three-toed sloths, anteaters, toucans and quetzals. You can then head off to the beach for a little R&R after you've hiked your boots off.
I'd highly recommend the Osa Peninsula and the Monte Verde Cloud Forest. I'm jealous!
Beth Whitman: Thanks for joining me today. I've thoroughly enjoyed answering your questions and helping you sort through many of the questions and issues that pop up with regards to solo travel. For more in-depth information, travel tips, travel stories and the chance to share your tips, questions and answers through my Forum, please visit WanderlustAndLipstick.com. My book, Wanderlust and Lipstick: The Essential Guide for Women Traveling Solo, is also packed with hundreds of tips that will help you get started planning your next journey.